Nellie Bly was an adventurous female journalist of the late 19th century who is best remembered for some spectacular reporting episodes which included a trip around the world in 72 days.
Though sometimes dismissed as an attention seeker, she did play a serious role in redefining society’s expectations of women, and some of her investigative reporting led to meaningful social reforms.
Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Pennsylvania, she came to big city journalism nearly by accident. And in an era when women were dissuaded from seeking employment outside the home, her desire to conduct serious reporting made her highly unusual.
Early in her career, progressive leanings inspired her to document the harsh conditions faced by workers in the 1880s. As might be expected, she faced considerable pressure to restrict her reporting to more traditional subjects.
Determined not to be silenced, she developed the specialty of undercover reporting, once even getting herself committed to a mental institution so she could report on its treatment of inmates. In a period of extreme competition among newspapers, the era of sensationalist yellow journalism, Bly attracted a large following and became nationally known.
Over time she moved away from daredevil exploits, and after she married a wealthy businessman her reporting output diminished. But she never entirely quit journalism, and even reported on the outbreak of World War I, which she witnessed in Europe.
The woman who would become famous as Nellie Bly was born May 5, 1864 in Pennsylvania. Her parents had both been married previously, and her father had seven children by his prior marriage. As a child, young Elizabeth Jane Cochran was expected to keep up with the older children, which included five half-brothers. She often played with the boys, and grew up believing girls could do whatever boys did.
Her father, a businessman who prospered during the Pennsylvania oil boom, died during her childhood, and she and her mother lived frugally on money he had left. Her mother intended for Elizabeth to become a teacher, an acceptable vocation for a woman of the time. Circumstances changed that.
In early 1885 she wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, disagreeing with a column the newspaper had published which mocked the idea of equality for women. The managing editor was impressed by her writing ability and hired her to be the newspaper’s first female reporter.
Her initial letter to the newspaper had been signed “An Orphan Girl.” The editor suggested she write under the pseudonym Nellie Bly, a name presumably inspired by a Stephen Foster song written decades earlier.
As Nellie Bly she ruffled feathers in Pittsburgh by reporting on the harsh conditions faced by many workers. Business leaders complained to the newspaper’s management, and she was assigned to cover stories considered more traditional for women, such as society events. She became determined to find a better venue for her reporting.
She traveled to Mexico and wrote dispatches which appeared in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, and were later collected in her first book, Six Months in Mexico, which appeared in 1888. Returning to the United States, she again reported for a time in Pittsburgh but soon decided to relocate to New York City.
Bly hoped to be hired by the New York World, the newspaper published by Joseph Pulitzer. She managed to get a job interview at the paper, and landed a position by audaciously claiming she could help the paper by increasing its circulation.
Her proposal was startling: she would have herself committed to the city’s insane asylum so she would report on conditions generally kept hidden from the public.
Posing as “Nellie Brown,” she managed to have the police send her to the notorious asylum on Blackwell’s Island.
After enduring ten days in horrid circumstances, lawyers for the newspaper got her released from confinement. She wrote about the experience and her stories were turned into a book, Ten Days In a Mad-House.
While her reporting on the asylum could be viewed as a stunt, her work did raise very serious questions about mental health issues.
The Trip Around the World
In November 1889 Bly began her most famous feat of reporting by leaving New York City on a steamship bound for Britain. Her goal was to circle the globe and do it faster than the characters in the popular Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days.
Nellie Bly’s 72-day trip became one of the greatest stunts in an era of sensational journalism. Her reports, filed by telegraph from Europe and Asia, thrilled readers in America who followed her progress. Her sense of adventure, and the determination her trip required, made Bly something of a national hero for a time as well as a role model for women.
As a reporter in New York City in the Tammany Hall era, she had no shortage of material. She investigated how the police handled female criminals, reported on sweatshops, quacks who preyed on patients, and con men who fleeced newly arrived immigrants. Covering the Pullman Strike, she addressed the plight of workers.
In 1895 Bly married Robert Livingston Seaman, a millionaire who owned a company that manufactured steel barrels. She withdrew somewhat from her journalism career during the marriage, and when Seaman died in 1904 she handled his business interests.
She had many financial problems, and even declared bankruptcy in 1911 and returned to her journalism career. She traveled to Europe and happened to be on the scene when World War I began. She filed dispatches for American newspapers.
Though she was able to find work, her glory days of daredevil reporting were behind her. She died in New York City on January 27, 1922. Newspaper obituaries remembered her mostly for her famous trip around the world.