Joseph Pulitzer, Nellie Bly, and Changing Attitudes Toward Public Health in 19th Century New York

They didn’t have what I was looking for, exactly. The Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Columbia University’s Butler Library supposedly had a collection of Joseph Pulitzer’s private papers. Pulitzer was a newspaper magnate of the early 20th century, the owner of the paper, The New York World,and founder of the elite journalism school at Columbia. As he was the owner of the newspaper that published investigative journalist Nellie Bly’s 1887 story, “Ten Days in a Madhouse,” I was hoping to find some correspondence between Pultizer and Bly that would paint a picture of the changing perceptions of public and mental health in New York City at the end of the 19th century.

Elizabeth Cochran, aka Nellie Bly, went undercover in 1886 at Blackwell’s Island – now Roosevelt Island – to write about abuses in the women’s asylum there. For decades, Blackwell’s Island, a tiny strip of land located between the boroughs of Queens and Manhattan, was home to  asylums, hospitals, penitentiaries, and almshouses.

I was told that Jenny Lee was the library’s “Pulitzer person,” and waited for her patiently. A woman with white hair and bangs came down the stairs to my right, and introduced herself as Jenny Lee. I told her what I was looking for: anything connecting Joseph Pulitzer to Elizabeth Cochran, aka Nellie Bly.

Lee directed me to one of the desktop computers, and pulled up a digital version of the exhibition she had organized a few months prior, “Joseph Pulitzer and the World.” I clicked through each page, looking at digital copies of letters that Pulitzer himself had written and signed, along with short descriptions of what the surrounding circumstances were for each document. I noticed a pattern: many of the letters and documents included in the exhibition had to do with Pultizer’s illness. He had a detached retina, Lee told me, causing him agony throughout much of his life. In fact, one document showed an $870 charge for a private railway car from Jersey City to Monterey, California, where he had been prescribed a “rest” by his doctors. For scale, a worker in the book and newspaper industry in 1890 would have had to work for 349 days just to make that amount.[1]

This document was from 1888—just one year after Ten Days in a Madhouse was published.

Though it is well-known that many doctors prescribed travel out West where the air was less polluted for their patients to recover from illness, it is striking that the idea of sending people “away” was so prominent at this time, even for the wealthy and sane. However, in practice, the wealthy had options, like a train ride to recover in the clean air of California. As for New York’s poor and unwell, many were forced onto Blackwell’s Island, where conditions were deplorable. “Ten Days in a Madhouse” showed readers just how bad things were.

This fact is even more striking in considering that the reception to “Ten Days in a Madhouse” resulted in increased funding for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections; a clear change in attitudes toward what should be expected of mental health facilities. Though not a perfect parallel, Pulitzer’s trip to California suggests that the shift in attitudes about sending people away to recover from illness took time. This is a crucial component of the shift of Roosevelt Island’s history from being a place of recovery from illness away from the city to what it became starting in 1969: a residential community just outside of Manhattan.

Today, Ten Days in a Madhouse is recognized as an early but significant piece of investigative journalism, made all the more so by the fact that Nellie Bly was a woman, in a time when women were not expected to establish careers, let alone as journalists. But in the years following its publication, The New York World continued to recognize the importance of Ten Days in a Madhouse, and included it in a list of “Conspicuous Features in World Since March 1, 1885”—one of many documents in a collection of manuscripts and documents held in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. As it turns out, this document was held not in the Pulitzer papers, but in The World (New York) Records, 1882-1940. Jennifer Lee found this document, frayed and yellowed from over 130 years of aging, and containing what editors at The New York World considered their most influential pieces published between 1885 and 1887. Among these listings is a feature titled “The Bartholdi Statue Fund,” presumably an article about funding for what would later be known as the Statue of Liberty. The document is three pages long, with 54 features on the list. And Bly’s article is one of them, referred to on the list as “Nellie Bly in Mad House,” with the following columns listing “Suggested by Colonel C.” and “Secured by Nellie Bly.”

I confirmed with Lee that “secured by” means “edited by,” though the identity of Colonel C. is still a mystery.

The New York World thus recognized the importance of Bly’s work, and that it exposed the mistreatment of patients at the New York Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. It gained sympathy from readers, and eventually led to legislation that would protect patients in these hospitals. Though Blackwell’s Island would not be reconfigured for another 70 years,  a start had been made toward putting an end to treatment by simply sending people with mental illness away from society.


[1] Long, Clarence D. “Wages by Occupational and Individual Characteristics.” Wages and Earnings in the United States, 1860-1890. (1960): 94-108.

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