Reviewed

“Ten Days in a Mad-House” by Nellie Bly

I think I was in fifth grade when I first learned about Nellie Bly, thanks to an assignment to write a biography of someone from history. As I remember, I thought about Laura Ingalls Wilder but then I saw a book in the library about how Nellie Bly went around the world in 72 days, eight days less than Jules Verne thought it would take. Nellie became my hero then, and I’d already wanted to be a journalist so she was the perfect fit. I don’t know why it took me until now to read Ten Days in a Mad-House, but it did.
Ten Days in a Mad-House is Nellie Bly’s account of being asked by a New York newspaper to get herself committed to the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island and report on the conditions there. Despite it being 1887, despite there being few female journalists, and despite the fact that she’d have to feign being insane and be committed to an asylum, Nellie said yes.

It’s a little startling how many similarities there still are between mental health treatment of 1887 and of 2018. Some things can be judged and diagnosed by science now but some things are still judged and diagnosed by opinion. It’s always important, if it’s a court case, to have a sympathetic and understanding judge and jury, if you suffer mental illness. In modern times, prison is too often used as a mental health facility and it seems in 1887 that there was little difference between asylums and prison, except that you sometimes got released from prison.

Taken at face value, Nellie Bly got committed to Blackwell’s Island to report on the conditions inside the asylum there. It’s all too obvious that she found the deeper question speaks to the actual treatment, if there was any other than simply controlling the so-called insane, of the people there. And so much of the asylum’s identity was tied to it’s being a ‘public institution’ and a place of charity, though this did work in the favor of reforms she helped bring about, that it’s easy to compare the moldy, spider-filled bread of 1887 to the bagged meals that ‘public institutions’ today serve. Food, clothing, shelter, medical treatment, and general welfare are still issues that need to be constantly revisited today.

One thing that particularly struck me was the emphasis on immigrants. She identified so many women as German, Irish, Hebrew, etc. that it makes me realize even that hasn’t changed much at all. That immigrants are still seen as outliers, as different to the point of being criminals, dangerous, or bears of illness and disease is more than a little heart-breaking.

The two final essays in the account are related to Nellie Bly’s undercover work as a servant in an upper class New York City home and as a ‘white slave girl’ making boxes in factories that offered horrible conditions. They were important in 1887, I’m sure, and are still, sadly, important things for people to thing about because slavery and terrible working conditions still exist around the world.

This book was obviously, given the changes it brought to the treatment and housing of the mentally ill in 1887 and after, important at the time. It is still important now. It is stark too, for the things that haven’t changed and the things that have only changed a little. It should still be required reading

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