Nellie Bly: A Female Investigative Journalist Pioneer

Updated on February 11, 2019
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Readmikenow enjoys writing about unique and interesting people. He likes to learn about individuals who live or have lived unusual lives.

Nellie Bly
Nellie Bly

It was 1887 when Nellie Bly made her way into the office of the New York World. This was considered one of the leading newspapers in the United States. Bly told the editor she wanted to write a story covering the experience of immigrants in the United States. The editor told her he did not want her to do such a story. He told Bly a more challenging story for her would involve investigating the most notorious mental hospital in New York. Bly accepted the challenge and was determined to do more than write about it. She was going to fake having a mental illness and be admitted into the mental hospital. This way, Bly could provide a first-hand account of how patients were treated. Succeeding at such a challenging reporting assignment required a special type of courage. Her success cemented Nellie Bly as one of the most recognized female journalists in history.

Early Years

Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Cochran Seaman on May 5, 1864. She was born in Cochran Mills, a suburb of Pittsburgh. Her father was Michael Cochran. He had ten children with his first wife and five more children with his second wife including Elizabeth. As a young girl, her nickname was Pinky because she enjoyed wearing the color. When she was a teenager, she wanted to appear more sophisticated. She dropped her nickname and made her surname Cochrane. After attending a term at a boarding school, she was forced to stop when her father passed away. The family could no longer afford it. The family moved to Pittsburgh in 1880.

Newspaper Career Beginning

One day after their move, Elizabeth read a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch newspaper titled What Girls Are Good For. It mentioned such things as keeping house and having children. This made Elizabeth angry. She wrote a response to the column and used the pseudonym of Lonely Orphan Girl. The editor of the newspaper was George Madden. He was so impressed with the passion of Elizabeth's response to the column, he ran an advertisement requesting for the author to please identify herself. Elizabeth Cochrane let herself be known to the editor. After this, the editor offered her a chance to write for the newspaper using the Lonely Orphan Girl pseudonym. She agreed. Her first article covered the topic of how divorce affects women. It was called The Girl Puzzle. The article made an argument for reform in divorce laws. This impressed the editor so much he offered her a full-time position with the newspaper. During this time, it was customary for any woman who wrote for a newspaper to use a pen name. The editor chose Nellie Bly. This was from a character mentioned in a popular song by Stephen Foster. The pen name was originally intended to be Nelly Bly, but the editor mistakenly wrote Nellie. This spelling of her pen name stuck.

Pittsburgh Dispatch Reporting

As a reporter, Nellie Bly focused her work on the lives of working women. She wrote many investigative articles on the women who worked in local factories. These articles received many complaints from factory owners. Bly was then reassigned and forced to write about gardening, fashion as well as societal events. This made her angry. She then went to Mexico and worked as a foreign correspondent. At this time, she was 21 years old and spent six months reporting on the customs and lives of Mexicans. In one report, she complained about how Mexican journalists were imprisoned for criticizing the Mexican government. Once her articles became known by local authorities, she was threatened with arrest. This caused her to flee the country. Her reports were eventually published in a book called Six Months In Mexico.

Asylum Reporting

After returning from Mexico Bly was assigned to do arts and theater reporting. She left the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1884. Bly then went to New York City and wasn't able to find work for four months. Penniless and desperate, she talked her way into the New York World and the office of Joseph Pulitzer. She was willing to take any assignment. Bly was given an assignment to fake insanity so she could investigate allegations of neglect and brutality the Women's Lunatic Asylum located on New York's Blackwell's Island. She accepted. To prepare she stayed up all night and worked on having the wide-eyed look of a disturbed woman. She made false accusations against the other borders where she was staying. Bly scared them and the police were asked to get involved. Once she was examined by a policeman, a judge as well as a doctor, she was sent to Blackwell Island. While there she experienced the horrible conditions of the asylum firsthand. She was released after being in the asylum for ten days. Her book about it was called Ten Days in a Mad House. It was a huge success. Her book and reporting caused reforms to asylums around the country and made her famous.

Nellie Bly before leaving on world journey.
Nellie Bly before leaving on world journey.

World Journey Reporting

Nellie Bly went into the office of her editor of the New York World in 1888 and suggested she report on a trip she would take around the world. Her goal would be to turn the fictional book Around the World in Eighty Days into a real experience. One year later, on November 14, 1889, she left after two days notice. The journey began with her going aboard a steamer called Augusta Victoria. Nellie Bly only took a small travel bag containing her toiletries, a good overcoat and many changes of underclothes. Her limited funds were carried in a bag tied around her neck. During her journey, she was in England and then traveled to France where she met the famous author Jules Verne. Bly also visited Hong Kong, Singapore as well as Japan. She traveled on steamships and available railroad systems. Bly also visited a leper colony in China and bought a monkey in Singapore. On her return trip, she experienced bad weather when crossing the Pacific ocean. She arrived in San Francisco two days behind schedule. When the owner of the New York World discovered this had happened, he chartered a private train to bring Nellie Bly back to New York. On January 25, 1890, she arrived back in New Jersey. Nellie Bly had traveled around the world in 72 days. Her journey was a world record at the time. The book Around the World in 72 Days by Nellie Bly was published in 1890.

Last Reporting

During World I, Nellie Bly worked on stories about the war while at staying at Europe's Eastern Front. She was the first woman to visit the Serbia and Austria war zone. During this time, she was arrested and accused of being a British spy but was soon released. Bly also covered the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913 at the White House in Washington DC. The headline of her story was Suffragists Are Men's Superiors.

Nellie Bly after retiring from newspaper reporting.
Nellie Bly after retiring from newspaper reporting.

Personal Life And Death

Nellie Bly married millionaire Robert Seaman in 1895. At the time, Seaman was 73 and Bly was 31. Seaman was in failing health and Bly retired from Journalism. When Seaman passed away in 1904, Bly became head of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. Nellie Bly died in 1922 at the age of 57. She died from pneumonia. Nellie Bly is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.

Book by Nellie Bly
Book by Nellie Bly

Books

The New Colossus was written by Marshall Goldberg and released on March 25, 2014. Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist was written by Brooke Kroeger and released March 14, 1995.

Movies

10 Days in a Madhouse was released on November 11, 2015. It was produced by Pendragon Productions. The Adventures of Nellie Bly was released June 11, 1981. It was produced by Taft International Pictures. Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story was produced by Lifetime and released on January 19, 2019. It was produced by Bly Films.

Nellie Bly Documentary

Sources

National History Womens Museum

https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/nellie-bly

PBS

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/how-nellie-bly-went-undercover-to-expose-abuse-of-the-mentally-ill

Biography

https://www.biography.com/people/nellie-bly-9216680

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Readmikenow

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      • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR

        Readmikenow 

        7 months ago

        Liz, thanks, I hope everyone hears about her. She is an inspiration.

      • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR

        Readmikenow 

        7 months ago

        Thanks Doug, she was a real brave lady.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        7 months ago from UK

        This is cutting edge journalism at its best. I had never heard of Nellie Bly before.

      • dougwest1 profile image

        Doug West 

        7 months ago from Missouri

        Great article. I had never heard of her. She lead an interesting life.

      • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR

        Readmikenow 

        7 months ago

        Kenna, thanks for sharing. Interesting story.

      • Kenna McHugh profile image

        Kenna McHugh 

        7 months ago from Northern California

        Nice article with tons of detail, she lived quite a life some of us only can dream and imagine. Today, the primary advertisers in mainstream media are drug companies skewing mental illness and such. Until these changes, we will never see exposes like Bly. In the 80s, I volunteered for a group called Citizens Commission on Human Rights (still help out occasionally today) and I was working on an article with a local newspaper about the harmful effects of ECT with strong documented evidence. The reporter told me he had to slant the article in favor of ECT because the local hospital, which administered ECT, Chief of Staff was one of the newspaper's convening board members.

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