In 1883, when 36-year-old Hungarian immigrant Joseph Pulitzer bought the New York World, it was a stodgy religious paper hemorrhaging readers to the Herald, the Tribune, the Post, and the Times. Pulitzer ramped up the World's circulation by covering all the evils of the Naked City. But he also led – with great fanfare - crusades to make things better.
In 1887, for one of them, Pulitzer paid a lovely young woman to go undercover in a madhouse. She practiced looking crazy in front of a mirror, then raised a ruckus in a boarding house.
After gullible psychiatrists certified that she was “positively demented,” she spent 10 days in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (today Roosevelt Island). Her devastating expose of the neglect and brutal treatment of fellow inmates led to drastic reforms of the system.
To hold the fickle interest of newspaper readers, Nellie Bly soon went up in a balloon, down in a diving bell, and around the world in 72 days. Of course, she sent regular reports to the New York World of her record-breaking 24,000-mile journey by railroad, steamship, and burro.