How One of the First Women Journalists Became an Advocate for Mental Health

Nelly Bly

Nellie Bly

Better known by the pen name Nellie Bly, Elizabeth Jane Cochrane was a trailblazing muckracker in the late 1800s. Her best-known work includes an undercover exposé of deplorable conditions at a mental institution on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island. Posing as a patient, Cochrane spent 10 days at the facility gathering reports of physical and emotional abuse, unsanitary baths and inedible food. A number of the women she encountered had been committed against their will and appeared to be of sound mental health.

Cochrane’s investigation launched a municipal investigation that led to much-needed reforms. She continued advocating for marginalized and impoverished individuals in later reports on the plights of prisoners, factory workers and railroad strikers.

Illustration by Kirby Salvador

This feature originally appeared in the Anxiety issue. For more inspiring women, check out Grandma Moses’s story and our 5 Women section.