Ten Days a Madwoman by Deborah Noyes

Book jacket with title and blue tinted photo of Nellie BlyTen Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter: Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes (2016)

A charming and beautifully designed book that gives the high points of Nellie Bly’s life and unfortunately premature death from pneumonia at age 52. It was especially interesting to me, having lived in Queens across from Roosevelt’s Island (unrecognizable to me today with the massive development in the 20 years since I was there). This island was the location of the horrific Blackwell Sanatorium for mentally ill, who, of course, especially with women I am sure, were as likely to be sane as not; especially when they had rich relatives who wanted them away.The brutality of the treatments she documented were as bad as the notorious Bedlam I suspect. Cruel and thuggish nurses torturing the patients, starving them, depriving them of everything even the right to speak to each other or do something other than sit rigidly on a bench for 10 hours or more a day. Held underwater in cold water tubs for sport, and sent to miserable excuses of beds. And then, being told, since it was charity, she had no right to complain.

That pretty much sums up the American attitude to the poor and unfortunate. Of course it took her nearly no effort really to pass as mentally ill enough to warrant her incarceration. The pity was that even after she clearly behaved and spoke that she was sane (as she believed numerous other women were as well, at least before confinement) they just laughed at her and said she’d never get out.

Though the situation in mental facilities was horrific everywhere, and had been reported on previously, I think this was the first undercover reporter stunt. Thankfully she was sane enough to avoid being beaten to death or other catastrophes before she was gotten out by her newspaper editor.

She is also probably most famously known for her solo trip around the world to beat Jules Verne’s fictional character to do so. And to my delight, she also had the chance to actually meet with him and his wife despite the pressure of the time to continue on because unbeknownst to her, a competitor newspaper had also sent a “girl reporter” to do the same but from the opposite direction. Nellie learned of it towards the end of her journey and so kept up the pace, and did get home first.

The book is a good read, has a nice bibliography and webliography, plus numerous illustrations and photographs from the period. I enjoyed the various sidebar context supplement columns and pages in particular. What I dearly wished for though was some more appendix material like a family tree showing all her family that she worked so hard to care for and a little bit more on her marriage to a 70 year old rich man after knowing him for two weeks, who eventually left her his Ironclad business only to have $2 million scammed by untrustworthy employees – you’d think someone who had seen the cruelty of others and unscrupulousness of Tammany Hall would have been more suspicious, but she couldn’t even trust her own brother. [As is often the case; family is no safeguard against sociopaths and plain greed.]

A few more appendices of some of the actual stories, or parts of them, would have been nice, but I suspect some may be cited in the notes or available via her “webliography” (clever name!). For example, her interview with Emma Goldman would be fascinating as it was contemporaneous. Also, she did a piece on contraception, so that would be intriguing given that I think the Comstock Laws were still in effect so not sure how one could even put something in print about it. She interviewed Susan B. Anthony during a Suffrage Convention. She went to cover the famous Pullman Strike, taking a different approach by talking to the wives and families; she originally expected to criticize the strikers but soon flipped sides when she saw first hand that they were paid poorly and coerced into paying high rent in the Pullman village where the employees were required to work.

She was very good at pursuing muckracking journalism but also had to continue to do the “stunt” journalism that became somewhat tedious because it was not the real reporting they wished to be assigned. It somewhat demeaned the women, rather like the famous Samuel Johnson negative comment comparing women to dogs:

53. Dog walking on his hind legs; Expectations; Pioneers; Women preaching
I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach.Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
Boswell: Life
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