Catherine Crowley

Female Abt 1842 -

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  • Name Catherine Crowley 
    Born Abt 1842  Ireland Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Gender Female 
    Died Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Person ID I8177510280  Eby/Aebi and Bernethy Family
    Last Modified 2 Mar 2013 

    Father Dennis Crowley,   b. Abt 1815, Ireland Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. Apr 1856, Republic of Panama Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age ~ 41 years) 
    Mother Ellen Combo,   b. Abt 1820, Ireland Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. Apr 1856, Republic of Panama Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age ~ 36 years) 
    Family ID F7465088799  Group Sheet

  • Event Map
    Link to Google MapsBorn - Abt 1842 - Ireland Link to Google Earth
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  • Notes 
    • 1850 Census Bangor, Penobscot, Maine as Catherine CROWLEY
      1880 Census New York, New York City as Mary CROWLEY; in the New York City Lunatic Asylum Blackwells Island.

    • New York, Census of Inmates in Almshouses and Poorhouses, 1830-1920 about Catharine Lee
      Name: Catharine Lee
      [Catharine Crowley]
      Gender: Female
      Age: 70
      Birth Year: abt 1841
      Birth Place:
      Admission Date: 12 Jul 1911
      Father's Name: John Crowley
      Father's Birth Place: Ireland
      Mother's name: Ellen Scanlon
      Mother's Birth Place: Ireland

    • At the beginning of the 19th century, industrialization, urbanization, and immigration contributed to the explosive growth of New York City. Accompanying this growth was a burgeoning underclass of convicts, the poor, the sick, and the insane. A policy of institutionalization was adopted to manage this group. In 1828, New York City purchased an island in the East River from the Blackwell family to build a jail and an asylum. When it opened in 1839, the asylum on Blackwell?s Island was New York?s first publicly funded mental hospital and the first municipal mental hospital in the United States.

      It was designed to be a state-of-the-art institution based on the theories of moral treatment. Fundamental to its success was an organized and orderly environment. Although in the past, little effort was made to differentiate between types of mental illness, according to the tenets of moral treatment, such distinctions were imperative. As Dr. John McDonald, a physician involved with the design of the new asylum, wrote, ?The indiscriminate mingling of the mild and furious, clean and filthy, convalescent and idiotic, need only be witnessed to be deprecated.? He continued: ?Classification is now justly considered by almost all persons of experience of the first importance in the treatment of insanity? (1). He suggested that patients be divided into four specific classes: the ?noisy, destructive, and violent,? ?the idiots,? ?the convalescents,? and an intermediate class for ?those in the first stages of convalescence and such incurables (who) are harmless and not possessed of bad habits? (2). In addition to classification, moral treatment emphasized the human rather than beast-like nature of the insane. The design for the new asylum was free of barricades and iron bars and allowed for easy access to the outdoors.

      But this model asylum was never built. Because of financial constraints, only two wings were completed and almost immediately proved inadequate. Even more disturbing, convicts from the nearby penitentiary were used as guards and attendants, so that in the words of Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, the patients were ?abandoned to the tender mercies of thieves and prostitutes? (3).

      Thousands of the city?s poor mentally ill were admitted to the asylum between 1839 and 1895, and the press?s fascination with the institution and its inhabitants grew intense during those years. Local newspapers, including the New York Times and Harpers Weekly, provided weekly running accounts of the asylum?s most intriguing characters. Some achieved celebrity-like status, such as the elderly woman known as ?Mrs. Buchanan.?

      Most people have heard of Mrs. Buchanan. She is one of the incurables?a poor old lady?Scotch I imagine?who has been an inmate of the lunatic asylum for years. Her delusion has been described in the papers. She believes she is the wife of the President and discharges her conjugal duties with such success that she bears a large family to the President. Strange to say, the offspring of her lofty amours are invariably cats. I had the honor of stroking the back of President Buchanan?s eldest son who purred as though his sire had no political difficulties to disturb his repose. (4)

      Newspapers were filled with grim tales of madness, mistreated patients, wretched conditions, and wrongful confinement. In 1879, an article titled ?Tormenting the Insane? appeared in the New York Times describing appalling cases of neglect. In 1887, Elizabeth Cochrane Seamen, aka Nellie Bly (1866?1922), a journalist for the New York World, feigned insanity to gain admission to the asylum on Blackwell?s Island. She wrote a series of shocking articles for the newspaper and a book. She described it as a ?human rat-trap? that could drive the sanest people crazy (5).

      In the wake of the scathing report, administrative changes followed, but the image of the asylum as a human rat trap lingered. The half-built, overcrowded, convict-supervised asylum was a symbol for the unrealized goals and the blatant failures so extensively covered in the press. The New York City Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell?s Island closed in 1894. All that remains of it today is a domed octagonal structure that once stood as the centerpiece of the institution.

      1.Board of Assistant Aldermen: Document 101, March 10, 1934: Documents of the Board of Aldermen and Board of Assistants of the City of New York. New York, the Board, 1831?1834, p 8172.Board of Assistant Aldermen: Document 101, March 10, 1934: Documents of the Board of Aldermen and Board of Assistants of the City of New York. New York, the Board, 1831?1834, p 8203.Kirkbride TS: Proceedings of the Third Meeting of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, Article V. New York, July 1848, p 914.A Visit to the lunatic asylum on Blackwell?s Island. Harper?s Weekly, March 19, 1859, p 1865.Nellie Bly: Ten Days in a Madhouse?Feigning Insanity in Order to Reveal Asylum Horrors. New York, Norman Munro, 1887, p 93

      Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr. Boardman, Weill Cornell Medical College, 449 East 68th St., 2nd Fl., Suite 9, New York, NY 10021; (e-mail). Images courtesy of Oskar Diethelm Library, Institute for the History of Psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medical College. The authors report no competing interests.
      Ten Days in a Madhouse: The Woman Who Got Herself Committed

    • In 1887, intrepid reporter Nellie Bly pretended she was crazy and got herself committed, all to help improve conditions in a New York City mental institution.

      ?The insane asylum on Blackwell?s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.?

      Those words, describing New York City?s most notorious mental institution, were written by journalist Nellie Bly in 1887. It was no mere armchair observation, because Bly got herself committed to Blackwell?s and wrote a shocking exposé called Ten Days In A Madhouse. The series of articles became a best-selling book, launching Bly?s career as a world-famous investigative reporter and also helping bring reform to the asylum.

      In the late 1880s, New York newspapers were full of chilling tales about brutality and patient abuse at the city?s various mental institutions. Into the fray came the plucky 23-year Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane, she renamed herself after a popular Stephen Foster song). At a time when most female writers were confined to newspapers? society pages, she was determined to play with the big boys. The editor at The World liked Bly?s moxie, and challenged her to come up with an outlandish stunt to attract readers and prove her mettle as a ?detective reporter.?

      The stylish and petite Bly, who had a perpetual smile, set about her crazy-eye makeover.

      She dressed in tattered second-hand clothes. She stopped bathing and brushing her teeth. And for hours, she practiced looking like a lunatic in front of the mirror. ?Faraway expressions look crazy,? she wrote. Soon she was wandering the streets in a daze. Posing as Nellie Moreno, a Cuban immigrant, she checked herself into a temporary boarding house for women. Within twenty-four hours, her irrational, hostile rants had all of the other residents fearing for their lives. ?It was the greatest night of my life,? Bly later wrote.

      The police hauled Bly off, and within a matter of days, she bounced from court to Bellevue Hospital?s psychiatric ward. When she professed to not remembering how she ended up in New York, the chief doctor diagnosed her as ?delusional and undoubtedly insane.? Meanwhile, several of the city?s other newspapers took an interest in what one called the ?mysterious waif with the wild, hunted look in her eyes.? Bly had everyone hoodwinked, and soon enough, she was aboard the ?filthy ferry? to Blackwell?s Island.
      The Lonely Island

      Opened as America?s first municipal mental hospital in 1839, Blackwell?s Island (known today as Roosevelt Island) was meant to be a state-of-the-art institution committed to moral, humane rehabilitation of its patients. But when funding got cut, the progressive plans went out the window. It ended up as a scary asylum, staffed in part by inmates of a nearby penitentiary.

      Although other writers had reported on conditions at the asylum (notably Charles Dickens, in 1842, who described its ?listless, madhouse air? as ?very painful?), Bly was the first reporter to go undercover. What she found exceeded her worst expectations. There were ?oblivious doctors? and ?coarse, massive? orderlies who ?choked, beat and harassed? patients, and ?expectorated tobacco juice about on the floor in a manner more skillful than charming.? There were foreign women, completely sane, who were committed simply because they couldn?t make themselves understood. Add to that rancid food, dirty linens, no warm clothing and ice-cold baths that were like a precursor to water boarding. Bly described the latter:

      ?My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head ? ice-cold water, too ? into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth. I think I experienced the sensation of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane.?

      And worst of all, there was the endless, enforced isolation:

      ?What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? . . . Take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.?

      As soon as Bly arrived at Blackwell?s Island, she dropped her crazy act. But to her horror, she found that only confirmed her diagnosis. ?Strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be,? she wrote.

      Near the end of her stay, her cover was almost blown. A fellow reporter she?d known for years was sent by another newspaper to write about the mysterious patient. He himself posed as a man in search of a lost loved one. Bly begged her friend not give her away. He didn?t. Finally, after ten days, The World sent an attorney to arrange for Nellie Moreno?s release.
      Going Public

      Two days later, the paper ran the first installment of Bly?s story, entitled ?Behind Asylum Bars.? The psychiatric doctors who?d been fooled offered apologies, excuses and defenses. The story traveled across the country, with papers lauding Bly?s courageous achievement. Almost overnight, she became a star journalist.

      But for Bly, it wasn?t about the fame. ?I have one consolation for my work,? she wrote. ?On the strength of my story, the committee of appropriation provides $1,000,000 more than was ever before given, for the benefit of the insane.?

      Actually, the city had already been considering increasing the budget for asylums, but Bly?s article certainly pushed things along.

      A month after her series ran, Bly returned to Blackwell?s with a grand jury panel. In her book, she says that when they made their tour, many of the abuses she reported had been corrected: the food services and sanitary conditions were improved, the foreign patients had been transferred, and the tyrannical nurses had disappeared. Her mission was accomplished.

      Bly would go on to more sensational exploits, most notably, in 1889, circling the globe in a record-setting seventy-two days (she meant to beat out Jules Verne?s fictional trip in Around The World in Eighty Days). In later years, she retired from journalism and founded her own company, designing and marketing steel barrels used for milk cans and boilers. She died in 1922. Bly?s amazing life has since been the subject of a Broadway musical, a movie and a children?s book.
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