Blackwell’s Island Asylum: “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”

Blackwell's Island Asylum

Blackwell’s Island Asylum: “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”

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Elizabeth Cochran’s Heroic Actions to Expose Corruption at Blackwell’s Island Women’s Asylum

By Paulette Mahurin

The Blackwell’s Island Asylum was the first civic mental hospital in the city of New York. Starting in the early 1830s, it was established to take care of the large number of indigent insane. Within the first decade of its opening, conditions were described by some of the staff to the commissioners in charge as “a miserable refuge.”

Despite constructing a new building in an attempt to improve conditions, the patients’ living environment remained substandard as evidenced by inadequate nutrition, numerous outbreaks of disease, and the use of convicts from Blackwell’s Island Prison as attendants to curtail costs.

The asylum’s large census was a result of its use as cheap custodial care to house insane immigrants. It also became a warehouse for disposable citizens who were not insane. A powerful or wealthy married man who wanted to dispose of an inconvenient mistress could easily arrange for her to be deemed a lunatic by the necessary doctors and sent to the asylum. Women who were regarded as troublesome or spoke a foreign language, etc. and stuck in the craw of the police were also treated like refuse to be dumped on Blackwell’s Island. For these victims, transport across the East River was a one-way ticket.

Lounging, Listless, Madhouse Air

Blackwell's Island Asylum inmates
Blackwell’s Island Asylum inmates

When Charles Dickens visited the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in the 1840s he wrote, “…everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful. The moping idiot, cowering down with long disheveled hair; the gibbering maniac, with her hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror.”

By 1866, the asylum had grown to several buildings. Patients were housed in a building with a wing for men and a wing for women. These two wings were separated by spaces used for physicians’ apartments, offices, and parlors. Women patients outnumbered male patients by two to one with conditions continuing to deteriorate.

It was due to these attendant circumstances that the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island became famous when in 1887 a young female undercover reporter (Elizabeth Cochran) entered the hospital pretending to be insane. Her assumed name was Nellie Bly aka Nellie Brown. It was there she verified earlier descriptions of the horrible conditions when she described her torment with rotten food, cruel attendants, and diseased conditions. “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?” she wrote.

Large Scale Investigation

Nellie Bly
Nellie Bly, the mother of investigative journalism

Nellie Bly’s exposé was published in the New York World newspaper soon after her release from the asylum. The article shed light on many of the disturbing conditions at the asylum, including neglect and physical cruelty, spurring a broad-scale investigation of the institution. Significant changes were made in New York City’s Department of Public Charities and Corrections. Included in the changes were a larger allotment of funds for the care of the mentally ill, additional physician appointments for more stringent supervision of the nurses and other healthcare employees, and regulations to end overcrowding.

A month after her series ran, Bly returned to Blackwell’s with a grand jury panel. Nellie saw that many of the abuses she reported had been corrected: the food services and sanitary conditions were improved, the foreign patients had been transferred, and the ruthless nurses were gone.

In my latest novel, A Different Kind of Angel, I recaptured Elizabeth Cochran’s heroic measures to help the women committed, justly and unjustly, to a life sentence in the asylum. It is my effort to shine a light on a little exposed area of suffering in our society, the mentally ill, and in particular vulnerable women.

What are your thoughts on Blackwell’s Island Asylum?  Leave a comment below.

Paulette Mahurin
Paulette Mahurin

Paulette Mahurin is a best-selling literary fiction and historical fiction novelist, and a semi-retired, she continues to work part-time as a nurse practitioner. She lives with her husband Terry and two dogs, Max and Bella, in Ventura County, California.  She is the author of The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap, His Name Was Ben, To Live Out Loud, The Seven Year Dress, The Day I Saw The Hummingbird, and A Different Kind of Angels. When not writing, Paulette does pro-bono consultation work with women with cancer, works in the Westminster Free Clinic as a volunteer provider, volunteers as a mediator in the Ventura County Courthouse for small claims cases, and involves herself, along with her husband, in dog rescue. Profits from her books go to help rescue dogs from kill shelters.

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Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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