What Nellie Bly found on Blackwell’s Island

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Pennsylvania in 1864, journalist Nellie Bly (she adopted the pen name because at the time, women reporters didn’t use their real names) moved to New York in 1887.

Broke but brave, the 23-year-old convinced New York World editors to let her investigate conditions at the city lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island, now Roosevelt Island. 

NellieblyBly feigned insanity and instantly got herself committed. She spent 10 days there before the World was able to get her released.

In a subsequent series of articles, she reported that the food was inedible, nurses often picked on and physically abused residents, and that many were sane but either couldn’t speak English or were left there by husbands who didn’t want them. And doctors couldn’t care less.

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

Bly later published her articles in a book, Ten Days in a Mad-House. The asylum, with its famous (and still existent) circa-1830s octagon tower, was closed. Mentally ill New Yorkers were then sent to a new facility on nearby Ward’s Island. 

Bly became a sensation, embarking on an international career as a journalist. She died in 1922 and is buried in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery. 

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14 Responses to “What Nellie Bly found on Blackwell’s Island”

  1. snapshotsnyc Says:

    I just read Ten Days in a Mad-House last week! Such an amazing story by such a young reporter.

  2. The Roving Runner: Roosevelt Island - Well Blog - NYTimes.com Says:

    […] apartment building. It was here that the journalist Nellie Bly gained entry by faking insanity. Her expose of the poor conditions led to major changes and made her […]

  3. Farrah Marson Says:

    I love this I got an a plus cause I had to do a history report on Nellie Bly I got a good grade on it thanks

  4. Farrah Marson Says:

    I love Nellie Bly

  5. Episode 1: Banished to Blackwell Island | Copper | BBC America Says:

    […] other city institutions."Besides the penitentiary and workhouse, there was also a lunatic asylum (where patients were abused), a smallpox hospital and an almshouse where the sick, destitute, and homeless were sent. Abandoned […]

  6. Nellie Bly | Comm455/History of Journalism Says:

    […] York City in search of a job. She eventually find one at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and pretended to be insane so she could investigate the conditions on Blackwell Island’s insane asylum. Bly […]

  7. RED DAVE Says:

    When I was a kid, Nellie Bly was best known for having been the first person to beat the fictional record set by Jules Verne’s Philius Fogg. As a publicity stunt financed by Pulitzer, she traveled around the world in 72 days in 1889.


  8. Addi Says:

    amazing how the details of this story are so fascinating… so real today too.

  9. The mess halls for inmates on Blackwell’s Island | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] criminals biding their time in the Penitentiary, sick people sent to the Hospital for Incurables, Lunatic Asylum, or the Small-Pox Hospital, the homeless and disorderly sentenced to the […]

  10. Dancing at the Lunatic’s Ball on Blackwell’s Island | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] is the same asylum Nellie Bly would go on to write about in 1887, when the Lunatic Asylum had become women-only and […]

  11. Dancing at the Lunatic’s Ball on Blackwell’s Island ⋆ New York city blog Says:

    […] is the same asylum Nellie Bly would go on to write about in 1887, when the Lunatic Asylum had become women-only and […]

  12. What remains of Astoria’s River Crest Sanitarium | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] People suffering from mental illness had few options. There was always the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island—which had to eventually close after Nelly Bly exposed its horrific conditions in 1887. […]

  13. Roosevelt Island Historical Society » Wednesday, December 8, 2021 – A CELEBRATION OF NELLIE BLY AND WOMEN Says:

    […] a more considerate treatment might ameliorate, or perhaps entirely relieve.”This is the same asylum Nellie Bly would go on to write about in 1887, when the Lunatic Asylum had become women-only and […]

  14. One of New York’s last 18th century farmhouses sits on an East River island | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] begin to close until the end of the 19th century, as the terrible conditions inside them became known to an outraged […]

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