March 1, 2012
Nellie Bly in 1880. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

Nellie Bly in 1880. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

125 Years Ago in News History: Nellie Bly Goes 'Insane'

For 10 days in 1887 Nellie Bly, the first female reporter for the New York World, went undercover to investigate deplorable conditions at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on New York’s Blackwell’s Island.

Bly, who was born Elizabeth Cochran (and later added an “e” at the end of her surname), pioneered the use of undercover reporting. She began her journalism career in 1880 at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, where an editor gave her the pen name. Her first articles examined the difficulties faced by working women.

At the World, the exposé on Blackwell’s Island was one of Bly’s first assignments. To cover the story, she checked into a New York boardinghouse where she started to act strangely and pretended to have amnesia. Fellow boarders alerted the police, and several doctors declared her to be insane. Bly was admitted to the asylum on September 25.  

Bly’s firsthand account of the asylum’s cruelty and neglect caused a sensation and was widely read. She described spoiled food and harsh living conditions where women were forced to sit silently on straight-back benches all day and were beaten if they did not. Bly also reported that some patients appeared to be sane.

Bly’s exposé led to a grand jury investigation and subsequent mental health reform. Her ordeal was turned into the book “Ten Days in a Mad-house.”

Bly’s story is recreated in “I-Witness: A 4-D Time Travel Adventure,” shown daily in the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater. Her story is also featured in the News Corporation News History Gallery in an exhibit on female reporters.

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