Below, you will find a list of questions to think about throughout this unit, readings and questions for each class (August 27, August 29 & September 3), and some optional readings that could form the basis of an extra-credit blog or your final project.

Unit-Wide Questions

  • What was the purpose of asylums?
  • What kind of treatment was available for the mentally ill in the 1880s?
  • What did life inside an asylum look like?
  • What kind of information is available to answer questions like these? Is it objective? Does it need to be objective? Think about how a patient’s account might differ from a doctor’s report.
  • Are there some people who need to be committed for their own good? How do we distinguish them? What rights should they have?
  • How can we humanely treat someone who we think isn’t in their right mind?
  • How do we deal with these questions today? How were they dealt with in the 1880s?
  • If our current attitudes and practices are different from historical ones, what lead to changes in the field?
  • Are mentally ill people fundamentally different from mentally healthy people? What can mental illness tell us about mental health?

August 26: A Mysterious Waif at Bellevue



  • What do you think is wrong with the mystery woman? What should be done with her? What would be done with her today?
  • What kind of language do the news articles use? Is there a difference between the three papers?
  • What is is about the mysterious woman that these papers find so fascinating?
  • What information do they have access to? What information would a paper have access to today if a similar incident occurred?

August 28: The Snake Pit

Watch: The Snake Pit (you can stream the film online, but if you want to watch with subtitles, you will need to download the film and the subtitles.)

Write: Your first film blog. Instructions are available here.

September 4: “Ten Days in a Madhouse”

Read: “Ten Days in a Madhouse”

Two notes on the reading:

  • “Ten Days in a Madhouse” was released with two other reports by Nellie Bly; you do not have to read these other reports, which begin under the header “Miscellaneous Sketches.”
  • “Ten Days in a Madhouse” is long (64 pages.) You may choose to skim parts of it as long as you get a sense of the document.


  • What does this report say about the state of mental health care in the 1880s? Could Nellie Bly’s situation have been avoided? If so, how?
  • What should be done to fix the problems Bly reports? What do you think was done?
  • What do you think the popular reaction to Bly’s report was? What about the reaction among physicians and alienists?
  • Is the image of the asylum you saw in The Snake Pit the same as the one put forward in “Ten Days in a Madhouse” or is it different? How so? What do the two have in common? If they’re different, why are they different?
  • What information do we rely on when diagnosing mental illness? The patient’s own words and opinions? Research? Brain scans? Laws? Something else? How do we balance these things?

Optional reading & ideas for extra-credit blogs & projects

Browse the “mental asylum” tag on Undercover Reporting and think about how other undercover reports differ from or are similar to Bly’s.

  • Why have so many reporters gone undercover in asylums and mental hospitals?
  • What long-term impact did Bly have, judging by similar reporting from the 1930s (Frank Smith) or the 1960s (Michael Mok.)
  • What role (if any) does gender play in this? Does it matter that Bly was a woman? How so?
  • How has reporting changed? Do these reporters use similar language or structures for their reports?
  • Could similar undercover work be done today? If so, what does that say about objectivity in psychology?

Browse the “Stunt Girls (and Boys) of the Late 1880s” page on Undercover Reporting

  • Is Bly’s experience in the asylum different from her experiences in jail or in the Magdalen Home? How so?
  • What do similarities between these institutions say about the purpose of asylums in the 1880s?

Research Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute (formerly known as the Central State Hospital for the Insane.) The hospital was criticized by famed reformer Dorothea Dix in the 1840s, and the subject of an undercover report by Frank Sutherland in the 1970s.

  • What changes did Dix want made? What about Sutherland? Are these the same or different?
  • Why was this asylum the target of so much criticism?
  • What kind of information is available about the asylum today? What kind of information isn’t easily available?
  • Dix was part of a larger group of female reformers; what other issues were such reformers interested in? Are these issues linked? If so, how?
  • You can find more primary sources about Dix here, here and here.
  • If you’re really ambitious, go to the Tennessee State Library & Archive located downtown to look at documents related to the hospital.

Watch “Born Sexy Yesterday,” a video-essay about pop culture tropes, and compare this to The Snake Pit and news articles on the mysterious waif at Bellevue. Ask why the trope of the amnesiac woman or the woman without a past is so compelling to audiences across such a large span of time.