As brave as undercover cops have to be to rub elbows with mob bosses and murderers, we submit that there is one group with even bigger balls: undercover journalists.
After all, they wind up in the same terrifying company, under a cover that can be blown at any moment, only without having a van full of fully armed cops who can burst through the door at any moment.
So let's pause to salute ...
#5. Nellie Bly
Born in 1864, Elizabeth Jane Cochran clearly was launched into a world not yet ready for her. She set her career's course by replying to a sexist article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch in such a fiery way that they saw no way to shut her up but to give her a job.
"This woman hates us, Jenkins! Hire her and maybe she'll have sex with me."
After being assigned the pseudonym Nellie Bly because female journalists didn't get to use their own names, she did a stint traveling across Mexico as a foreign correspondent. Later, she took on an undercover job for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, doing the kind of work few reporters of either gender have had the balls to even consider.
And she did it all without a bowel disruptor.
She would make history by checking into an insane asylum to investigate reports of cruelty and overall neglect. Yes, as a patient.
You have to keep in mind that in the late 1800s, these homes were basically the attics where people locked up the deformed kids that the neighbors preferred not to know about. To get in, Bly rented a room at a cheap boarding house and started acting crazy -- pestering the other residents, acting afraid of them for no reason, refusing to go to bed, claiming to have no memory of anything she did. As per the system at the time, the logical thing to do was to have her arrested and institutionalized.
Nothing helps sort out crazy people like more crazy people.
Right away she exposed the ridiculous flaws in the system -- several doctors examined her and declared her, quote, "undoubtedly insane" and a "hopeless case" with no chance for a cure. They were so blatantly relying on blind guesses for their diagnoses that multiple doctors couldn't tell the difference between an insane person and a perfectly sane reporter saying, "Oh yeah, I'm totally crazy. You wouldn't even believe it."
The place they dumped her was called Blackwell's Island, and Bly soon found that the ominous name seemed to encourage the asylum to follow every prison movie cliche in existence. Over 10 days she was stuck in a filthy facility that served gruel, broth and bone-dry bread. Showers were buckets of frigid water dumped on her head. Then you have the rotten meat, and the rats, and the nurses who beat the patients who refused to shut up. Bly's stay was less One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and more Hostel.
Bly found that the conditions weren't just a matter of poor funding or a misunderstanding of mental illness but rose to the level of diabolical torture. She describes being made to sit perfectly still and silent on a wooden bench for 14 straight hours, with nothing to read, no one to talk to and completely cut off from the outside world. She spoke to other patients and came to the conclusion that many were perfectly sane but had been broken by the hellish conditions.
Her employers sprung her after 10 days, and the story caused a huge splash. She was eventually asked to assist a grand jury tasked with rolling up Blackwell's Island and to give input on how mental wards should be reformed. All it took was one woman with enormous balls.
#4. Alison Braund, Fredy Gareis and Mark Ebner
Infiltrating an insane asylum is inarguably badass, but what if there was a place that combined completely misapplied psychology and a desire for world domination? Then you'd end up with something both ludicrously bizarre and totally horrifying.
If you know what a Thetan is, you know where this is going. Three journalists decided to find out about Scientology from the inside.
Above: The poopy bowels of Scientology.
Alison Braund, Fredy Gareis and Mark Ebner let themselves be approached in the street and pulled into the storefront offices of the Church of Scientology in Poole (England), Berlin and Los Angeles to get psycho-tested. When presented with the predictable results that they were as good as dead if they didn't let the good Xenu come to the rescue right away, they signed up for classes.
From the moment they walked in, the hard sell would never cease. The usual progression moved from being kind and understanding to pointing out which homemade class or program would cure the particular weak spot the cult's adviser had "identified." Courses turned to essays, essays turned to tests, tests turned into questions and questions turned into outright interrogation. Then it got weird.
In the advanced "Whole Security Check," questions would include: "Have you ever destroyed a culture?" "Did you come to Earth for evil purposes?" and "Have you ever bred bodies for degrading purposes?"
"Er ... Sir, could you define degrading, please?"
As you can guess, all three were presented with the prospect of reaching incredibly high levels of Scientologiness by paying incredibly high amounts of cash, and all were introduced to the workings of the Thetans, etc. But that's just the beginning. Braund describes how as a recruit, you'd never be left alone long enough to clear your head (even being escorted into the bathroom for more questions).
Gareis writes about how a few 19-year-old girls used their natural charms to bully him into not just signing up for classes but "employment," meaning a 52-hours-a-week job recruiting new members himself. Gareis said that when he used the "skeptical girlfriend" defense, they tried to break up his relationship by trying to lure his girlfriend into HQ to "handle" her. Failing that, they hinted that she probably cheated on him anyway.
Berlin HQ. The sign says "Open House Today." It says that every single day.
Ebner, on the other hand, was offered a regimen of daily five-hour sauna sessions and oral shots of olive oil to help him quit smoking (this has caused people to collapse half-dead before).
Gareis and Ebner eventually just dropped out, leaving their phones to ring ... and ring ... and ring. Hundreds of times. Ebner expected that once his tell-all book hit shelves, the cult would use everything it had on him thanks to the long interrogation sessions. Scientologists call it assembling a "dead agent pack," which essentially means ruining you by spreading all those little secrets to everyone who has no business knowing them. Which is why he simply published them first.
L. Ron Hubbard: "The technique of proving utterances false is called 'DEAD AGENTING.' It's in the first book of Chinese espionage. When the enemy agent gives false data, those who believed him but now find it false kill him -- or at least cease to believe him. So the PR slang for it is 'Dead Agenting.' "
Meanwhile, Braund called her family back in Oz to warn them they might be approached. As it turned out, they already had been -- first under a pretext, then openly -- and given a warning that this shit better not hit the airwaves. Someone had also turned up at her old high school to plunder her school records.
They're all looking over their shoulders to this day. The Church of Scientology doesn't forget.
#3. Gunter Wallraff
Gunter Wallraff is a German journalist who smuggled his notebook into just about every setting possible, usually getting sued for his troubles. And usually winning in court. He was all about exposing working conditions, and he cut his teeth by publishing reports on the companies he'd worked for from the inside. As a result, HR people in the 60s were always on the lookout for him, keeping what they called "Wallraff Wanted" posters to make sure they'd recognize him. Alas, they never did, because he kept changing his appearance.
The Many Faces of Gunter.
In the 1980s, he landed the coup he's most famous for: Ganz unten ("The lowest of the low"). The "low" people he's referring to in the title are the immigrant workers in Germany who, because they have nowhere else to go and risk deportation at any moment, basically get shit on 24 hours a day. If you're thinking we're just talking about low wages and long hours, hang on to your ass ...
Wallraff donned dark contact lenses, blackened his hair and mustache and played the part of a Turkish immigrant named Ali, working several low-level jobs. At one point he worked for a construction company and was sent into a building to clean it up ...While it was fucking on fire.
It's like Borat, except it makes us want to cry.
In his words, "Several fire engines approach, also the police. Ali is sent with several other colleagues onto the still smoldering roof to clean up. The soles of his sneakers begin to scorch; a few times burning beams crash below him. A group of police officers and firefighters stand next to us and watch how we throw smoldering things down into the builder's yard. We're clambering around in front of them, without protective clothing ... But they say nothing."See, the protective clothing was for Germans only.
Above: German firefighter in protective lederhosen.
At one point, he was employed with a subcontractor who worked him 72 hours straight, and then kept his paycheck. Later, he worked for a pharmaceutical company ... that put him to work as a human guinea pig to test the side effects of drugs.
But here's the best part -- while the first two investigators on our list spent a couple of weeks in their nightmarish assignments, Wallraff kept up this dangerous disguise and brutal routine for two freaking years. Of course, the people he was trying to help do it their whole lives ...
And with much shabbier mustaches.
And just how bad was it for the Turks there? At one point, the reporter (again, playing a Muslim) asked a priest to baptize him. The priest turned him down.
By the way, just digging up dirt while trying not to fall into a vat of molten steel wouldn't satisfy this man. So, in 1989, he hid his friend Salman Rushdie for a bit while Ayatollah Khomeini commanded the Muslim world to murder him at any opportunity. Where did he hide him? In his apartment in Germany, of course, in a district bustling with Muslim immigrants.