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. —Nellie Bly

Elizabeth Cochrane has a secret.

She isn’t the madwoman with amnesia the doctors and inmates at Blackwell’s Asylum think she is.

In truth, she’s working undercover for the New York World. When the managing editor refuses to hire her because she’s a woman, Elizabeth strikes a deal: in exchange for a job, she’ll impersonate a lunatic to expose a local asylum’s abuses.

When she arrives at the asylum, Elizabeth realizes she must make a decision—is she there merely to bear witness, or to intervene on behalf of the abused inmates? Can she interfere without blowing her cover? As the superintendent of the asylum grows increasingly suspicious, Elizabeth knows her scheme—and her dream of becoming a journalist in New York—is in jeopardy.

A Feigned Madness is a meticulously researched, fictionalized account of the woman who would come to be known as daredevil reporter Nellie Bly. At a time of cutthroat journalism, when newspapers battled for readers at any cost, Bly emerged as one of the first to break through the gender barrier—a woman who would, through her daring exploits, forge a trail for women fighting for their place in the world.

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Nelly Bly from The Irish Times


A Feigned Madness


Nellie and her female companions are on their way to the ferry bound for Blackwell’s Island…

The day was gray and raw. It had rained overnight. Wet leaves littered the flagstones, the smell of damp earth sharp in the air. How was it the weather had been so glorious just days ago, when I’d walked with Fannie and Viola in Central Park? How the space of a few days had changed things. I was no longer an independent woman working as a newspaper correspondent but a madwoman bound for an asylum.

I was first into the wagon, the attendant pushing me through the door with a mighty shove. I landed in a tangle of skirts on the bench opposite with my valise in my lap. I moved down to allow the others room. Once my companions were all inside, I assumed we would set off and at least have the privacy of a short drive to collect our thoughts. Instead, one of the men climbed in after, clutching a folder. How I would have liked to have a look at the paperwork tucked inside, but I was thwarted from thinking on it further when the door was slammed shut from the outside. The sound of the bolt sliding home was a loud, metallic bang that seemed to go off in my head. With a whistle from the driver, the horses lurched forward. The sickening sweet smell of whiskey quickly permeated the air in the wagon. Apparently, the job of a Bellevue attendant did not require sobriety. Nor did it require cleanliness; the beast was in bad need of a bath and a shave. His beige overcoat was stained with dirt that no amount of laundering would ever banish. I tucked my nose into the collar of my coat and sank deeper into the corner.

Through the windows on either side, I could see that we were moving in a wide arc around the grounds, slipping in ruts the rain had pounded to mud. We passed the main compound, and then, quite suddenly, the main gate loomed large. Two men stood on either side, and as soon as we passed through, I heard the great iron doors groan closed. The wharf was a short distance away, on the other side of the broad avenue that fronted the river. After a few turns, we came to an abrupt halt near the water.

The bolt was thrown back and the wagon door swung open, admitting the foul odor of filthy sea water and decaying fish. A policeman glanced inside, giving the attendant a curt nod. I wrapped my shawl around my head, fearful even now that I might still be recognized. I waited for the other women to get out. When at last my turn came, I stuck my head out of the wagon and felt the firm grip of the attendant’s hand on my arm. I threw him a look of loathing and shook him off. Though it was not easy to disengage myself from the wagon with my skirts, I preferred it to his brutal manhandling. My boots sank into mud as soon as they touched down. Light rain and a brisk wind bit at my face as I turned to the water, a churning blue-black mass that stretched for less than a mile to Queens. To the left, somewhere upriver, lay Blackwell’s.

A cluster of people stood near the shoreline. More curious onlookers, hungry for a glimpse of ill-fated creatures worse off than themselves. When it was clear no other inmates were withdrawing from the wagon, they began to press closer, and the uniformed officer moved to block their way.

“Ah, come on, let us have a proper look!” someone shouted.

“There’ll be none ‘o that now,” the policemen shot back in a thick Irish accent. “Ye make trouble, and ye’ll be going over the river too.”

“There’s no harm in looking,” another called.

“Long as that’s all ye do,” the policeman replied.

My companions and I walked single file down the bank and onto the dock. At the end, a small, shabby-looking ferry bobbed in the water, connected to the dock by a weathered plank. One by one, my companions disappeared into the interior. I took one fleeting look behind me and saw the pale faces of the men, women, and children who had come to witness our departure, a motley group dressed poorly, wearing the hard expressions of those who had not lived easy lives. Like the crowd at the police court, not one face held a shred of sympathy.

I was not prepared for the darkness or the stench that awaited me when I entered the cabin. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, I discerned two women on either side of the entrance clad in nurses’ caps. My four companions had taken a seat on a low bench. There was no other place to sit. In the wan light coming through the windows, I made out a small makeshift bed in the corner. An old woman with wild gray hair and what looked to be a basket filled with bread and scraps of meat stood next to it, staring into space. I stepped farther inside and heard a moan. There, under the filthy blankets of the bed, lay a young girl. She moved her head from side to side and moaned again, and the motion brought the scent of musty linen, body odor, and urine to my nose. I forced my eyes shut to subdue the bile rising in my throat and stepped away.

Just then, the brawny attendant entered the cabin and thrust the folder at one of the nurses.

“They give you any trouble?” the shorter of the two asked.

“Nah, but that ‘un there,” he pointed at me, “she’s got some spirit. Keep any eye, mind.” He turned his fearsome gaze on me, his beady eyes full of malice. “You’ll get your come-down soon enough where you’re going. In the meantime, they ain’t above throwing you in the drink to dampen your temper.”

The low rumble in his throat must have been laughter, for the nurses joined him.

“Remember that scrawny git bound for the workhouse?” the short nurse said. “All high and mighty, mouthing off about there bein’ no way she was goner abide in a place like that?” She slapped her hip in glee. “We threw her in and let her flail, and by the time we fished ‘er out, she was ‘bout as lively as a dead cat.”

Their laughter continued until there was a shout from the captain and the engine sputtered to life. With a nod and one last glowering look at me, the attendant darted out the door.

I heard the plank come up and shortly thereafter felt the boat sway as we moved off from shore. Mrs. Shanz started to stand to look out a window but froze when one of the nurses, the tallest of the two, pointed a finger at her and said sharply, “You can sit yourself down now, missy. There ain’t no standing unless there’s no seat for you to sit.”

Mrs. Shanz looked at Mrs. Fox, a question in her eyes. Mrs. Fox tugged on her sleeve and padded the bench. Mrs. Shanz resumed her seat and lowered her gaze.

If not for the caps they wore, I would have mistaken our chaperones for convicts or lunatics themselves. Both were cut from the same mold: coarse-looking, sharp-featured, and unkempt. They were bundled in shabby coats, below which peeked sodden skirts that wanted mending. Suddenly, the tallest of the two made a low sound in her throat and expectorated tobacco juice. I had never seen the like. The brown glob landed in the middle of the cabin floor amongst what could only be its cohorts.

Through the window on the far side of the cabin, the East River churned under an angry sky. Across the water, the low buildings and docks of Hunters Point slid into view. When we had advanced another mile or so, a jut of land appeared. A self-contained island all its own. Blackwell’s. On its southernmost tip rose a grand-looking multistoried building with a mansard roof. The ferry approached a dock a minute later, and the shorter nurse scurried out to lower the plank. The other hauled the wild-haired woman with the basket from the cabin.

When the first nurse returned, she bent over the girl on the bed. “Get up! Get up now ye lazy cur.” She slapped the girl twice. There was no response. It took all my resolve to remain silent and not reprimand the nurse for behaving so cruelly to a poor, sick girl. Anne and I exchanged glances. I saw in her eyes the same question I had: was this treatment what awaited us at the asylum?

Just then, the other nurse returned, and together, both women pulled the girl from the bed. Her feet were bare and black on the bottom, and she wore only a thin, ragged dress. Oh, the stench that arose when the girl stirred. I covered my nose with my hand and watched the nurses wrap each of the girl’s thin, wasted arms around their necks and drag her from the cabin.

I approached the window, using my glove to rub a clear spot in the glass. We were docked on the southwest side of the island. The two women who had left us must be headed for the charity hospital, the mansard-roofed structure that sat resolutely in the rain. In the near distance, I saw the nurses carrying the girl up a walk toward the building. Perhaps she would get the care here she needed. Or was I being a fool? Blackwell’s Island wasn’t known as a place of rest and healing, of sanctuary and hope. It was where the sick, poor, mad, and criminal were sent, many for the rest of their lives, and I had contrived to come here. I swallowed, my mouth suddenly dry. Do not put yourself at risk for the World Elizabeth. I beg you. I shook my head, trying to banish the words, the image of McCain’s hand on my arm.

Ten days. A little more than a week. I could do it. I had to.

A few minutes later, the nurses returned, and soon we were moving again, the ferry lurching and bringing forth more fetid odors from the sea. Just beyond the charity hospital, a long brick structure came into view. This castle-like beast, with its crenellations and towers, was the penitentiary. So vast were its wings that it seemed an age before it disappeared from view. For the next several minutes, there was only wild brush and trees with brief glimpses of lower buildings beyond: the men and women’s almshouses, most likely, where the disabled or those otherwise unable to work were housed. Then, suddenly, another large building loomed, longer even than the penitentiary: the workhouse, a place where, it was said, thousands of men were incarcerated for petty crimes, living out shorter sentences than those housed within the penitentiary.

With each new sighting, my dread grew, dread that manifested itself as an ever-tightening knot in my stomach. My companions exchanged wary glances, and then they, all of them, looked at me. What did they expect me to do? Give them an encouraging smile? I, the woman who had lied her way to Blackwell’s? I had not come to make friends. Their situations were no concern of mine. I had come to observe, to fool everyone for the sake of a job. It was as simple as that.

My last glimpse out the window before we docked was of a distant circular tower partially obscured by trees. As we neared the shore, however, it was eclipsed by other trees and scrub along the beach. I felt the ferry slow. We had reached our destination . . .

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