Book Review: A Feigned Madness by Tonya Mitchell

By Wendy Stanley

In 1887, 23-year old journalist Elizabeth Cochrane, under the assumed name Nellie Bly, feigned mental illness in order to report undercover from a women’s insane asylum for the New York World newspaper.

Once committed to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island, Nellie is stunned by the daily depredations the women must endure at the hands of cruel staff and from the inhumane conditions forced upon them. Nellie’s ten-day stay becomes a horrifying ordeal of abuse and survival, with riveting details throughout. [Review continues after clicking Read More under image...]


Initially Nellie hopes her time at the asylum and resulting story will earn her a full-time position at the newspaper, away from the fashion pages and embarrassing ladies’ miscellany, no small feat for a serious woman journalist in nineteenth century America. Yet during her stay, she realizes she cannot turn her back on the plight of the women who suffer there, and struggles to intervene without blowing her cover.

From the back cover:

“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.”
                                                                  - Nellie Bly

A Feigned Madness is simply great historical fiction. In her debut novel Tonya Mitchell has peeled back time to dive into the gritty underworld of mental illness as experienced by a real flesh-and-blood woman who willingly walked into the black torment of an asylum to experience it firsthand. From today’s vantage point it is entirely too easy to forget that this is part of our nation’s history, and the asylum on Blackwell’s Island, now Roosevelt Island, is not fictitious. Once released, Nellie Bly’s (Elizabeth Cochrane) coverage of the asylum shocked the nation and led to institutional reform. She eventually published her story in a small book called Ten Days in a Mad-House.

I am grateful to have had an opportunity to read an ARC (advanced reader’s copy) of A Feigned Madness. It was my first exposure to Nellie Bly, and I always know a novel has grabbed me when I go searching for the real story behind the novel. I was fascinated by what I learned of the asylum and how it fell into disrepair in the mid-twentieth century. Kudos to Mitchell for creating a masterful tale of eerie suspense and tangible despair.

A Feigned Madness is available on October 6th from Amazon and other sellers. If you love historical fiction, don’t miss this one. Recommend.



Wendy Long Stanley is a writer of historical fiction. Her first novel, The Power to Deny, is now widely available. Wendy was born in England, grew up in Canada, and became a U.S. citizen in 2017. She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania with her husband and two teenage daughters.