Nellie Bly: Pioneer of Investigative Journalism

Nellie Bly was christened Elizabeth Jane Cochran on 5 May 1864, but when her father died six years later, her life drastically changed. Her father, Michael Cochran, started out as a laborer and mill worker but later became a merchant, postmaster, and associate justice at Pennsylvania’s Cochran’s Mills (which was named for him). He also married twice, and Elizabeth was a product of his second marriage by his wife Mary Jane.

Nellie Bly at 26.

Nellie Bly at age 26. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As a young girl, Elizabeth was often called “Pink” or “Pinky” because of her mother’s predilection to dress her in that color, but as she grew up and became a teenager, she dropped her nickname and changed her surname to “Cochrane” to appear more sophisticated. From a young age she was also reported to be high-spirited and headstrong, traits that would later make her a good newspaper reporter.

When Elizabeth’s father died, he left no will. Mary Jane was therefore not entitled to inherit anything and so she “ended up with little more than the household furniture, a horse and carriage, and a small weekly stipend.”[1] In 1880, she moved her family to Pittsburgh and it was there that a newspaper column in the Dispatch entitled, “What Girls are Good For” caught Elizabeth’s attention. The paper reported that girls were primarily good for birthing children and keeping house.

Elizabeth responded to the article under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl,” and although “her grammar was rough, her punctuation erratic … the writing was forceful and her voice clear and strong.”[2] It was also enough to impress the editor, George Madden, who then ran an advertisement seeking the author. Elizabeth identified herself and Madden offered her the opportunity to write another piece for the newspaper, which she did under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl.” Her article was titled “The Girl Puzzle” and was about how divorce affected women. Once again. she impressed Madden and this time, he offered her a full-time job.

Because it was customary for female newspaper writers to use a pen name, Cochrane chose “Nelly Bly.” The name came from an African American title character in the popular song “Nelly Bly.” The song had been created by Stephen Foster, an American songwriter known primarily for his parlor and minstrel music who had been born the same year Jacques-Louis David’s unfinished portrait of Madame Récamier entered the Louvre. Although Cochrane had intended that her pseudonym be “Nelly Bly” her editor mistakenly wrote “Nellie.”

The newly christened Nellie Bly enjoyed writing hard-hitting investigative pieces and some of her first articles were about the unsavory working conditions of women in factories where they produced everything from cigars to barbed wire. She learned that women toiled 12 hours a day for a mere dollar. Unfortunately, when Nellie’s articles appeared complaints poured in from factory owners and she was quickly reassigned to cover fashion, society, and gardening for the women’s pages.

Nellie Bly in 1890.

Nellie Bly in 1890. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Dissatisfied with such assignments, she then traveled to Mexico with her mother and began serving as a foreign correspondent.

“Nellie spoke no Spanish, but she found enough English-speaking sources to be able to report on a wide array of subjects. From a home base in the ‘City of Mexico’ … she and her mother took train trips around the countryside. On one such trip, they astonished their fellow travelers by carrying their own bags. ‘I defied their gaze,’ wrote Nellie, ‘and showed them that a free American girl can accommodate herself to circumstances without the aid of a man.’”[3]

She then spent about six months reporting on the lives and customs of the Mexican people and published her dispatches in a book titled Six Months in Mexico. In the book she noted the addiction the Mexican people had to playing the lottery and mentioned that some would pawn their clothes to buy tickets. She also mentioned their courtship practices, wedding ceremonies, and marijuana use:

“The soldiers have an herb named marijuana, which they roll into small cigaros and smoke. It produces intoxication which lasts for five days, and for that period they are in paradise. It has no ill after-effects, yet the use is forbidden by law. It is commonly used among prisoners. One cigaro is made, and the prisoners all sitting in a ring partake of it. The smoker takes a draw and blows the smoke into the mouth of the nearest man, he likewise gives it to another, and so on around the circle. One cigaro will intoxicate the whole lot for the length of five days.”[4]

While in Mexico a local journalist was jailed. Nellie Bly protested the reporter’s imprisonment and received threats from Porfirio Diaz’s government. Fearful about what might happen, she and her mother returned to the United States, and once back at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Bly accused Diaz of being a tyrannical dictator, controlling the press, and suppressing the Mexican people.

Unhappily she soon found herself covering assignments related to the theatre and arts instead of the hard-hitting news stories that she loved. She therefore left the Dispatch in 1887 and went to New York City hoping to find work there. After four months and still unemployed she talked her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, the New York World. There she obtained an undercover assignment to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

To conduct her investigation, she needed to get herself checked into the asylum, which was no easy task. The Leeds Times reported:

“She bought books on insanity, and studied carefully all its phases. She stood in front of a mirror with dishevelled hair, and practised rolling her eyes and contorting her features until she felt that she had studied her part well and knew it.”[5]

She also obtained lodgings at a boarding house called “Temporary Homes for Females” and remained awake all night to give herself the wide-eyed look of a disturbed woman. She then began to accuse other boarders of being insane, refused to go to bed, and scared so many of the boarders the police were called. Once examined and evaluated by a police officer, a judge, and a doctor, Nellie Bly was committed to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island as “hopelessly insane.”

At the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, she experienced the deplorable conditions firsthand. One horror that remained etched in her mind was the cold baths that patients underwent. Buckets of frigid water were poured over their heads, after which they were roughly washed and scrubbed by attendants. Nellie recalled the horror of the bathing ritual:

“My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head — ice-cold water, too — into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth. I think I experienced some of the sensations of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping and shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane.”[6]

Bly also reported that because the bathing water was rarely changed many patients bathed in the same dirty water. Even when the water was changed, she reported that attendants failed to clean the tubs. In addition, numerous patients shared the same towel, so that healthy patients were dried by the same towel used on patients suffering with open sores, skin inflammation, or boils.

After residing at the asylum about ten days, her employer, the New York World, obtained her release. Initially her experiences were published as a series of articles, but she later compiled them into a book that was published in 1887 by Ian L. Munro under the title Ten Days in Mad House. Her story of the horrible treatment that the mentally received caused a sensation, prompted the asylum to implement reforms, and brought her instant fame.

In 1873, French author Jules Verne published a fictional novel about Phileas Fogg of London, who attempted to circumnavigate the world in 80 days based on a £20,000 wager set by his friends at the Reform Club. The novel was titled Around the World in Eighty Days. In 1888, based on Verne’s book Bly suggested to her editor that she take a trip around the world and thereby turn Verne’s book into a reality.

Jules Verne by Felix Nadar. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

If she had been famous before, the idea of traveling the world in a record 80 days brought her everlasting fame. A year later, on 14 November 1889 at precisely 9:40:30am and with a mere two-day notice, 25-year-old Nellie Bly boarded the steamer August Victoria to begin her exciting around-the-world journey of 25,000 miles. As to what she took with her, The Lancaster Examiner reported:

“Nelly Bly is making this remarkable tour with no other baggage than a small hand-satchel. She left New York with but one gown, and that upon her back. In the satchel were necessary changes of clothing, five copies of the New York World of that day and £500 in bank of England notes, besides her railroad and steamer tickets for the entire journey. A snug-fitting double-peaked cap, a light plaid ulster with a hood, and a pair of easy-fitting shoes, complete her equipment.”[7]

Nellie Bly publicity photo

Nellie Bly in a publicity photograph taken by the New York World newspaper to promote her around-the-world voyage. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Shortly after she left on her whirlwind world tour, she was described by The Lancaster Examiner in January of 1890:

“It should be explained here that Nellie Bly is a young woman, petite, and rather fragile-looking for the perilous task she undertook. A great compliment is due her courage for venturing into almost untraveled paths in distant climes purely in the line of duty … Her pluck and spirit and self-reliance are shown by the fact that is she is traveling 25,000 miles without a protector. Every American girl should be proud of her.”[8]

The Cosmopolitan, a competing New York newspaper to the World, sponsored its own reporter to beat the time of Phileas Fogg and Nelly Bly. Her name was Elizabeth Bisland and although she started off on her trip the same day as Bly, Bisland’s trip had her traveling in the opposite direction. Bly, who did not learn of Bisland’s journey until she reached Hong Kong, dismissed her competitor as cheap competition and then declared:

“I promised my editor that I would go around the world in seventy-five days … and if I accomplish that I shall be satisfied. I am not racing with anyone. I would not race. If someone else wants to do the trip in less time, that is their concern.”[9]

To help maintain reader interest at the New York World, Bly was able to send short dispatches about her journey and provide frequent updates on her progress via the telegraph. To further sustain interest in her traveling the world in record time, the paper organized a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match” that encouraged readers to estimate her arrival time to the second. The Lancaster Examiner explained how it worked:

“A few days after Nellie Bly left New York on her flying tour the New York World offered a prize of a free round trip to Europe — first-class transatlantic passage both ways, first-class railway tickets on the other side, a weeks’ stay at a first-class hotel in Paris, and a railroad ride to and from Rome — to the person who guessed nearest to the exact number of days, hours, minutes and seconds required by Miss Bly to complete her tour. This offer attracted hundreds of thousands of guesses. The prize will be award soon after Miss Bly’s arrival in New York, and the name of the winner and the figures of the winning guess will be printed in the World.”[10]

Nellie Bly was back in New York on 25 January 1890 at 3:51pm having completed her trip in just over 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds and having traveled almost the entire time alone. When Bly arrived Bisland was nowhere in sight because she was still crossing the Atlantic and she arrived four and a half days later. Bly had achieved a world’s record, although a few months later it would be beaten by George Francis Train, whose first circumnavigation in 1870 had possibly inspired Verne’s novel.*

George Francis Train. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After achieving worldwide fame for her 72-day journey, it was harder for Nellie Bly to conduct investigations and be an unknown reporter. However, the Boston Globe reported:

“She did succeed in forcing Ed Phelps, the ‘king of the lobby,’ to retire by exposing him; she bought a baby for $10 in the open market; she led the half-starved Coxey’s army into Washington; she tore the reputation of Pullman, Ill. as a model town to pieces during the great strike; she describe the saturnalia or gambling at Saratoga as it had never been done. Later on, she did some notable interviews following the Lexow investigation in New York.”[11]

In 1895, Nellie Bly married Robert Seaman, a millionaire manufacturer. He was 73 and she was 31 at the time. When his health began to fail, she left journalism and succeeded him as head of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co., which made steel containers such as milk cans and boilers. He died in 1904. Unfortunately, because of a lack of interest in finances she was negligent in leading the company and several people in the finance department schemed and embezzled nearly 2 million dollars from the company, which ultimately forced her to declare bankruptcy.

Nellie Bly in her mid-fifties.

Nellie Bly in her mid-fifties. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

She then returned to reporting and in 1913 covered the Woman Suffrage Parade. She also accurately predicted that it would be 1920 before women would be given the right to vote in the United States. In addition, in her later columns she wrote about orphaned children and abandoned babies.

In 1922, Nellie Bly died of pneumonia at St. Mark’s Hospital in New York City at the age of 57. She was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City. After her death, many papers paid tribute to her but gave only a passing mention of her journalist skills and instead focused on her whirlwind 72-day journey around the world. Of this the Reno Gazette-Journal noted:

“But what made Nellie Bly noted was not this trip. It was the fact that she was one of the earliest of the women in journalism, one of the first to sign her writings and one of the first to adopt the most reckless methods of keeping herself to the front. That she soon had imitators was to be expected. But she easily kept the lead until she finally retired from journalist altogether to become the wife of a New York broker.”[12]  


*Train completed his second around-the-world trip in 67 days and on his third journey in 1892 did it in 60 days. Eventually Train’s record would be improved on in 1913 by Andre Jaeger-Schmidt, Henry Frederick, and John Henry Mears, with Mears completely the journey in a breathless 36 days.

References:

  • [1] M. Goodman, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2014), p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 7.
  • [3] S. Macy, Bylines: A Photobiography of Nellie Bly (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009), p. 24–25.
  • [4] N. Bly, Six Months in Mexico (New York: American Publishers Corporation, 1888), p. 158.
  • [5] Leeds Times, “Nellie Bly Journeys Round the World,” February 1, 1890, p. 7.
  • [6] D. Noyes, Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “girl” Reporter Nellie Bly (New York: Viking, 2016), p. 45.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The Lancaster Examiner, “Nellie Bly,” January 15, 1890, p. 7.
  • [9] M. Goodman. 2014, p. 233.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] The Boston Globe, “Death Takes Nellie Bly,” January 27, 1922, p. 1.
  • [12] Reno Gazette-Journal, “Women in Journalism,” January 27, 1922, p. 4.

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