nellie flies

Nellie Bly Memorial in Works for Site of Asylum She Probed

Muckraking journalist Nellie Bly, circa 1890.
Muckraking journalist Nellie Bly, circa 1890. Photo: H. J. Myers/Library of Congress

Some 132 years ago, intrepid journalist Nellie Bly famously got herself committed to an asylum on Blackwell’s Island, known today as Roosevelt Island.

Now she may return to the scene of the story — as a monument.

As plans move forward for more memorials to women across the city, civic leaders on Roosevelt Island want a monument of their own. And Bly — who put herself and the island on the map with her 1887 exposé “Ten Days in a Mad-House” — was a natural choice, said Susan Rosenthal, the president of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation.

“She’s one of our local heroes,” she said. “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.”

The group recently put out a call for interested artists and design ideas, Rosenthal said. The deadline for submissions is Friday.

Bly ‘Shook Things Up’

According to the design call-out, first reported by Roosevelt Island Online and the Main Street Wire, the corporation has budgeted up to $500,000 for the memorial to Bly, born Elizabeth Cochrane. The group is eyeing four sites near The Octagon, a residential building constructed around a landmarked portion of the former Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum.

That’s where the 23-year-old Bly, pretending to be mentally ill, gathered material for her six-part series that exposed dangerous and inhumane conditions in the asylum. Her stories “shook things up” when published in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, noted Judith Berdy, the president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.

A drawing of the asylum on Roosevelt Island, then known as Blackwell's Island, where famed journalist Nellie Bly had herself committed in the late 1800s to expose abusive conditions.
A drawing of the asylum on Roosevelt Island, then known as Blackwell’s Island, where famed journalist Nellie Bly had herself committed in the late 1800s to expose abusive conditions. Photo: The New York Public Library Digital Collections

“She started the ball rolling on social justice and insane asylums, even if she didn’t have a thousand percent success,” Berdy said. “She got it publicized and that’s what counts.”

“She had a lot of nerve,” Berdy added.

The Roosevelt Island corporation plans to vet design ideas this summer, and hopes to begin construction next spring, with an unveiling in May.

The effort is independent from a City Hall-led push to create memorials to some of New York’s most notable women, including singer Billie Holiday, health care activist Helen Rodríguez Trías, civil rights pioneer Elizabeth Jennings Graham, lighthouse keeper Katherine Walker and U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm.

Rosenthal said she was motivated to get moving on the Bly memorial when she saw renderings in April for the Chisholm monument, to be built on the southern end of Prospect Park.

“She was one of my heroes,” Rosenthal said of the legendary Brooklyn congresswoman.

A Story to Tell

Berdy is neutral on the plan for a Bly memorial, at least until she sees the potential designs. She’s hoping for something that’s educational, so people can learn about the layered history of the island where Bly made her name.

A tram ascends from Roosevelt Island, April 24, 2019.
A tram ascends from Roosevelt Island, April 24, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“To me, that’s more important than having another bronze statue with no story attached to it,” she said.

But either way, having a new memorial will go a long way to teach locals and visitors alike about Bly. Berdy, who has lived on Roosevelt Island for 42 years and has run its visitor center for 13, guesses about one in 10 people she meets know the story of the groundbreaking investigative reporter.

“There’s probably 10% interested, and then 30% that are like, ‘OK,’ and 50%, you know: ‘What? Who’s Nellie Bly?’” she said with a laugh.

(Full disclosure: THE CITY has a special connection to the famed muckraker. Our mascot, Nellie the pigeon, was named after Bly by popular acclaim.)

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