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The Girl Puzzle


I have long been curious about Roosevelt Island, located in the East River between the New York City borough of Manhattan on the west and Queens on the east. Once known as Blackwell's Island, it was the site of institutions for destitute, disabled, contagious, "insane" people and criminals—a penitentiary, workhouse, almshouse, general hospital, smallpox hospital, and “lunatic asylum.”

Three women whom I have written about have a connection to Blackwell's Island. In 1908, the groundbreaking suffragist Maud Malone, whom I wrote about in The Vote: Women's Fierce Fight, was arrested for speaking without a license and threatened by a judge: MAUD MALONE WARNED BLACKWELL’ S ISLAND FOR HER IF SHE KEEPS TALKING, read a newspaper headline. In my book about the pioneering social reformer, Dorothea Lynde Dix, Breaking the Chains: The Crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix, I wrote, "In 1887, ironically just two months after Dix's death, a courageous newspaper reporter, Nellie Bly investigated the conditions at the hospital for indigent mentally ill people on Blackwell's Island, a hospital Dix

used to visit. Pretending to be mentally ill, Bly spent ten terrifying days in what she later described as a "human rat-trap." Her book, Ten Days in a Mad-House resulted is some improvements.

On December 10, 2021, a monumental landmark, “The Girl Puzzle,” honoring Nellie Bly,

born Elizabeth Cochran, was dedicated on Roosevelt Island. Designed and sculpted by Amanda Matthews, “The Girl Puzzle,” also the title of Bly’s first published article on January 25, 1885, is located at the northern end in Lighthouse Park. Linda and I visited “The Girl Puzzle” on April 19, 2022. (The 50' brick lighthouse visible in the second photograph was built by asylum inmates in 1872. My sweatshirt reads: "Write Women Back into History.)

Nellie Bly, I think, is mostly associated with her record-breaking trip around the world. This monument honors her as a “champion for women, children, and workers. She not only spoke truth to power, but she exposed the truth for all to see.”

“The Girl Puzzle” is a stunning sight! A large reflective stainless steel sphere stands in the

middle of a plaza with a 60-foot walk way.

Behind it is a middle-sized sphere, then a small one placed just before a seven-foot silver bronze face of Nellie Bly. Four seven-foot bronze faces of women flank the plaza, two on each side. Each head represents a woman, who has overcome adversity: a Young Girl, an African American Woman, an Older Woman and Member of the LGBTQ Community, and an Asian American Woman. The four faces are sculpted in partial sections to represent puzzle pieces and depict brokenness and healing. The faces are modeled after people with whom the Amanda Matthews had a personal connection.

The stainless steel spheres reflected our image and the faces, ever changing as we walked around, a novel experience. Nellie Bly’s words are inscribed throughout the monument, including: “I have never had but one desire, and that was to benefit humanity” and “I said I could and I would. And I did.”

Unlike our visits to other historic women’s landmarks, “The Girl Puzzle” had a stream of visitors that delighted me, especially since it requires an effort to get there. An effort well worth the energy! (We drove to Queens and the Roosevelt Island bridge. There is also a tram and a ferry from Manhattan.) I missed finding any explanatory material at “The Girl Puzzle,” an oversight, I think. There is, happily, an excellent website www.girlpuzzle.com

I recommend checking it out before you visit, or even if you can't visit.




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