The Fear Blog is being taken over this week by author Kate Braithwaite! Author of the bestselling novel ‘The Girl Puzzle’, she knows a thing or two about fear…..
Nellie Bly, Journalist: Feeling the fear and doing it anyway
I think most women know the fear of being followed. We’ve been out late at night and walked alone down a dark street alert to every sound. We’ve scrutinize every shadow, clutched at our phones in our pockets, measured the distance between street lights, listened out for footsteps, and held our breath at passing cars, dreading that one might slow down and stop.
Very early on in my novel The Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly, the main character is followed and attacked on a quiet street at night. It’s September 1887, and Elizabeth Cochrane, a twenty-three year old journalist, later known by her pen name, Nellie Bly, is on the verge of abandoning her dream of working for one of the big New York City newspapers. No editor is prepared to hire a woman. Journalism, they say, is man’s work. When Elizabeth fends off her attacker and escapes to the safety of her boarding house, she’s unhurt, but has lost her purse and all her money. The theft prompts her to make one last attempt to gain a job at the New York World. She talks her way into seeing Joseph Pulitzer and he agrees to give her work… but only if she can fake madness, get herself committed to Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum, and report on conditions from the inside. Most people would think twice. But most people, she was not.
Although The Girl Puzzle is a novel, it’s heavily based in fact. Elizabeth Cochrane was a real person, born in Pennsylvania in 1864. The newspaper world didn’t welcome women journalists and she really did have to prove herself by spending ten days in a madhouse. When she was released she wrote two major newspaper articles about the experience and became an overnight sensation. She described the conditions, the overcrowding, the poor food, the inadequate doctors and cruel nurses, and undermined public confidence in the asylum system. How could a sane person so easily have fooled doctors and judges? Who else might be incarcerated by mistake? And what kind of society looked after its people in such a fashion?
What she didn’t reveal in those articles, however, is the very real fear she must have experienced— and that was my impetus for writing The Girl Puzzle, with dual stories of her asylum adventure and her return to New York after World War I. Nellie Bly had an extraordinary life, and the starting point was this incredibly risky decision, taken at just twenty-three years old. Just imagine what she went through…
For one thing, she put her faith in the word of two newspaper men, that if she got in, they would get her out. She barely knew them, and her plan to get committed involved convincing a judge that she was insane. She fooled doctors at New York’s Bellevue Hospital too, convincing them that she should be shipped over to Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt’s Island) in the East River and locked up indefinitely. There was no agreement as to how long they would leave her there. She must have felt rescue could come any minute… or never.
Then there were the physical risks of entering the asylum. “With all my bravery,” she wrote, “I felt a chill at the prospect of being shut up with a fellow-creature who was really insane.” Small and slight, Elizabeth was no match for many of the women in Blackwell’s Asylum, some of whom were roped together to keep them under control on daily walks around the island. The nurses were also a threat. Uneducated and poorly paid, faced with overcrowded rooms of distressed women, they often resorted to physical means to keep the inmates cowed and quiet. Like any other new patient, Elizabeth was stripped of her own clothes, publicly washed from head to toe. Nighttime was no safer than daytime. She recorded an inmate creeping around between the beds one night. On another occasion, sleeping in a room of her own, two men, a doctor and his friend, visited her in the middle of the night. “Shall I endure it if the worst comes,” she wrote, “or shall I tell them who I am?”
Elizabeth Cochrane’s fearlessness was one of her most defining characteristics, and her bravery changed lives. Conditions in the asylum were vastly improved after her release and more women found their way into journalism. While she never dwelt on what she felt emotionally, there’s no doubt she feared for her safety and even her sanity. Two months in Blackwell’s Asylum, she declared, would make a sane and healthy woman “a mental and physical wreck.” But she went through it anyway.
How did she do it? I suspect because her biggest fear something else entirely. She feared failing in her stated aim of making it as a journalist in New York City. Returning home a failure was more frightening to Elizabeth Cochrane that anything she faced in the madhouse. And yes, the rewards came swiftly… but did they last? She felt the fear and did it anyway, but was worth it? Well that’s another part of her story altogether.
Huge thanks to Kate for stopping by to share this, check out the links below to get the full story on Nelly Bly!
Blog – www.kate-braithwaite.com
Twitter – @KMBraithwaite
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/katembraithwaite/