Nelly Bly: Trailblazing Investigative Reporter
On May 5, 1864 in the town of Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, Nelly Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran. At the early age of six, Cochran suffered a tragic loss: her father died suddenly.
Three years after her father’s death, Cochran’s mother, Mary Jane, remarried. However, her mother’s new relationship was abusive and resulted in a divorce.
The National Women’s History Museum said, “due to family financial crisis Cochran was unable to continue in attending Indiana Normal, her hopes in becoming a teacher were crushed and in 1880 Cochran’s family moved to Pittsburgh where Cochran assisted her mother with duties in running a boarding house.”
According to the website, Nellie Bly Online, in January of 1885, Cochran read an editorial in the Pittsburgh Dispatch that admonished women for attempting an education or career, and suggested women should stray no further than the home.
This article infuriated Cochran to the point she felt the need to write a reply.
At the time, George Madden was editor at the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Madden was impressed by Cochran’s reply. He offered the opportunity to write a rebuttal piece to be published. Cochran accepted the chance and further impressed Madden. Madden published her article titled, “The Girl Puzzle,” and offered her a full-time job as a columnist under
the name Nellie Bly.
Instead of writing articles about gardening, fashion, or society like other female journalists usually wrote about, Bly wrote hard-hitting stories about the poor and oppressed. Some of her articles covered the lives of poor women who worked in Pittsburgh’s bottle factories or the inherent disadvantages women had in divorce proceedings. During her travels and how President Porfirio Diaz imprisoned a journalist for criticizing the government.
After Bly’s return from Mexico, she moved to New York City in hopes of landing a job at
a major newspaper, but found that as a woman getting the job was hard. After four months of
rejection she managed to talk her way into John Cockerill’s office, the managing editor of the
New York World.
An article titled “Daring Dames” notes that “the editor of New York World challenged
Bly to investigate one of New York’s most notorious mental hospitals, Blackwell’s Island. Bly
pretended to be a mental patient, was committed and lived in the facility for 10 days to
accurately expose the conditions at the asylum.”
“What a difficult task, I thought, to appear before a crowd of people and convince them
that I was insane. I had never been near insane persons before in my life, and had not the faintest
idea of what their actions were like,” Bly wrote in her book, “Ten Days in a Mad-house.”
Despite Bly’s concern about her abilities, her story was a huge success.
The story resulted in significant changes in New York City’s Department of Public Charities and Corrections. The
website biography.com said Bly’s stories led to “changes (that) included a larger appropriation of
funds for the care of mentally ill patients, additional physician appointments for stronger
supervision of nurses and healthcare workers, and regulations to prevent overcrowding and fire
hazards at the city’s medical facilities.”
Bly went on to even more success.
In November, 1889, Bly embarked on a journey to travel around the world in an attempt
to break the faux record of the fictional character Phileas Fogg.
“What gave me the idea? It is sometimes difficult to tell exactly what gives birth to an
idea. Ideas are the chief stock in trade of newspaper writers and generally they are the scarcest
stock in market, but they do come occasionally,” she wrote in her book titled “Around the World
in Seventy-Two Days.”
It was reported that Bly completed the trip in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14
seconds and set a real-world record, which was later beaten in 1890.
Bly retired from journalism when she married Robert Seamen in 1895. After her
husband’s death in 1904, she took over his Iron Clad Manufacturing Co.
Once again Bly faced financial issues and decided to reenter the newspaper industry. She
covered World War I and continued to write about major issues that affected women.
Nellie Bly died from pneumonia on January 27, 1922. The next day, Arthur Brisbane,
writer and editor, published a tribute in his New York Evening Journal column remembering her
as “the best reporter in America.”
Although she is not alive today, her stories and accomplishments stay with us.
Nellie Bly is one of many women in history who has left an imprint and inspired the
Women’s History Month provides the opportunity to recognize and remember the women
throughout history and the impact they had on creating the world we know today. It allows us to
recognize women like Nellie Bly, and so many more.
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