Wealth had great power and influence in America in the 1800s, not terribly unlike today. While farmers struggled to survive, in the cities there was a growing middle class, and they began to focus on issues beyond their personal needs. Middle class urban women tended to focus on prohibition and suffrage, but other issues caught the attention of the middle class. With more leisure time for reading, their newspapers and magazines began including articles about things outside the lives of their readers. There was curiosity about the extravagant lives of the wealthy--their mansions, their social events, their clothing, and their power. Wherever there is excessive wealth and power, there is likely to be abuse, and reform-minded journalists began to write about those abuses.
Newspapers began to report their scandals, sometimes exposing wrongdoing as much for increasing readership as for seeking a correction of the abuses. Gradually, however, certain writers began investigating social abuses with the intention of reform. Most of these reporters were male, but the beautiful young Nelly Bly was among them. Her work was even covered in the St. John County Capital where Isaac would have seen it. In 1887 she focused on the scandal of placing 'troublesome' women in mental hospitals.
She set out to determine whether women were sometimes admitted to these hospitals because they were unconventional or inconvenient rather than being mentally ill. Further, even if there was mental illness, Nelly wanted to see how these women were treated. With the approval of her editor, she faked mental illness and was admitted to Bellevue Mental Hospital, where she personally observed and endured the cruelties suffered by women who had been admitted to get them out of the way. It was a daring way to investigate actual conditions, but she gained release and published a series of articles in The World newspaper that brought public attention to the abuses. Later, her information was published as a book, and her reporting made a difference in correcting the mistreatment of women.
Also in Isaac's time, Henry Demarest Lloyd published Wealth Against Commonwealth, an expose revealing the corruption of the Standard Oil Company. A few years later, but prior to Isaac's death, McClure's Magazine was formed, and in addition to articles about general topics, they became a leading publication for exposing social abuses. Later, Willa Cather joined McClure's to cover the arts.
The early 1900s were the highpoint of what came to be known as muckraking journalism. Next week's blog will include some of the familiar names known for their exposure of abuses in American business and society.