In 1864, Elizabeth Jane Cochran was born in Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania.
At the age of 18, she began a career as a journalist writing under a pen name. During her career, she became a pioneer in both investigative journalism and travel writing.
She later became a novelist, ran an industrial factory, and was one of the leading voices for women’s suffrage in the early 20th century.
Learn more about Nellie Bly and her incredible life on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The woman the world came to know as Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864, in Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania. The name of her family and the name of the town she was born was not a coincidence.
Her father was Michael Cochran, a self-made man who began as a mill worker and eventually purchased the mill that the town was named after. He was also a local judge for the community.
He had a total of 15 children with two wives. Ten with his first wife and five with his second. Elizabeth was the youngest in the family.
Her father died at the age of six, and her mother, Mary, struggled to raise such a large family alone. Her father’s estate was divided evenly between all his children, leaving little for young Elizabeth and her mother.
In 1878 her mother remarried. However, her new husband was violent and abusive, and they were divorced within a year.
In 1879, she enrolled at the Indiana Normal School, now Indiana University of Pennsylvania, with the intent of becoming a teacher. However, she dropped out after a semester due to a lack of funds.
In 1880, her mother moved to what is today Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There, she and her mother lived in slums, doing what they could to earn a living.
It was in 1885 that the event took place that would change her life forever.
The Pittsburgh Dispatch published an opinion piece titled “What Girls Are Good For.” The column suggested that women were only good for having children and keeping a home and that they had no place working in regular jobs.
She was so angry that she wrote a very tersely worded letter to the editor signed “Lonely Orphan Girl.”
The editor of the newspaper was so impressed with her writing that, in complete opposition to the column the paper ran, he offered her a job.
Her first article for the Pittsburgh Dispatch was titled ‘The Girl Puzzle.” The article suggested that not all girls were going to get married and that more jobs should be available for them.
This article was again published under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl,” however, it was suggested that she needed a more serious pen name. The editor selected the name “Nellie Bly,” which was taken from an 1850 song by the American songwriter Stephen Foster.
She originally wanted it spelled “Nelly,” but it was accidentally published as “Nellie,” and the name stuck.
Her early work for the Pittsburgh Dispatch was writing about the lives of working women, in particular, the conditions they were forced to work under in local Pittsburgh factories.
After local factory owners complained to the newspaper, she was reassigned to cover topics such as fashion and gardening, which were topics typically covered by female journalists of the era.
She had no desire to write those types of stories, so she set out to “do something no girl has done before.” Still only 21 years old, she left Pittsburgh for Mexico and became a freelance foreign correspondent.
She initially came with her mother, who acted as the chaperone, but her mother soon left, leaving her unaccompanied, which was scandalous at the time.
While in Mexico, she reported on cultural topics but also about the living conditions of the people there. She eventually strayed into Mexican politics, writing about the corruption of the Mexican president Porfirio Diaz. Mexican officials threatened her with arrest, which caused her to flee the country and return to Pittsburgh.
Once back home, she continued reporting on Diaz and his corrupt government.
In 1888, she published her stories in a book titled Six Months in Mexico.
She became quickly bored back in Pittsburgh, and so one day, she left her editor a note that read, “I’m off for New York. Look out for me. Bly.”
In New York, she had a difficult time finding a job and wrote freelance pieces for Pittsburgh Dispatch, documenting her troubles finding a journalism job as a woman.
She eventually managed to work her way into the offices of the publisher of the New York World newspaper, Joseph Pulitzer. She pitched Pulitzer a story on the plight of immigrants in New York.
He didn’t go for the immigrant story, but he had another idea. He suggested she do a story on the condition of insane asylums.
This, her first story for the New York News, would turn out to be the one that cemented her reputation as a journalist.
To get the story, she would have to get inside an insane asylum Her plan was to get herself declared insane and get committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, now named Roosevelt Island, in New York. However, this was easier said than done, even in the 19th century.
The first thing she did was check into a boarding house for women known as the Temporary Homes for Females. Using her knowledge of Spanish from her time in Mexico, she pretended to be a native Spanish speaker.
She began staying up all night and not sleeping to give herself the look of someone deranged. Then she started accusing all of the other guests at the boarding house of being insane. She began scaring the other guests until the police were called in.
When in custody and in court, she claimed she couldn’t remember anything.
After being interviewed by several doctors, she was declared insane by all of them and committed to Blackwell Island. Oddly enough, the case of her arrest was covered by several other newspapers, which all wondered who this mystery woman was.
Once she entered the asylum, she ceased the show and started acting normally again. She remained in the asylum for ten days, documenting the horrible conditions that she found.
For starters, many of the women in the asylum were perfectly sane. They just didn’t speak English. Because they couldn’t communicate, they couldn’t defend themselves.
Inmates lived under horrible conditions. They were given rotting food, slept in filth, and had to take baths in cold, dirty water. The staff in the asylum abused the patients and treated them horribly.
After ten days, just as planned, lawyers from the New York World showed up and got her released.
Her exposé of the conditions at the asylum, published in October 1887, shocked the public and turned Nellie Bly into a celebrity. It led to reforms of the asylum system in New York, and her story was quickly turned into a book published under the title Ten Days in a Mad-House.
It wasn’t just a shocking exposés, it was one of the first cases of undercover investigative journalism to be brought to the attention of the public.
Nellie Bly’s newfound status allowed her to pursue the stories that she wanted to do.
She did stories on the working conditions of sweatshops, baby-buying rings, and corrupt legislators. She interviewed the wives of three US presidents, Polk, Grant, and Garfield. She also interviews Buffalo Bill and the female serial killer Lizzie Halliday.
However, her greatest accomplishment was yet to come.
In 1888, she suggested to her editor that she travel around the world. She would turn the fictional book Around the World in 80 Days, published by Jules Verne in 1873, into a reality.
A year later, at exactly 9:40 a.m. November 14, 1889, on just two days’ notice, she boarded the Augusta Victoria to Europe with nothing but two dresses and one bag.
The New York World played up her journey, and it was an incredible hit. Readers were given daily updates sent via telegram on her progress. They even held a contest called the “Nellie Bly Guessing Match” to guess how long it would take her to complete the journey down to the second.
She traveled by almost every means available at the time, including boat, train, horse, and rickshaw. However, the trip was mostly at sea, save for crossing Europe by train.
The last leg of her trip took her from San Francisco to New York via a special train sponsored by the newspaper.
A competing newspaper, the New York Cosmopolitan, sent one of their own female reporters, Elizabeth Bisland, on a trip going the opposite direction to try and beat Bly’s time, but it didn’t get nearly as much attention.
Her final time set a record for circumnavigating the Earth was 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds.
With the incredible success of her trip around the world, she actually stepped away from journalism to capitalize on her fame and began writing serial novels for the New York Family Story Paper.
As her stories were only published in serial form, they were thought to be lost until copies were found in old issues of The London Story Paper in 2021.
Her attempts at fiction weren’t as successful as her non-fiction writing, and she returned to journalism in 1893. However, in 1895, she married the multi-millionaire industrialist Robert Seaman. His company manufactured milk cans, fluid tanks, and steam boilers.
Bly was 31 years old, and Seaman was…..73. Many people assumed that this was just another one of her stunts and that she wasn’t actually married. They were marred just two weeks after meeting each other in Chicago.
But she was, and they remained married until his death in 1904.
After his death, Bly took over control of the company, and that same year, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. began the sale of the 55-gallon oil drum, which is still the standard that is used today.
She received two US patents for a new type of milk can as well as for a stacking garbage can.
For several years, she was considered the leading female industrialist in the United States. However, the company was eventually ruined by an embezzling scheme by one of its managers.
After the failure of her company, she returned to journalism and covered the women’s suffrage movement.
During the First World War, she was one of the first female war correspondents covering the eastern front of the war.
She returned to the United States in 1919 and began writing an advice column for the New York Evening Journal.
She was writing for them up until she fell ill with pneumonia and died on January 27, 1922 at the age of 57.
Since her death, Nellie Bly has been regarded as one of the greatest journalists in American history. She has been the subject of movies, books, television shows, and theatrical performances.
She has been on postage stamps, and there is a statue dedicated to her in Brooklyn titled “The Girl Puzzle,” named after the title of her first article.
Nellie Bly’s role in pioneering investigative journalism had a lasting impact on news reporting. It is why the famed reporter and editor Arthur Brisbane, the day after her death, called her “the best reporter in America.”
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.
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