Homework – A Night in the Cells

Posted on 06/06/2009 by

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By Tom Allan.

Not so long ago, I suggested to one of my fellow noseurs, Mr.Tommy Tonkins, that we might do well to spend a night in Falmouth’s police cells. Surely every journalist should have seen the inside of a jail? My suggestion that we feign a fight in a Penryn pub, and then later drop all charges against each other, was sadly rejected by my amiable friend. He probably wanted to avoid damaging my frail form.

celling out

But there was a serious point behind my challenge, which was confirmed by reading the inspiring story of Nellie Bly, perhaps the greatest ever investigative reporter, and a woman.

At the tender age of 23 Nellie burst onto the stage of American journalism by feigning madness and spending ten days on Blackwell’s island, the city’s notorious asylum. 1,600 women were kept there in conditions of the most primitive cruelty, sleeping in crude wooden cots, and sitting on hard wooden benches in the cold from 6am to 8pm everyday without stimulation or exercise.

Those that were mad deteriorated – and some who were in fact sane, lost their minds. The inmates that Nelllie met included a German woman who had been sectioned for her poor english, and a woman whose husband had been angered by her wandering eye.

Nellie’s expose of the island for the New York World led to major reforms, with the city making $1 million dollars extra for mental health care in the city, an enormous sum at the time. Imagine a piece of journalism nowadays having such a direct impact on public policy.

Nellie went on to be the pre-eminent undercover reporter of the age – she posed as a maid to reveal exploitation, a prostitute, and an unmarried mother with an unwanted newborn, to expose a trade in babies.

And she managed to get arrested – so that she could tell the readers of the New York World what it was like to spend a night behind bars. Perhaps this is a module that should be added to our journalism course in Falmouth?

Thanks to David Randall’s “The Great Reporters” for introducing me to Nellie.

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