Fear, Abuse and Neglect: Behind the Walls of Insane Asylums | by Alema Ljuca | March 2022
The hidden face of psychiatric institutions.
JToday, mental health is a widely recognized and discussed topic, but in the past, that was not the case. Only a century ago, any type of mental illness was stigmatized and those who suffered from it were shunned from society and placed in lunatic asylums (also called lunatic asylums).
However, it was not so uncommon for horror stories to come out of such institutions and cause a scandal. That’s why journalist Nellie Bly went undercover in an insane asylum in September 1887. After her release, she published her horrific findings and experience in a book called “Ten days in a madhouse.”
Nellie Bly chose Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum in New York. After she and her publisher made preparations for the “mission”, Nellie went to a women’s boarding house, acted insane, and was sent to an insane asylum. She listed “Brown” as her last name.
Once inside, Nellie didn’t pretend to be mad. She spoke and behaved normally, but to her surprise, the more normal she acted, the crazier she was perceived by doctors and nurses. One doctor even described her as “positively demented”.
On her first night at Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum, Nellie was given a long, thin dress, her clothes were tagged and taken away, and she was placed in an extremely cold room with locked windows. Her bed was hard with a lump in the middle, and the reporter stayed up all night because the nurses’ chatter and stomping was so loud.
The next morning, at 6 a.m., the nurses pulled the covers off Nellie’s bed and told her to wake up. At 7 a.m., he was given cold chicken broth. Then a doctor came to examine the women in the room and noticed that it was so cold that they could all catch pneumonia. But the nurses replied that it is a rule in the establishment that the heating is only turned on in October and which the patients must endure.
Later that day, Nellie met Tillie Mayard, whom she described as an intelligent and sane woman. When Nellie asked Mayard why she was in the insane asylum, the woman explained how she suffered from nervous debility and was not insane. Mayard begged the doctors to give her insanity tests, but no one listened. She then concluded:
“…as we have been sent here, we will have to keep quiet until we find a way to escape. They will be few, however, if all doctors, like Dr. Field, refuse to listen to me or give me a chance to prove that I am sane.
After lunch it was time to work. Contrary to what most thought, it was the patients, not the staff, who kept the facility clean. They made the beds, mopped the floors, washed the clothes and even cleaned the nurses’ rooms.
At dinner time, women lined up for food, and those who got out of line were beaten on the head by the nurses. Nellie was given bread, butter, prunes and diluted tea. Then it was bath time which the women only got once a week.
Nellie was stripped against her will, scrubbed and rinsed with ice cold water. When she looked around, she saw that other patients were blue from the cold. Maynard, who was protesting such treatment, was told by the nurses: “There’s not much fear of hurting yourself. Shut up, or you’ll make things worse.
The women were then escorted to their rooms and the doors were locked. That night, Nellie listened to the cries of women complaining of the unbearable cold and begging for a sip of water. But the nurses didn’t give them blankets or anything to drink.
The next day, Nellie had an exam with a doctor, and when she asked for his book and pen to remember the things he had told her, the nurses said: “You can’t have it, so shut up.” After not having lunch because the meat in the soup was spoiled, Nellie and the other patients were escorted for a walk outside.
In the backyard of the establishment, the journalist saw women from the violent district walking with a rope attached to their belts. One of them was crying and shouting to a nurse: “You beat me and I won’t forget it. You want to kill me.”
However, the beatings weren’t just for the violent neighborhood. Nellie discovered this when she met Bridget McGuinness, who told her the following:
“The beatings I received were terrible. I was pulled by my hair, held under water until I choked, and I was choked and kicked. The nurses always kept a silent patient posted at the window to let them know when one of the doctors was approaching. It was hopeless to complain to the doctors, because they always said it was the imagination of our diseased brains, and besides we got another beating for saying so. They held patients underwater and threatened to leave them there to die if they did not promise not to tell the doctors. We would all promise because we knew the doctors wouldn’t help us and we would do anything to escape punishment.
Over the next few days, a young girl recovering from a cold is brought to the institution. She complained about the filth of the place and the cruelty with which she was treated, so one night the nurses beat her, stripped her and held her under cold running water. After the ordeal, the girl was brought back to the room. The next morning she was dead and seizures were listed as the cause of her death.
Another young woman called Urena Little-Page was teased by the nurses until she started crying. Then the nurses told her to be quiet, and when she didn’t, they slapped her, which made the young woman cry even harder. This time the nurses started to choke her and dragged her. They came back a few hours later and Urena had fingerprints around her neck.
That same day, an older woman who always spoke to herself in a low voice was abducted by the nurses who wanted her to be quiet. As they dragged her by the hair, the woman cried: “For God’s sake, ladies, don’t let them beat me.”
A few days later, another patient shared her experience with Nellie:
“For crying, the nurses beat me with a broomstick and jumped on me. Then they tied my hands and feet, and threw a sheet over my head, wrapped it tightly around my throat, so that I couldn’t scream, and thus put me in a bathtub. filled with cold water. They held me until I gave up hope and went insane.
After ten days in the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island, Nellie Bly testified before a grand jury about the inhumane treatment at the institution. She also reflected on her experience in her book:
“… take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, silence her and make her sit from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on straight benches, do not allow her to speak or move during those hours, give her no readings and tell her nothing of the world or her deeds, give her bad food and harsh treatments, and see how long it will take to drive her crazy. she a mental and physical wreck.
“I left the lunatic service with pleasure and regret – pleasure to have been able to enjoy the free breath of heaven again; I regret that I could not bring with me some of the unfortunate women who have lived and suffered with me and who, I am convinced, are just as sane as myself.