Elizabeth Cochrane has a secret.
She isn’t the madwoman with amnesia the doctors and inmates at Blackwell’s Asylum think she is.
In truth, she’s working undercover for the New York World. When the managing editor refuses to hire her because she’s a woman, Elizabeth strikes a deal: in exchange for a job, she’ll impersonate a lunatic to expose a local asylum’s abuses.
When she arrives at the asylum, Elizabeth realizes she must make a decision—is she there merely to bear witness, or to intervene on behalf of the abused inmates? Can she interfere without blowing her cover? As the superintendent of the asylum grows increasingly suspicious, Elizabeth knows her scheme—and her dream of becoming a journalist in New York—is in jeopardy.
A Feigned Madness is a meticulously researched, fictionalized account of the woman who would come to be known as daredevil reporter Nellie Bly. At a time of cutthroat journalism, when newspapers battled for readers at any cost, Bly emerged as one of the first to break through the gender barrier—a woman who would, through her daring exploits, forge a trail for women fighting for their place in the world.
In 2014, when I read Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House—the newspaper account of her asylum ordeal—I searched for the novel and found it didn’t exist. How was it no one had written about this incredibly brave woman and her stint behind asylum bars? I’d wanted to write a book since I was a child, and had always gravitated to historical fiction to read, and so the idea for A Feigned Madness was born.
After months of research and two trips—one to Nellie’s hometown in Apollo, PA and another to New York City, the woman behind the story began to take shape.
Nellie’s real name was Elizabeth Cochrane and she was born into a family of wealth. However, the sudden death of her father when she was a child, his lack of providing a will, and the reduced circumstances that followed her and her family over the ensuing years, helped mold her into the tenacious, goal-driven woman she would later become famous for.
She was only twenty-three when she moved to New York to get a job as a reporter. When she clashed with managing editors who told her women weren’t fit for journalism, Nellie concocted her own scheme to get hired.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Nellie Bly circa 1890
Blackwell's Asylum looking to the east
The asylum's octagonal tower today
Beginning in 1832, a narrow strip of land off the east coast of Manhattan called Blackwell’s Island was becoming the destination for New York’s misfits and malcontents. It was first home to the Penitentiary and the Charity Hospital. The Insane Asylum for the “lunatic poor” followed in 1839. The Almshouse for the “poor and disabled” was built nine years later. Finally, the Workhouse would open in 1852, constructed by the very convicts already sentenced to go there.
More often than not, the ferry ride across the East River to Blackwell’s was a one-way trip to hell.
By the time Nellie Bly arrived in 1887, the asylum had a long a history of mismanagement. Although the men had been moved to Ward’s Island in 1872, there were almost double the patients there than what the structure was built to contain (1,600 vs 850).
Due to growing unrest and public visibility, the asylum closed in 1901 (though patients were simply moved to other institutions off the island). The Penitentiary and Workhouse wouldn’t be torn down for another thirty years. The Almshouse closed in 1953. The hospital, renamed City Hospital, relocated to Queens in 1957.
By the late 1950s, Blackwell’s Island was mostly abandoned. It was renamed Franklin D. Roosevelt Island in 1973, an attempt perhaps to bury the name and memories of a place that had become synonymous for misery and damnation.
Today it is largely a residential community with fantastic views of Manhattan.
The original octagon tower of the asylum still stands.
The New York World
When Elizabeth Cochrane arrived in New York City in 1887, Joseph Pulitzer had owned the New York World just four years. In that time, he transformed it from a dying newspaper with a 15,000 daily circulation to a towering monument to American journalism that boasted a daily circulation of over 250,000.
When he embarked on a plan to construct an all-new building, he demanded it be at least fourteen stories so that it would be the tallest building in the world.
When the World building was complete, it would contain two miles of wrought-iron columns, sixteen miles of steel beams, and enough iron and steel to lay nearly 30 miles of railway. Below ground, printing presses were installed that were fast enough to supply every New Yorker with a copy in just a few hours.
The three-story lobby was laid in stone imported from Scotland and featured fast-moving elevators and bronze statuary. The cherry on top was an 850,000-pound gilded dome that rose higher than Lady Liberty’s torch.
The final bill would come to $2 million (about $55 million in today’s money). Pulitzer paid for it all without borrowing a penny.
It is no wonder the World was where Nellie most wanted to work when she arrived in New York.
A typical front page of the World