Nellie Bly was the famous penname of daring journalist Elizabeth Cochrane. Born in 1865, she experienced firsthand how difficult it was for women to be self-sufficient in the 1800’s when she enrolled as a teenager at the Illinois Normal School – a teacher college. After just one semester, she had to abandon the effort when her divorced mother had no money for tuition. This however, was fine with the rebellious Elizabeth as she wished be a Writer, not a teacher.
In 1885, she wrote a decidedly fiery Letter-to-the-Editor of the Pittsburg Dispatch, denouncing a sexist article calling working women a “MONSTROSITY OF NATURE!” The paper’s Editor was impressed with the anonymous writer’s passion and spunk. He ran an ad asking her to come forward and identify herself. Elizabeth marched down to the newspaper’s office, pleaded her case, and was promptly hired for $5/week. She took the penname Nellie Bly, after a popular song of the day.
Nellie began her career with her typical gusto, writing articles aimed at social injustice, including labor laws for working women. After just one year, her boss sent her on assignment to Mexico as a foreign correspondent, where she exposed rampant political corruption. The Mexican government was not grateful and had her promptly expelled from the country. Frustrated with her typical Pittsburgh assignments, she moved alone to a much bigger market, New York City. She was only 23.
Within six months, Joseph Pulitzer hired her at The New York World.
For her first assignment, Bly feigned mental illness and was committed to the notorious Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. She lived there for 10 long days, experiencing firsthand the physical cruelty, cold baths, and forced meals of rotted food. Her articles prompted public outrage and political action, eventually leading to reforms at the institution. For the next two years, Bly continued to work undercover exposing injustices where ever she found them. Among her exploits, she arranged to be thrown into a New York jail, suffering and exposing the cruel treatment of female inmates. She next worked in a textile factory sweatshop to write about the horrid treatment of women workers.
Her most famous exploit came in 1889, when she mimicked Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Bly became an international celebrity when she circled the globe alone by ship, train, horse, and balloon in just 72 DAYS, well ahead of Verne’s male hero, Phileas Fogg. Millions followed her telegraphed journey, resulting in international fame for her, and vastly increased newspaper sales for Pulitzer.
In 1895, Bly surprisingly gave up reporting when she wed industrialist Robert Seaman. With typical Bly impulsiveness, she married him after just a few days. She was just 29, while he was 72! Their marriage was amicable though and it provided her the financial security she could never achieve as a single woman. After his death, she stepped up and ran his business, Iron Clad Manufacturing, and in fact improved upon it. She turned the business into a multimillion-dollar company and continued her social reforms in her own way – by paying both female and male workers an equal living wage.
Just prior to World War I, Nellie moved to Austria where, due to the pervasive global war, she was forced to stay for the duration. On her arrival back in the US, she returned to her first love, Journalism. Joining the New York Journal, she reported on Women’s Suffrage and similar causes, though never returned to the celebrity status she enjoyed in her twenties. Nellie Bly remained a working journalist until her death of pneumonia in 1922 at only 57.
Throughout her remarkable life, Bly exposed corruption and injustices towards both women and the poor. Her bravery and daring opened the profession to new generations of female journalists for decades and centuries to come.