Go back a couple hundred years and you will find a health service that is worlds away from what we have today. Once upon a time, hospitals and care wards were an overlooked part of society and those who had to live their lives within them suffered a great deal as a result. Thanks to one woman, however, everything was due to change. Nellie Bly shone the light on the state of mental hospitals, revealing the nightmare that had been hidden behind the doors.
Working as an undercover journalist, Nellie Bly was used to playing the part to get to the truth. When it came to getting to the heart of the 19th century mental hospital, Bly used her existing skills to get behind closed doors. After hearing nasty rumors of Blackwell Island Women’s Lunatic Asylum, Bly acted her way in to get a closer look. Dressing herself in rags, she booked a night in a dormitory in hysterics and was later detained by police. After being declared insane, Bly was promptly shipped to the asylum where she began her investigation.
After being in the hospital for a matter of hours, however, Bly knew how bad it was. Despite her efforts to reveal her false identity, her efforts fell on closed ears, seeming only to cement the fact that she was insane to medical staff. She was locked into a damp cell with others patients and left to wait on a rotting bench, unsure of what would await her over the coming days and weeks.
The staff were surely the worst thing about the place. Not only were cellmates prevented from talking for set hours during the day but also, they would be beaten if they disobeyed the rules. On talking to the other women, Bly discovered that some were behind bars simply because they couldn’t speak English. The hospital was practically impenetrable; say nothing and you were left behind bars, insist on your innocence and you were left behind bars. There was an easy way in and no apparent way out, even for the mentally sane.
The unsanitary conditions of the hospital could be found throughout; each sheet was covered in stains from years before, left to fester over time. Bathing practices didn’t bring much comfort, either, with each guest doused in ice cold water each day in an effort to clean off the grime. Bly discovered time and again how patients were treated more like animals, refused the most basic of human rights.
For Bly, however, things would only last for a short period of time. After being discovered by another reporter who was visiting the hospital, Bly was soon freed from her position in the asylum on request by an attorney. Just two days after being released from the asylum, she had written her piece which was published in a New York City newspaper, uncovering the truth once and for all.
Bly’s article pushed the problem into the clear light of day and before long, asylums underwent an intensive overhaul. The budget for Blackwell Island was doubled and abusive staff were promptly let go. Sanitation became a top priority, immigrants were released and staff were much more gentle. Thanks to Bly’s investigation, hospitals like this changed forever, altering the lives of hundreds of people for the better.