In the (probably CGI-generated) New York City of the 19th Century, it is made clear that newspaper journalism is ‘a man’s world’, and the world outside the newspaper offices is later revealed to be a great deal more so than it is today. Though a number of other women were writers and even journalists at the time, and a few even became famous and are known names today, Nellie Bly was notable for engaging in journalistic endeavors that were part personal experience and narrative, part publicity stunt; today she’d be soul-sister to Bridget Jones and featured on tabloid television. Both she and the male-dominated media industry came up with story ideas that made a “sensation” of her persona as well as what she was actually reporting on. Her now-famous infiltration of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island was only one of many such publicity stunts. Her ten days spent as an inmate of the Women’s Asylum were an expose of serious injustices in the administration of the asylum as well as in the methods of determination of mental illness, or, as it was then called, lunacy; issues that remain controversial and have sadly been repeated in modern history. For added authenticity, she not only put on a convincing act of “madness”, but sought out witnesses in the persons of working-class women and the supervisor of a respectable boarding house for them by taking a room in the boarding house and acting out in their social realm as well as loudly bewailing the loss of “her trunks” (of clothing and personal effects); something which should have been more plausible to them, seeing as how she came to them without luggage of any kind, and she seemed to be of a higher class in both dress and demeanor.
It wasn’t long before her deliberately unusual talk and conduct caused the matron and fellow inhabitants of her new boarding house to ask the police to take her away, New York City’s police officers then, as now, making the judgment call concerning who gets brought to the mental health system. Back then, a prelude to being committed was being brought before a judge who would rule on mental competency in court in spite of not being a medical professional. A sympathetic judge recommended against her being committed, and surmised that she might have been drugged and robbed or otherwise wronged, and that given a few days’ time for the drug to wear off, she might “tell us an incredible story” about what happened to her. Nevertheless, she still managed to get committed, and sent to the Womens Asylum on Blackwell’s to experience and catalogue the horrors therein.
Though Nellie’s expressed concerns were often dismissed by the cadre of male doctors, hospital administrators, and orderlies; she was protected from many of the more serious wrongs which befell some of the other patients (at least one rape is implied off-screen); she was protected by the fact that she had a judge and colleagues on the outside asking after her on a regular basis. She is at last rescued by an attorney bearing a court order essentially ransoming her from the institution and giving her to the custody of a family willing to take her in.
The triumphal ending in which she returns to Blackwell’s Island first with an inspection team to assess conditions at the asylum and promise reforms, and later with policemen to close the asylum and lead away the corrupt head doctor is a temporary triumph in the annals of New York’s institutions: terrible abuses, followed by reforms and closures of facilities, most notably Willowbrook, have been repeated on several occasions up to and including our time in history.