Weird Wednesdays: Rocking the madhouse

The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump.

Elizabeth Cochrane Seamans, aka Nellie Bly, who applied for a US passport in Vienna, Austria in 1919 in order to return to the USA. In order to obtain ithe PP she needed to obtain an identity document from the Spanish Embassy in Vienna. She had been living in Vienna since 1914 and reported on WWI for the American newspapers.(Dave Miller/Creative Commons Flickr)

Journalism is a weird career: society’s views on the institution change with the winds. On one day, they’re the heroes that blow open national scandals, take down the prideful and give a voice to those who can’t speak. On the other hand, they’re seen as slime, bottom-feeders, Tabloid writers, paparazzi and sensationalist vultures who will chase ambulances for their next lead.

It’s reflected in pop culture. For every April O'Neil, there’s a J. Jonah Jameson. For every Hunter S. Thompson, there’s a Heather Jasper Howe. The list goes on and on.

Despite this, there are still people out there who try. Information is an age-old industry, and as long as there’s people out there who want to read the scandal, the downfall of the prideful and listen to the unspoken for, there will always be journalism.

Which brings us to this week’s Weird Wednesday.

Elizabeth Jane “Pink” Cochran was born in 1864 in Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania (the town was named after her father, an influential citizen). After her father died and her mother was left financially destitute and who helped fund several projects, at the age of 15, Elizabeth took on several jobs to try and help her family, including working as a schoolteacher and moving to Pittsburgh to run a boardinghouse.

The real fun began when Cochran, then 18, came across a column written in the local paper “The Pittsburgh Dispatch.” Columnist Erasmus Wilson espoused the value of women staying in the home and raising families, declaring working women as “a monstrosity”. Cochran responded, sending an angry letter to the editor. Her impassioned response caught the Dispatch editors’ attention, and she was, in a move uncharacteristic of the late 1800s, hired as a writer shortly after.

Taking on the pseudonym of ‘Nelly Bly’ (Nellie Bly) after an old minstrel song, Cochran was paid $5 a week ( a little over a hundred dollars nowadays) as a reporter. Bly, as she called herself, wrote stories centered on women’s rights, including divorce laws and the working conditions of girls in factories. She even worked as a foreign correspondent in Mexico.

However, when the editorial board tried to move Bly to the ‘Women’s Pages’ to talk about fashion and recipes, Bly decided to move on to greener pastures.

She found them in New York City, working for the Pulitzer-owned newspaper “The New York World”. There Bly would take on her biggest assignment yet-- exposing the dark underbelly of an insane asylum.

Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) was meant to be a state-of-the-art mental institution when it was founded in 1839, as a way to accommodate mentally ill patients that were overflowing poorhouses and hospitals in New York. However, by 1887 the overcrowded, poorly run and badly-staffed facility had taken a nosedive. Disease and malnutrition were common, and the corrupt hospital officials pocketed funds meant for the patients. The fact that convicts were employed as cheap labor didn’t help matters.

To top it off, many of the patients there were perfectly sane. They were simply immigrants who, unable to speak English or otherwise communicate, were shipped away by ignorant immigration officials.

Though famous writers such as Charles Dickens had visited the asylum before, complaints fell on deaf ears, and the public remained ignorant of the horrific conditions within. As well, the facility remained impervious to nosy reporters.

Enter Nellie, who got creative in gaining entry to the asylum. Posing as a Cuban immigrant, she checked herself into a boarding house and acted irrationally, ranting at the attendants and her neighbors. She was then arrested, taken to court, declared to be mentally insane and shipped off to Blackwell’s.

As soon as she arrived, horrors awaited her. Inmates were given (and often force-fed) rancid food, subjected to ice baths that were more akin to waterboarding and beaten by orderlies when they did not comply. Even worse? As soon as Bly dropped her insane facade, the doctors were even MORE convinced that she was nuts, effectively trapping her inside.

After 10 long days in the institution, Pulitzer sent a lawyer to arrange for Bly’s release. Once she was freed, Bly went on to publish an account of her experiences titled ‘Behind Asylum Bars’. Later on, the series was published in a book, “Ten Days in a Madhouse”.

The expose earned Bly worldwide fame as a reporter, and launched a new era of investigative undercover journalism. Blackwell’s Island went under an official review, and was given one million dollars for renovations and improvements, greatly increasing the quality of life for its inmates.

Bly herself went on to do even crazier things, including sailing around the world (in 72 days, no less), reporting on the suffrage movement and operating an iron company (though all that is for another column.)

The lesson? Journalism isn’t easy. It’s messy. It can be painful. And sometimes, you need to get down and get a little crazy to get the story you need. But in the end, it’s all worth it-- because in the end, the truth (and maybe a lawyer or two) will set you free.


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.