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Historical Badass Elizabeth Cochran Faked Mental Illness to Report Atrocities at Insane Asylum

In January of 1885, Elizabeth Jane Cochran read an article published in editorial in The Pittsburgh Dispatch entitled What Girls Are Good For” by Erasmus Wilson. In the article, Wilson suggested that women belonged in the home and should stick to domestic tasks. He went on to call women who attempted to get an education a “monstrosity” and alluded to China’s then-policy of killing baby girls, saying this may be a way to save women from the misfortune of their allegedly inevitable fate. Cochran was outraged by this and responded with a letter signed “Lonely Orphan Girl.”

In this fierce and brilliant letter, Cochran highlighted the abilities and possibilities that could come from young women and said that society was at fault for their inability to succeed, not a reflection of their lack of skills or purpose. She spoke specifically of what could be achieved by poorer women, those “without talent, without beauty, without money.”

At the end of the letter she wrote: “Instead of gathering up the ‘real smart, young men’ gather up the real, smart girls, pull them out of the mire, give them a shove up the ladder of life, and be amply repaid both by their success and unforgetfulness of those that held out the helping hand.”

This response impressed the managing editor George Madden, and he asked the “Lonely Orphan Girl” to reveal herself and soon hired Cochran for The Pittsburgh Dispatch under the pen name “Nellie Bly.” Cochran wrote opinion pieces about poor single mothers and called out the “butterflies of fashions, ladies of leisure” for not furthering the plight of women less fortunate than they. This began her incredible and pioneering career, which led her to change the lives of many and change the minds of many more.

In 1887, while working at The New York World, Cochran feigned mental illness to get herself committed to one of New York’s most notorious mental institutions, Blackwell’s Island. While reports of abuse had been made, no one had gone this far to really expose the horrific conditions of the institution. Even though she “dropped her crazy act” when she was committed, her sanity was questioned even more because of it.

Cochran wrote: “The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there, it is impossible to get out.”

In her 10 days at Blackwell’s, Cochran experienced atrocious conditions including “oblivious doctors” and “coarse, massive” orderlies who “choked, beat and harassed” patients, and “expectorated tobacco juice about on the floor in a manner more skillful than charming.” She cited the plights of poor women who could not speak English and were only admitted because they failed to be understood. And for those who did need help, it seemed that none was available.

Cochran was fed rotting meat, old bread and dirty water for meals and was subjected to ice baths, which she described as “the sensation of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub.” Stating that “for once I did look insane.”

After 10 days of witnessing the abuse at the institution, Cochran’s lawyer was able to get her out. Two days later, the first installment about her experience was released titled Behind Asylum Bars, making her famous overnight. Cochran’s ability to recall and write so eloquently about her experience at Blackwell’s got the public’s attention and showed the institution for the awful place it truly was.

She wrote, “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? … Take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

Because of Cochran’s story, the institution was forced to make changes to the way it was run, and the government funneled $1,000,000 more than ever before to help those with mental illness. When Cochran returned with grand jury panel to Blackwell’s, she wrote that many of the problems she had reported had been corrected, including the food and sanitation, the women committed just for speaking a foreign language, and many of the tyrannical orderlies.

Cochran wrote a book on this experience titled Ten Days In A Madhouse, which documented her full experiences, and she was since known as one of the greatest investigative reporters. She went on to continue focusing on poverty and politics, even writing a story titled Around The World in 72 Days, where she wrote about accomplishing just that.

Elizabeth Cochran gave a voice to those with none by putting herself in harm’s way to get the truth. She consistently pushed boundaries for women and for herself, showing the world that women can do everything and anything they put their minds to. Cochran is now recognized in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

As Cochran once said, Energy rightly applied can accomplish anything.”

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