"In 1887, a young reporter named Nellie Bly feigned insanity and was involuntarily committed to the city’s system of institutions for the mentally ill. Her story, “Ten Days in a Mad-House,”published in the New York World, became a sensation for its depiction of brutality and neglect. Yet while her tale mainly focused on the city’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), the psychiatric unit of Bellevue also became associated in the subsequent public scandal and investigations, cementing a “connection between Bellevue and insanity.”
Sensational episodes persisted into modern times. In 1989, a “homeless cocaine addict” named Steven Smith, who had been released from psychiatric care against his wishes, took up residence in the machinery closet of the hospital’s 22nd floor. Wearing stolen doctor’s scrubs and bearing a stethoscope and security badge, Smith was free to roam the hospital. He entered the office of Dr. Kathryn Hinnant, who was five months pregnant, and over 20 minutes “beat her unconscious, raped and sodomized her, and strangled her to death with an electrical cord.” The investigation of the “Beast of Bellevue” uncovered “at least three reports of unauthorized persons living in the fourth floor locker room and at least five reports of persons sleeping in other common areas and in stairways around the hospital.”
Still, these incidents to the contrary, Bellevue’s reputation as an out-of-control hospital for the mentally ill might be exaggerated, argues Oshinsky. “Bellevue’s hold on our popular imagination has come at a price,” he writes. “The relentless focus on its eccentricities has obscured its role as our quintessential public hospital.” Bellevue was a leader in psychiatric research and treatment, he maintains, yet here again, the hospital eventually became embroiled in controversy. Recognizing a connection between seizure and the treatment of schizophrenic symptoms—still not fully understood—Bellevue inaugurated the practice of electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. “Thousands would undergo ECT at Bellevue,” writes Oshinsky, “many of them children. Indeed, few units employed it as systematically.” Bellevue largely abandoned ECT after its lead practitioner, the child neuropsychiatrist Lauretta Bender, left for Creedmoor State Hospital in 1956, where her psychiatric research turned to the experimental use of LSD."