Nellie Bly-“The Best Reporter in America”

Updated on December 14, 2017
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Anne Brown Adams was the daughter of the abolitionist John Brown and a campaigner for women’s rights. In 1880s, she wrote that “men have been taught that they are absolute monarchs in their families.” Elizabeth Cochrane (known to family as Pink and, later, by the pen name Nellie Bly) was brought into this male-dominated world in 1864 or 1865; record keeping seems to have been a bit spotty.

Elizabeth was one of 14 children in her family and her father died when she was six. Single moms had a rough time in the Victorian age just as many still do today. Elizabeth’s mother married again, this time to an abusive drunk.

Divorce followed and the family moved to Pittsburgh and always struggled because of a lack of money. They scratched out a living by taking in boarders.

Nellie Bly.
Nellie Bly. | Source

Provoked to Respond

One Erasmus Wilson wrote pieces for The Pittsburgh Dispatch under the moniker “Quiet Observer.” In 1885, he penned an editorial entitled “What Are Girls Good For?” He answered his own question with a sexist rant of the barefoot-and-pregnant-in-the-kitchen genre. Women should not even think about working, their role was to “… make the home a little paradise, herself playing the part of an angel.”

(Of course, no man in a position of power would make such derogatory remarks about a woman today. Oh, wait…)

Elizabeth took great exception to the tone of the column and wrote a letter to the editor to express her annoyance, signing herself “Lonely Orphan Girl.” George Madden, the editor of the newspaper saw something in the poorly punctuated, not very well written, yet passionate letter that intrigued him. He ran an ad in the paper asking for the “Lonely Orphan Girl” to identify herself.

A paper published by the City University of New York picks up the story: “The following day, Pink climbed the four stories to the offices of The Pittsburgh Dispatch and landed her first job as a journalist.”

Madden gave her the pen name of Nelly Bly, which was the title of a popular song at the time, but the first time the paper used the pseudonym it was misspelled Nellie Bly. It stuck.

Off the Women’s Beat

If women in the 1880s got a newspaper job at all it was to write about gardening, fashion, recipes etc. Nellie Bly was having none of this, she pushed for and got hard-edged assignments. Her first opinion piece focussed on the plight of women “without talent, without beauty, without money.” She also wrote about the hard lives of poor women who worked in Pittsburgh’s factories.

Then she plunged into the need to reform divorce laws and even suggested men who were liars, lazy, or drank too much should be allowed to marry at all.

Her stories ruffled feathers in the business community. Threats were made about withdrawing advertising. Nellie was sent out to do a gardening story. She handed the finished article in, attached to it was her letter of resignation.

Source

Blackwell’s Island Asylum

Nellie talked her way into a job at The New York World. Her first assignment was a tough one; she was to go undercover at the notorious Blackwell’s Island Asylum.

She faked a mental illness convincingly enough to be admitted to the asylum. The National Women’s History Museum tells that “She lived at the institution for 10 days, observing physical cruelty, cold baths, and forced meals of old food.” She wrote that “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”

Source

There was a public outcry over the mistreatment of the 1,600 women incarcerated in the asylum, some of whom suffered from no mental illness but had been deemed crazy because they were immigrants who could not speak English. There was a grand-jury investigation and changes were made.

Old hands in the newspaper business did not approve of this kind of journalism; they called it stunt reporting.

But she continued with her investigative journalism by exposing the ill treatment of female prison inmates and she took on the horrible working environments in the city’s sweatshops.

Her stories were so popular that The World started using her by-line in its headlines.

Around the World

In 1889, Nellie proposed a story aimed a bringing fiction to life. She was going to travel around the world as Phileas Fogg had done in Jules Verne’s 1873 novel Around the World in 80 Days. Only, she was going to do it faster.

This was 14 years before the Wright Brother’s sputtering flight of 120 feet. The fastest means of transport available in 1889 was the steam railway.

Source

The World’s editor was reluctant to send a delicate creature such as a woman on the trip. Nellie is said to have told the editor “Very well, start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”

She went from America to Europe by steamer. In France, she even took a side trip to meet Jules Verne. She telegraphed brief reports back to The World, longer stories had to go by sea.

She travelled by donkey, balloon, rickshaw, and whatever other means of transportation might be available.

Until she got to Hong Kong, she was unaware that she had a competitor; Elizabeth Bisland of Cosmopolitan magazine had embarked, on the same day, on a similar journey in the opposite direction. There, she learned she was in a race not against Phileas Fogg but against another journalist.

When she reached San Francisco Nellie was greeted by cheering crowds and a single-car train chartered by her newspaper to whisk her across the continent.

It took Nellie Bly 72 days to complete her trip. Elizabeth Bisland limped in four days later after a wretched voyage on a stormy North Atlantic.

After what must have been something of an ordeal and, given the boost in circulation that journey gave the newspaper, the average writer might have expected a bonus. None was forthcoming, so Nellie quit.

Nellie Bly is greeted on her return from the round-the-world trip.
Nellie Bly is greeted on her return from the round-the-world trip. | Source

The World of Business

Nellie went on a lecture tour and wrote Nellie Bly’s Book: Around The World In Seventy-Two Days. Then, her brother Charles died and Nellie turned domestic by looking after his wife and children.

A new editor arrived at The World in 1893 and he persuaded Nellie to return and soon she was digging into police corruption, labour union struggles, and the like.

Then, surprise, surprise, in 1895 Nellie up and married industrialist Robert Seaman, owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. He was 40 years older than her and he died in 1904. Nellie took over running the business. So, now there was a career in the making of milk cans, boilers, and barrels.

But, there was some nastiness and charges of fraud were bandied about. The Iron Clad Manufacturing Company went bankrupt in 1914 and Nellie Bly headed off to Europe to visit a friend in Austria.

War Correspondent

As happens with top journalists, sometimes the news follows them. Nellie Bly was on the spot to report on World War I from the Austrian side.

In one dispatch she wrote “In the valley between us and the Russians is a village — the name I must not tell you. A fierce battle was fought there, and firing is kept on the village constantly. The land is covered with dead soldiers and officers of both armies. Perhaps the living among them. The dead cannot be buried, the living cannot be aided until the rain of hellish fire ceases.”

After the war she returned to the United States and continued writing. She died of pneumonia in New York in 1922 at the age of 57. Among the many glowing newspaper obituaries of Nellie Bly was one in The Evening Journal that declared her “The Best Reporter in America.”

Nellie Bly in 1919.
Nellie Bly in 1919. | Source

Bonus Factoids

To get stories, Nellie Bly pretended “to be an unemployed maid, an unwed mother looking to sell her baby, and a woman seeking to sell a patent to a corrupt lobbyist. She also dabbled in elephant training and in ballet” (The New Yorker).

While in the steel business Nellie Bly was granted a patent under the name E.C. Seaman for an improved milk churn (below).

Source

Sources

  • “Nellie Bly. 1864-1922.” Arthur Fritz, Nellieblyonline, undated.
  • “Nellie Bly (1864-1922).” GLI-Anomymous, National Women’s History Museum, undated.
  • “Nellie Bly’s Record-Breaking Trip Around the World, to Her Surprise, a Race.” Marissa Fessenden, Smithsonian, January 25, 2016.
  • “Nellie Bly’s Lessons in Writing What You Want To.” Alice Gregory, New Yorker, May 14, 2014.
  • “Nellie Bly, War Correspondent.” Roads to the Great War, August 1, 2015.
  • “Nellie Bly Journalist (1864–1922).” Biography.com, undated.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

        Rupert Taylor 

        12 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

        Thanks for all the kind words, and thanks, Mona, for sharing on Facebook. The more hits the merrier I shall be. And, thanks Nellie Bly for being such an interesting person to write about.

      • Michael Evarts profile image

        Michael Evarts 

        12 months ago from St. Petersburg, Florida

        This is an interesting and very informative article about Nellie Bly.

        I was unaware that she had been so adventuresome. She was indeed a woman that was before her time. She should have had more time and passion for changing the woman's role in society and I can only imagine that our world would be so much better for it.

      • grand old lady profile image

        Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 

        12 months ago from Philippines

        Nellie Bly was a pioneer in journalism. She truly made it deserve the name, The Fourth Estate. She enlarged its role as a check and balance on the ills of governance and society. My deepest gratitude to you for this article. I'm sharing it on Facebook.

      • fpherj48 profile image

        Paula 

        12 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

        Rupert, WOW! What a woman & certainly well ahead of the time! That takes not only guts, but the brains and confidence to know who you are & what you're capable of. Nellie, as well as all women who have been inductees of the Women's Hall of Fame/Seneca Falls, New York, are definitely woman to be so proud of and are entitled to honor and recognition.

        Nellie is a true example of being born with a fire in one's gut as to following one's passion against all odds and/or negative criticism!

        Thanks so much for the wonderful factual tale of Nellie Bly.....Most fascinating! Paula

      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        12 months ago from Norfolk, England

        Well that was interesting to read, and I've learned something today. I've never heard of her before.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)