Ten Days in a Mad-House
There aren’t many historical figures I want to fangirl over, but Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman 1864 – 1922) makes the list. An American reporter, she pursued investigative stories at a time when women were doomed to penning fluff pieces. Bly soon tired of the society pages and insisted on challenging subjects. Danger was no deterrent – among other assignments, she covered the European Eastern Front during WWI.
Around 2019, I read Ten Days in a Mad-House, Bly’s expose of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She got herself committed and posed as one of the female inmates to discover what went on inside. Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty. Her revelations of abusive living conditions and the casual cruelty of asylum officials shocked the New York public of 1887. Eventually, it led to reforms at the asylum. Her steady, detailed narrative stands up today as readable reporting.
I returned to Bly’s story in my research of Victorian-era asylums. When I learned there was a film adaptation, I quickly found it on Hoopla. Timothy Hines wrote and directed this 2015 production (10 Days in a Madhouse). Caroline Barry is charming as Nellie, but I question her chirpiness in places. And unfortunately, where the true story is dark enough, the movie gilds the lily in places. As a result, the tone comes out as spunky and sordid at the same time, making me wonder what audience they were aiming for.
That said, the movie worked well enough as a recap. The unsanitary conditions, bad food, inadequate heating, and casual cruelty are all part of the original. So is the maddening truth that institutions silenced the inconvenient far more often than they cured them.
Unruly women were deemed most inconvenient indeed.