This past weekend while watching cable tv one show did a quick profile on writer Nellie Bly. A famous turn of the century woman with a bullish attitude and a passion for her writing. In a lot of ways she reminds me of a lot of good friends of mine. The modern Urban Explorers, Paranormal Investigators, Historical Investigators and Photographers of Abandoned State Hospitals/Prisons.
Who is Nellie Bly and what did she do to propel her career ever upward? Nellie was the daughter of an Irish immigrant and in the 1800s held a standard writing job in Pittsburgh PA. Nellie is actually a pen name which was common for women writers to do and use at the time. Also common for women writers at the time they were limited on the stories they could write about and usually assigned safe topics that housewives could related to. With a fire in her heart she headed to New York city and managed or forced her way into an interview with the primary newspaper The New York World. As the story goes, the editor was so impressed with her enthusiasm for writing serious pieces she was given the task to fake insanity and reside in the notorious Mental Asylum for women located on Blackwell Island. But was this really a ploy to get the aggressive Bly “out of the way”? Either way Nellie took the leap of faith by trusting the Editor and accepting the job.
Somehow Nellie convinced doctors she was crazy and was swiftly admitted to the Asylum on Blackwell Island. There Bly was able to witness first hand the deplorable living conditions, the rotten food fed to patients and the abuse the women were subjected to. When Bly had enough she revealed that really was not crazy, but naturally no one believed her. Nellie was descending into the grim reality that she may never get out of the asylum at all. And worse still after talking to many of the women there, she discovered that a lot of the patients were perfectly sane. There was nothing wrong with a lot of the inmates on the Island at all. After 10 long days the newspaper finally stepped in and demanded Nellie’s release asserting that she was never insane at all and worked for The New York World. Nellie’s expose titled “10 Days In A Mad-House” shocked New York and ushered in radical changes in how women were diagnosed and treated. (Side note: in late 2015 and independent film was released by Pendragon Films with the same title as her expose about Nellie’s experiences at Blackwell Island.)
It is with this same passion and fearless attitudes that many today explore many of the countries abandoned asylums and prisons. Reaching into the past to learn why things happened there. How they could have gone on so long and explore in the same hallways, rooms, and prison cells where many were left forgotten to the world outside. Whether through words, images, or communication with the past itself we strive to reveal and preserve events in hopes to improves todays processes and to maybe never revert back to primitive ways. Maybe a spark from the fire that burned in Nellie Bly’s creative heart still burns of inspiration to many of us.