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Nellie Bly

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Portrait of American journalist Elizabeth Cochrane (1864 - 1922), who wrote under the name Nellie Bly, 1890. Interim Archives / Archive Photos / Getty Images

About Nellie Bly:

Known for: investigative reporting and sensationalist journalism, especially her commitment to an insane asylum and her around-the-world stunt
Occupation: journalist, writer, reporter
Dates: May 5, 1864 - January 27, 1922; she claimed 1865 or 1867 as her birth year)
Also known as: Elizabeth Jane Cochran (birth name), Elizabeth Cochrane (a spelling she adopted), Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman (married name), Elizabeth Seaman, Nelly Bly, Pink Cochran (childhood nickname)

Nellie Bly Biography:

The reporter known as Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania, where her father was a mill owner and county judge. Her mother was from a wealthy Pittsburgh family. "Pink," as she was known in childhood, was the youngest of 13 (or 15, according to other sources) of her father's children from both of his marriages; Pink competed to keep up with her five older brothers.

Her father died when she was only six. Her father's money was divided among the children, leaving little for Nellie Bly and her mother to live on. Her mother remarried, but her new husband, John Jackson Ford, was violent and abusive, and in 1878 she filed for divorce. The divorce was final in June of 1879.

Nellie Bly briefly attended college at Indiana State Normal School, intending to prepare to be a teacher, but funds ran out in the middle of her first semester there, and she left. She had discovered both a talent and interest in writing, and talked her mother into moving to Pittsburgh to look for work in that field. But she did not find anything, and the family was forced to live in slum conditions.

Finding Her First Reporting Job:

With her already-clear experience with the necessity of a woman working, and the difficulty of finding work, she read an article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch called "What Girls Are Good For," which dismissed the qualifications of women workers. She wrote an angry letter to the editor as a response, signing it "Lonely Orphan Girl" -- and the editor thought enough of her writing to offer her an opportunity to write for the paper.

She wrote her first piece for the paper, on the status of working women in Pittsburgh, under the name "Lonely Orphan Girl." When she was writing her second piece, on divorce, either she or her editor (the stories told differ) decided she needed a more appropriate pseudonym, and "Nellie Bly" became her nom de plume. The name was taken from the then-popular Stephen Foster tune, "Nelly Bly."

When Nellie Bly wrote human interest pieces exposing the conditions of poverty and discrimination in Pittsburgh, local leaders pressured her editor, George Madden, and he reassigned her to cover fashion and society -- more typical "women's interest" articles. But those didn't hold Nellie Bly's interest.

Nellie Bly in Mexico:

Nellie Bly arranged to travel to Mexico as a reporter. She took her mother along as a chaperone, but her mother soon returned, leaving her daughter to travel unchaperoned, unusual for that time, and somewhat scandalous. Nellie Bly wrote about Mexican life, including its food and culture -- but also about its poverty and the corruption of its officials. She was expelled from the country, and returned to Pittsburgh, where she began reporting for the Dispatch again. She published her Mexican writings as a book, Six Months in Mexico, in 1888.

But she was soon bored with that work, and quit, leaving a note for her editor, "I'm off for New York. Look out for me. Bly."

Off for New York:

In New York, Nellie Bly found it difficult to find work as a newspaper reporter because she was a woman. She did some freelance writing for the Pittsburgh paper, including an article about her difficulty in finding work as a reporter.

In 1887, Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World hired her, seeing her as fitting in to his campaign to "expose all fraud and sham, fight all public evil and abuses" -- part of the reformist trend in newspapers of that time.

Ten Days in a Mad House

For her first story, Nellie Bly had herself committed as insane. Using the name "Nellie Brown," and pretending to be Spanish-speaking, she was first sent to Bellevue and then, on September 25, 1887, admitted to Blackwell's Island Madhouse. After ten days, lawyers from the newspaper were able to get her released as planned.

She wrote of her own experience where doctors, with little evidence, pronounced her insane -- and of other women who were probably just as sane as she was, but who didn't speak good English or were thought to be unfaithful. She wrote of the horrible food and living conditions, and the generally poor care.

The articles were published in October, 1887, and were widely reprinted across the country, making her famous. Her writings on her asylum experience were published in 1887 as Ten Days in a Mad House. She proposed a number of reforms -- and, after a grand jury investigation, many of those reforms were adopted.

More Investigative Reporting

This was followed with investigations and exposés on sweatshops, baby-buying, jails, and corruption in the legislature. She interviewed Belva Lockwood, the Woman Suffrage Party presidential candidate, and Buffalo Bill, as well as the wives of three presidents (Grant, Garfield and Polk). She wrote about the Oneida Community, an account republished in book form.

Around the World

Her most famous stunt, though, was her competition with the fictional "Around the World in 80 Days" trip of Jules Verne's character, Phileas Fogg, an idea proposed by G. W. Turner. She left from New York to sail to Europe on November 14, 1889, taking only two dresses and one bag. Traveling by many means including boat, train, horse and rickshaw, she made it back in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds. The last leg of the trip, from San Francisco to New York, was via a special train provided by the newspaper.

The World published daily reports of her progress, and held a context to guess her return time, with over a million entries. In 1890, she published about her adventure in Nellie Bly's Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days. She went on a lecture tour, including a trip to Amiens, France, where she interviewed Jules Verne.

The Famous Female Reporter

She was, now, the most famous female reporter of her time. She quit her job, writing serial fiction for three years for another New York publication -- fiction that is far from memorable. In 1893 she returned to the World. She covered the Pullman strike, with her coverage having the unusual distinction of paying attention to the conditions of the strikers' lives. She interviewed Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman.

Chicago, Marriage

In 1895, she left New York for a job in Chicago with the Times-Herald. She only worked there for six weeks. She met Brooklyn millionaire and industrialist Robert Seaman, who was 70 to her 31 (she claimed she was 28). In just two weeks, married him. The marriage had a rocky start. His heirs -- and a previous common-law wife or mistress -- were opposed to the match. She went off to cover a women's suffrage convention and interview Susan B. Anthony; Seaman had her followed, but she had the man he hired arrested, and then published an article about being a good husband. She wrote an article in 1896 on why women should fight in the Spanish American War -- and that was the last article she wrote until 1912.

Nellie Bly, Businesswoman

Nellie Bly -- now Elizabeth Seaman -- and her husband settled down, and she took an interest in his business. He died in 1904, and she took over the Ironclad Manufacturing Co. which made enamelled ironware. She expanded the American Steel Barrel Co. with a barrel that she claimed to have invented, promoting it to increase the success appreciably of her late husband's business interests. She changed the method of payment of workers from piecework to a salary, and even provided recreation centers for them.

Unfortunately, a few of the long term employees were caught cheating the company, and a long legal battle ensued, ending in bankruptcy, and employees sued her. Impoverished, she began writing for the New York Evening Journal. In 1914, to avoid a warrant for obstructing justice, she fled to Vienna, Austria -- just as World War I was breaking out.

Vienna

In Vienna, Nellie Bly was able to watch World War I unfolding. She sent a few articles to the Evening Journal. She visited the battlefields, even trying out the trenches, and promoted U.S. aid and involvement to save Austria from "Bolsheviks."

Back to New York

In 1919, she returned to New York, where she successfully sued her mother and brother for return of her house and what remained of the business she had inherited from her husband. She returned to the New York Evening Journal, this time writing an advice column. She also worked to help place orphans into adoptive homes, and adopted a child herself at age 57.

Nellie Bly was still writing for the Journal when she died of heart disease and pneumonia in 1922. In a column published the day after she died, famous reporter Arthur Brisbane calle her "the best reporter in America."

Family, Background

  • Mother: Mary Jane Kennedy Cummings (her second marriage, the first was childless)
  • Father: Michael Cochran (mill owner and county judge; had 10 [or 12?] children from a first marriage)
  • Siblings: two full siblings, and 10 (or 12?) half-siblings from her father's first marriage

Education:

  • early education at home
  • Indiana State Normal School, Indiana, Pennsylvania

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Robert Livingston Seaman (married April 5, 1895, when he was 70; millionaire industrialist)
  • children:
    • none from her marriage
    • adopted a child when she was 57
 

More women's history biographies, by name:

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Books by Nellie Bly

  • Ten Days in a Mad-House; or Nellie Bly's Experience on Blackwell's Island. Feigning Insanity in order to Reveal Asylum Horrors.... 1887.
  • Six Months in Mexico. 1888.
  • The Mystery in Central Park. 1889.
  • Outline of Bible Theology! Exacted from a Letter by a Lady to the New York World of 2nd June, 1889. 1889.
  • Nellie Bly's Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days. 1890.

Books About Nellie Bly:

  • Jason Marks. The Story of Nellie Bly. 1951.
  • Nina Brown Baker. Nellie Bly. 1956.
  • Iris Noble. Nellie Bly: First Woman Reporter. 1956.
  • Mignon Rittenhouse. The Amazing Nellie Bly. 1956.
  • Emily Hahn. Around the World with Nellie Bly. 1959.
  • Terry Dunnahoo. Nellie Bly: A Portrait. 1970.
  • Charles Parlin Graves. Nellie Bly, Reporter for the World. 1971.
  • Ann Donegan Johnson. The Value of Fairness: The Story of Nellie Bly. 1977.
  • Tom Lisker. Nellie Bly: First Woman of the News. 1978.
  • Kathy Lynn Emerson. Making Headlines: A Biography of Nellie Bly. 1981.
  • Judy Carlson. "Nothing Is Impossible," Said Nellie Bly. 1989.
  • Elizabeth Ehrlich. Nellie Bly. 1989.
  • Martha E. Kendall. Nellie Bly: Reporter for the World. 1992.
  • Marcia Schneider. First Woman of the News. 1993.
  • Brooke Kroeger. Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. 1994.

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