Nellie Bly was the penname of the daring 18th century journalist and entrepreneur Elizabeth Cochrane. Never heard of her? Well read on. Born in 1865, she experienced firsthand how difficult it was for women to be self-sufficient in the 1800’s. She she enrolled as a teenager at the Illinois Normal School – a teachers college. After just one semester, she had to abandon the effort when her divorced mother had no more money for her tuition. This however, was fine with the rebellious Elizabeth as she wished be a Writer, most certainly not a teacher.
In 1885, she wrote a decidedly fiery Letter-to-the-Editor of the Pittsburg Dispatch, denouncing in no uncertain terms a sexist article calling any 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. Never shy, Elizabeth marched down to the newspaper’s office, pleaded her case loudly, 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 Pittsburgh paper, 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 Island Woman’s Insane Asylum. She bravely lived there for 10 LONG DAYS, experiencing firsthand the physical cruelty of the uncaring staff, cold baths, and forced meals of rotted food. Her subsequent articles once released prompted public outrage and political action, eventually leading to reforms at the institution.
Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did.Nellie Bly
For the next two years, Nellie Bly continued to work undercover exposing injustices and corruption where ever she found them. Among her most daring exploits, she arranged to be thrown into a New York City jail, suffering and exposing the cruel treatment of female inmates by the guards. She next worked in a textile factory sweatshop to write about the horrid treatment of women workers by the owners and foremen. She wrote shocking exposes in the New York World of both areas, again leading to political reforms.
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. For a woman to do this alone without a male traveling companion was unprecedented. She took with her just the dress she was wearing, an overcoat, several changes of underwear, and toiletries in a small travel bag. Millions followed her telegraphed journey, resulting in international fame for her, and vastly increased newspaper sales for Mr. Pulitzer. She came back to the U.S. a famous woman.
In 1895, Nellie Bly shocked her fans when she gave up reporting and 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 in the 1800’s. After his death, she stepped up and ran his business, Iron Clad Manufacturing, and in fact improved upon it. Nellie turned the business into a multi-million-dollar company. She 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 global war, she was forced to stay for the entire duration until 1918. On her arrival back in the US, she decided to return to her first love, Journalism. Joining the New York Journal, she reported on Women’s Suffrage, labor unrest, and similar causes. She she never quite returned to the celebrity status she enjoyed while in her twenties. Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman remained a hard-working journalist until her death of pneumonia in 1922 at only 57.
Throughout her remarkable life, Nellie Bly exposed countless corruptions and injustices towards women, the sick, and those living in poverty. Her bravery and courage opened the profession to new generations of female journalists for decades and even centuries to come. In 1981, her heroic life was turned into a television movie, The Adventures of Nellie Bly, starring actress Linda Purl.