In September 1887, Nellie Bly assumed the persona of “insane girl” Nellie Brown to go under cover at the notorious women’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Her assignment: to tell “a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein.”
Upon her release, Bly wrote an exposé cataloguing the dire conditions faced by inmates, from freezing forced baths to solitary confinement in vermin-filled rooms and physical violence. This six-part investigation, initially published in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World but later released in a collection titled Ten Days in a Mad-House, catapulted the intrepid reporter to fame and brought much-needed attention to the plight of the mentally ill. Due in large part to Bly’s efforts, the asylum received increased funding, fired abusive staffers, hired translators to assist immigrant patients and implemented sweeping institutional changes.
Blackwell’s Island is better known today as Roosevelt Island, and the building that once housed inmates now hosts luxury apartment dwellers. The site is markedly different than it was during Bly’s time, but her contributions there have not been forgotten. In fact, Rachel Holliday Smith writes for the City, the journalist will soon make a return visit to the island—this time, in statue form.
As reported by Roosevelt Island Online and the Main Street Wire, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) recently announced an open call for artists to design the Bly memorial. The top five applicants, each of whom will be asked to create a conceptual proposal for the monument, will be selected by August 2. Construction is set to commence in March 2020 and conclude by late May.
“She’s one of our local heroes. The combination of who she was, the importance of investigative journalism and the fact that it happened here just made it perfect for the island,” Susan Rosenthal, RIOC’s president, says in an interview with Smith.
What the monument will look like is anyone’s guess. The statue could take any form—digital, sculptural or interactive, for example—and has a budget of around $500,000, according to Hyperallergic’s Zachary Small. (Though that cost includes allotments for an artist fee, design services, community engagement, engineering and insurance.) Although the corporation has yet to decide on a location for the memorial, it is considering four sites by the Octagon, the site of the former asylum, and Lighthouse Park, a 3.78-acre space at the northernmost tip of the island.
The planned commemorative work is separate from She Built NYC, an ongoing public art campaign dedicated to increasing the number of statues of women across the city, but Rosenthal says she was inspired to pursue the project after seeing renderings of a statue dedicated to the first African-American woman in Congress, Shirley Chisholm.
Prior to She Built’s launch, just five out of 145 NYC monuments featured women. Soon, its work will bring six more to the fold, with statues underway that will honor Chisholm, jazz singer Billie Holiday, Civil Rights advocate Elizabeth Jennings Graham, medical activist Helen Rodríguez Trías, lighthouse keeper Katherine Walker, and transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, tells the City’s Smith that she hopes the monument to Bly is equally educational, telling the story of both Bly and the island rather than acting as “another bronze statue with no story attached to it.”
In addition to exposing mistreatment of the mentally ill, Bly circumnavigated the globe in 72 days—besting the 80 days it took Phileas Fogg to complete the same task in Jules Verne’s popular novel—filed a patent for the first practical 55-gallon oil drum, and reported on such topics as World War I’s Eastern Front and the fight for women’s suffrage.
“She started the ball rolling on social justice and insane asylums, even if she didn’t have a thousand percent success,” Berdy adds. “She got it publicized and that’s what counts. She had a lot of nerve.”