Ten Days in a Madhouse: The Woman Who Got Herself Committed

In 1887, intrepid reporter Nellie Bly pretended she was crazy and got herself committed, all to help improve conditions in a New York City mental institution.

“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.”

Those words, describing New York City’s most notorious mental institution, were written by journalist Nellie Bly in 1887. It was no mere armchair observation, because Bly got herself committed to Blackwell’s and wrote a shocking exposé called Ten Days In A Madhouse. The series of articles became a best-selling book, launching Bly’s career as a world-famous investigative reporter and also helping bring reform to the asylum.

In the late 1880s, New York newspapers were full of chilling tales about brutality and patient abuse at the city’s various mental institutions. Into the fray came the plucky 23-year Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane, she renamed herself after a popular Stephen Foster song). At a time when most female writers were confined to newspapers’ society pages, she was determined to play with the big boys. The editor at The World liked Bly’s moxie, and challenged her to come up with an outlandish stunt to attract readers and prove her mettle as a “detective reporter.”

The stylish and petite Bly, who had a perpetual smile, set about her crazy-eye makeover. She dressed in tattered second-hand clothes. She stopped bathing and brushing her teeth. And for hours, she practiced looking like a lunatic in front of the mirror. “Faraway expressions look crazy,” she wrote. Soon she was wandering the streets in a daze. Posing as Nellie Moreno, a Cuban immigrant, she checked herself into a temporary boarding house for women. Within twenty-four hours, her irrational, hostile rants had all of the other residents fearing for their lives. “It was the greatest night of my life,” Bly later wrote.

The police hauled Bly off, and within a matter of days, she bounced from court to Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward. When she professed to not remembering how she ended up in New York, the chief doctor diagnosed her as “delusional and undoubtedly insane.” Meanwhile, several of the city’s other newspapers took an interest in what one called the “mysterious waif with the wild, hunted look in her eyes.” Bly had everyone hoodwinked, and soon enough, she was aboard the “filthy ferry” to Blackwell’s Island.

The Lonely Island

Opened as America’s first municipal mental hospital in 1839, Blackwell’s Island (known today as Roosevelt Island) was meant to be a state-of-the-art institution committed to moral, humane rehabilitation of its patients. But when funding got cut, the progressive plans went out the window. It ended up as a scary asylum, staffed in part by inmates of a nearby penitentiary.

Although other writers had reported on conditions at the asylum (notably Charles Dickens, in 1842, who described its “listless, madhouse air” as “very painful”), Bly was the first reporter to go undercover. What she found exceeded her worst expectations. There were “oblivious doctors” and “coarse, massive” orderlies who “choked, beat and harassed” patients, and “expectorated tobacco juice about on the floor in a manner more skillful than charming.” There were foreign women, completely sane, who were committed simply because they couldn’t make themselves understood. Add to that rancid food, dirty linens, no warm clothing and ice-cold baths that were like a precursor to water boarding. Bly described the latter:

“My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head – ice-cold water, too – into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth. I think I experienced the sensation of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane.”

And worst of all, there was the endless, enforced isolation:

“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? . . . Take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

As soon as Bly arrived at Blackwell’s Island, she dropped her crazy act. But to her horror, she found that only confirmed her diagnosis. “Strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be,” she wrote.

Near the end of her stay, her cover was almost blown. A fellow reporter she’d known for years was sent by another newspaper to write about the mysterious patient. He himself posed as a man in search of a lost loved one. Bly begged her friend not give her away. He didn’t. Finally, after ten days, The World sent an attorney to arrange for Nellie Moreno’s release.

Going Public

Two days later, the paper ran the first installment of Bly’s story, entitled “Behind Asylum Bars.” The psychiatric doctors who’d been fooled offered apologies, excuses and defenses. The story traveled across the country, with papers lauding Bly’s courageous achievement. Almost overnight, she became a star journalist.

But for Bly, it wasn’t about the fame. “I have one consolation for my work,” she wrote. “On the strength of my story, the committee of appropriation provides $1,000,000 more than was ever before given, for the benefit of the insane.”

Actually, the city had already been considering increasing the budget for asylums, but Bly’s article certainly pushed things along.

A month after her series ran, Bly returned to Blackwell’s with a grand jury panel. In her book, she says that when they made their tour, many of the abuses she reported had been corrected: the food services and sanitary conditions were improved, the foreign patients had been transferred, and the tyrannical nurses had disappeared. Her mission was accomplished.

Bly would go on to more sensational exploits, most notably, in 1889, circling the globe in a record-setting seventy-two days (she meant to beat out Jules Verne’s fictional trip in Around The World in Eighty Days). In later years, she retired from journalism and founded her own company, designing and marketing steel barrels used for milk cans and boilers. She died in 1922. Bly’s amazing life has since been the subject of a Broadway musical, a movie and a children’s book.

Why We Eat What We Eat On Thanksgiving

monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images
monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images

When Americans sit down with their families for Thanksgiving dinner, most of them will probably gorge themselves on the same traditional Thanksgiving menu, with turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie taking up the most real estate on the plates. How did these dishes become the national "what you eat on Thanksgiving" options, though?

Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

It's not necessarily because the pilgrims did it. Turkey may not have been on the menu at the 1621 celebration by the Pilgrims of Plymouth that is considered the first Thanksgiving (though some historians and fans of Virginia's Berkeley Plantation might quibble with the "first" part). There were definitely wild turkeys in the Plymouth area, though, as colonist William Bradford noted in his book Of Plymouth Plantation.

However, the best existing account of the Pilgrims' harvest feast comes from colonist Edward Winslow, the primary author of Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Winslow's first-hand account of the first Thanksgiving included no explicit mention of turkey. He does, however, mention the Pilgrims gathering wild fowl for the meal, although that could just as likely have meant ducks or geese.

When it comes to why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving today, it helps to know a bit about the history of the holiday. While the idea of giving thanks and celebrating the harvest was popular in certain parts of the country, it was by no means an annual national holiday until the 19th century. Presidents would occasionally declare a Thanksgiving Day celebration, but the holiday hadn't completely caught on nationwide. Many of these early celebrations included turkey; Alexander Hamilton once remarked, "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."

When Bradford's journals were reprinted in 1856 after being lost for at least half a century, they found a receptive audience with advocates who wanted Thanksgiving turned into a national holiday. Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the autumn of 1621 and since turkey is a uniquely North American (and scrumptious) bird, it gained traction as the Thanksgiving meal of choice for Americans after Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Moreover, there were pragmatic reasons for eating turkey rather than, say, chicken at a feast like Thanksgiving. The birds are large enough that they can feed a table full of hungry family members, and unlike chickens or cows, they don't serve an additional purpose like laying eggs or making milk. Unlike pork, turkey wasn't so common that it seemed like an unsuitable choice for a special occasion, either.

Did the pilgrims have cranberry sauce?

While the cranberries the Pilgrims needed were probably easy to come by, making cranberry sauce requires sugar. Sugar was a rare luxury at the time of the first Thanksgiving, so while revelers may have eaten cranberries, it's unlikely that the feast featured the tasty sauce. What's more, it's not even entirely clear that cranberry sauce had been invented yet. It's not until 1663 that visitors to the area started commenting on a sweet sauce made of boiled cranberries that accompanied meat.

There's the same problem with potatoes. Neither sweet potatoes nor white potatoes were available to the colonists in 1621, so the Pilgrims definitely didn't feast on everyone's favorite tubers.

How about pumpkin pie?

It may be the flagship dessert at modern Thanksgiving dinners, but pumpkin pie didn't make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims probably lacked the butter and flour needed to make a pie crust, and it's not clear that they even had an oven in which they could have baked a pumpkin pie. That doesn't mean pumpkins weren't available for the meal, though; they were probably served after being baked in the coals of a fire or stewed. Pumpkin pie became a popular dish on 17th-century American tables, though, and it might have shown up for Thanksgiving as early as the 1623 celebration of the holiday.

This article originally appeared in 2008.

15 Colorful Facts About Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe’s enchanting floral still life paintings are now a deeply ingrained part of American culture—so much so that they often eclipse her other colorful accomplishments. For a more complete portrait of the artist, who was born on November 15, 1887, brush up on these 15 little-known facts about her.

1. Flower paintings make up a small percentage of Georgia O'Keeffe's body of work.

Though Georgia O'Keeffe is most famous for her lovingly rendered close-ups of flowers—like Black Iris and Oriental Poppies—these make up just about 200 of her 2000-plus paintings. The rest primarily depict landscapes, leaves, rocks, shells, and bones.

2. Georgia O'Keeffe rejected sexual interpretations of her paintings.

For decades, critics assumed that O'Keeffe's flowers were intended as homages—or at the very least, allusions—to the female form. But in 1943, she insisted that they had it all wrong, saying, “Well—I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” So there.

3. Georgia O'Keeffe was not a native of the American Southwest.


Joe Raedle/Getty Images

O'Keeffe was actually born on a Wisconsin dairy farm. She'd go on to live in Chicago; New York City; New York’s Lake George; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Amarillo, Texas. She first visited New Mexico in 1917, and as she grew older, her trips there became more and more frequent. Following the death of her husband in 1946, she moved to New Mexico permanently.

4. Georgia O'Keeffe’s favorite studio was the backseat of a Model-A Ford.

In an interview with C-SPAN, Carolyn Kastner, former curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, explained how the artist customized her car for this use: "She would remove the driver's seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger car, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford."

Painting inside the car allowed O'Keeffe to stay out of the unrelenting desert sun, where she painted many of her later works. The Model-A also provided a barrier from the bees that would gather as the day wore on.

5. Georgia O'Keeffe also painted skyscrapers.

While nature was O'Keeffe's main source of inspiration, the time she spent in 1920s Manhattan spurred the creation of surreal efforts like New York With Moon, City Night, and The Shelton with Sunspots.

6. Georgia O'Keeffe immersed herself in nature.

While in New Mexico, O’Keeffe spent summers and falls at her Ghost Ranch, putting up with the region's hottest, most stifling days in order to capture its most vivid colors. (The rest of the year she stayed at her second home, located in the small town of Abiquiu.) When she wasn't painting in her Model-A, O'Keeffe often camped out in the harsh surrounding terrain, to keep close to the landscapes that inspired her.

7. Not even bad weather could keep Georgia O'Keeffe away from her work.

The artist would rig up tents from tarps, contend with unrelenting downpours, and paint with gloves on when it got too cold. She went camping well into her 70s and enjoyed a well-documented rafting trip with photographer Todd Webb at age 74. Her camping equipment is occasionally exhibited at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.

8. Georgia O'Keeffe married the man behind her first gallery show.

"At last, a woman on paper!" That’s what modernist photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz cried when he first saw O'Keeffe's abstract charcoal drawings. He was so enthusiastic about this series of sketches that he put them on display—before consulting their creator.

When O'Keeffe arrived at his gallery, she wasn't pleased, and brusquely introduced herself: "I am Georgia O'Keeffe and you will have to take these pictures down." Despite their rocky beginnings, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe quickly made amends, and went on to become partners in art and in life.

9. Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz wrote 25,000 pages of love letters to each other.

When the pair met in 1916, Stieglitz was famous and married; she was unknown and 23 years his junior. All the same, they began writing to each other often (sometimes two or three times a day) and at length (as many as 40 pages at a time). These preserved writings chart the progression of their romance—from flirtation to affair to their marriage in 1924—and even document their marital struggles.

10. Georgia O'Keeffe served as a muse to other artists.

Thanks in part to Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was one of the most photographed women of the 20th century. Stieglitz made O'Keeffe the subject of a long-term series of portraits meant to capture individuals as they aged, and she made for a striking model. Though he died in 1946, the project lived on as other photographers sought out O'Keeffe in order to capture the beloved artist against the harsh New Mexican landscapes she loved so dearly.

O'Keeffe later wrote:

"When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me—some of them more than 60 years ago—I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives. If the person in the photographs were living in this world today, she would be quite a different person—but it doesn't matter—Stieglitz photographed her then."

11. Georgia O'Keeffe quit painting—three times.

The first break spanned several years (the exact number is a matter of debate), when O'Keeffe took on more stable jobs to help her family through financial troubles. In the early 1930s, a nervous breakdown led to her hospitalization, and caused her to set aside her brushes for more than a year.

In the years leading up to her death in 1986, failing eyesight forced O'Keeffe to give up painting entirely. Until then, she fought hard to keep working, enlisting assistants to prepare her canvas and mix her oil paints for pieces like 1977's Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds. She managed to use watercolors until she was 95.

12. After going blind, Georgia O'Keeffe turned to sculpting.


By Alfred Stieglitz - Phillips, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although her vision eventually made painting impossible, O'Keeffe's desire to create was not squelched. She memorably declared, "I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” O'Keeffe began experimenting with clay sculpting in her late 80s, and continued with it into her 96th year.

13. Georgia O'Keeffe is the mother of American Modernism.

Searching for what she called “the Great American Thing,” O'Keeffe was part of the Stieglitz Circle, which included such lauded early modernists as Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen. By the mid-1920s, she had become the first female painter to gain acclaim alongside her male contemporaries in New York's cutthroat art world. Her distinctive way of rendering nature in shapes and forms that made them seem simultaneously familiar and new earned her a reputation as a pioneer of the form.

14. Georgia O'Keeffe blazed new trails for female artists.

In 1946, O’Keeffe became the first woman to earn a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Twenty-four years later, a Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective exhibit introduced her work to a new generation. Fifteen years after that, O'Keeffe was included in the inaugural slate of artists chosen to receive the newly founded National Medal of Arts for her contribution to American culture.

15. Georgia O'Keeffe wasn't fearless, but she rejected fear.

O'Keeffe was purported to have said, "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

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