Nellie Bly-“The Best Reporter in America”
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
- “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.