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American Quarterly 54.2 (2002) 217-253
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Into the Madhouse with Nellie Bly:
Girl Stunt Reporting in Late Nineteenth-Century America
Jean Marie Lutes
In 1887, after months of rejection from editors who refused to consider hiring a woman, aspiring journalist Nellie Bly finagled a meeting with the New York World's managing editor. 1 Determined to make the most of her chance, she offered to travel to Europe and return steerage class, to report first-hand on the experiences of the immigrants coming to the United States in record numbers. The editor rejected the idea as too far-flung for an inexperienced reporter but asked instead if she would feign insanity and have herself committed to the infamous insane asylum on Blackwell's Island, home to most of the city's prisons, charity hospitals, and workhouses. 2 The assignment was more local but scarcely less risky. In contrast to better-funded institutions patronized by the middle and upper classes, the conditions at the Blackwell's Island asylum were notoriously poor. It provided cheap custodial care for impoverished mentally ill immigrants. Nevertheless, Bly eagerly accepted the assignment.
It was a brilliant move. Her madhouse performance inaugurated the performative tactic that would become her trademark reporting style. With little formal education, no professional training as a journalist,and no credentials in any specialized field, Bly lacked virtually all of the commonly accepted qualifications for professional status in late nineteenth-century America. 3 Yet she transformed her amateurism from liability to asset, countering bureaucratic and scientific authority with her own truths based on physical sensation. In an era that embraced [End Page 217] scientific experts with furious optimism, Bly's reportage exulted in the concrete specifics of one individual's experience and scorned the relative abstraction of disinterested observation. By adopting the hysteric's hyperfemale, hyperexpressive body, she created her own story and claimed the right to tell it in her own way. Moreover, impersonating insanity allowed her to flaunt the very characteristics that were being used to bar women from city newsrooms: her femaleness, her emotional expressiveness, her physical—even her explicitly sexual—vulnerability. The first article in her "Ten Days in a Madhouse" series attracted so much attention that Bly's name appeared not just as a byline but in the headline of the next installment. The headlines of her subsequent stories followed the same pattern: "The Girls Who Make Boxes: Nellie Bly Tells How It Feels to Be a White Slave"; "Nellie Bly as a Mesmerist"; "Visiting the Dispensaries: Nelly [sic] Bly Narrowly Escapes Having Her Tonsils Amputated"; "Trying to be a Servant: Nellie Bly's Strange Experience"; "Nellie Bly in Pullman: She Visits the Homes of Poverty in the 'Model Workingman's Town.'" 4
The first and best of the gutsy late-nineteenth-century journalists known as "girl stunt reporters," Bly became a national phenomenon during a formative moment in American mass culture.Her success at masquerading as a hysteric—and later, as a succession of other marginalized women, from factory workers to chorus girls —inspired so many imitators that girl stunt reporting became a recognizable genre in the popular press of the late 1880s and early 1890s. 5 Stunt reporters visited opium dens, joined workers who rolled tobacco for cigarettes, went begging on the streets in rags, sought illegal abortions, and fainted on the street to gain admittance to public hospitals. One even raced Bly around the world in 1890. 6 Meanwhile, Bly's name became synonymous with adventurous newswomen from the Atlantic seaboard to the West Coast. The San Francisco Examiner's Annie Laurie was frequently compared to Bly, while the St. Louis Republican's Ada Patterson was christened "the Nellie Bly of the West." 7
Despite their popularity, these news narratives have been neglected by literary histories of the late nineteenth century, which typically portray the American newsroom as a singularly masculine bastion that enabled male realist and naturalist writers to resist the perceived feminization of American literature. The recent burst of scholarly interest in turn-of...