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.

This Land Is Your Land: The Story Behind America's Best-Known Protest Song

American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
Woody Guthrie: Getty Images. Landscape: iStock/mammuth

Few songs are more ingrained in the American psyche than "This Land Is Your Land," the greatest and best-known work by folk icon Woody Guthrie. For decades, it's been a staple of kindergarten classrooms "from California to the New York island," as the lyrics go. It's the musical equivalent of apple pie, though the flavor varies wildly depending on who's doing the singing.

On its most basic level, "This Land Is Your Land" is a song about inclusion and equality—the American ideal broken down into simple, eloquent language and set to a melody you memorize on first listen. The underlying message, repeated throughout the song, makes the heart swell: "This land was made for you and me."

But there's more to "This Land Is Your Land" than many people realize—two verses more, in fact. Guthrie's original 1940 draft of the song contains six verses, two of which carry progressive political messages that add nuance to the song's overt patriotism. These controversial verses are generally omitted from children's songbooks and the like, but they speak volumes about Guthrie's mindset when he put pen to paper 80 years ago.

 

Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in a divey hotel room in New York City. He'd just landed in Manhattan after years of rambling across the country and meeting impoverished people affected by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Throughout his travels in the late '30s, Guthrie was haunted by Kate Smith's hit recording of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Guthrie found Berlin's song to be jingoistic and out of touch with the reality facing many of his fellow citizens. So he set about writing a response.

Guthrie originally titled his rejoinder "God Blessed America"—emphasis on the past tense—but eventually changed his tone. Instead of doing a sarcastic parody, he wrote a song that pulls double-duty, celebrating America's natural splendor while criticizing the nation for falling short of its promise. In the "lost" fourth verse, Guthrie decries the notion of private property, suggesting America is being carved up by the wealthy:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said: 'Private Property.'
But on the backside, it didn't say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

The sixth and final verse in the original manuscript references the poor folks Guthrie saw living on government assistance during the Great Depression:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me?

When Guthrie first recorded the song in 1944, he included the verse about private property but left out the one about the relief office. That original recording was lost until the '90s, however, so for years, all anyone knew was the version Guthrie recorded for 1951's Songs to Grow On. Guthrie's rendition on that album features neither the "no trespassing" verse nor the one about the relief office, which he never actually recorded.

It's unclear why the 1944 recording with the "private property" verse was never released, or why Guthrie edited out the radical stuff for the 1951 version. (He also chopped out both controversial verses when he first published the lyrics in the 1945 pamphlet Ten of Woody Guthrie's Songs.) It may have had something to do with the mounting anti-communist furor that would lead to the Red Scare of the late '40s and early '50s. As a pro-union communist sympathizer, Guthrie and his fellow rabble-rousing folky buddy Pete Seeger had already faced industry blacklisting in the early '40s.

"We did one program on CBS Radio, and a newspaper reported out, said, 'Red minstrels try to get on the networks,'" Seeger told NPR. "And that was the last job we got."

Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Penn State, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Regardless of which verses are included, "This Land Is Your Land" is terrific for singing. That was by design. Guthrie likely stole the melody from the Carter Family's 1935 tune "Little Darling, Pal of Mine," which itself was patterned after an old gospel hymn titled "When the World's On Fire" (sometimes called "Oh, My Loving Brother"). "This Land" was a perfect fit for classrooms and campsites, where the song would take on new life.

 

In the early '50s, famed American folklorist Alan Lomax came up with a nifty plan for preserving the nation's musical heritage. He approached legendary music publisher Howie Richmond with the idea of including rural folk songs—the kind he'd been documenting for the Library of Congress—in school music textbooks. Richmond, who had become Guthrie's publisher in 1950, loved the idea, and to sweeten the deal for textbook publishers, he lowered his usual licensing rates and offered "This Land Is Your Land" for just $1.

That's how "This Land Is Your Land" went viral and became nearly as ubiquitous as the national anthem, even without the radio play and jukebox real estate of Smith's "God Bless America." While the versions distributed to America's impressionable youth lacked "no trespassing" and "relief office" verses, the song's original lyrics were never forgotten. Following Guthrie's death in 1967, artists like Seeger continued performing the "lost verses," lest people forget the anger that inspired the song.

But regardless of Guthrie's intentions, "This Land Is Your Land" has come to mean different things to different people. That's part of what makes it so timeless. When President Ronald Reagan used the song at his victory party in 1984, after it had been used by Walter Mondale's campaign, both sides were probably trying to evoke feel-good patriotism. The same goes for Reagan's advisors and allies who were invoking Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." during rallies and in newspaper articles. Reagan himself name-checked Springsteen and his "message of hope" during a rally in Hammonton, New Jersey. The president either didn't know or didn't care that "Born in the U.S.A." was another song about loving your country but hating how poorly it treats some of its citizens.

Ironically, the Boss had begun performing "This Land Is Your Land" in the early '80s. On the version included on the Live 1975–85 box set, Springsteen gives his audience the backstory about Irving Berlin and refers to "This Land" as "just about one of the most beautiful songs ever written." And, when given the opportunity to perform the song with Pete Seeger at Barack Obama's pre-inauguration concert in 2009, he readily agreed to sing all the verses at Seeger's insistence.

Over the years, "This Land Is Your Land" has been covered by everyone from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who performed the song in Zuccotti Park during an Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011. Lady Gaga sang a snippet to open her Super Bowl halftime show in 2017, causing fans and critics to speculate about whether she was making a political statement. She mashed it up with "God Bless America," so it's a safe bet she knew the history of the song.

 

There may be even more officially recorded versions in years to come. Much like what has been done with ubiquitous songs like "Happy Birthday" and "We Shall Overcome" (which Seeger toured with and taught across the country at rallies and protests throughout the '50s and '60s), there is a push to have "This Land Is Your Land" enter the public domain. The Brooklyn rock band Satorii filed a lawsuit in 2016 challenging the copyrights held by the Richmond Organization and its subsidiary, Ludlow Music, and maintain that since Guthrie only wrote the lyrics and not that pilfered melody, he shouldn't have been able to register the song in the first place, nor should Ludlow have been able to own the copyright. The suit is ongoing.

Whether it enters the public domain, as one imagines Guthrie would have wanted, or doesn't, "This Land Is Your Land" isn't going anywhere. The song has been adopted and modified by Native Americans, Swedish anti-Nazi troubadours, and people all over the globe who find truth and comfort in Guthrie's words, however they choose to interpret them.

"The whole idea of a land is your spot on Earth, you know," Woody's daughter Nora told NPR. "A spot where you can claim safety, sanity."

10 Fascinating Facts About W.E.B. Du Bois

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born just three years after the end of the Civil War and lived to see the incipient days of the Civil Rights movement. A thinker, scientist, and activist, Du Bois was an integral part of moving from one era to the next, not only by contributing a remarkable amount to the public discourse on racial inequity but also by putting his beliefs into practice as an organizer. His legacy is cemented by his social scientific efforts and the groups he founded to fight for social justice. Here are 10 facts about W.E.B. Du Bois.

1. W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African American to get a Ph.D. from Harvard.

Du Bois attended the historically black college Fisk University from 1885 to 1888 before seeking a second bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. In 1892, he earned a John F. Slater Fund grant to study at the University of Berlin, but he wasn't tired of academia yet. He returned to the United States and, in 1895, became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard with his dissertation, "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the United States of America: 1638-1871." During his undergrad years at Harvard, Du Bois was taught by the preeminent American philosopher and pioneer in psychology William James, who had an effect on Du Bois’s thinking and writing.

2. W.E.B. Du Bois conducted the first major case study of a black community in the United States.

Published in 1899, “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study” was the result of Du Bois’s survey of the city’s black population from 1896 to 1897. The study, which involved 5000 personal interviews, sought to identify the social problems unique to the black population. Not only was it the first case study of any black community, it was also an early effort of sociological research as a data-driven, statistically based social science. Du Bois’s conclusion was that the root of the multivariate problems lay in how black Americans were perceived, noting that the problems would ease if whites would see their black neighbors as peers instead of inferior: “Again, the white people of the city must remember that much of the sorrow and bitterness that surrounds the life of the American Negro comes from the unconscious prejudice and half-conscious actions of men and women who do not intend to wound or annoy.” He also noted the historical causes of the so-called “Negro Problem,” including the legacy of systemic slavery and biased housing policies that left black members of society paying more rent for worse accommodations.

3. W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903.

In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois discussed his concept of “double consciousness,” an existential state experienced by persecuted groups in oppressive societies, marked by sensing your identity is divided. Du Bois wrote, “One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

Du Bois's former professor, James, praised The Souls of Black Folk upon its release. He also reportedly sent a copy of Du Bois’s landmark work to his brother, the iconic American novelist Henry James.

4. W.E.B. Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement and opposed Booker T. Washington.

During the Reconstruction Era in the South, African Americans experienced a greater amount of social freedom and political participation, but nearing the turn of the century, southern states began restricting voting rights and segregating facilities. Eventually, in response, Booker T. Washington helped lay out the Atlanta Compromise—a principle that black Americans should avoid protesting for civic rights so long as they had access to criminal justice and jobs. In response to Washington’s tactic of capitulation, Du Bois and newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter led a group to found the Niagara Movement in 1905, which advocated for equal treatment, equal economic opportunities, equal educational opportunities, and “manhood suffrage.”

5. W.E.B. Du Bois's views gained larger support after the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906.

Between September 22 and 24, 1906, in response to unsupported reports about black men raping four white women, more than 10,000 whites stormed through Atlanta, beating every black person they could find. The riots resulted in a number of deaths (the exact number could be as low as 10 or as high as 100) and, as an outright betrayal of justice, spat in the face of Washington’s brand of going along to get along.

After the riots, Du Bois wrote the poem “A Litany of Atlanta” and bought a shotgun in response. Du Bois and others felt that President Theodore Roosevelt and his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, should have sent in troops to prevent more violence. Coupled with an incident involving soldiers in Brownsville, Texas that same year, in 1908 Du Bois proclaimed that if Taft received the Republican nomination blacks should drop their support for the Republicans (a party they’d been faithful to since Abraham Lincoln), proclaiming an “avowed enemy [is] better than false friends.”

6. W.E.B. Du Bois co-founded the NAACP.

Four years after the Niagara meeting, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) alongside figures such as journalist Mary White Ovington and lawyer Moorfield Storey. It was created as a biracial organization that would protest and lobby for equality (much like its forerunner, the Niagara Movement). Its earliest battles included fighting Jim Crow laws in the South (which segregated public facilities), opposing President Woodrow Wilson's segregation in federal workplaces, and lobbying for the right of African Americans to serve as military officers in WWI. Five years after its founding, it had 6000 members in 50 branches. From 1910 to 1934, Du Bois acted as the director of publicity and research, was on the board of directors, and edited its monthly magazine, The Crisis, which covered arts and politics.

7. W.E.B. Du Bois was a Civil Rights activist on a global scale.

Du Bois’s interest in equality extended beyond his own national borders. He helped organize multiple Pan-African Conferences after attending his first in 1900 in London. There, he penned the “Address to the Nations of the World,” which urged the United States and European nations to fight systemic racism and to end colonialism. He was also a member of the three-person delegation from the NAACP to the United Nations’ founding conference in 1945. As a writer and activist, he fought for freedom and equality for the whole of the African diaspora and for Africans themselves.

8. W.E.B. DU BOIS was a victim of McCarthyism.

The FBI started a file on Du Bois—an avowed Socialist—in 1942. In the 1950s—when McCarthyism was at its peak—Du Bois, who served as chairman of the anti-nuke Peace Information Center, and four others were charged with failing to register the organization with the government. If they had been convicted, they could have faced five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

The jury didn’t get to render a verdict, however, because the judge threw the case out after defense attorney Vito Marcantonio informed him that Albert Einstein would testify as a character witness for Du Bois. (The two were pen pals, and Einstein even wrote an essay for The Crisis.)

9. W.E.B. Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana but never renounced his United States Citizenship.

The fallout from the McCarthy-era government repression was profound. Several of Du Bois’s colleagues kept their distance, including the NAACP, which never rose publicly to his defense. Plus, despite the lack of a conviction, the government still revoked Du Bois’s passport for eight years. After getting it back, Du Bois traveled to Ghana in 1961 (at the age of 93) to work on an encyclopedia of the African diaspora. When the United States refused to renew his passport in 1963, Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana in symbolic protest. He’s sometimes erroneously included in lists of famous people who have renounced their American citizenship, but Du Bois never formally did so.

10. W.E.B. Du Bois died the day before Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Du Bois was 95 when he died in Accra, Ghana, on August 27, 1963. (Du Bois’s house in Accra, where he’s buried, was turned into the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, a small museum to his time in Ghana.) The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the famous speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where he shared his dream. It seems fate isn’t without a sense of poetry.

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