Nellie Bly’s Odd Letters

The New York World/May 27, 1888

Queer Communications Written by All Kinds of Strange People

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If there is anything for which I have a special weakness, barring a fine horse and chewing-gum, it is letters. My mania for them has been the growth of years — I don’t dare say how many. It began when I was about four years old and still wore bibs and such juvenile apparel. The seed which implanted this mania was the receipt of a letter addressed to my full Christian name which crossed the envelope twice. The writer was a boy of twelve, so I have been told. I had formed his acquaintance while he was visiting his grandmother in the country. We got up the flirtation by peeping at each other through the crevices in the back fence. He soon called, and many long summer days we spent “keeping house” under the east piazza. Cupid’s cousin, Miss Sudden Fancy, made a dent in our baby hearts. So my little lover wrote me many misspelled love letters after cherry time when he had been taken home.

As my number of birthdays increased so increased my mania for letters. I cherish a tender respect for the gray uniform, and the sound of the postman’s shrill whistle arouses more blissful thrills in me than the first blood does in an amateur pugilist. Since my debut as a mad girl last October my mail has been of generous size and my collection of letters unique. People of all classes have written me, and their letters come like a friendly hand from the dark.

I turn over my parcel of unknown letters, and I feel a sense of happiness that in so many different lives people think of me. First comes a dainty, scented thing which betrays the happy school-girl, who writes:

We girls think you are just too lovely for anything. It must be perfectly beautiful to go around just as you please and to catch all the bad people.” I turn from it with a smile to another just as sweet and girlish — and, say, what is sweeter than a girlish girl?
Please won’t you tell me if you are a man or a woman? My chum’s brother says you never existed at all, and I say you are a girl. Please decide for us. INclosed find stamp for reply.
P.S. — Do you play tennis?

School children write me for a favorite maxim or quotation; working people write on every subject; reformers write to enlist me in their cause, and, in short, I think my letters very interesting, even to the autograph hunters. Do I answer them? Why, certainly, those that require answers. Let me show you a few samples of my queer letters.

City, Nov. 26
Nellie Bly,
DEAR MADAM: As you are a friend to the working class, I take the liberty to address you, thinking you would help me. I would like two ladies employed during the day to board. They could have a clean, comfortable home, good board, washing included, at $4 per week. I have advertised, but, receiving no reply, I decided to write to Nellie Bly, as I know she can do anything, and I know she can get me some boarders. Come up Tuesday A.M. And judge for yourself, and I will be glad to see you, as I may not be home in the afternoon of Tuesday, and I expect to be out Wednesday.

I am sorry to say, as I was the only homeless girl I knew, I could not assist her in getting boarders.

Dear Miss Bly: I have an old lady with me who is going to die soon and wants to see you. She is poor and has no money, and as you do so much good I thought you might give her some. The old lady is kept to her bed, so when you come be sure to bring not less than $5. Come soon or she may not live to see you.

I do not like to be referee in family quarrels, so I did not answer the following unique note:

MY DEAR MISS NELLIE BLY: Do you believe in wearing bustles and do you wear one? My husband says no sensible woman will, and I have heard him say, when reading your contributions to The World, that you are the cleverest woman he ever heard of. Please write that you wear a bustle so I can show him. It will be a great favor to me.

I often receive suggestions, and I think that they are the most agreeable letters a press writer can get. Most letters are from people who have been swindled. Often I should be able to investigate it, and so save others from a like fraud, if the writer would only have enough confidence to tell the whole story and give addresses. Such things are always treated in confidence.

Ever since I wrote my experience in the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylym I have received scores of letters on the subject. THe majority are from people claiming that they are or were unjustly incarcerated. Others are from doctors and nurses wanting to expose in inner workings of the institutions. Oh, the tales the tell make one’s heart sick! Never, since I mentioned the burtality shown the insane, have I been able to allow myself to study the subject. The hopelessness and horror of the patients’ lives rack my nerves. Nor is this confined to our country. Here is a letter I received from Scotland:

SCOTLAND, Nov. 25, 1887
As a friend sent me the World newspaper, date 16th October, I was interested in Miss Bly’s experience in the lunatic asylym. I ahve been interested in that subject this twenty years, and if I could write, a thing I am not accustomed to, I would surprise you with my experience. One time I had the misfortune to be laid up with what was thought brain fever. I was sent of to a Royal Asylum, not a charitable one, for we had to pay well. The first night a cowardly brute of an attendant attacked me with a candlestick, and then for three days I knew nothing. When I got better I found a cut on the crown of my head and one of my hands cut to the bone. I asked him about his first night’s performance and he told me I tell out of bed and cut my head, and cut my hand fight with the door. That’s the way they always get off. After eight days my face all broke out and my hair had to be cut off. The attendant had washed me with a sponge, as I was not able to wash with my cut hand. Well, I looked in a bedroom one day and saw a man in bed with bad legs, and I was horrified to se when sponging his legs with the same sponge as they had washed me. I told the doctor I got this from the dirty sponge, and he said it was all bosh and that he was very glad my face was broke out, as my friends would not be allowed to see me for weeks. The doctor had only two words for us. He just when through the wards once, in the forenoon, and if one asked anything, it was “All right,” or “By-and-By.”

As so his letter runs, a repetition of asylum brutality. A patient wrote me from a New Jersey asylum asking me to correspond with him. “It is a prvilege for which women have beseeched,” he wrote, “and which I grant only to you. You must first send me your photograph and complete description of yourself, else I will not answer your letters, though your heart break. I am god of the sun and have lived 10,000 years and shall bestow on you life everlasting.”

Still another wrote that he had been searching for hundreds of years for me and that I had been given him as wife by six kings and four emperors. Had not the doctors stolen his money and made him a prisoner we would be King and Queen of England. He begged that I have him released, that we might regain our rights. Victoria tottering on her throne?

A letter written in the city was a most peculiar thing. It began so:

Nellie Bly,
MOST RESPECTED MISS: You have hunted me out. Now tell me why you want me. I was not fit to be sheltered by the roof that covered you, so I fled without causing you any trouble. Take advice of poor friends and never see me again. I saw you the other night an know you had hunted me out. Tell me when and where you want me and why? You must tell me and then never again will you behold this watcher in life, must not be followed. I never believed any fair girl, still know that I am determined I shall not fight.

There was a lot more to it, in the same style, and a name and address, written in a plain business hand, was given. I did not hunt him out and have not heard from him since. This rather startling letter was from a woman:

To Nellie Bly:
Perhaps you will be able to appreciate my sincere thanks (and it must be the thanks of many helpless, tortured, innocent prisoners of a free nation!) for the abuse you endure, risk and expose.
The free press is the only hope for the people as a truthful weapon.
Asylums and manufactured lunatics are the invention of late years.
The glut in the lunatic market is kept up by artificial means, which is brutal and a disgrace to the nation.
There is no such disease as insanity; it is poisoning!
I have made this known almost daily for several years to those who were convinced and to those who did not wish to be convinced.
Yellow fever is billious fever, brought on by too much acid.
Some doctors say that arsenic poisoning is sometimes mistaken for cholera. (New-Times.)
I inclose two articles for you to republish.

One of the clippings refered to was entitled “Who the Gods Destroy They First Make Mad,” and the other was a short notice headed “A Drugged Nation.”

A young man in the West wrote that for fifteen years he had loved and heen true to “Nellie Blythe,” but since she had gone on the stage he had lost her, and he begged to know if I were the same girl. I had the letter answered, and told him that Miss Helen Blythe was on the stage at the present time and that my name is minus “the.”

Many letters of which I take no notice consist of a few lines of command, such as “Come to — at such an hour,” without a word of explanation. Others say: “I would be pleased to ahve an interview with you at such an hour. Call.” I am not even curious enough to wonder what they want.

Among my latest received was this:

DEAR MADAM: I know your time is precious, but if I could see you for a few minutes I think you would take an interest in my trouble. As you are so good at exposing bribery you could do a great deal of good and save life that is in danger, for money. Money is my tempting, and a large sum at that. They have carried it to such an extent and put up so many jobs to get it that with your tact to help I could stop it. For the sake of all that is good and just grant me an interview as soon as possible, telling me where to see you.

Who could resist “ministering to a mind diseased” at such a plea, although they knew they could do nothing to really benefit?

Do I ever get anonymous letters?

No, I never did until recently, that is since the publication of my last article, April 1. As I have known where they came from they have not bothered me, especially since I have such a contempt for anything that is too cowardly to sign a name and address. A letter unsigned never hurts. The last one received was rather unique. Here is a reproduction of it. It was made up of words cut from different newspapers and read:

“WARNING! — Last Edition. — NEVER sign Nellie Bly AGAIN to any ARTICLE printed in THE WORLD or any other NEWSPAPER printed in ENGLISH. — Business.”

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Actor. Author. Father. Husband. In reverse order. Latest novel: WHAT GIRLS ARE GOOD FOR.

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