Booktalk: Ten Days a Madwoman by Deborah Noyes

Ten Days a Madwoman cover

When I first saw a copy of Ten Days a Madwoman by Deborah Noyes that had been returned to my library, I jumped at the chance to read it.  I’ve been a huge fan of Nellie Bly for years, and while a lot of attention went to her “Around the World in 80 Days” stunt, I was always much more fascinated by the stunt that got her foot in the door and her name in the headlines: faking insanity to write an expose of what it was really like inside a lunatic asylum.  It’s a great story about women’s history and New York history, and it will definitely appeal to readers who like nonfiction stories that are “ripped from the headlines!”


Nellie Bly wanted to get her name in the paper.  Specifically, she wanted to become a reporter for one of the many newspapers in New York City.  But even though she’d already been a reporter in Pittsburgh, when she went to the New York newspapers, every single one said no.  At the end of the 19th century, most newspapers didn’t hire female writers.  If they DID hire women, there were only a few topics that editors wanted to hear about.  Topics like how to clean your house, or how to be more fashionable.  But Nellie Bly wanted to report on something REAL.  She wanted to report on something, uncover something, discover the truth about something … but first, someone had to give her a chance.

Finally, the editor of a newspaper called The World gave her that chance.  He asked her if she could pretend to be insane and get herself committed to the lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island.  If she could do that, then THAT would be a story.  After she got out of the asylum, she could write about what conditions were really like there.  She could be the person who could reveal to the world what it was like in that dark, secret, and dangerous place.

But for Nellie to write this story, a couple of things had to happen first, and each one was risky.  First, she had to act crazy enough in public to get sent to the asylum.  She had to fool a lot of people, including doctors, to make them believe that she was really crazy.  If that part of the plan worked, then she had to survive in the asylum until she was rescued.  The other patients might be dangerous, and the staff might be dangerous, too.  And then if she survived … well, then she needed to be rescued.  Nellie had no control over that part of the plan.  The newspaper staff would try to rescue her when she’d been in the asylum for a week, but they weren’t quite sure how they were going to do it.  Nellie was literally putting her life in the hands of her new employers to get a story.

But she decided that getting the story was worth the risk.  Getting a job was worth the risk.  And being taken seriously as a reporter was worth the risk.  She had no idea how much this decision would change her life, her career, and the careers of all the women who followed in her footsteps.

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