No. 653
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 27, 2024

Undercover Lunatic.

May 26, 2013
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The archives of the Humble Oil & Refining Company are about the last place where you’d expect to run across a first-rate poltergeist account, but it just goes to show that we live in a funny old world.  In 1948, a folklorist and historian was browsing through the company’s papers when he came across a letter that had absolutely nothing to do with oil.  It read:Jan [illegible] '
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Strange Company - 5/27/2024
Included in yesterday’s trip to Fall River was a stop at Miss Lizzie’s Coffee shop and a visit to the cellar to see the scene of the tragic demise of the second Mrs. Lawdwick Borden and two of the three little children in 1848. I have been writing about this sad tale since 2010 and had made a previous trip to the cellar some years ago but was unable to get to the spot where the incident occured to get a clear photograph.  The tale of Eliza Borden is a very sad, but not uncommon story of post partum depression with a heartrending end. You feel this as you stand in the dark space behind the chimney where Eliza ended her life with a straight razor after dropping 6 month old Holder and his 3 year old sister Eliza Ann into the cellar cistern. Over the years I have found other similar cases, often involving wells and cisterns, and drownings of children followed by suicides of the mothers. These photos show the chimney, cistern pipe, back wall, dirt and brick floor, original floorboards forming the cellar ceiling and what appears to be an original door. To be in the place where this happened is a sobering experience. My thanks to Joe Pereira for allowing us to see and record the place where this sad occurrence unfolded in 1848. R.I.P. Holder, Eliza and Eliza Ann Borden. Visit our Articles section above for more on this story. The coffee shop has won its suit to retain its name and has plans to expand into the shop next door and extend its menu in the near future.
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 2/12/2024
When these photos from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York were taken at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery at the end of May in 1899, Memorial Day didn’t exist. “Decoration Day,” however, was an established holiday celebrated every May 30. The idea was to visit the final resting places of thousands of […]
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Ephemeral New York - 5/27/2024
An article I recently wrote for the British online magazine, New Politic, is now available online. The article, “The Criminal Origins of the United States of America,” is about British convict transportation to America, which took place between the years 1718 and 1775, and is the subject of my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: […]
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Early American Crime - 12/17/2021
John Wesley Elkins.11-year-old John Wesley Elkins was slight of stature—four feet eight inches tall, weighing 73 pounds. He was intelligent and well-spoken, and he had never caused trouble until the day he murdered his parents. At 2:00 am, on July 24, 1889, while his parents were sleeping in their Iowa farmhouse, he shot his father in the head and then beat his mother to death with a club.
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Murder By Gaslight - 5/25/2024
CHIEF OF CONSThe Morning Times(Cripple Creek, Colorado)February 15, 1896Courtesy of Mitch Morrissey ig Ed Burns robs a dying man?      Mitch Morrissey, a Facebook friend and historian for the Denver District Attorney’s Office, found and published an interesting newspaper piece on "Big Ed" Burns, one of the most notorious characters in the West. Burns was a confidence man and
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 4/2/2024
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately … Continue reading
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Executed Today - 11/13/2020
Dan Creedon in Training. | What Led to a Divorce.

Undercover Lunatic.

Insanity Expert

In September 1887 a young woman named Nellie Brown was declared insane and sent to the New York City lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Unbeknownst to the authorities the woman was feigning insanity; she was in fact a reporter named Nellie Bly on her first assignment for the New York World.

Nellie BlyNellie Bly

Nellie Bly had come to New York for a career in journalism. She had already made a name for herself as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Dispatch where she had worked her way up from women's stories to serious assignments such as foreign correspondent in Mexico. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane but when she started writing serious pieces her editor suggested a snappier byline—“Nellie Bly,” from a popular song by Stephen Foster.

Finding work as a reporter in New York was not easy; the men there were not ready to see women in their newsrooms. After being rejected by every paper in town she finally convinced an editor at the New York World to give her a chance. She agreed to the plan of getting herself committed to Blackwell’s Island to experience conditions in the insane asylum first hand. The paper assured her that they would have her released after ten days.

Nellie Bly assumed the name Nellie Brown and checked into a temporary home for working woman where she convinced the other tenants that she was insane. A policeman took her Bellevue hospital where she was examined by a doctor. Nellie would later say that the doctors were easy to fool, she was more worried about the reporters who had taken an interest in the case. After being declared insane, Nellie was taken by boat to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

Insane Hall

Here she would meet women who were truly insane—who would shriek in the night and hold conversations with people only they could see. Just as distressing were the women whom Nellie could tell were as sane as she was, but through unfortunate circumstances found themselves in a situation they could not escape. “The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap” she would later write, “It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out."

The conditions she experienced on Blackwell’s Island were appalling. The meals were barely edible, with rancid butter and spoiled meat. Inmates were given cold baths and made to wear garments too thin to keep out the September chill in the unheated building. There was very little entertainment beyond occasional walks outside. Most days the inmates were forced to sit quietly on wooden benches and do nothing for endless hours. Protests were met with violence by the nurses who would beat or choke unruly inmates. Even the doctors used violent methods to subdue their patients. Complaints were ignored or considered symptoms of madness.

Nellie Bly

At the end of ten days Nellie Bly was rescued by her employer. On October 7, 1887 The World published the first installment of a two part story on Nellie’s stay on Blackwell’s Island. Though bylines were rare at the time, the story included the byline “Nellie Bly.” The story was such a sensation that in the second installment, a week later, her name became part of the headline. As a result of Nellie Bly’s reporting, a grand jury was convened to investigate conditions on Blackwell’s Island and after their report an extra $1,000,000 was appropriated for the insane.

Nellie Bly’s career progressed with this type of “stunt reporting.” In 1889 she set out to best Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne’s fictional globetrotter, and travel around the world in fewer than eighty days. She did it in seventy-two. The trip made her famous and by the turn of the twentieth century “Nellie Bly” was a household name.

 

 

 


Sources:

  • Bly, Nellie. Ten Days in a Mad-House. New York: Ian L. Munro, 1887.
  • Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly: daredevil, reporter, feminist. New York: Times Books, 1994.