The staunch work of Dorothea Lynn Dix was not a solo act. And a chance for Dix to see the inside of a prison for a taste of how people behind bars were treated was clearly the divine plan for the lifetime of good that came after.
Thanks to Dix, the mental health system was knocked on its ear with a reform movement in the mid- to late-1800s and has come a very long way since then. This is not to say that mistreatment of those fighting for their mental health came to a screeching halt. But the reform was most definitely a game-changer during a time when people with severe depression, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues were classified as insane (and therefore hopeless) and caged like animals in cold horrifyingly inhumane places called insane asylums.
The world is indeed a better place for the existence of mental health facilities or treatment centers like Brookhaven Retreat, where compassion and nurturing is an integral part of all treatment and creating a life worth living is the ultimate objective.
Enter Nellie Bly, a pen-name for Elizabeth Jane Cochran, a journalist, who, in the late 1800s, spent 10 days playing the part of someone who belonged in the Woman's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island for the sake of writing a book called---you guessed it---Ten Days in a Madhouse.
There she investigated unbelievable claims of abuse and came to realize that some of the women didn’t belong there at all. Her courageous and perhaps, dare I say, crazy and rather daring investigation resulted in funds for improved care and living conditions.
The introduction of the 75-page book begins with this quote: “I am happy to be able to state as a result of my visit to the asylum and the exposures consequent thereon, that the City of New York has appropriated $1,000,000 more per annum than ever before for the care of the insane. So I have at least the satisfaction of knowing that the poor unfortunates will be the better cared for because of my work.”
According to the book, she put on quite a show for everyone involved in deeming her sufficiently insane to go to Bellevue as a first stop. By the time she entered Blackwell's Island Lunatic Asylum where there were supposedly 1600 women, she began to feel the effects of poor treatment such as mild starvation (being served “slightly spoiled” food in small portions, and only meats, starches, broth and grains, all grotesquely prepared). Bath time was akin to almost drowning in freezing cold water and sleeping in itchy woolen blankets in rooms without much (if any) heat. Some patients were beaten; others choked and bruised from severe handprints.
Bly was perhaps the first woman journalist to conduct undercover investigations such as this before women were permitted to vote, and this wasn’t her only one. However, it was likely her most challenging one.
From the book comes the following passage that sounds more like a movie than reality:
"Who are they?" I asked of a patient near me.
"They are considered the most violent on the island," she replied. "They are from the Lodge, the first building with the high steps." Some were yelling, some were cursing, others were singing or praying or preaching, as the fancy struck them, and they made up the most miserable collection of humanity I had ever seen. As the din of their passing faded in the distance there came another sight I can never forget:
A long cable rope fastened to wide leather belts, and these belts locked around the waists of fifty-two women. At the end of the rope was a heavy iron cart, and in it two women–one nursing a sore foot, another screaming at some nurse, saying: "You beat me and I shall not forget it. You want to kill me," and then she would sob and cry. The women "on the rope," as the patients call it, were each busy on their individual freaks. Some were yelling all the while. One who had blue eyes saw me look at her, and she turned as far as she could, talking and smiling, with that terrible, horrifying look of absolute insanity stamped on her. The doctors might safely judge on her case. The horror of that sight to one who had never been near an insane person before, was something unspeakable.
The longer her investigation went, the less insane she would have to pretend to be. Strangely enough, when she told the doctors she was in fact sane and wanted to be released, they doubted her. That brought her to the point of pointing out the shortcomings of the staff.
"What are you doctors here for?" I asked one, whose name I cannot recall.
"To take care of the patients and test their sanity," he replied.
"Very well," I said. "There are sixteen doctors on this island, and excepting two, I have never seen them pay any attention to the patients. How can a doctor judge a woman's sanity by merely bidding her good morning and refusing to hear her pleas for release? Even the sick ones know it is useless to say anything, for the answer will be that it is their imagination." "Try every test on me," I have urged others, "and tell me am I sane or insane? Try my pulse, my heart, my eyes; ask me to stretch out my arm, to work my fingers, as Dr. Field did at Bellevue, and then tell me if I am sane." They would not heed me, for they thought I raved.
Again I said to one, "You have no right to keep sane people here. I am sane, have always been so and I must insist on a thorough examination or be released. Several of the women here are also sane. Why can't they be free?"
"They are insane," was the reply, "and suffering from delusions."
Bly called the asylum a “human rat trap.” Before being admitted, her plan was to be committed to the most violent wards, but what she experienced in the more common areas convinced her to save her health, her hair (from being pulled out) and mostly, her sanity.
She was finally released to friends with the assistance of a lawyer. After her release, she was summoned to appear before a Grand Jury, who would hear all of her testimony and then conduct their own investigation on the asylum.
The entire book as well as others can be accessed on http://www.nellieblyonline.com/herwriting.