The New York World/October 9, 1887
The Mystery of the Unknown Insane Girl
Remarkable Story of the Successful Impersonation of Insanity
How Nellie Brown Deceived Judges, Reporters and Medical Experts
She Tells Her Story of How She Passed at Bellevue Hospital
ON the 22d of September I was asked by The World if I could have myself committed to one of the Asylums for the Insane in New York, with a view to writing a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein and the methods of management, etc. Did I think I had the courage to go through such an ordeal as the mission would demand? Could I assume the characteristics of insanity to such a degree that I could pass the doctors, live for a week among the insane without the authorities there finding out that I was only a “chiel amang ‘em takin’ notes?” I said I believed I could. I had some faith in my own ability as an actress and thought I could assume insanity long enough to accomplish any mission intrusted to me. Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did. My instructions were simply to go on with my work as soon as I felt that I was ready. I was to chronicle faithfully the experiences I underwent, and when once within the walls of the asylum to find out and describe its inside workings, which are always, so effectually hidden by white-capped nurses, as well as by bolts and bars, from the knowledge of the public. “We do not ask you to go there for the purpose of making sensational revelations. Write up things as you find them, good or bad; give praise or blame as you think best, and the truth all the time. But I am afraid of that chronic smile of yours,” said the editor. “I will smile no more,” I said, and I went away to execute my delicate and, as I found out, difficult mission.
All the preliminary preparations for my ordeal were left to be planned by myself. Only one thing was decided upon, namely, that I should pass under the pseudonym of Nellie Brown, the initials of which would agree with my own name and my linen, so that there would be no difficulty in keeping track of my movements and assisting me out of any difficulties or dangers I might get into. There were ways of getting into the insane ward, but I did not know them. I might adopt one of two courses. Either I could feign insanity at the house of friends, and get myself committed on the decision of two competent physicians, or I could go to my goal by way of the police courts. On reflection I thought it wiser not to inflict myself upon my friends or to get any good-natured doctors to assist me in my purpose.
Besides, to get to Blackwell’s Island my friends would have had to feign poverty, and, unfortunately for the end I had in view, my acquaintance with the struggling poor, except my own self, was only very superficial. So I determined upon the plan which led me to the successful accomplishment of my mission and to which the bulk of the following narrative will be devoted. I succeeded in getting committed to the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island, where I spent ten days and nights and had an experience which I shall never forget. I took upon myself to enact the part of a poor, unfortunate crazy girl, and felt it my duty not to shirk any of the disagreeable results that should follow. I became one of the city’s insane wards for that length of time, experienced much, and saw and heard more of the treatment accorded to this helpless class of our population, and when I had seen and heard enough, my release was promptly secured. I left the insane ward with pleasure and regret–pleasure that I was once more able to enjoy the free breath of heaven; regret that I could not have brought with me some of the unfortunate women who lived and suffered with me, and who, I am convinced, are just as sane as I was and am now myself. But here let me say one thing: From the moment I entered the insane ward on the island I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget.
Preparing for the Ordeal
But to return to my work and my mission. After receiving my instructions I returned to my boarding-house, and when evening came I began to practice the role in which I was to make my debut on the morrow. What a difficult task, I thought, to appear before a crowd of people and convince them that I was insane. I had never been near insane persons before in my life, and had not the faintest idea of what their actions were like. And then to be examined by a number of learned physicians who make insanity a specialty, and who daily come in contact with insane people! How could I hope to pass these doctors and convince them that I was crazy? I feared that they could not be deceived. I began to think my task a hopeless one; but it had to be done. So I flew to the mirror and examined my face. I remembered all I had read of the doings of crazy people, how first of all they have staring eyes, and so I opened mine as wide as possible and stared unblinkingly at my own reflection. I assure you the sight was not reassuring, even to myself, especially in the dead of night. I tried to turn the gas up higher in hopes that it would raise my courage. I succeeded only partially, but I consoled myself with the thought that in a few nights more I would not be there, but locked up in a cell with a lot of lunatics. The weather was not cold; but, nevertheless, when I thought of what was to come, wintery chills ran races up and down my back in very mockery of the perspiration which was slowly but surely taking the curl out of my bangs. Between times, practicing before the mirror and picturing my future as a lunatic, I read snatches of improbable and impossible ghost stories, so that when the dawn came to chase away the night, I felt that I was in a fit mood for my mission, yet hungry enough to feel keenly that I wanted my breakfast. Slowly and sadly I took my morning bath and quietly bade farewell to a few of the most precious articles known to modern civilization. Tenderly I put my tooth-brush aside, and, when taking a final rub of the soap, I murmured, “It may be for days, and it may be–for longer.” Then I donned the old clothing I had selected for the occasion. I was in the mood to look at everything through very serious glasses. It’s just as well to take a last “fond look,” I mused, for who could tell but that the strain of playing crazy, and being shut up with a crowd of mad people, might turn my own brain, and I would never get back. But not once did I think of shirking my mission. Calmly, outwardly at least, I went out to my crazy business. I walked down Second avenue. It had been arranged that I should enter one of the many temporary homes or shelters for females, and that once in I should do the best I could to get forwarded on my journey to Blackwell’s Island. The place selected was the Temporary Home for Females, 84 Second avenue.
In the Temporary Home
I was left to begin my career as Nellie Brown, the insane girl. As I walked down the avenue I tried to assume the look which maidens wear in pictures entitled “Dreaming.” “Far-away” expressions have a crazy air. I passed through the little paved yard to the entrance of the Home. I pulled the bell, which sounded loud enough for a church chime, and nervously awaited the opening of the door to the Home, which I intended should ere long cast me forth and out upon the charity of the police. The door was thrown back with a vengeance, and a short, yellow-haired girl of some thirteen summers stood before me.
“Is the matron in?” I asked, faintly.
“Yes, she’s in; she’s busy. Go to the back parlor,” answered the girl, in a loud voice, without one change in her peculiarly matured face.
I followed these not overkind or polite instructions and found myself in a dark, uncomfortable back-parlor. There I awaited the arrival of my hostess. I had been seated some twenty minutes at the least, when a slender woman, clad in a plain, dark dress entered and, stopping before me, ejaculated inquiringly, “Well?”
“Are you the matron?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, “the matron is sick; I am her assistant. What do you want?”
“I want to stay here for a few days, if you can accommodate me.”
“Well, I have no single rooms, we are so crowded; but if you will occupy a room with another girl, I shall do that much for you.”
“I shall be glad of that,” I answered. “How much do you charge?” I had brought only about seventy cents along with me, knowing full well that the sooner my funds were exhausted the sooner I should be put out, and to be put out was what I was working for.
“We charge thirty cents a night,” was her reply to my question, and with that I paid her for one night’s lodging, and she left me on the plea of having something else to look after.
Left to amuse myself as best I could, I took a survey of my surroundings. By the time I had become familiar with my quarters a bell, which rivaled the door-bell in its loudness, began clanging in the basement, and simultaneously women went trooping down-stairs from all parts of the house. I imagined, from the obvious signs, that dinner was served, but as no one had said anything to me I made no effort to follow in the hungry train. Yet I did wish that some one would invite me down. It always produces such a lonely, homesick feeling to know others are eating, and we haven’t a chance, even if we are not hungry. I was glad when the assistant matron came up and asked me if I did not want something to eat. I replied that I did, and then I asked her what her name was. Mrs. Stanard, she said, and I immediately wrote it down in a notebook I had taken with me for the purpose of making memoranda, and in which I had written several pages of utter nonsense for inquisitive scientists. Thus equipped I awaited developments. But my dinner–well, I followed Mrs. Stanard down the uncarpeted stairs into the basement; where a large number of women were eating. She found room for me at a table with three other women. The short-haired slavey who had opened the door now put in an appearance as waiter. Placing her arms akimbo and staring me out of countenance she said:
“Boiled mutton, boiled beef, beans, potatoes, coffee or tea?”
“Beef, potatoes, coffee and bread,” I responded.
“Bread goes in,” she explained, as she made her way to the kitchen, which was in the rear.
It was not very long before she returned with what I had ordered on a large, badly battered tray, which she banged down before me. I began my simple meal. It was not very enticing, so while making a feint of eating I watched the others. After dinner I went upstairs and resumed my former place in the back parlor. I was quite cold and uncomfortable, and had fully made up my mind that I could not endure that sort of business long, so the sooner I assumed my insane points the sooner I would be released from enforced idleness. Ah, that was indeed the longest day I had ever lived. I listlessly watched the women in the front parlor, where all sat except myself. One did nothing but read and scratch her head and occasionally call out mildly, “Georgie,” without lifting her eyes from her book. “Georgie” was her over-frisky boy, who had more noise in him than any child I ever saw before. He did everything that was rude and unmannerly, I thought, and the mother never said a word unless she heard some one else yell at him. Another woman always kept going to sleep and waking herself up with her own snoring. I really felt wickedly thankful it was only herself she awakened. The majority of the women sat there doing nothing, but there were a few who made lace and knitted unceasingly. The enormous door-bell seemed to be going all the time, and so did the short-haired girl. The latter was, besides, one of those girls who sing all the time snatches of all the songs and hymns that have been composed for the last fifty years. There is such a thing as martyrdom in these days. The ringing of the bell brought more people who wanted shelter for the night. Excepting one woman, who was from the country on a day’s shopping expedition, they were working women, some of them with children. As it drew toward evening Mrs. Stanard came to me and said:
She Begins to Show Signs
“What is wrong with you? Have you some sorrow or trouble?”
“No,” I said, almost stunned at the suggestion. “Why?”
“Oh, because,” she said, womanlike, “I can see it in your face. It tells the story of a great trouble.”
“Yes, everything is so sad,” I said, in a haphazard way, which I had intended to reflect my craziness.
“But you must not allow that to worry you. We all have our troubles, but we get over them in good time. What kind of work are you trying to get?”
“I do not know; it’s all so sad,” I replied.
“Would you like to be a nurse for children and wear a nice white cap and apron?” she asked.
I put my handkerchief up to my face to hide a smile, and replied in a muffled tone, “I never worked; I don’t know how.”
“But you must learn,” she urged; “all these women here work.”
“Do they?” I said, in a low, thrilling whisper. “Why, they look horrible to me; just like crazy women. I am so afraid of them.”
“They don’t look very nice,” she answered, assentingly, “but they are good, honest working women. We do not keep crazy people here.”
I again used my handkerchief to hide a smile, as I thought that before morning she would at least think she had one crazy person among her flock.
“They all look crazy,” I asserted again, “and I am afraid of them. There are so many crazy people about, and one can never tell what they will do. Then there are so many murders committed, and the police never catch the murderers,” and I finished with a sob that would have broken up an audience of blasé critics. She gave a sudden and convulsive start, and I knew my first stroke had gone home. It was amusing to see what a remarkably short time it took her to get up from her chair and to whisper hurriedly: “I’ll come back to talk with you after a while.” I knew she would not come back and she did not. When the supper-bell rang I went along with the others to the basement and partook of the evening meal, which was similar to dinner, except that there was a smaller bill of fare and more people, the women who are employed outside during the day having returned. After the evening meal we all adjourned to the parlors, where all sat, or stood, as there were not chairs enough to go round. I watched two women, who seemed of all the crowd to be the most sociable, and I selected them as the ones to work out my salvation, or, more properly speaking, my condemnation and conviction. Excusing myself and saying that I felt lonely, I asked if I might join their company. They graciously consented, so with my hat and gloves on, which no one had asked me to lay aside, I sat down and listened to the rather wearisome conversation, in which I took no part, merely keeping up my sad look, saying “Yes,” or “No,” or “I can’t say,” to their observations. Several times I told them I thought everybody in the house looked crazy, but they were slow to catch on to my very original remark. One said her name was Mrs. King and that she was a Southern woman. Then she said that I had a Southern accent. She asked me bluntly if I did not really come from the South. I said “Yes.” The other woman got to talking about the Boston boats and asked me if I knew at what time they left. For a moment I forgot my role of assumed insanity, and told her the correct hour of departure. She then asked me what work I was going to do, or if I had ever done any. I replied that I thought it very sad that there were so many working people in the world. She said in reply that she had been unfortunate and had come to New York, where she had worked at correcting proofs on a medical dictionary for some time, but that her health had given way under the task, and that she was now going to Boston again. When the maid came to tell us to go to bed I remarked that I was afraid, and again ventured the assertion that all the women in the house seemed to be crazy. The nurse insisted on my going to bed. I asked if I could not sit on the stairs, but she said, decisively:
“No; for every one in the house would think you were crazy.” Finally I allowed them to take me to a room.
A Kind Soul Discovered
Here I must introduce a new personage by name into my narrative. It is the woman who had been a proofreader, and was about to return to Boston. She was a Mrs. Caine, who was as courageous as she was good-hearted. She came into my room, and sat and talked with me a long time, taking down my hair with gentle ways. She tried to persuade me to undress and go to bed, but I stubbornly refused to do so. During this time a number of the inmates of the house had gathered around us. They expressed themselves in various ways.
“Poor loon!” they said. “Why, she’s crazy enough!” “I am afraid to stay with such a crazy being in house.” “She will murder us all before morning.” One woman was for sending for a policeman to take me at once. They were all in a terrible and real state of fright. No one wanted to be responsible for me, and the woman who was to occupy the room with me declared that she would not stay with that “crazy woman” for all the money of the Vanderbilts. It was then that Mrs. Caine said she would stay with me. I told her I would like to have her do so. So she was left with me. She didn’t undress, but lay down on the bed, watchful of my movements. She tried to induce me to lie down, but I was afraid to do this.
I knew that if I once gave way I should fall asleep and dream as pleasantly and peacefully as a child. I should, to use a slang expression, be liable to “give myself dead away.” So I insisted on sitting on the side of the bed and staring blankly at vacancy. My poor companion was put into a wretched state of unhappiness. Every few moments she would rise up to look at me. She told me that my eyes shone terribly brightly and then began to question me, asking me where I had lived, how long I had been in New York, what I had been doing, and many things besides. To all her questionings I had but one response–I told her that I had forgotten everything, that ever since my headache had come on I could not remember.
Poor soul! How cruelly I tortured her, and what a kind heart she had! But how I tortured all of them! One of them dreamed of me–as a nightmare. After I had been in the room an hour or so, I was myself startled by hearing a woman screaming in the next room. I began to imagine that I was really in an insane asylum. Mrs. Caine woke up, looked around, frightened, and listened. She then went out and into the next room, and I heard her asking another woman some questions. When she came back she told me that the woman had had a hideous nightmare. She had been dreaming of me. She had seen me, she said, rushing at her with a knife in my hand, with the intention of killing her. In trying to escape me she had fortunately been able to scream, and so to awaken herself and scare off her nightmare. Then Mrs. Caine got into bed again, considerably agitated, but very sleepy.
I was weary, too, but I had braced myself up to the work, and was determined to keep awake all night so as to carry on my work of impersonation to a successful end in the morning. I heard midnight. I had yet six hours to wait for daylight. The time passed with excruciating slowness. Minutes appeared hours. The noises in the house and on the avenue ceased. I kept thinking about the sad events of my life. I began at the beginning and, after living over again fifteen or twenty years of my existence, found I had only spanned over a space of five minutes. Failing to find anything more to think about of the past I turned by thoughts bravely to the future, wondering, first, what the next day would bring forth, then making plans for the carrying out of my project. I wondered if I should be able to pass over the river to the goal of my strange ambition, to become eventually an inmate of the halls inhabited by my mentally wrecked sisters. And then, once in, what would be my experience? And after? How to get out? Bah! I said, they will get me out.
I looked out toward the window and hailed with joy the slight shimmer of dawn. The light grew strong and gray, but the silence was strikingly still. My companion slept. I had still an hour or two to pass over. Fortunately I found some employment for my mental activity. Robert Bruce in his captivity had won confidence in the future, and passed his time as pleasantly as possible under the circumstances, by watching the celebrated spider building his web. I had less noble vermin to interest me. Yet I believe I made some valuable discoveries in natural history. I was about to drop off to sleep in spite of myself when I was suddenly startled to wakefulness. I thought I heard something crawl and fall down upon the counterpane with an almost inaudible thud. I had the opportunity of studying these interesting animals very thoroughly. They had evidently come for breakfast, and were not a little disappointed to find that their principal plat was not there. They scampered up and down the pillow, came together, seemed to hold interesting converse, and acted in every way as if they were puzzled by the absence of an appetizing breakfast. After one consultation of some length they finally disappeared, seeking victims elsewhere, and leaving me to pass the long minutes by giving my attention to cockroaches, whose size and agility were something of a surprise to me.
Sympathy in Trouble
My room companion had been sound asleep for a long time, but she now woke up, and expressed surprise at seeing me still awake and apparently as lively as a cricket. She was as sympathetic as ever. She came to me and took my hands and tried her best to console me, and asked me if I did not want to go home. She kept me up-stairs until nearly everybody was out of the house, and then took me down to the basement for coffee and a bun. After that, partaken in silence, I went back to my room, where I sat down, moping. Mrs. Caine grew more and more anxious. “What is to be done?” she kept exclaiming. “Where are your friends?” “No,” I answered, “I have no friends, but I have some trunks. Where are they? I want them.” The good woman tried to pacify me, saying that they would be found in good time. She believed that I was insane. Yet I forgive her. It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world. The women in the Home who were not afraid of me had wanted to have some amusement at my expense, and so they had bothered me with questions and remarks that had I been insane would have been cruel and inhumane. Only this one woman among the crowd, pretty and delicate Mrs. Caine, displayed true womanly feeling. She compelled the others to cease teasing me and took the bed of the woman who refused to sleep near me. She protested against the suggestion to leave me alone and to have me locked up for the night so that I could harm no one. She insisted on remaining with me in order to administer aid should I need it. She smoothed my hair and bathed my brow and talked as soothingly to me as a mother would do to an ailing child. By every means she tried to have me go to bed and rest, and when it drew toward morning she got up and wrapped a blanket around me for fear I might get cold; then she kissed me on the brow and whispered, compassionately: “Poor child, poor child!” How much I admired that little woman’s courage and kindness. How I longed to reassure her and whisper that I was not insane, and how I hoped that, if any poor girl should ever be so unfortunate as to be what I was pretending to be, she might meet with one who possessed the same spirit of human kindness possessed by Mrs. Ruth Caine.
The Advent of the Police
BUT to return to my story. I kept up my role until the assistant matron, Mrs. Stanard, came in. She tried to persuade me to be calm. I began to see clearly that she wanted to get me out of the house at all hazards, quietly if possible. This I did not want. I refused to move, but kept up ever the refrain of my lost trunks. Finally some one suggested that an officer be sent for. After awhile Mrs. Stanard put on her bonnet and went out. Then I knew that I was making an advance toward the home of the insane. Soon she returned, bringing with her two policemen–big, strong men–who entered the room rather unceremoniously, evidently expecting to meet with a person violently crazy. The name of one of them was Tom Bockert. When they entered I pretended not to see them. “I want you to take her quietly,” said Mrs. Stanard. “If she don’t come along quietly,” responded one of the men, “I will drag her through the streets.” I still took no notice of them, but certainly wished to avoid raising a scandal outside. Fortunately Mrs. Caine came to my rescue. She told the officers about my outcries for my lost trunks, and together they made up a plan to get me to go along with them quietly by telling me they would go with me to look for my lost effects. They asked me if I would go. I said I was afraid to go alone. Mrs. Stanard then said she would accompany me, and she arranged that the two policemen should follow us at a respectful distance. She tied on my veil for me, and we left the house by the basement and started across town, the two officers following at some distance behind. We walked along very quietly and finally came to the station house, which the good woman assured me was the express office, and that there we should certainly find my missing effects. I went inside with fear and trembling, for good reason.
Before Capt. McCullagh
I remembered the police station well because only ten days before I had been there and had seen Capt. McCullagh, from whom I had written as a reporter. If he were in, would be not recognize me? And then all would be lost so far as getting to the island was concerned. I pulled my sailor hat as low down over my face as I possibly could, and prepared for the ordeal. Sure enough there was sturdy Captain McCullagh standing near the desk. “Are you Nellie Brown?” he asked. I said I supposed I was. “Where do you come from?” he asked. I told him I did not know, and then Mrs. Stanard gave him a lot of information about me–told him how strangely I had acted at her home; how I had not slept a wink all night, and that in her opinion I was a poor unfortunate who had been driven crazy by inhuman treatment. There was some discussion between Mrs. Standard and the two officers, and Tom Bockert was told to take us down to the court in a car.
“Come along,” Bockert said, “I will find your trunk for you.” We all went together, Mrs. Stanard, Tom Bockert and his companion and myself. I said it was very kind of them to go with me, and I should not soon forget them. As we walked along I kept up my refrain about my trucks, injecting occasionally some remark about the dirty condition of the streets and the curious character of the people we met on the way. “I don’t think I have ever seen such people before,” I said. “Who are they?” I asked, and my companions looked upon me with expressions of pity, evidently believing I was a foreigner, an emigrant or something of the sort. They told me that the people around me were working people. I remarked once more that I thought there were too many working people in the world for the amount of work to be done, at which remark Policeman P. T. Bockert eyed me closely, evidently thinking that my mind was gone for good. We passed several other policemen, who generally asked my sturdy guardians what was the matter with me. By this time quite a number of ragged children were following us too, and they passed remarks about me that were to me original as well as amusing.
“What’s she up for?” “Say, kop, where did ye get her?” “Where did yer pull ‘er?” “She’s a daisy!”
Poor Mrs. Stanard was more frightened than I was. The whole situation grew interesting, but I still had fears for my fate before the judge.
Searching for Lost Trunks
At last we came to a low building, and Tom Bockert kindly volunteered the information: “Here’s the express office. We shall soon find those trunks of yours.”
I said that a great many people seemed to have lost their trunks. “Yes,” he said, “nearly all these people are looking for trunks.”
I said, “They all seem to be foreigners, too.” “Yes,” said Tom, “they are all foreigners just landed. They have all lost their trunks, and it takes most of our time to help find them for them.”
We entered the courtroom. It was the Essex Market Police Courtroom. At last the question of my sanity or insanity was to be decided. Judge Duffy sat behind the high desk, wearing a look which seemed to indicate that he was dealing out the milk of human kindness by wholesale. I rather feared I would not get the fate I sought, because of the kindness I saw on every line of his face, and it was with rather a sinking heart that I followed Mrs. Stanard as she answered the summons to go up to the desk, where Tom Bockert had just given an account of the affair. “Come here,” said an officer. “What is your name?”
“Nellie Brown,” I replied, with a little accent. “I have lost my trunks, and would like if you could find them.” “When did you come to New York?” he asked. “I did not come to New York,” I replied (while I added, mentally, “because I have been here for some time.”) “But you are in New York now,” said the man. “No,” I said, looking as incredulous as I thought a crazy person could, “I did not come to New York.” “That girl is from the west,” he said, in a tone that made me tremble. “She has a western accent.” Some one else who had been listening to the brief dialogue here asserted that he had lived south and that my accent was southern, while another officer was positive it was eastern. I felt much relieved when the first spokesman turned to the judge and said, “Judge, here is a peculiar case of a young woman who doesn’t know who she is or where she came from. You had better attend to it at once.”
I commenced to shake with more than the cold, and I looked around at the strange crowd about me, composed of poorly dressed men and women with stories printed on their faces of hard lives, abuse and poverty. Some were consulting eagerly with friends, while others sat still with a look of utter hopelessness. Everywhere was a sprinkling of well-dressed, well-fed officers watching the scene passively and almost indifferently. It was only an old story with them. One more unfortunate added to a long list which had long since ceased to be of any interest or concern to them.
Before Judge Duffy
“Come here, girl, and lift your veil,” called out Judge Duffy in tones which surprised me by a harshness when I did not think from the kindly face he possessed.
“Who are you speaking to?” I inquired, in my stateliest manner.
“Come here, my dear, and lift your veil. You know the Queen of England, if she were here, would have to lift her veil,” he said, very kindly.
“That is much better,” I replied. “I am not the Queen of England, but I’ll lift my veil.”
As I did so the little judge looked at me, and then, in a very kind and gentle tone, he said:
“My dear child, what is wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong except that I have lost my trunks, and this man,” indicating Policeman Bockert, “promised to bring me where they could be found.”
“What do you know about this child?” asked the judge, sternly, of Mrs. Stanard, who stood, pale and trembling, by my side.
“I know nothing of her except that she came to the home yesterday and asked to remain overnight.”
“The home! What do you mean by the home?” asked Judge Duffy, quickly.
“It is a temporary home kept for working women at No. 84 Second Avenue.”
“What is your position there?”
“I am assistant matron.”
“Well, tell us all you know of the case.”
“When I was going into the home yesterday I noticed her coming down the avenue. She was all alone. I had just got into the house when the bell rang and she came in. When I talked with her she wanted to know if she could stay all night, and I said she could. After awhile she said all the people in the house looked crazy, and she was afraid of them. Then she would not go to bed, but sat up all the night.”
“Had she any money?”
“Yes,” I replied, answering for her, “I paid her for everything, and the eating was the worst I ever tried.”
There was a general smile at this, and some murmurs of “She’s not so crazy on the food question.”
“Poor child,” said Judge Duffy, “she is well dressed, and a lady. Her English is perfect, and I would stake everything on her being a good girl. I am positive she is somebody’s darling.”
At this announcement everybody laughed, and I put my handkerchief over my face and endeavored to choke the laughter that threatened to spoil my plans, in despite of my resolutions.
“I mean she is some woman’s darling,” hastily amended the judge. “I am sure some one is searching for her. Poor girl, I will be good to her, for she looks like my sister, who is dead.”
There was a hush for a moment after this announcement, and the officers glanced at me more kindly, while I silently blessed the kind-hearted judge, and hoped that any poor creatures who might be afflicted as I pretended to be should have as kindly a man to deal with as Judge Duffy.
“I wish the reporters were here,” he said at last. “They would be able to find out something about her.”
I got very much frightened at this, for if there is any one who can ferret out a mystery it is a reporter. I felt that I would rather face a mass of expert doctors, policemen, and detectives than two bright specimens of my craft, so I said:
“I don’t see why all this is needed to help me find my trunks. These men are impudent, and I do not want to be stared at. I will go away. I don’t want to stay here.”
So saying, I pulled down my veil and secretly hoped the reporters would be detained elsewhere until I was sent to the asylum.
“I don’t know what to do with the poor child,” said the worried judge. “She must be taken care of.”
“Send her to the Island,” suggested one of the officers.
“Oh, don’t!” said Mrs. Stanard, in evident alarm. “Don’t! She is a lady and it would kill her to be put on the Island.”
For once I felt like shaking the good woman. To think the Island was just the place I wanted to reach and here she was trying to keep me from going there! It was very kind of her, but rather provoking under the circumstances.
“There has been some foul work here,” said the judge. “I believe this child has been drugged and brought to this city. Make out the papers and we will send her to Bellevue for examination. Probably in a few days the effect of the drug will pass off and she will be able to tell us a story that will be startling. If the reporters would only come!”
I dreaded them, so I said something about not wishing to stay there any longer to be gazed at. Judge Duffy then told Policeman Bockert to take me to the back office. After we were seated there Judge Duffy came in and asked me if my home was in Cuba.
“Yes,” I replied, with a smile. “How did you know?”
“Oh, I knew it, my dear. Now, tell me were was it? In what part of Cuba?”
“On the hacienda,” I replied.
“Ah,” said the judge, “on a farm. Do you remember Havana?”
“Si, senor,” I answered; “it is near home. How did you know?”
“Oh, I knew all about it. Now, won’t you tell me the name of your home?” he asked, persuasively.
“That’s what I forget,” I answered, sadly. “I have a headache all the time, and it makes me forget things. I don’t want them to trouble me. Everybody is asking me questions, and it makes my head worse,” and in truth it did.
“Well, no one shall trouble you any more. Sit down here and rest awhile,” and the genial judge left me alone with Mrs. Stanard.
A Reporter Interviews Her
Just then an officer came in with a reporter. I was so frightened, and thought I would be recognized as a journalist, so I turned my head away and said, “I don’t want to see any reporters; I will not see any; the judge said I was not to be troubled.”
“Well, there is no insanity in that,” said the man who had brought the reporter, and together they left the room. Once again I had a fit of fear. Had I gone too far in not wanting to see a reporter, and was my sanity detected? If I had given the impression that I was sane, I was determined to undo it, so I jumped up and ran back and forward through the office, Mrs. Stanard clinging terrified to my arm.
“I won’t stay here; I want my trunks! Why do they bother me with so many people?” and thus I kept on until the ambulance surgeon came in, accompanied by the judge.
The Ambulance Appears
“HERE is a poor girl who has been drugged,” explained the judge. “She looks like my sister, and any one can see she is a good girl. I am interested in the child, and I would do as much for her as if she were my own. I want you to be kind to her,” he said to the ambulance surgeon. Then, turning to Mrs. Stanard, he asked her if she could not keep me for a few days until my case was inquired into. Fortunately, she said she could not, because all the women at the Home were afraid of me, and would leave if I were kept there. I was very much afraid she would keep me if the pay was assured her, and so I said something about the bad cooking and that I did not intend to go back to the Home. Then came the examination; the doctor looked clever and I had not one hope of deceiving him, but I determined to keep up the farce. “Put out your tongue,” he ordered, briskly. I gave an inward chuckle at the thought. “Put out your tongue when I tell you,” he said. “I don’t want to,” I answered, truthfully enough. “You must. You are sick, and I am a doctor.” “I am not sick and never was. I only want my trunks.” But I put out my tongue, which he looked at in a sagacious manner. Then he felt my pulse and listened to the beating of my heart. I had not the least idea how the heart of an insane person beat, so I held my breath all the while he listened, until, when he quit, I had to give a gasp to regain it. Then he tried the effect of the light on the pupils of my eyes. Holding his hand within a half inch of my face, he told me to look at it, then, jerking it hastily away, he would examine my eyes. I was puzzled to know what insanity was like in the eye, so I thought the best thing under the circumstances was to stare. This I did. I held my eyes riveted unblinkingly upon his hand, and when he removed it I exerted all my strength to still keep my eyes from blinking. “What drugs have you been taking?” he then asked me. “Drugs!” I repeated, wonderingly. “I do not know what drugs are.” “The pupils of her eyes have been enlarged ever since she came to the Home. They have not changed once,” explained Mrs. Stanard. I wondered how she knew whether they had or not, but I kept quiet. “I believe she has been using belladonna,” said the doctor, and for the first time I was thankful that I was a little near-sighted, which of course answers for the enlargement of the pupils. I thought I might as well be truthful when I could without injuring my case, so I told him I was near-sighted, that I was not in the least ill, had never been sick, and that no one had a right to detain me when I wanted to find my trunks. I wanted to go home. He wrote a lot of things in a long, slender book, and then said he was going to take me home. The judge told him to take me and to be kind to me, and to tell the people at the hospital to be kind to me, and to do all they could for me. If we only had more such men as Judge Duffy, the poor unfortunates would not find life all darkness.
In the Ambulance Wagon
I began to have more confidence in my own ability now, since one judge, one doctor, and a mass of people had pronounced me insane, and I put on my veil quite gladly when I was told that I was to be taken in a carriage, and that afterward I could go home. “I am so glad to go with you,” I said, and I meant it. I was very glad indeed. Once more, guarded by Policeman Brockert, I walked through the little, crowded courtroom. I felt quite proud of myself as I went out a side door into an alleyway, where the ambulance was waiting. Near the closed and barred gates was a small office occupied by several men and large books. We all went in there, and when they began to ask me questions the doctor interposed and said he had all the papers, and that it was useless to ask me anything further, because I was unable to answer questions. This was a great relief to me, for my nerves were already feeling the strain. A rough-looking man wanted to put me into the ambulance, but I refused his aid so decidedly that the doctor and policeman told him to desist, and they performed that gallant office themselves. I did not enter the ambulance without protest. I made the remark that I had never seen a carriage of that make before, and that I did not want to ride in it, but after awhile I let them persuade me, as I had right along intended to do. I shall never forget that ride. After I was put in flat on the yellow blanket, the doctor got in and sat near the door. The large gates were swung open, and the curious crowd which had collected swayed back to make way for the ambulance as it backed out. How they tried to get a glimpse at the supposed crazy girl! The doctor saw that I did not like the people gazing at me, and considerately put down the curtains, after asking my wishes in regard to it. Still that did not keep the people away. The children raced after us, yelling all sorts of slang expressions, and trying to get a peep under the curtains. It was quite an interesting drive, but I must say that it was an excruciatingly rough one. I held on, only there was not much to hold on to, and the driver drove as if he feared some one would catch up with us.
In Bellevue Hospital
AT last Bellevue was reached, the third station on my way to the island. I had passed through successfully the ordeals at the home and at Essex Market Police Court, and now felt confident that I should not fail. The ambulance stopped with a sudden jerk and the doctor jumped out. “How many have you?” I heard some one inquire. “Only one, for the pavilion,” was the reply. A rough-looking man came forward, and catching hold of me attempted to drag me out as if I had the strength of an elephant and would resist. The doctor, seeing my look of disgust, ordered him to leave me alone, saying that he would take charge of me himself. He then lifted me carefully out and I walked with the grace of a queen past the crowd that had gathered curious to see the new unfortunate. Together with the doctor I entered a small dark office, where there were several men. The one behind the desk opened a book and began on the long string of questions which had been asked me so often. I refused to answer, and the doctor told him it was not necessary to trouble me further, as he had all the papers made out, and I was too insane to be able to tell anything that would be of consequence. I felt relieved that it was so easy here, as, though still undaunted, I had begun to feel faint for want of food. The order was then given to take me to the insane pavilion, and a muscular man came forward and caught me so tightly by the arm that a pain ran clear through me. It made me angry, and for a moment I forgot my role as I turned to him and said: “How dare you touch me?” At this he loosened his hold somewhat, and I shook him off with more strength than I thought I possessed. “I will go with no one but this man,” I said, pointing to the ambulance-surgeon. “The judge said that he was to take care of me, and I will go with no one else.” At this the surgeon said that he would take me, and so we went arm in arm, following the man who had at first been so rough with me. We passed through the well-cared-for grounds and finally reached the insane ward. A white-capped nurse was there to receive me. “This young girl is to wait here for the boat,” said the surgeon, and then he started to leave me. I begged him not to go, or to take me with him, but he said he wanted to get his dinner first, and that I should wait there for him. When I insisted on accompanying him he claimed that he had to assist at an amputation, and it would not look well for me to be present. It was evident that he believed he was dealing with an insane person. Just then the most horrible insane cries came from a yard in the rear. With all my bravery I felt a chill at the prospect of being shut up with a fellow-creature who was really insane. The doctor evidently noticed my nervousness, for he said to the attendant: “What a noise the carpenters make.” Turning to me he offered me explanation to the effect that new buildings were being erected, and that the noise came from some of the workmen engaged upon it. I told him I did not want to stay there without him, and to pacify me he promised soon to return. He left me and I found myself at last an occupant of an insane asylum.
Some Interior Arrangements
I stood at the door and contemplated the scene before me. The long, uncarpeted hall was scrubbed to that peculiar whiteness seen only in public institutions. In the rear of the hall were large iron doors fastened by a padlock. Several stiff-looking benches and a number of willow chairs were the only articles of furniture. On either side of the hall were doors leading into what I supposed and what proved to be bedrooms. Near the entrance door, on the right-hand side, was a small sitting-room for the nurses, and opposite it was a room where dinner was dished out. A nurse in a black dress, white cap and apron and armed with a bunch of keys had charge of the hall. I soon learned her name, Miss Ball. An old Irishwoman was maid-of-all-work. I heard her called Mary, and I am glad to know that there is such a good-hearted woman in that place. I experienced only kindness and the utmost consideration from her. There were only three patients, as they are called. I made the fourth. I thought I might as well begin work at once, for I still expected that the very first doctor might declare me sane and send me out again into the wide, wide world. So I went down to the rear of the room and introduced myself to one of the women, and asked her all about herself. Her name, she said, was Miss Anne Neville, and she had been sick from overwork. She had been working as a chambermaid, and when her health gave way she was sent to some Sisters’ Home to be treated. Her nephew, who was a waiter, was out of work, and, being unable to pay her expenses at the Home, had had her transferred to Bellevue.
“Is there anything wrong with you mentally as well?” I asked her.
“No,” she said. “The doctors have been asking me many curious questions and confusing me as much as possible, but I have nothing wrong with my brain.”
“Do you know that only insane people are sent to this pavilion?” I asked.
“Yes, I know; but I am unable to do anything. The doctors refuse to listen to me, and it is useless to say anything to the nurses.”
Among the Insane Patients
Satisfied from various reasons that Miss Neville was as sane as I was myself, I transferred my attentions to one of the other patients. I found her in need of medical aid and quite silly mentally, although I have seen many women in the lower walks of life, whose sanity was never questioned, who were not any brighter.
The third patient, Mrs. Fox, would not say much. She was very quiet, and after telling me that her case was hopeless refused to talk. I began now to feel surer of my position, and I determined that no doctor should convince me that I was sane so long as I had the hope of accomplishing my mission. A small, fair-complexioned nurse arrived, and, after putting on her cap, told Miss Ball to go to dinner. The new nurse, Miss Scott by name, came to me and said, rudely:
“Take off your hat.”
“I shall not take off my hat,” I answered. “I am waiting for the boat, and I shall not remove it.”
“Well, you are not going on any boat. You might as well know it now as later. You are in an asylum for the insane.”
Although fully aware of that fact, her unvarnished words gave me a shock. “I did not want to come here; I am not sick or insane, and I will not stay,” I said.
“It will be a long time before you get out if you don’t do as you are told,” answered Miss Scott. “You might as well take off your hat, or I shall use force, and if I am not able to do it, I have but to touch a bell and I shall get assistance. Will you take it off?”
“No, I will not. I am cold, and I want my hat on, and you can’t make me take it off.”
“I shall give you a few more minutes, and if you don’t take it off then I shall use force, and I warn you it will not be very gentle.”
“If you take my hat off I shall take your cap off; so now.”
Miss Scott was called to the door then, and as I feared that an exhibition of temper might show too much sanity I took off my hat and gloves and was sitting quietly looking into space when she returned. I was hungry, and was quite pleased to see Mary make preparations for dinner. The preparations were simple. She merely pulled a straight bench up along the side of a bare table and ordered the patients to gather ‘round the feast; then she brought out a small tin plate on which was a piece of boiled meat and a potato. It could not have been colder had it been cooked the week before, and it had no chance to make acquaintance with salt or pepper. I would not go up to the table, so Mary came to where I sat in a corner, and while handing out the tin plate, asked:
“Have ye any pennies about ye, dearie?”
“What?” I said, in my surprise.
“Have ye any pennies, dearie, that ye could give me. They’ll take them all from ye any way, dearie, so I might as well have them.”
I understood it fully now, but I had no intention of feeing Mary so early in the game, fearing it would have an influence on her treatment of me, so I said I had lost my purse, which was quite true. But though I did not give Mary any money, she was none the less kind to me. When I objected to the tin plate in which she had brought my food she fetched a china one for me, and when I found it impossible to eat the food she presented she gave me a glass of milk and a soda cracker.
Only a Charity Ward
All the windows in the hall were open and the cold air began to tell on my Southern blood. It grew so cold indeed as to be almost unbearable, and I complained of it to Miss Scott and Miss Ball. But they answered curtly that as I was in a charity place I could not expect much else. All the other women were suffering from the cold, and the nurses themselves had to wear heavy garments to keep themselves warm. I asked if I could go to bed. They said “No!” At last Miss Scott got an old gray shawl, and shaking some of the moths out of it, told me to put it on. “It’s rather a bad-looking shawl,” I said. “Well, some people would get along better if they were not so proud,” said Miss Scott. “People on charity should not expect anything and should not complain.” So I put the moth-eaten shawl, with all its musty smell, around me, and sat down on a wicker chair, wondering what would come next, whether I should freeze to death or survive. My nose was very cold, so I covered up my head and was in a half doze, when the shawl was suddenly jerked from my face and a strange man and Miss Scott stood before me. The man proved to be a doctor, and his first greetings were, “I’ve seen that face before.” “Then you know me?” I asked, with a great show of eagerness that I did not feel. “I think I do. Where did you come from?” “From home.” “Where is home?” “Don’t you know? Cuba.” He then sat down beside me, felt my pulse, and examined my tongue, and at last said: “Tell Miss Scott all about yourself.” “No, I will not. I will not talk with women.” “What do you do in New York?” “Nothing.” “Can you work?” “No, senor.” “Tell me, are you a woman of the town?” “I do not understand you,” I replied, heartily disgusted with him.
“I mean have you allowed the men to provide for you and keep you?”
I felt like slapping him in the face, but I had to maintain my composure, so I simply said: “I do not know what you are talking about. I always lived at home.”
After many more questions, fully as useless and senseless, he left me and began to talk with the nurse. “Positively demented,” he said. “I consider it a hopeless case. She needs to be put where some one will take care of her.”
And so I passed my second medical expert.
After this, I began to have a smaller regard for the ability of doctors than I ever had before, and a greater one for myself. I felt sure now that no doctor could tell whether people were insane or not, so long as the case was not violent.
Later in the afternoon a boy and a woman came. The woman sat down on a bench, while the boy went in and talked with Miss Scott. In a short time he came out, and, just nodding good-bye to the woman, who was his mother, went away. She did not look insane, but as she was German I could not learn her story. Her name, however, was Mrs. Louise Schanz. She seemed quite lost, but when the nurses put her at some sewing she did her work well and quickly. At three in the afternoon all the patients were given a gruel broth, and at five a cup of tea and a piece of bread. I was favored; for when they saw that it was impossible for me to eat the bread or drink the stuff honored by the name of tea, they gave me a cup of milk and a cracker, the same as I had had at noon. Just as the gas was being lighted another patient was added. She was a young girl, twenty-five years old. She told me that she had just gotten up from a sick bed. Her appearance confirmed her story. She looked like one who had had a severe attack of fever. “I am now suffering from nervous debility,” she said, “and my friends have sent me here to be treated for it.” I did not tell her where she was, and she seemed quite satisfied. At 6.15 Miss Ball said that she wanted to go away, and so we would all have to go to bed. Then each of us–we now numbered six–were assigned a room and told to undress. I did so, and was given a short, cotton-flannel gown to wear during the night. Then she took every particle of the clothing I had worn during the day, and, making it up in a bundle, labeled it “Brown,” and took it away. The iron-barred window was locked, and Miss Ball, after giving me an extra blanket, which, she said, was a favor rarely granted, went out and left me alone. The bed was not a comfortable one. It was so hard, indeed, that I could not make a dent in it; and the pillow was stuffed with straw. Under the sheet was an oilcloth spread. As the night grew colder I tried to warm that oilcloth. I kept on trying, but when morning dawned and it was still as cold as when I went to bed, and had reduced me too, to the temperature of an iceberg, I gave it up as an impossible task.
Another Reporter Turns Up
I had hoped to get some rest on this my first night in an insane asylum. But I was doomed to disappointment. When the night nurses came in they were curious to see me and to find out what I was like. No sooner had they left than I heard some one at my door inquiring for Nellie Brown, and I began to tremble, fearing always that my sanity would be discovered. By listening to the conversation I found it was a reporter in search of me, and I heard him ask for my clothing so that he might examine it. I listened quite anxiously to the talk about me, and was relieved to learn that I was considered hopelessly insane. That was encouraging. After the reporter left I heard new arrivals, and I learned that a doctor was there and intended to see me. For what purpose I knew not, and I imagined all sorts of horrible things, such as examinations and the rest of it, and when they got to my room I was shaking with more than fear. “Nellie Brown, here is the doctor; he wishes to speak with you,” said the nurse. If that’s all he wanted I thought I could endure it. I removed the blanket which I had put over my head in my sudden fright and looked up. The sight was reassuring.
A Handsome Doctor
He was a handsome young man. He had the air and address of a gentleman. Some people have since censured this action; but I feel sure, even if it was a little indiscreet, that they young doctor only meant kindness to me. He came forward, seated himself on the side of my bed, and put his arm soothingly around my shoulders. It was a terrible task to play insane before this young man, and only a girl can sympathize with me in my position.
“How do you feel to-night, Nellie?” he asked, easily.
“Oh, I feel all right.”
“But you are sick, you know,” he said.
“Oh, am I?” I replied, and I turned by head on the pillow and smiled.
“When did you leave Cuba, Nellie?”
“Oh, you know my home?” I asked.
“Yes, very well. Don’t you remember me? I remember you.”
“Do you?” and I mentally said I should not forget him. He was accompanied by a friend who never ventured a remark, but stood staring at me as I lay in bed. After a great many questions, to which I answered truthfully, he left me. Then came other troubles. All night long the nurses read one to the other aloud, and I know that the other patients, as well as myself, were unable to sleep. Every half-hour or hour they would walk heavily down the halls, their boot-heels resounding like the march of a private of dragoons, and take a look at every patient. Of course this helped to keep us awake. Then as it came toward morning, they began to beat eggs for breakfast, and the sound made me realize how horribly hungry I was. Occasional yells and cries came from the male department, and that did not aid in making the night pass more cheerfully. Then the ambulance-gong, as it brought in more unfortunates, sounded as a knell to life and liberty. Thus I passed my first night as an insane girl at Bellevue.
The Goal in Sight
AT 6 o’clock on Sunday morning, Sept. 25, the nurses pulled the covering from my bed. “Come, it’s time for you to get out of bed,” they said, and opened the window and let in the cold breeze. My clothing was then returned to me. After dressing I was shown to a washstand, where all the other patients were trying to rid their faces of all traces of sleep. At 7 o’clock we were given some horrible mess, which Mary told us was chicken broth. The cold, from which we had suffered enough the day previous, was bitter, and when I complained to the nurse she said it was one of the rules of the institution not to turn the heat on until October, and so we would have to endure it, as the steam-pipes had not even been put in order. The night nurses then, arming themselves with scissors, began to play manicure on the patients. They cut my nails to the quick, as they did those of several of the other patients. Shortly after this a handsome young doctor made his appearance and I was conducted into the sitting-room. “Who are you?” he asked. “Nellie Moreno,” I replied. “Then why did you give the name of Brown?” he asked. “What is wrong with you?” “Nothing. I did not want to come here, but they brought me. I want to go away. Won’t you let me out?”
Who Is This Man?
“If I take you out will you stay with me? Won’t you run away from me when you get on the street?”
“I can’t promise that I will not,” I answered, with a smile and a sigh, for he was handsome.
He asked me many other questions. Did I ever see faces on the wall? Did I ever hear voices around? I answered him to the best of my ability. “Do you ever hear voices at night?” he asked. “Yes, there is so much talking I cannot sleep.” “I thought so,” he said to himself.
Then turning to me, he asked: “What do these voices say?” “Well, I do not listen to them always. But sometimes, very often, they talk about Nellie Brown, and then on other subjects that do not interest me half so much,” I answered, truthfully. “That will do,” he said to Miss Scott, who was just on the outside. “Can I go away?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, with a satisfied laugh, “we’ll soon send you away.” “It is so very cold here, I want to go out,” I said. “That’s true,” he said to Miss Scott. “The cold is almost unbearable in here, and you will have some cases of pneumonia if you are not careful.”
Tests for Insanity
With this I was led away and another patient was taken in. I sat right outside the door and waited to hear how he would test the sanity of the other patients. With little variation the examination was exactly the same as mine. All the patients were asked if they saw faces on the wall, heard voices, and what they said. I might also add each patient denied any such peculiar freaks of sight and hearing. At 10 o’clock we were given a cup of unsalted beef tea; at noon a bit of cold meat and a potato, at 3 o’clock a cup of oatmeal gruel and at 5.30 a cup of tea and a slice of unbuttered bread. We were all cold and hungry. After the physician left we were given shawls and told to walk up and down the halls in order to get warm. During the day the pavilion was visited by a number of people who were curious to see the crazy girl from Cuba. I kept my head covered, on the plea of being cold, for fear some of the reporters would recognize me. Some of the visitors were apparently in search of a missing girl, for I was made take down the shawl repeatedly, and after they looked at me they would say, “I don’t know her,” “or “she is not the one,” for which I was secretly thankful. Warden O’Rourke visited me, and tried his arts on an examination. Then he brought some well-dressed women and some gentlemen at different times to have a glance at the mysterious Nellie Brown.
Praise of the Reporters
The reporters were the most troublesome. Such a number of them! And they were all so bright and clever that I was terribly frightened lest they should see that I was sane. They were very kind and nice to me, and very gentle in all their questionings. My late visitor the night previous came to the window while some reporters were interviewing me in the sitting-room, and told the nurse to allow them to see me, as they would be of assistance in finding some clew as to my identity.
In the afternoon Dr. Field came and examined me. He asked me only a few questions, and one that had no bearing on such a case. The chief question was of my home and friends, and if I had any lovers or had ever been married. Then he made me stretch out my arms and move my fingers, which I did without the least hesitation, yet I heard him say my case was hopeless. The other patients were asked the same questions. As the doctor was about to leave the pavilion Miss Tillie Mayard discovered that she was in an insane ward. She went to Dr. Field and asked him why she had been sent there. “Have you just found out you are in an insane asylum?” asked the doctor. “Yes; my friends said they were sending me to a convalescent ward to be treated for nervous debility, from which I am suffering since my illness. I want to get out of this place immediately.” “Well, you won’t get out in a hurry,” he said, with a quick laugh. “If you know anything at all,” she responded, “you should be able to tell that I am perfectly sane. Why don’t you test me?” “We know all we want to on that score,” said the doctor, and he left the poor girl condemned to an insane asylum, probably for life, without giving her one feeble chance to prove her sanity.
Sunday night was but a repetition of Saturday. All night long we were kept awake by the talk of the nurses and their heavy walking through the uncarpeted halls. On Monday morning we were told that we should be taken away at 1.30. The nurses questioned me unceasingly about my home, and all seemed to have an idea that I had a lover who had cast me forth on the world and wrecked my brain. The morning brought many reporters. How untiring they are in their efforts to get something new. Miss Scott refused to allow me to be seen, however, and for this I was thankful. Had they been given free access to me, I should probably not have been a mystery long, for many of them knew me by sight. Warden O’Rourke came for a final visit and had a short conversation with me. He wrote his name in my notebook, saying to the nurse that I would forget all about it in an hour. I smiled and thought I wasn’t sure of that. Other people called to see me, but none knew me or could give any information about me.
Noon came. I grew nervous as the time approached to leave for the Island. I dreaded every new arrival, fearful that my secret would be discovered at the last moment. Then I was given a shawl and my hat and gloves. I could hardly put them on, my nerves were so unstrung. At last the attendant arrived, and I bade good-bye to Mary as I slipped “a few pennies” into her hand. “God bless you,” she said; “I shall pray for you. Cheer up, dearie. You are young, and will get over this.” I told her I hoped so, and then I said good-bye to Miss Scott in Spanish. The rough-looking attendant twisted his arms around mine, and half-led, half-dragged me to an ambulance. A crowd of the students had assembled, and they watched us curiously. I put the shawl over my face, and sank thankfully into the wagon. Miss Neville, Miss Mayard, Mrs. Fox, and Mrs. Schanz were all put in after me, one at a time. A man got in with us, the doors were locked, and we were driven out of the gates in great style on toward the Insane Asylum and victory! The patients made no move to escape. The odor of the male attendant’s breath was enough to make one’s head swim.
When we reached the wharf such a mob of people crowded around the wagon that the police were called to put them away, so that we could reach the boat. I was the last of the procession. I was escorted down the plank, the fresh breeze blowing the attendants’ whisky breath into my face until I staggered. I was taken into a dirty cabin, where I found my companions seated on a narrow bench. The small windows were closed, and, with the smell of the filthy room, the air was stifling. At one end of the cabin was a small bunk in such a condition that I had to hold my nose when I went near it. A sick girl was put on it. An old woman, with an enormous bonnet and a dirty basket filled with chunks of bread and bits of scrap meat, completed our company. The door was guarded by two female attendants. One was clad in a dress made of bed-ticking and the other was dressed with some attempt at style. They were coarse, massive women, and expectorated tobacco juice about on the floor in a manner more skillful than charming. One of these fearful creatures seemed to have much faith in the power of the glance on insane people, for, when any one of us would move or go to look out of the high window she would say “Sit down,” and would lower her brows and glare in a way that was simply terrifying. While guarding the door they talked with some men on the outside. They discussed the number of patients and then their own affairs in a manner neither edifying nor refined.
The boat stopped and the old woman and the sick girl were taken off. The rest of us were told to sit still. At the next stop my companions were taken off, one at a time. I was last, and it seemed to require a man and a woman to lead me up the plank to reach the shore.
An ambulance was standing there, and in it were the four other patients.
“What is this place?” I asked of the man, who had his fingers sunk into the flesh of my arm.
“Blackwell’s Island, an insane place, where you’ll never get out of.”
With this I was shoved into the ambulance, the springboard was put up, an officer and a mail-carrier jumped on behind, and I was swiftly driven to the Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Of my ten days’ experience there I have yet to tell.
(Source: Nellie Bly: The Pioneer Woman Journalist at http://www.nellieblyonline.com/herwriting)
The works of Nellie Bly and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.