American Horror Story fans are familiar with the undercover female journalist Nellie Bly, even if they don't know her name. That's because her experience in an asylum provided the basis for Sarah Paulson's character Lana Winters from American Horror Story: Asylum. Although the show's writers changed some of the details of this real-life story for dramatic purposes, Bly truly did pretend to be insane in order to spend ten days in a madhouse. The things she discovered during this brief time period eventually led to mental health care changes nationwide.
Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, this dedicated journalist wrote under the pen name of Nellie Bly. She also contributed much more to the world than her undercover expose of Blackwell Island's Women's Lunatic Asylum. Bly used her words to fight for women's rights, and she also took a record-breaking trip around the world. Bly's journalism career started in 1885 after she responded to a misogynistic newspaper column entitled What Girls Are Good For. She received $5 a week, which is the equivalent of approximately $122 a week today. The highlight of her career, the 17-part Women's Lunatic Asylum expose, ran in the New York World in 1887 and later became a book.
The cruelty at the Women's Insane Asylum became famous after Nellie Bly published her exposé. Not only were patients forced to eat rotten food and endure ice cold baths but they often faced physical and mental abuse from staff members for the slightest perceived infraction. Some patients lost their food privileges and nearly starved to death. Uncaring nurses beat and choked others, especially those considered "violent." Bly's plans originally included getting transferred into the ward with violent prisoners. She changed her mind after learning how badly nurses treated them.
The deplorable conditions that greeted Bly at the asylum were shocking, to say the least. There were dead rats everywhere, and patients received rancid food and dirty water. The dining area contained feces and other filth all over the walls. Baths were ice cold, and showers consisted of dumping a bucket of ice cold water over the patient's head. People considered to be dangerous were usually tied together. Patients also weren't allowed to get a good night's sleep.
Bath time was one of the worst things that Bly experienced at the asylum. After following patients into a communal bathing room, staff members ordered them to strip. When Bly refused, they forcibly stripped her down to her underwear. At this point, Bly firmly stated, "I will not remove it." Her protests didn't matter, though, as she soon found herself completely naked in front of a group of onlookers. She attempted to take refuge in the bathtub, only to find that the water was ice cold.
From the moment Nellie Bly was under the asylum's so-called care, she began to experience how horrifically medical professionals treated those with a mental illness. For example, staff members prevented her from ever getting a good night's sleep. They walked loudly through the halls, stomping and talking every 30 minutes. The asylum was also filled past capacity, which might explain why there were even beds outside. During Bly's 10 days in the asylum, she never got more than 30 minutes of sleep at a time. Imagine having that be your reality for several years or even decades; that's exactly what long-term patients had to endure. Today, there are still some prison inmates forced to suffer from the same prolonged sleep deprivation.