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Ten Days in a Mad-House

Probably, you've heard of Nellie Bly. She worked as a reporter, before there were many lady reporters. Her most famous scoop was going undercover at an insane asylum, exposing horrendous mistreatment there. Writing for the New York World, her coverage was shocking, and this book collects those articles.

I'd read Ten Days in a Mad-House fifty years ago, but being old everything is new to me, and I'd forgotten almost all of it.

It's a marvelous read, terrifically written and infuriating, and I'm not going to wait another fifty years before reading it again. It's going back to the library, but I've already ordered a copy to add to my permanent re-reading shelf.

What's most amazing, depressing is how little Bly had to do to feign insanity, fool the doctors, and be committed. She acted slightly confused and frightened — that's it, and that's nothing by present-day standards. I saw at least a hundred people on the bus, on the sidewalk, and at the grocery store yesterday who were far more convincingly insane, yet in our time the deranged and demented walk among us.

Here's Bly, 'proving' that she's insane, so she could be admitted to the asylum:

My nose was very cold, so I covered up my head and was in a half doze, when the shawl was suddenly jerked from my face and a strange man and Miss Scott stood before me. The man proved to be a doctor, and his first greetings were:

"I've seen that face before."

"Then you know me?" I asked, with a great show of eagerness that I did not feel.

"I think I do. Where did you come from?"

"From home."

"Where is home?"

"Don't you know? Cuba."

He then sat down beside me, felt my pulse, and examined my tongue, and at last said:

"Tell Miss Scott all about yourself."

"No, I will not. I will not talk with women."

"What do you do in New York?"

"Nothing."

"Can you work?"

"No, senor."

"Tell me, are you a woman of the town?"

"I do not understand you," I replied, heartily disgusted with him.

"I mean have you allowed the men to provide for you and keep you?"

I felt like slapping him in the face, but I had to maintain my composure, so I simply said:

"I do not know what you are talking about. I always lived at home."

After many more questions, fully as useless and senseless, he left me and began to talk with the nurse. "Positively demented," he said. "I consider it a hopeless case. She needs to be put where some one will take care of her."

And so I passed my second medical expert.

After this, I began to have a smaller regard for the ability of doctors than I ever had before, and a greater one for myself. I felt sure now that no doctor could tell whether people were insane or not, so long as the case was not violent.

And with that, she's booked for admission to the Blackwell's Island Lunatic Asylum in New York City.

Once she's inside, Bly stops pretending to be crazy, and yet, her mental health is never re-evaluated, and nobody even notices that she's not nuts.

In the asylum, patents are fed inedible, rotting food. The nurses — jailers, essentially — refuse to turn on the building's heat, even as winter approaches. Women are given thin shawls and one blanket each, and forced one after another to bathe in the same cold, dirty water. After this, they all share one towel, even the women with infections and open wounds, though by this time disease was understood well enough to know this was dangerous.

At Blackwell's Island, and presumably at other asylums, there is simply no giving a damn. Patients are threatened with beatings if they disobey, or if they mention their mistreatment to a doctor, but the doctors aren't listening anyway. There's no hint of medical or mental treatment, and no way to prove oneself sane after being committed.

Bly gets to know some of the other patients, including a new arrival, Tillie Mayard:

As the doctor was about to leave the pavilion Miss Tillie Mayard discovered that she was in an insane ward. She went to Dr. Field and asked him why she had been sent there.

"Have you just found out you are in an insane asylum?" asked the doctor.

"Yes; my friends said they were sending me to a convalescent ward to be treated for nervous debility, from which I am suffering since my illness. I want to get out of this place immediately."

"Well, you won't get out in a hurry," he said, with a quick laugh.

"If you know anything at all," she responded, "you should be able to tell that I am perfectly sane. Why don't you test me?" 

"We know all we want to on that score," said the doctor, and he left the poor girl condemned to an insane asylum, probably for life, without giving her one feeble chance to prove her sanity.

The book is haunting, difficult to put down, and what's perhaps most terrifying is Bly's return to the asylum, this time accompanied by members of a grand jury investigating what she had reported.

It was, Bly writes, like visiting an entirely different hospital — everything had been cleaned spotlessly, the food looked fabulous, the inmates were warmly clothed, and most of the specific patients she'd mentioned could not be found. Classic cover-up.

Fortunately, the grand jury didn't buy it, and the legislature took some slight action. There's no doubt, though, that the cruel workers and uncaring doctors got away with it, and no mention that any of the obviously sane people Bly saw in the asylum were ever released.

What she describes is a perfect set-up for abuse, ain't it? Put a whole lot of helpless people nobody cares about in one facility, with no motivation to help any of them, very few loved ones visiting, no oversight at all, and no way to be discharged.

It's a nightmare from American history, and I'll wager things are only somewhat better now. 

10/27/2022   

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