The New York World/October 16, 1887
Nellie Bly’s Experience in the Blackwell’s Island Asylum
Continuation of the Story of Ten Days With Lunatics
How the City’s Unfortunate Wards Are Fed and Treated
The Terrors of Cold Baths and Cruel, Unsympathetic Nurses
Attendants Who Harass and Abuse Patients and Laugh at Their Miseries
Doctors Who Flirt with Pretty Nurses –A Queer Medical Examination that Did Not Examine—Inmates of Hall No. 6—At the Plane—Taking Away Her Clothes—A Long Wait in the Cold for Supper—No Knives nor Fords—Food Unsalted and Unfit—Half Drowned in an Icy Bath—Soap Only Once a Week—Put to Bed in Damp Clothing—Noises at Night—The Horror of Fire in a Locked and Barred Room—Hair Combed with a Public Comb—Nurses Who Vex and Annoy Patients—Holding Them Under Water Until Half Downed—Punishing Unfortunates Who Appeal for Protection—Attendants Curse Nellie—Set Free at Last.
AS the wagon was rapidly driven through the beautiful lawns up to the asylum my feelings of satisfaction at having attained the object of my work were greatly dampened by the look of distress on the faces of my companions. Poor women, they had no hopes of a speedy delivery! On the wagon sped, and I, as well as my comrades, gave a despairing farewell glance at freedom as we came in sight of the long stone buildings. We passed one low building, and the stench was so horrible that I was compelled to hold my breath, and I mentally decided that it was the kitchen. I afterward found I was correct in my surmise, and smiled at the signboard at the end of the walk: “Visitors are not allowed on this road.” I don’t think the sign would be necessary if they once tried the road, especially on a warm day.
The wagon stopped, and the nurse and officer in charge told us to get out. The nurse added: “Thank God! they came quietly.” We obeyed orders to go ahead up a flight of narrow, stone steps, which had evidently been built for the accommodation of people who climb stairs three at a time. I wondered if my companions knew where we were, so I said to Miss Tillie Mayard: “Where are we?” “At the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum,” she answered, sadly. “Are you crazy?” I asked. “No,” she replied; “but as we have been sent here we will have to be quiet until we find some means of escape. They will be few, though, if all the doctors, as Dr. Field, refuse to listen to me or give me a chance to prove my sanity.” We were ushered into a narrow vestibule, and the door was locked behind us.
In spite of the knowledge of my sanity and the assurance that I would be released in a few days, my heart gave a sharp twinge. Pronounced insane by four expert doctors and shut up behind the unmerciful bolts and bars of a madhouse! Not to be confined alone, but to be a companion, day and night, of senseless, chattering lunatics; to sleep with them, to eat with them, to be considered one of them, was an uncomfortable position. Timidly we followed the nurse up the long uncarpeted hall to a room filled by so-called crazy women. We were told to sit down, and some of the patients kindly made room for us. They looked at us curiously, and one came up to me and asked: “Who sent you here?” “The doctors,” I answered. “What for?” she persisted. “Well, they say I am insane,” I admitted. “Insane!” she repeated, incredulously. “It cannot be seen in your face.”
This woman was too clever, I concluded, and was glad to answer the roughly given orders to follow the nurse to see the doctor. This nurse, Miss Grupe, by the way, had a nice German face, and if I had not detected certain hard lines about the mouth I might have expected, as did my companions, to receive but kindness from her. She left us in a small waiting-room at the end of the hall, and left us alone while she went into a small office opening into the sitting or receiving-room. “I like to go down in the wagon,” she said to the invisible party on the inside. “It helps to break up the day.” He answered her that the open air improved her looks, and she again appeared before us all smiles and simpers.
“Come here, Tillie Mayard,” she said. Miss Mayard obeyed, and, though I could not see into the office, I could hear her gently but firmly pleading her case. All her remarks were as rational as any I ever heard, and I thought no good physician could help but be impressed with her story. She told of her recent illness, that she was suffering from nervous debility. She begged that they try all their tests for insanity, if they had any, and give her justice. Poor girl, how my heart ached for her! I determined then and there that I would try by every means to make my mission of benefit to my suffering sisters; that I would show how they are committed without ample trial. Without one word of sympathy or encouragement she was brought back to where we sat.
Mrs. Louise Schanz was taken into the presence of Dr. Kinter, the medical man. “Your name?” he asked, loudly. She answered in German, saying she did not speak English nor could she understand it. However, when he said Mrs. Louise Schanz, she said “Yah, yah.”
Then he tried other questions, and when he found she could not understand one world of English, he said to Miss Grupe: “You are German; speak to her for me.” Miss Grupe proved to be one of those people who are ashamed of their nationality, and she refused, saying she could understand but few worlds of her mother tongue. “You know you speak German. Ask this woman what her husband does,” and they both laughed as if they were enjoying a joke. “I can’t speak but a few words,” she protested, but at last she managed to ascertain the occupation of Mr. Schanz. “Now, what was the use of lying to me?” asked the doctor, with a laugh which dispelled the rudeness. “I can’t speak any more,” she said, and she did not.
Thus was Mrs. Louise Schanz consigned to the asylum without a chance of making herself understood. Can such carelessness be excused, I wonder, when it is so easy to get an interpreter? If the confinement was but for a few days one might question the necessity. But here was a woman taken without her own consent from the free world to an asylum and there given no chance to prove her sanity. Confined most probably for life behind asylum bars, without even being told in her language the why and wherefore. Compare this with a criminal, who is given every chance to prove his innocence. Who would not rather be a murderer and take the chance for life than be declared insane, without hope of escape? Mrs. Schanz begged in German to know where she was, and pleaded for liberty.
Her voice broken by sobs, she was led unheard out to us.
Mrs. Fox was then put through this weak, trifling examination and brought from the office, convicted. Miss Annie Neville took her turn, and I was again left to the last. I had by this time determined to act as I do when free, except that I would refuse to tell who I was or where my home was.
THEY EXAMINE HER AGAIN
But the Doctor Paid More Attention to the Nurse Than to His Patient
“NELLIE BROWN, the doctor wants you,” said Miss Grupe. I went in and was told to sit down opposite Dr. Kinier at the desk. “What is your name?” he asked, without looking up. “Nellie Brown,” I replied easily. “Where is your home?” writing what I had said down in a large book. “In Cuba.” “Oh!” he ejaculated, with sudden understanding–then, addressing the nurse: “Did you see anything in the papers about her?” “Yes,” she replied, “I saw a long account of this girl in the Sun on Sunday.” Then the doctor said: “Keep her here until I go to the office and see the notice again.” He left us, and I was relieved of my hat and shawl. On his return, he said he had been unable to find the paper, but he related the story of my debut, as he had read it, to the nurse. “What’s the color of her eyes?” Miss Grupe looked, and answered “gray,” although everybody had always said my eyes were brown or hazel. “What’s your age?” he asked; and as I answered, “Nineteen last May,” he turned to the nurse, and said, “When do you get your next pass?” This I ascertained was a leave of absence, or “a day off.” “Next Saturday,” she said, with a laugh. “You will go to town?” and they both laughed as she answered in the affirmative, and he said:
“Measure her.” I was stood under a measure, and it was brought down tightly on my head. “What is it?” asked the doctor. “Now you know I can’t tell,” she said. “Yes, you can; go ahead. What height?” “I don’t know; there are some figures there, but I can’t tell.” “Yes, you can. Now look and tell me.” “I can’t; do it yourself,” and they laughed again as the doctor left his place at the desk and came forward to see for himself. “Five feet five inches; don’t you see?” he said, taking her hand and touching the figures. By her voice I knew she did not understand yet, but that was no concern of mine, as the doctor seemed to find a pleasure in aiding her. Then I was put on the scales, and she worked around until she got them to balance. “How much?” asked the doctor, having resumed his position at the desk. “I don’t know. You will have to see for yourself,” she replied, calling him by his Christian name, which I have forgotten. He turned and also addressing her by her baptismal name, he said: “You are getting too fresh!” and they both laughed. I then told the weight–112 pounds–to the nurse, and she in turn told the doctor. “What time are you going to supper?” he asked, and she told him. He gave the nurse more attention than he did me, and asked her six questions to every one of me. Then he wrote my fate in the book before him. I said, “I am not sick and I do not want to stay here. No one has a right to shut me up in this manner.” He took no notice of my remarks, and having completed his writings, as well as his talk with the nurse for the moment, he said that would do, and with my companions, I went back to the sitting-room.
“You play the piano?” they asked. “Oh, yes; ever since I was a child,” I replied. Then they insisted that I should play, and they seated me on a wooden chair before an old-fashioned square. I struck a few notes, and the untuned response sent a grinding chill through me. “How horrible,” I exclaimed, turning to a nurse, Miss McCarten, who stood at my side. “I never touched a piano as much out of tune.” “It’s a pity of you,” she said, spitefully; “we’ll have to get one made to order for you.” I began to play the variations of “Home Sweet Home.” The talking ceased and every patient sat silent, while my cold fingers moved slowly and stiffly over the keyboard. I finished in an aimless fashion and refused all requests to play more. Not seeing an available place to sit, I still occupied the chair in the front of the piano while I “sized up” my surroundings.
It was a long, bare room, with bare yellow benches encircling it. These benches, which were perfectly straight, and just as uncomfortable, would hold five people, although in almost every instance six were crowded on them. Barred windows, built about five feet from the floor, faced the two double doors which led into the hall. The bare white walls were somewhat relieved by three lithographs, one of Fritz Emmet and the others of negro minstrels. In the center of the room was a large table covered with a white bed-spread, and around it sat the nurses. Everything was spotlessly clean and I thought what good workers the nurses must be to keep such order. In a few days after how I laughed at my own stupidity to think the nurses would work. When they found I would not play any more, Miss McCarten came up to me saying, roughly: “Get away from here,” and closed the piano with a bang.
“Brown, come here,” was the next order I got from a rough, red-faced woman at the table.
“What have you on?” “My clothing,” I replied. She lifted my dress and skirts and wrote down one pair shoes, one pair stockings, one cloth dress, one straw sailor hat, and so on.
Rancid Butter, Weak Tea and Five Prunes Her Uninviting Portion
THIS examination over, we heard some one yell, “Go out into the hall.” One of the patients kindly explained that this was an invitation to supper. We late comers tried to keep together, so we entered the hall and stood at the door where all the women had crowded. How we shivered as we stood there! The windows were open and the draught went whizzing through the hall. The patients looked blue with cold, and the minutes stretched into a quarter of an hour. At last one of the nurses went forward and unlocked a door, through which we all crowded to a landing of the stairway. Here again came a long halt directly before an open window. “How very imprudent for the attendants to keep these thinly clad women standing here in the cold,” said Miss Neville. I looked at the poor crazy captives shivering, and added, emphatically, “It’s horribly brutal.” While they stood there I thought I would not relish supper that night. They looked so lost and hopeless. Some were chattering foolish nonsense to invisible persons, others were laughing or crying aimlessly, and one old, gray-haired woman was nudging me, and, with winks and sage noddings of the head and pitiful uplifting of the eyes and hands, was assuring me that I must not mind the poor creatures, as they were all mad. “Stop at the heater,” was then ordered, “and get in line, two by two.” “Mary, get a companion.” “How many times must I tell you to keep in line?” “Stand still,” and, as the orders were issued, a shove and a push were administered, and often a slap on the ears. After this third and final halt, we were marched into a long, narrow dining-room, where a rush was made for the table.
The table reached the length of the room and was uncovered and uninviting. Long benches without backs were put for the patients to sit on, and over these they had to crawl in order to face the table. Placed closed together all along the table were large dressing-bowls filled with a pinkish-looking stuff which the patients called tea. By each bowl was laid a piece of bread, cut thick and buttered. A small saucer containing five prunes accompanied the bread. One fat woman made a rush, and jerking up several saucers from those around her emptied their contents into her own saucer. Then while holding to her own bowl she lifted up another and drained its contents at one gulp. This she did to a second bowl in shorter time than it takes to tell it. Indeed, I was so amused at her successful grabbings that when I looked at my own share the woman opposite, without so much as by your leave, grabbed my bread and left me without any.
Another patient, seeing this, kindly offered me hers, but I declined with thanks and turned to the nurse and asked for more. As she flung a thick piece down on the table she made some remark about the fact that if I forgot where my home was I had not forgotten how to eat. I tried the bread, but the butter was so horrible that one could not eat it. A blue-eyed German girl on the opposite side of the table told me I could have bread unbuttered if I wished, and that very few were able to eat the butter. I turned my attention to the prunes and found that very few of them would be sufficient. A patient near asked me to give them to her. I did so. My bowl of tea was all that was left. I tasted, and one taste was enough. It had no sugar, and it tasted as if it had been made in copper. It was as weak as water. This was also transferred to a hungrier patient, in spite of the protest of Miss Neville. “You must force the food down,” she said, “else you will be sick, and who know but what, with these surroundings, you may go crazy. To have a good brain the stomach must be cared for.” “It is impossible for me to eat that stuff,” I replied, and, despite all her urging, I ate nothing that night.
It did not require much time for the patients to consume all that was eatable on the table, and then we got our orders to form in line in the hall. When this was done the doors before us were unlocked and we were ordered to proceed back to the sitting-room. Many of the patients crowded near us, and I was again urged to play, both by them and by the nurses. To please the patients I promised to play and Miss Tillie Mayard was to sing. The first thing she asked me to play was “Rock-a-bye Baby,” and I did so. She sang it beautifully.
IN THE BATH.
Scrubbed with Soft Soap and Put to Bed in a Wet Gown
A few more songs and we were told to go with Miss Grupe. We were taken into a cold, wet bathroom, and I was ordered to undress. Did I protest? Well, I never grew so earnest in my life as when I tried to beg off. They said if I did not they would use force and that it would not be very gentle. At this I noticed one of the craziest women in the ward standing by the filled bathtub with a large, discolored rag in her hands. She was chattering away to herself and chuckling in a manner which seemed to me fiendish. I knew now what was to be done with me. I shivered. They began to undress me, and one by one they pulled off my clothes. At last everything was gone excepting one garment. “I will not remove it,” I said vehemently, but they took it off. I gave one glance at the group of patients gathered at the door watching the scene, and I jumped into the bathtub with more energy than grace.
The water was ice-cold, and I again began to protest. How useless it all was! I begged, at least, that the patients be made to go away, but was ordered to shut up. The crazy woman began to scrub me. I can find no other word that will express it but scrubbing. From a small tin pan she took some soft soap and rubbed it all over me, even all over my face and my pretty hair. I was at last past seeing or speaking, although I had begged that my hair be left untouched. Rub, rub, rub went the old woman, chattering to herself. My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head–ice-cold water, too–into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth. I think I experienced some of the sensations of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane, as they put me me, dripping wet, into a short canton flannel slip, labeled across the extreme end in large black letters, “Lunatic Asylum, B. I., H. 6.” The letters meant Blackwell’s Island, Hall 6.
By this time Miss Mayard had been undressed, and, much as I hated my recent bath, I would have taken another if by it I could have saved her the experience. Imagine plunging that sick girl into a cold bath when it made me, who have never been ill, shake as if with ague. I heard her explain to Miss Grupe that her head was still sore from her illness. Her hair was short and had mostly come out, and she asked that the crazy woman be made to rub more gently, but Miss Grupe said: “There isn’t much fear of hurting you. Shut up, or you’ll get it worse.” Miss Mayard did shut up, and that was my last look at her for the night.
I was hurried into a room where there were six beds, and had been put into bed when some one came along and jerked me out again, saying: “Nellie Brown has to be put in a room alone to-night, for I suppose she’s noisy.” I was taken to room 28 and left to try and make an impression on the bed. It was an impossible task. The bed had been made high in the center and sloping on either side. At the first touch my head flooded the pillow with water, and my wet slip transferred some of its dampness to the sheet. When Miss Grupe came in I asked if I could not have a night-gown. “We have not such things in this institution,” she said. “I do not like to sleep without,” I replied. “Well, I don’t care about that,” she said. “You are in a public institution now, and you can’t expect to get anything. This is charity, and you should be thankful for what you get.” “But the city pays to keep these places up,” I urged, “and pays people to be kind to the unfortunates brought here.” “Well, you don’t need to expect any kindness here, for you won’t get it,” she said, and she went out and closed the door.
A sheet and an oilcloth were under me, and a sheet and black wool blanket above. I never felt anything so annoying as that wool blanket as I tried to keep it around my shoulders to stop the chills from getting underneath. When I pulled it up I left my feet bare, and when I pulled it down my shoulders were exposed. There was absolutely nothing in the room but the bed and myself. As the door had been locked I imagined I should be left alone for the night, but I heard the sound of the heavy tread of two women down the hall. They stopped at every door, unlocked it, and in a few moments I could hear them relock it. This they did without the least attempt at quietness down the whole length of the opposite side of the hall and up to my room. Here they paused. The key was inserted in the lock and turned. I watched those about to enter. In they came, dressed in brown and white striped dresses, fastened by brass buttons, large, white aprons, a heavy green cord about the waist, from which dangled a bunch of large keys, and small, white caps on their heads. Being dressed as were the attendants of the day, I knew they were nurses. The first one carried a lantern, and she flashed its light into my face while she said to her assistant: “This is Nellie Brown.” Looking at her, I asked: “Who are you?” “The night nurse, my dear,” she replied, and, wishing that I would sleep well, she went out and locked the door after her. Several times during the night they came into my room, and even had I been able to sleep, the unlocking of the heavy door, their loud talking, and heavy tread, would have awakened me.
THE HORROR OF FIRE.
Escape Practically Impossible in Case the Building Should Burn.
I could not sleep, so I lay in bed picturing to myself the horrors in case a fire should break out in the asylum. Every door is locked separately and the windows are heavily barred, so that escape is impossible. In the one building alone there are, I think Dr. Ingram told me, some 300 women. They are locked, one to ten to a room. It is impossible to get out unless these doors are unlocked. A fire is not improbable, but one of the most likely occurrences.
Should the building burn, the jailers or nurses would never think of releasing their crazy patients. This I can prove to you later when I come to tell of their cruel treatment of the poor things intrusted to their care. As I say, in case of fire, not a dozen women could escape. All would be left to roast to death. Even if the nurses were kind, which they are not, it would require more presence of mind than women of their class possess to risk the flames and their own lives while they unlocked the hundred doors for the insane prisoners. Unless there is a change there will some day be a tale of horror never equaled.
In this connection is an amusing incident which happened just previous to my release. I was talking with Dr. Ingram about many things, and at last told him what I thought would be the result of a fire. “The nurses are expected to open the doors,” he said. “But you know positively that they would not wait to do that,” I said, “and these women would burn to death.” He sat silent, unable to contradict my assertion. “Why don’t you have it changed?” I asked. “What can I do?” he replied. “I offer suggestions until my brain is tired, but what good does it do? What would you do?” he asked, turning to me, the proclaimed insane girl. “Well, I should insist on them having locks put in, as I have seen in some places, that by turning a crank at the end of the hall you can lock or unlock every door on the one side. Then there would be some chance of escape. Now, every door being locked separately, there is absolutely none.” Dr. Ingram turned to me with an anxious look on his kind face as he asked, slowly: “Nellie Brown, what institution have you been an inmate of before you came here?” “None. I never was confined in any institution, except boarding-school, in my life.” “Where then did you see the locks you have described?” I had seen them in the new Western Penitentiary at Pittsburg, Pa., but I did not dare say so. I merely answered: “Oh, I have seen them in a place I was in–I mean as a visitor.” “There is only one place I know of where they have those locks,” he said, sadly, “and that is at Sing Sing. The inference is conclusive.” I laughed very heartily over the implied accusation, and tried to assure him that I had never, up to date, been an inmate of Sing Sing or even ever visited it.
Just as the morning began to dawn I went to sleep. It did not seem many moments until I was rudely awakened and told to get up, the window being opened and the clothing pulled off me. My hair was still wet and I had pains all through me, as if I had the rheumatism. Some clothing was flung on the floor and I was told to put it on. I asked for my own, but was told to take what I got and keep quiet by the apparently head nurse, Miss Grady. I looked at it. One underskirt made of coarse dark cotton goods and a cheap white calico dress with a black spot in it. I tied the strings of the skirt around me and put on the little dress. It was made, as are all those worn by the patients, into a straight tight waist sewed on to a straight skirt. As I buttoned the waist I noticed the underskirt was about six inches longer than the upper, and for a moment I sat down on the bed and laughed at my own appearance. No woman ever longed for a mirror more than I did at that moment.
I saw the other patients hurrying past in the hall, so I decided not to lose anything that might be going on. We numbered forty-five patients in Hall 6, and were sent to the bathroom, where there were two coarse towels. I watched crazy patients who had the most dangerous eruptions all over their faces dry on the towels and then saw women with clean skins turn to use them. I went to the bathtub and washed my face at the running faucet and my underskirt did duty for a towel.
THE FIRST MORNING.
Combed with a Public Comb, the Breakfast and the Uniform.
Before I had completed my ablutions a bench was brought into the bathroom. Miss Grupe and Miss McCarten came in with combs in their hands. We were told to sit down on the bench, and the hair of forty-five women was combed with one patient, two nurses, and six combs. As I saw some of the sore heads combed I thought this was another dose I had not bargained for. Miss Tillie Mayard had her own comb, but it was taken from her by Miss Grady. Oh, that combing! I never realized before what the expression “I’ll give you a combing” meant, but I knew then. My hair, all matted and wet from the night previous, was pulled and jerked, and, after expostulating to no avail, I set my teeth and endured the pain. They refused to give me my hairpins, and my hair was arranged in one plait and tied with a red cotton rag. My curly bangs refused to stay back.
After this we went to the sitting-room and I looked for my companions. At first I looked vainly, unable to distinguish them from the other patients, but after awhile I recognized Miss Mayard by her short hair. “How did you sleep after your cold bath?” “I almost froze, and then the noise kept me awake. It’s dreadful! My nerves were so unstrung before I came here, and I fear I shall not be able to stand the strain.” I did the best I could to cheer her. I asked that we be given additional clothing, at least as much as custom says women shall wear, but they told me to shut up; that we had as much as they intended to give us.
We were compelled to get up at 5.30 o’clock, and at 7.15 we were told to collect in the hall, where the experience of waiting, as on the evening previous, was repeated. When we got into the dining-room at last we found a bowl of cold tea, a slice of buttered bread and a saucer of oatmeal, with molasses on it, for each patient. I was hungry, but the food would not down. I asked for unbuttered bread and was given it. I cannot tell you of anything which is the same dirty, black color. It was hard, and in places nothing more than dried dough. I found a spider in my slice, so I did not eat it. I tried the oatmeal and molasses, but it was wretched, and so I endeavored, but without much show of success, to choke down the tea.
After we were back to the sitting-room a number of women were ordered to make the beds, and some of the patients were put to scrubbing and others given different duties which covered all the work in the hall. It is not the attendants who keep the institution so nice for the poor patients, as I had always thought, but the patients, who do it all themselves–even to cleaning the nurses’ bedrooms and caring for their clothing.
About 9.30 the new patients, of which I was one, were told to go out to see the doctor. I was taken in and my lungs and my heart were examined by the flirty young doctor who was the first to see us the day we entered. The one who made out the report, if I mistake not, was the Assistant Superintendent, Ingram. A few questions and I was allowed to return to the sitting-room.
I came in and saw Miss Grady with my note-book and long lead pencil, bought just for the occasion. “I want my book and pencil,” I said, quite truthfully. “It helps me remember things.” I was very anxious to get it to make notes in and was disappointed when she said: “You can’t have it, so shut up.” Some days after I asked Dr. Ingram if I could have it, and he promised to consider the matter. When I again referred to it, he said that Miss Grady said I only brought a book there; and that I had no pencil. I was provoked, and insisted that I had, whereupon I was advised to fight against the imaginations of my brain.
After the housework was completed by the patients, and as day was fine, but cold, we were told to go out in the hall and get on shawls and hats for a walk. Poor patients! How eager they were for a breath of air; how eager for a slight release from their prison. They went swiftly into the hall and there was a skirmish for hats. Such hats!
THE VIOLENT PATIENTS.
Unspeakable Scenes in the Yard—The Evil of Enforced Idleness
We had not gone many paces when I saw, proceeding from every walk, long lines of women guarded by nurses. How many there were! Every way I looked I could see them in the queer dresses, comical straw hats and shawls, marching slowly around. I eagerly watched the passing lines and a thrill of horror crept over me at the sight. Vacant eyes and meaningless faces, and their tongues uttered meaningless nonsense. One crowd passed and I noted by nose as well as eyes, that they were fearfully dirty. “Who are they?” I asked of a patient near me. “They are considered the most violent on the island,” she replied. “They are from the Lodge, the first building with the high steps.” Some were yelling, some were cursing, others were singing or praying or preaching, as the fancy struck them, and they made up the most miserable collection of humanity I had ever seen. As the din of their passing faded in the distance there came another sight I can never forget:
A long cable rope fastened to wide leather belts, and these belts locked around the waists of fifty-two women. At the end of the rope was a heavy iron cart, and in it two women–one nursing a sore foot, another screaming at some nurse, saying: “You beat me and I shall not forget it. You want to kill me,” and then she would sob and cry. The women “on the rope,” as the patients call it, were each busy on their individual freaks. Some were yelling all the while. One who had blue eyes saw me look at her, and she turned as far as she could, talking and smiling, with that terrible, horrifying look of absolute insanity stamped on her. The doctors might safely judge on her case. The horror of that sight to one who had never been near an insane person before, was something unspeakable. “God help them!” breathed Miss Neville. “It is so dreadful I cannot look.” On they passed, but for their places to be filled by more. Can you imagine the sight? According to one of the physicians there are 1600 insane women on Blackwell’s Island.
I was annoyed a great deal by nurses who had heard my romantic story calling to those in charge of us to ask which one I was. I was pointed out repeatedly.
It was not long until the dinner hour arrived and I was so hungry that I felt I could eat anything. The same old story of standing for a half and three-quarters of an hour in the hall was repeated before we got down to our dinners. The bowls in which we had had our tea were now filled with soup, and on a plate was one cold boiled potato and a chunk of beef, which on investigation, proved to be slightly spoiled. There were no knives or forks, and the patients looked fairly savage as they took the tough beef in their fingers and pulled in opposition to their teeth. Those toothless or with poor teeth could not eat it. One tablespoon was given for the soup, and a piece of bread was the final entree. Butter is never allowed at dinner nor coffee or tea. Miss Mayard could not eat, and I saw many of the sick ones turn away in disgust. I was getting very weak from the want of food and tried to eat a slice of bread. After the first few bites hunger asserted itself, and I was able to eat all but the crusts of the one slice.
Supt. Dent went through the sitting-room, giving an occasional “How do you do?” “How are you today?” here and there among the patients. His voice was as cold as the hall, and the patients made no movement to tell him of their sufferings. I asked some of them to tell how they were suffering from the cold and insufficiency of clothing, but they replied that the nurse would beat them if they told.
I was never so tired as I grew sitting on those benches. Several of the patients would sit on one foot or sideways to make a change, but they were always reproved and told to sit up straight. If they talked they were scolded and told to shut up; if they wanted to walk around in order to take the stiffness out of them, they were told to sit down and be still. What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured? I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A. M. until 8 P. M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.
BAD FOOD AND WORSE HELP
When One Falls Ill the Natural Thing is to Simply Die
I have described my first day in the asylum, and as my other nine were exactly the same in the general run of things it would be tiresome to tell about each. In giving this story I expect to be contradicted by many who are exposed. I merely tell in common words, without exaggeration, of my life in a mad-house for ten days. The eating was one of the most horrible things. Excepting the first two days after I entered the asylum, there was no salt for the food. The hungry and even famishing women made an attempt to eat the horrible messes. Mustard and vinegar were put on meat and in soup to give it a taste, but it only helped to make it worse. Even that was all consumed after two days, and the patients had to try to choke down fresh fish, just boiled in water, without salt, pepper or butter; mutton, beef and potatoes without the faintest seasoning. The most insane refused to swallow the food and were threatened with punishment. In our short walks we passed the kitchen where food was prepared for the nurses and doctors. There we got glimpses of melons and grapes and all kinds of fruits, beautiful white bread and nice meats, and the hungry feeling would be increased tenfold. I spoke to some of the physicians, but it had no effect, and when I was taken away the food was yet unsalted.
My heart ached to see the sick patients grow sicker over the table. I saw Miss Tillie Mayard so suddenly overcome at a bite that she had to rush from the dining-room and then got a scolding for doing so. When the patients complained of the food they were told to shut up; that they would not have as good if they were at home, and that it was too good for charity patients.
A German girl, Louise–I have forgotten her last name–did not eat for several days and at last one morning she was missing. From the conversation of the nurses I found she was suffering from a high fever. Poor thing! she told me she unceasingly prayed for death. I watched the nurses make a patient carry such food as the well ones were refusing up to Louise’s room. Think of that stuff for a fever patient! Of course, she refused it. Then I saw a nurse, Miss McCarten, go to test her temperature, and she returned with a report of it being some 150 degrees. I smiled at the report, and Miss Grupe, seeing it, asked me how high my temperature had ever run. I refused to answer. Miss Grady then decided to try her ability. She returned with the report of 99 degrees.
Miss Tillie Mayard suffered more than any of us from the cold, and yet she tried to follow my advice to be cheerful and try to keep up for a short time. Superintendent Dent brought in a man to see me. He felt my pulse and my head and examined my tongue. I told them how cold it was, and assured them that I did not need medical aid, but that Miss Mayard did, and they should transfer their attentions to her. They did not answer me, and I was pleased to see Miss Mayard leave her place and come forward to them. She spoke to the doctors and told them she was ill, but they paid no attention to her. The nurses came and dragged her back to the bench, and after the doctors left they said, “After awhile, when you see that the doctors will not notice you, you will quit running up to them.” Before the doctors left me I heard one say–I cannot give it in his exact words–that my pulse and eyes were not that of an insane girl, but Supt Dent assured him that in cases such as mine such tests failed. After watching me for awhile he said my face was the brightest he had ever seen for a lunatic. The nurses had on heavy undergarments and coats, but they refused to give us shawls.
Nearly all night long I listened to a woman cry about the cold and beg for God to let her die. Another one yelled “Murder!” at frequent intervals and “Police!” at others until my flesh felt creepy.
The second morning, after we had begun our endless “set” for the day, two of the nurses, assisted by some patients, brought the woman in who had begged the night previous for God to take her home. I was not surprised at her prayer. She appeared easily seventy years old, and she was blind. Although the halls were freezing cold, that old woman had no more clothing on than the rest of us, which I have described. When she was brought into the sitting-room and placed on the hard bench, she cried: “Oh, what are you doing with me? I am cold, so cold. Why can’t I stay in bed or have a shawl?” and then she would get up and endeavor to feel her way to leave the room. Sometimes the attendants would jerk her back to the bench, and again they would let her walk and heartlessly laugh when she bumped against the table or the edge of the benches. At one time she said the heavy shoes which charity provides hurt her feet, and she took them off. The nurses made two patients put them on her again, and when she did it several times, and fought against having them on, I counted seven people at her at once trying to put the shoes on her. The old woman then tried to lie down on the bench, but they pulled her up again. It sounded so pitiful to hear her cry: “Oh, give me a pillow and pull the covers over me, I am so cold.”
At this I saw Miss Grupe sit down on her and run her cold hands over the old woman’s face and down inside the neck of her dress. At the old woman’s cries she laughed savagely, as did the other nurses, and repeated her cruel action. That day the old woman was carried away to another ward.
MADE MAD BY SURROUNDINGS.
The Tragic Case of Miss Tillie Mayard—Very Near to Detection.
MISS TILLIE MAYARD suffered greatly from cold. One morning she sat on the bench next to me and was livid with the cold. Her limbs shook and her teeth chattered. I spoke to the three attendants who sat with coats on at the table in the center of the floor. “It is cruel to lock people up and then freeze them,” I said. They replied she had on as much as any of the rest, and she would get no more. Just then Miss Mayard took a fit and every patient looked frightened. Miss Neville caught her in her arms and held her, although the nurses roughly said: “Let her fall on the floor and it will teach her a lesson.” Miss Neville told them what she thought of their actions, and then I got orders to make my appearance in the office.
Just as I reached there Superintendent Dent came to the door and I told him how we were suffering from the cold, and of Miss Mayard’s condition. Doubtless, I spoke incoherently, for I told of the state of the food, the treatment of the nurses and their refusal to give more clothing, the condition of Miss Mayard, and the nurses telling us, because the asylum was a public institution we could not expect even kindness. Assuring him that I needed no medical aid, I told him to go to Miss Mayard. He did so. From Miss Neville and other patients I learned what transpired. Miss Mayard was still in the fit, and he caught her roughly between the eyebrows or thereabouts, and pinched until her face was crimson from the rush of blood to the head, and her senses returned. All day afterward she suffered from terrible headache, and from that on she grew worse.
Insane? Yes, insane; and as I watched the insanity slowly creep over the mind that had appeared to be all right I secretly cursed the doctors, the nurses and all public institutions. Some one may say that she was insane at some time previous to her consignment to the asylum. Then if she were, was this the proper place to send a woman just convalescing, to be given cold baths, deprived of sufficient clothing and fed with horrible food?
On this morning I had a long conversation with Dr. Ingram, the assistant superintendent of the asylum. I found that he was kind to the helpless in his charge. I began my old complaint of the cold, and he called Miss Grady to the office and ordered more clothing given the patients. Miss Grady said if I made a practice of telling it would be a serious thing for me, she warned me in time.
Many visitors looking for missing girls came to see me. Miss Grady yelled in the door from the hall one day: “Nellie Brown, you’re wanted.” I went to the sitting-room at the end of the hall, and there sat a gentleman who had known me intimately for years. I saw by the sudden blanching of his face and his inability to speak that the sight of me was wholly unexpected and had shocked him terribly. In an instant I determined, if he betrayed me as Nellie Bly, to say I had never seen him before. However, I had one card to play and I risked it. With Miss Grady within touching distance I whispered hurriedly to him, in language more expressive than elegant: “Don’t give me away.” I knew by the expression of his eye that he understood, so I said to Miss Grady: “I do not know this man.” “Do you know her?” asked Miss Grady. “No; this is not the young lady I came in search of,” he replied, in a strained voice. “If you do not know her you cannot stay here,” she said, and she took him to the door. All at once a fear struck me that he would think I had been sent there through some mistake and would tell my friends and make an effort to have me released. So I waited until Miss Grady had the door unlocked. I knew that she would have to lock it before she could leave, and the time required to do so would give me opportunity to speak, so I called: “One moment, senor.” He returned to me and I asked aloud: “Do you speak Spanish, senor?” and then whispered, “It’s all right. I’m after an item. Keep still.” “No,” he said, with a peculiar emphasis, which I knew meant that he would keep my secret.
CHOKINGS AND BEATINGS
The Nurses Amuse Themselves by Worrying Their Helpless Charges.
People in the world can never imagine the length of days to those in asylums. They seemed never ending, and we welcomed any event that might give us something to think about as well as talk of. Anxiously the hour was watched for when the boat arrived to see if there were any new unfortunates to be added to our ranks. When they came and were ushered into the sitting-room the patients would express sympathy to one another for them and were anxious to show them little marks of attention. Hall 6 was the receiving hall, so that was how we saw all newcomers.
Soon after my advent a girl called Urena Little-Page was brought in. She was, as she had been born, silly, and her tender spot was, as with many sensible women, her age. She claimed eighteen, and would grow very angry if told to the contrary. The nurses were not long in finding this out, and then they teased her. “Urena,” said Miss Grady, “the doctors say that you are thirty-three instead of eighteen,” and the other nurses laughed. They kept up this until the simple creature began to yell and cry, saying she wanted to go home and that everybody treated her badly. After they had gotten all the amusement out of her they wanted and she was crying, they began to scold and tell her to keep quiet. She grew more hysterical every moment until they pounced upon her and slapped her face and knocked her head in a lively fashion. This made the poor creature cry the more, and so they choked her. Yes, actually choked her. Then they dragged her out to the closet, and I heard her terrified cries hush into smothered ones. After several hours’ absence she returned to the sitting-room, and I plainly saw the marks of their fingers on her throat for the entire day.
This punishment seemed to awaken their desire to administer more. They returned to the sitting-room and caught hold of an old gray-haired woman whom I have heard addressed both as Mrs. Grady and Mrs. O’Keefe. She was insane, and she talked almost continually to herself and to those near her. She never spoke very loud, and at the time I speak of was sitting harmlessly chattering to herself. They grabbed her, and my heart ached as she cried: “For God sake, ladies, don’t let them beat me.” “Shut up, you hussy!” said Miss Grady as she caught the woman by her gray hair and dragged her shrieking and pleading from the room. She was also taken to the closet, and her cries grew lower and lower, and then ceased.
The nurses returned to the room and Miss Grady remarked that she had “settled the old fool for awhile.” I told some of the physicians of the occurrence, but they did not pay any attention to it.
One of the characters in Hall 6 was Matilda, a little old German woman, who, I believe, went insane over the loss of money. She was small, and had a pretty pink complexion. She was not much trouble, except at times. She would take spells, when she would talk into the steam-heaters or get up on a chair and talk out of the windows. In these conversations she railed at the lawyers who had taken her property. The nurses seemed to find a great deal of amusement in teasing the harmless old soul. One day I sat beside Miss Grady and Miss Grupe, and heard them tell her perfectly vile things to call Miss McCarten. After telling her to say these things they would send her to the other nurse, but Matilda proved that she, even in her state, had more sense than they. “I cannot tell you. It is private,” was all she would say. I saw Miss Grady, on a pretense of whispering to her, spit in her ear. Matilda quietly wiped her ear and said nothing.
SOME UNFORTUNATE STORIES.
A Few of the Apparently Sane Women Tell of Their Troubles
By this time I had made the acquaintance of the greater number of the forty-five women in Hall 6. Let me introduce a few. Louise, the pretty German girl whom I have spoken of formerly as being sick with fever, had the delusion that the spirits of her dead parents were with her. “I have gotten many beatings from Miss Grady and her assistants,” she said, “and I am unable to eat the horrible food they give us. I ought not to be compelled to freeze for want of proper clothing. Oh! I pray nightly that I may be taken to my papa and mamma. One night when Dr. Field came I was in bed, and weary of the examination. At last I said: ‘I am tired of this. I will talk no more.’ ‘Won’t you?’ he said, angrily. ‘I’ll see if I can’t make you.’ With this he laid his crutch on the side of the bed, and, getting up on it, he pinched me very severely in the ribs. I jumped up straight in bed, and said: ‘What do you mean by this?’ ‘I want to teach you to obey when I speak to you,’ he replied. If I could only die and go to papa!” When I left she was confined to bed with a fever, and maybe by this time she has her wish.
There is a Frenchwoman confined in Hall 6, or was during my stay, whom I firmly believe to be perfectly sane. I watched her and talked with her every day, excepting the last three, and I was unable to find any delusion or mania in her. Her name is Josephine Despreau, if that is spelled correctly, and her husband and all her friends are in France. Josephine feels her position keenly. Her lips tremble, and she breaks down crying when she talks of her helpless condition. “How did you get here?” I asked.
“One morning as I was trying to get breakfast I grew deathly sick, and two officers were called in by the woman of the house, and I was taken to the station-house. I was unable to understand their proceedings, and they paid little attention to my story. Doings in this country were new to me, and before I realized it I was lodged as an insane woman in this asylum. When I first came I cried that I was here without hope of release, and for crying Miss Grady and her assistants choked me until they hurt my throat, for it has been sore ever since.”
A pretty young woman spoke so little English I could not get her story except as told by the nurses. They said her name is Sarah Fishbaum, and that her husband put her in the asylum because she had a fondness for other men than himself. Granting that Sarah was insane, and about men, let me tell you how the nurses tried to cure (?) her. They would call her up and say: “Sarah, wouldn’t you like to have a nice young man?” “Oh, yes; a young man is all right,” Sarah would reply in her few English words. “Well, Sarah, wouldn’t you like us to speak a good word to some of the doctors for you? Wouldn’t you like to have one of the doctors?” And then they would ask her which doctor she preferred, and advise her to make advances to him when he visited the hall, and so on.
I had been watching and talking with a fair-complexioned woman for several days, and I was at a loss to see why she had been sent there, she was so sane. “Why did you come here?” I asked her one day, after we had indulged in a long conversation. “I was sick,” she replied. “Are you sick mentally?” I urged. “Oh, no; what gave you such an idea? I had been overworking myself, and I broke down. Having some family trouble, and being penniless and nowhere to go, I applied to the commissioners to be sent to the poorhouse until I would be able to go to work.” “But they do not send poor people here unless they are insane,” I said. “Don’t you know there are only insane women, or those supposed to be so, sent here!” “I knew after I got here that the majority of these women were insane, but then I believed them when they told me this was the place they sent all the poor who applied for aid as I had done.”
“How have you been treated?” I asked. “Well, so far I have escaped a beating, although I have been sickened at the sight of many and the recital of more. When I was brought here they went to give me a bath, and the very disease for which I needed doctoring and from which I was suffering made it necessary that I should not bathe. But they put me in, and my sufferings were increased greatly for weeks thereafter.”
A Mrs. McCartney, whose husband is a tailor, seems perfectly rational and has not one fancy. Mary Hughes and Mrs. Louise Schanz showed no obvious traces of insanity.
NURSES WHO SWEAR
Patients Hurried Into the Asylum Without Sufficient Examination.
One day two new-comers were added to our list. The one was an idiot, Carrie Glass, and the other was a nice-looking German girl–quite young, she seemed, and when she came in all the patients spoke of her nice appearance and apparent sanity. Her name was Gretchen. She told me she had been a cook, and was extremely neat. One day, after she had scrubbed the kitchen floor, the chambermaids came down and deliberately soiled it. Her temper was aroused and she began to quarrel with them; an officer was called and she was taken to an asylum. “How can they say I am insane, merely because I allowed my temper to run away with me?” she complained. “Other people are not shut up for crazy when they get angry. I suppose the only thing to do is to keep quiet and so avoid the beatings which I see others get. No one can say one word about me. I do everything I am told, and all the work they give me. I am obedient in every respect, and I do everything to prove to them that I am sane.”
One day an insane woman was brought in. She was noisy, and Miss Grady gave her a beating and blacked her eye. When the doctors noticed it and asked if it was done before she came there the nurses said it was.
While I was in Hall 6 I never heard the nurses address the patients except to scold or yell at them, unless it was to tease them. They spent much of their time gossiping about the physicians and about the other nurses in a manner that was not elevating. Miss Grady nearly always interspersed her conversation with profane language, and generally began her sentences by calling on the name of the Lord. The names she called the patients were of the lowest and most profane type. One evening she quarreled with another nurse while we were at supper about the bread, and when the nurse had gone out she called her bad names and made ugly remarks about her.
In the evenings a woman, whom I supposed to be head cook for the doctors, used to come up and bring raisins, grapes, apples, and crackers to the nurses. Imagine the feelings of the hungry patients as they sat and watched the nurses eat what was to them a dream of luxury.
One afternoon, Dr. Dent was talking to a patient, Mrs. Turney, about some trouble she had had with a nurse or matron. A short time after we were taken down to supper and this woman who had beaten Mrs. Turney, and of whom Dr. Dent spoke, was sitting at the door of our dining-room. Suddenly Mrs. Turney picked up her bowl of tea, and, rushing out of the door flung it at the woman who had beat her. There was some loud screaming and Mrs. Turney was returned to her place. The next day she was transferred to the “rope gang,” which is supposed to be composed of the most dangerous and most suicidal women on the island.
At first I could not sleep and did not want to so long as I could hear anything new. The night nurses may have complained of the fact. At any rate one night they came in and tried to make me take a dose of some mixture out of a glass “to make me sleep,” they said. I told them I would do nothing of the sort and they left me, I hoped, for the night. My hopes were vain, for in a few minutes they returned with a doctor, the same that received us on our arrival. He insisted that I take it, but I was determined not to lose my wits even for a few hours. When he saw that I was not to be coaxed he grew rather rough, and said he had wasted too much time with me already. That if I did not take it he would put it into my arm with a needle. It occurred to me that if he put it into my arm I could not get rid of it, but if I swallowed it there was one hope, so I said I would take it. I smelt it and it smelt like laudanum, and it was a horrible dose. No sooner had they left the room and locked me in than I tried so see how far down my throat my finger would go.
One Good Nurse—Sitting Still for Five Days—Soap Only Once a Week.
I want to say that the night nurse, Burns, in Hall 6, seemed very kind and patient to the poor, afflicted people. The other nurses made several attempts to talk to me about lovers, and asked me if I would not like to have one. They did not find me very communicative on the, to them, popular subject.
Once a week the patients are given a bath, and that is the only time they see soap. A patient handed me a piece of soap one day about the size of a thimble, I considered it a great compliment in her wanting to be kind, but I thought she would appreciate the cheap soap more than I, so I thanked her but refused to take it. On bathing day the tub is filled with water, and the patients are washed, one after the other, without a change of water.
This is done until the water is really thick, and then it is allowed to run out and the tub is refilled without being washed. The same towels are used on all the women, those with eruptions as well as those without. The healthy patients fight for a change of water, but they are compelled to submit to the dictates of the lazy, tyrannical nurses. The dresses are seldom changed oftener than once a month. If the patient has a visitor, I have seen the nurses hurry her out and change her dress before the visitor comes in. This keeps up the appearance of careful and good management.
The patients who are not able to take care of themselves get into beastly conditions, and the nurses never look after them, but order some of the patients to do so.
For five days we were compelled to sit in the room all day. I never put in such a long time. Every patient was stiff and sore and tired. We would get in little groups on benches and torture our stomachs by conjuring up thoughts of what we would eat first when we got out. If I had not known how hungry they were and the pitiful side of it, the conversation would have been very amusing. As it was it only made me sad. When the subject of eating, which seemed to be the favorite one, was worn out, they used to give their opinions of the institution and its management. The condemnation of the nurses and the eatables was unanimous.
As the days passed Miss Tillie Mayard’s condition grew worse. She was continually cold and unable to eat of the food provided. Day after day she sang in order to try to maintain her memory, but at last the nurse made her stop it. I talked with her daily, and I grieved to find her grow worse so rapidly. At last she got a delusion. She thought that I was trying to pass myself off for her, and that all the people who called to see Nellie Brown were friends in search of her, but that I, by some means, was trying to deceive them into the belief that I was the girl. I tried to reason with her, but found it impossible, so I kept away from her as much as possible, lest my presence should make her worse and feed the fancy.
TRANSFERRED TO ANOTHER WARD.
She is Cursed Before She Leaves and Gets No Better Quarters.
When Pauline Moser was brought to the asylum we heard the most horrible screams, and an Irish girl, only partly dressed, came staggering like a drunken person up the hall, yelling, “Hurrah! Three cheers! I have killed the divil! Lucifer, Lucifer, Lucifer,” and so on, over and over again. Then she would pull a handful of hair out, while she exultingly cried, “How I deceived the divils. They always said God made hell, but he didn’t.” After she had been there an hour or so, Dr. Dent came in, and as he walked down the hall, Miss Grupe whispered to the demented girl, “Here is the devil coming, go for him.” Surprised that she would give a mad woman such instructions, I fully expected to see the frenzied creature rush at the doctor. Luckily she did not, but commenced to repeat her refrain of “Oh, Lucifer.” After the doctor left, Miss Grupe again tried to excite the woman by saying the pictured minstrel on the wall was the devil, and the poor creature began to scream, “You divil, I’ll give it to you,” so that two nurses had to sit on her to keep her down. The attendants seemed to find amusement and pleasure in exciting the violent patients to do their worst.
I always made a point of telling the doctors I was sane and asking to be released, but the more I endeavored to assure them of my sanity the more they doubted it. “What are you doctors here for?” I asked one, whose name I cannot recall. “To take care of the patients and test their sanity,” he replied. “Very well,” I said. “There are sixteen doctors on this island, and excepting two, I have never seen them pay any attention to the patients. How can a doctor judge a woman’s sanity by merely bidding her good morning and refusing to hear her pleas for release? Even the sick ones know it is useless to say anything, for the answer will be that it is their imagination.” “Try every test on me,” I have urged others, “and tell me am I sane or insane? Try my pulse, my heart, my eyes; ask me to stretch out my arm, to work my fingers, as Dr. Field did at Bellevue, and then tell me if I am sane.”
They would not heed me, for they thought I raved.
Again I said to one, “You have no right to keep sane people here. I am sane, have always been so and I must insist on a thorough examination or be released. Several of the women here are also sane. Why can’t they be free?” “They are all insane,” was the reply, “and suffering from delusions.”
After a long talk with Dr. Ingram, he said, “I will transfer you to a quieter ward.” An hour later Miss Grady called me into the hall, and, after calling me all the vile and profane names a woman could ever remember, she told me that it was a lucky thing for my “hide” that I was transferred, or else she would pay me for remembering so well to tell Dr. Ingram everything. “You d—n hussy, you forget all about yourself, but you never forget anything to tell the doctor.” After calling Miss Neville, whom Dr. Ingram also kindly transferred, Miss Grady took us to the hall above, No. 7.
In Hall 7 there are Mrs. Kroener, Miss Fitzpatrick, Miss Finney, and Miss Hart. I did not see as cruel treatment as downstairs, but I heard them make ugly remarks and threats, twist the fingers and slap the faces of the unruly patients. The night nurse, Conway I believe her name is, is very cross. In Hall 7, if any of the patients possessed any modesty, they soon lost it. Every one was compelled to undress in the hall before their own door, and to fold their clothes and leave them there until morning. I asked to undress in my room, but Miss Conway told me if she ever caught me at such a trick she would give me cause not to want to repeat it.
The first doctor I saw here–Dr. Caldwell–chucked me under the chin, and as I was tired refusing to tell where my home was, I would only speak to him in Spanish.
THE “RETREAT” AND “ROPE GANG.”
Some of the Cruel Atrocities Practiced There—The Last Good-By.
A Mrs. Coster told me that for speaking to a man she was sent to the Regreat. “The remembrances of that is enough to make me mad. For crying the nurses beat me with a broom-handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally so that I will never get over it. Then they tied my hands and feet and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bathtub filled with cold water. They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless. At other times they took hold of my ears and beat my head on the door and against the wall. Then they pulled my hair out by the roots so that it will never grow in again.”
Mrs. Cotter here showed me proofs of her story. The dent in the back of her head and the bare spots where the hair had been taken out by the handles give her story as plainly as possible. “My treatment was not as bad as I have seen others get in here, but it has ruined my health, and even if I do get out of here I will be a wreck. When my husband heard of the treatment given me he threatened to expose the place if I was not removed, so I was brought here. I am well mentally now. All that old fear has left me, and the doctor has promised to allow my husband to take me home.”
I made the acquaintance of Bridget McGuinness, who seems to be sane at the present time. She said she was sent to Retreat 4, and put on the “Rope Gang.” “The beatings I got there were something dreadful. I was pulled around by the hair, held under the water until I strangled, and I was choked and kicked. The nurses would always keep a quiet patients stationed at the window to tell them if any of the doctors were approaching. It was hopeless to complain to the doctors for they always said it was the imagination of our diseased brains, and besides we would get another testing for telling. They would hold patients under the water and threaten to leave them to die there if they did not promise not to tell the doctors. We would still promise because we know the doctors would not help us, and we would do anything to escape the punishment. After breaking a window I was transferred to the Lodge, the worst place on the island. It is dreadfully dirty in there, and the stench is awful. In the summer the flies swam the place. The food is worse than we get in other wards and we are given only tin plates. Instead of the bars being on the outside, as in this ward, they are on the inside. There are many quiet patients there who have been there for years, but the nurses keep them to do the work. Among other beatings I got there, the nurses jumped on me once and broke two of my ribs.
“While I was there a pretty young girl was brought in. She had been sickj and she fought about being put in that dirty place. One night the nurses took her and, after beating he, they held her naked in a cold bath, then they threw her on her bed. When morning came the girl was dead. The doctors said she died of convulsions, and that was all that was done about it.
“They inject so much morphine and chloral that the patients are made crazy. I have seen the patients wild for water from the effect of the drugs, and the nurses would refuse it to them. I have heard women beg for a while night for one drop and it was not given them. I myself cried for water until my mouth was so parched and dry that I could not speak.”
I saw the same thing myself in Hall 7. The patients would beg for a drink before retiring, but the nurses–Miss Hart and the others—refused to unlock the bathroom that they might quench their thirst.Hall 7 looks rather nice to a casual visitor. It is hung with cheap pictures and has a piano, which is presided over by Miss Mattie Morgan, who formerly was in a music store in this city. She has been training several of the patients to sing, with some show of success. The artiste of the hall is Under, pronounced Wanda, a Polish girl. She is a gifted pianist when she chooses to display her ability. The most difficult music she reads at a glance, and her touch and expression are perfect.
On Sunday the quieter patients, whose names have been handed in by the attendants during the week, are allowed to go to church. A small Catholic chapel is on the island, and other services are also held.
A “commissioner” came one day, and made the rounds with Dr. Dent. In the basement they found half the nurses gone to dinner, leaving the other half in charge of us, as was always done. Immediately orders were given to bring the nurses back to their duties until after the patients had finished eating. Some of the patients wanted to speak about their having no salt, but were prevented.
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. I had intended to have myself committed to the violent wards, the Lodge and Retreat, but when I got the testimony of two sane women and could give it, I decided not to risk my health–and hair–so I did not get violent.
I had, toward the last, been shut off from all visitors, and so when the lawyer, Peter A. Hendricks, came and told me that friends of mine were willing to take charge of me if I would rather be with them than in the Asylum, I was only too glad to give my consent. I asked him to send me something to eat immediately on his arrival in the city, and then I waited anxiously for my release.
It came sooner than I had hoped. I was out “in line” taking a walk, and had just gotten interested in a poor woman who had fainted away while the nurses were trying to compel her to walk. “Good-bye; I am going home,” I called to Pauline Moser, as she went past with a woman on either side of her. Sadly I said farewell to all I knew as I passed them on my way to freedom and life, while they were left behind to a fate worse than death.
“Adios,” I murmured to the Mexican woman. I kissed my fingers to her, and so I left my companions of Hall 7.
I had looked forward so eagerly to leaving the horrible place, yet when my release came and I knew that God’s sunlight was to be free for me again, there was a certain pain in leaving. For ten days I had been one of them. Foolishly enough, it seemed intensely selfish to leave them to their sufferings. I felt a Quixotic desire to help them by sympathy and presence. But only for a moment. The bars were down and freedom was sweeter to me than ever.
Soon I was crossing the river and nearing New York. Once again I was a free girl after ten days in the mad-house on Blackwell’s Island.
The works of Nellie Bly and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.