Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864 in the town of Cochran Mills, no one thought that young Elizabeth would be famous for anything other than being the daughter of the man the town was named after. She was the third of five children, and her father had ten children from a previous marriage, so the Cochran house was crowded. Elizabeth grew up as the rebellious one and had dreams of being a writer. She even changed her name to Cochrane, giving it a silent e on the end to make it more fancy.
Her father died when Elizabeth was six, and the family was turned out of their fancy home a year later as her father left no will. Her mother married again quickly as it was difficult for a widow to support herself on her own. Elizabeth’s stepfather was an abusive alcoholic and beat her mother regularly. Her mother took an unusual step of divorcing her abusive husband. Elizabeth testified at her mother’s divorce trial, “My stepfather has been generally drunk since he married my mother. When drunk he is very cross and cross when sober.” Sounds like a prince of a guy.
Elizabeth attempted to study to be a teacher, but the family ran out of money again and she had to leave school to help her mother run a boarding house in Pittsburgh. She never lost her love of writing even though it was very much on the back burner. She read the Pittsburgh Dispatch regularly, where Erasmus Wilson wrote under the pen name “Quiet Observer” or “QO”. Wilson wrote a series of columns discussing how women should stay in the domestic sphere and not dare to put a toe out of it to have an opinion or a thought. A notable quote called a working woman “a monstrosity”. Another prince of a guy. Elizabeth read this column and it made her angry. She was intimately familiar with what she and her family had to do to make ends meet and many other women were in the same boat. She wrote a scathing rebuttal to the column as a letter to the editor and signed it “Lonely Orphan Girl”. The editor of the Pittsburgh Gazette, George Madden, was impressed with the passionate defence of the working woman and ran an ad asking for the “Lonely Orphan Girl” to identify herself. Elizabeth read the ad and went to his office and he offered her a job, writing for $5 a week. She accepted and took “Nellie Bly” as her pen name after the Stephen Collins Foster song.
The newly christened Nellie Bly took on the social ills of Pittsburgh. She wrote about poor working girls, girls in factories and sexist divorce laws. This was not what her editors had in mind for her, and relegated her to the “women’s page” and assigned her stories about fashion and flowers. This was not the kind of story that appealed to her investigative talents. Somehow after a year with the paper, she finagled her way to becoming a foreign correspondent to Mexico for the paper. She sent back stories of the lives of everyday citizens in Mexico, exposing the political corruption that kept them in poverty. These dispatches were collected in her book published in 1888 called Six Months in Mexico. For her pains, Bly was expelled from the country. Back in the US, she languished on the “women’s page”. Having enough, Bly left and sent a note to her old friend, the columnist Erasmus Wilson that said, “Dear Q.O., I’m off for New York. Look out for me. Bly.”
New York, however, was not ready for Nellie Bly. She walked the streets of New York for six months without getting anywhere until finally she talked her way into the offices of the New York World. This was a paper run by Joseph Pulitzer, which would later become famous for inventing the term yellow journalism, and for his bequest to Columbia University which led to the birth of the Pulitzer Prizes awarded annually for journalism and the arts. John Cockerill was the managing editor and threw down the gauntlet asking her to write about the mentally ill housed at Blackwell Island. He probably thought he would never hear from this upstart girl again. He was very wrong.
Bly took the challenge and had herself committed to Blackwell Island for insanity and stayed there for ten days as an inmate. Her treatment there included meals of rotten food and rancid butter, brutal beatings and ice baths. After ten days, she was released and wrote a scathing expose for the New York World. Her story, complete with illustrations, caused a stir when it was published and eventually caused politicians of the day to call for a full scale investigation of the facility. The light she shone on the treatment of the mentally ill brought much needed money and reforms to that cause. Her experiences later were compiled into a book, “Ten Days in a Mad-House”, in 1887.
This was the start of a whole new genre of reporting- the investigative report. Some of her peers jealously called it “stunt reporting”, but call it what they would, Bly’s stories got results. She exposed the treatment of female inmates by being incarcerated, exposed shady lobbyists and always took the side of the underdog. She covered the Pullman railroad strike, and was the only reporter who told the story from the perspective of the strikers not management. She also interviewed prominent figures of the time such as boxer John L. Sullivan, suffragist Susan B. Anthony, and anarchist Emma Goldman. One of the hallmarks of Bly’s work was she put her own reactions and thoughts into the story, giving it a more personal feel.
At the height of her popularity in 1889, she took a trip around the world to try to beat the fictional record set by Phileas Fogg in the Jules Verne book “Around the World in Eighty Days”. Bly beat him by making around the world in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes traveling by ship, train, horse, rickshaw, sampan, burro. That also became a book, “Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Day”, published in 1890.
In 1895, Bly retired from reporting after marrying industrialist Robert Seaman. This was a scandal as she was 30 and Seaman was 72, and they married after only knowing each other a few days. They lived together as man and wife until Seaman’s death in 1905. Also in 1905, she marched in the first Women’s March on Washington. (For more on this, please see this post: http://www.historynaked.com/first-womens-march-washington/ ) After his death, Bly ran his company Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. and promoted metal as an alternative to wood for packing by inventing the steel drum. However, World War I cut into their costs and Bly was forced to go back to reporting to make ends meet. She did not achieve the celebrity status she once had, but used her column as a forum to find homes for abandoned children.
Bly died of pneumonia on January 27, 1922 at the age of 58. She was by no means the first female journalist, but she was one of the pioneers who lead women off the “woman’s page” and to whatever part the paper they wanted to be on.
Sources available on request