‘A dangerous woman gone mad’

Ashley Orr is a PhD candidate in the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics at the Australian National University. Her research focuses on representations of female embodiment in neo-Victorian fiction from the 1980s to the present. She is particularly interested in the way in which these texts re-imagine female deviance in the nineteenth-century and the resonances this has for gender politics in the present. 

Nellie Bly’s career as a stunt journalist in the late-nineteenth century provided the reading public of America with a first-hand insight into the lives of women whose stories might otherwise have remained invisible. Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864, she adopted the pen name Nellie Bly in 1885 when she began her career as a journalist. In this same year, the Pittsburgh Dispatch published an advice column in response to the plight of a father of five unmarried daughters, in which reporter Erasmus Wilson lamented the lax parenting which failed to prepare women for their roles as wives and mothers. Such views align Wilson with the Victorian-era ideology of separate spheres — proponents of which clutched to Darwinian evolutionary theory to legitimise women’s confinement in the home. Despite this scientific veneer it was, in fact, little more than a convenient way to neutralise the threat the feminist movement posed to the patriarchal order.

Angered by Wilson’s views, Bly penned a response which caught the eye of the Dispatch’s editor, who asked her to adapt the letter into a column. Bly’s first published piece, “The Girl Puzzle”, served as a public declaration of her status as a dangerous woman. In it, she advocated for women to be offered the same roles and remuneration as men, rather than being confined to low-paying feminised occupations with few opportunities for advancement. Her campaign for equal pay for equal work reflects the ongoing struggle for women to be equally recognised in the workplace. The latest OECD data shows that in Bly’s home country the gender pay gap is 18.9%, while the UK fares slightly better at 16.9% (2015). Like her suffragette counterparts across the Atlantic, Bly was committed to broadening the scope of women’s participation in public life, leading by example in her role as a journalist and, later, as a key management figure in her husband’s business enterprises.

Bly’s scant formal education and lack of journalistic qualifications made her an unlikely candidate for success in such a male-dominated industry intent, in this period, on professionalization. However, after getting her “break” at the Dispatch, she went on to have a successful career writing for many publications up until her death in 1922. She was a pioneer in the field of female stunt reporting, a branch of sensational journalism popular in the late-nineteenth century which saw journalists go undercover to expose the underside of Victorian society. Though widely read at the time, these women’s contributions have been largely absent from scholarly discussions of the history of journalism in USA. However, the second-wave feminist movement’s burgeoning interest in recovering silenced female voices from the historical record (King 2005, p. 3-4), has led to renewed attention toward figures like Bly in recent decades.

Bly’s journalism, published in book-form during her life, was out of print until the early 1990s, when Around the World in Seventy-Two Days was re-published followed, more than a decade later, by Ten Days in a Mad-House.  The former is perhaps Bly’s most well-known piece of journalism. Published by the New York World, in 1890, it chronicled Bly’s solo voyage around the world, inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. While this journey involved considerable risk, her first assignment for the World, in 1887, was arguably her most dangerous. For this story, Bly adopted the persona of a madwoman and was subsequently committed to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum in New York. She went on to publish a series of articles which provided a first-hand insight into the harsh conditions within the asylum and stressed the humanity (and often sanity) of Blackwell’s inhabitants at a time when mental illness was still heavily stigmatised and poorly understood.

While Bly described her assignment as “a delicate mission”, she was nonetheless convinced that the rumours that abounded regarding mistreatment of patients in asylums were inflated (Bly 2015, p. 5-6). To uncover the truth, she adopted yet another pseudonym, “Nellie Brown”, and sought refuge in a boarding house for women workers, whereupon she began to act insane. Bly’s performance involved repeatedly denouncing the other inhabitants of the boarding house as crazy and, in response to questions about her background, feigning amnesia.

Just as Bly hoped, her erratic behaviour led to the involvement of the police and the presentation of her case before a judge, at which point she was committed to the asylum pending an examination at Bellevue Hospital. At Bellevue, Bly met Anne Neville, a woman committed due to her family’s inability to pay for treatment for a medical condition at a Sister’s Home. Anne assured Bly that “I have nothing wrong with my brain…but I am unable to do anything. The doctors refuse to listen to me, and it is useless to say anything to the nurses” (Bly 2015, p. 33). Neville’s story is echoed by many of the women Bly encountered upon reaching Blackwell’s. Many are simply poor, or immigrants who have been unable to communicate and so deemed insane, while still others have been tricked or bullied into the asylum. These women’s rational entreaties for release — Bly’s included — were consistently ignored by medical staff. When Bly herself confronted one of Blackwell’s doctors, asking “[h]ow can a doctor judge a woman’s sanity by merely bidding her good morning and refusing to hear her pleas for release?” (Bly 2015, p. 88) and insisted upon her sanity and that of those around her, the only reply she received was “[t]hey are insane…and suffering from delusions” (Bly 2015, p. 88).

Bly’s encounters with the medical staff in both Bellevue and Blackwell’s — who, apart from one doctor, pronounced her insane — caused her to lose faith in the medical profession.  Though she performed the role of a madwoman to be committed, once inside the asylum she “talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician” (Bly 2015, p. 7). However, the doctors’ inability to recognise her sanity led her to believe “that no doctor could tell whether people were insane or not, so long as the case was not violent” (Bly 2015, p. 37).

The women in Blackwell’s were subjected to freezing temperatures, inedible food, routine abuse at the hands of the nurses, and bizarre initiation rituals in which new patients were forced to bathe naked in ice-water in front of the other inmates. Complaints were futile, as these were dismissed by the doctors as “the imagination of our diseased brains” and resulted in even harsher punishments from the nurses (Bly 2015, p. 82). Lamenting the harsh treatment she received in the asylum, Bly mused “[w]hat, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?” (2015, p. 68). Even for those who were genuinely afflicted by mental illness, the “treatment” provided at Blackwell’s was hardly likely to produce a cure. As such, in an era where “of all the nervous disorders…hysteria was the most strongly identified with the feminist movement” (Showalter 2009, p. 145), institutionalisation was often little more than a convenient repository for women whose deviant behaviour threatened to disrupt gendered power relations.

After ten days, Bly’s release was secured by a lawyer hired by the World and she was summoned to testify about her experiences to a Grand Jury. On a return trip to Blackwell’s with the Jury in tow, Bly found the conditions much improved, although the sane women she encountered during her stay had been removed, leading her to question “[i]f I was wrong in my judgment of these patients’ sanity, why was all this done?” (Bly 2015, p. 94). While their fates remain unknown, Bly’s determination to “try by every means to make my mission of benefit to my suffering sisters” (2015, p. 48) was largely successful. By placing herself in danger, she exposed the suffering of women in the public asylum system. The publicity her account attracted resulted in the City of New York allocating a further $1 million per year in resources dedicated to the treatment of the mentally ill. A dangerous woman herself, Bly told the stories of other “dangerous” women who were powerless to speak for themselves. In so doing, she humanised the experiences of Blackwell’s patients, who, regardless of their status as victims of circumstance or mentally ill, benefitted from improvements to their care as a result of Bly’s reporting.



Bly, N. (2014) Around the world in seventy-two days and other writings. Edited by J. M. Lutes. New York: Penguin.

Bly, N. (2015) Ten days in a mad-house. New York: Open Road Integrated Media.

Earnings and wages – Gender wage gap – OECD Data (2015). OECD. Available at: http://data.oecd.org/earnwage/gender-wage-gap.htm (Accessed: 16 February 2017).

Gregory, A. (2014) ‘Nellie Bly’s Lessons in Writing What You Want To’, The New Yorker. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/nellie-blys-lessons-in-writing-what-you-want-to (Accessed: 10 February 2017).

King, J. (2005) The Victorian woman question in contemporary feminist fiction. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lutes, J. M. (2002) ‘Into the Madhouse with Nellie Bly: Girl Stunt Reporting in Late Nineteenth-Century America’, American Quarterly, 54(2), pp. 217–253.