Nellie Bly is most famous for her extraordinary trip around the world. This journey was undertaken by Bly in an attempt to challenge the record of Jules Verne’s character Phileas Fogg in the novel “Around the World in 80 Days.” In 1889, a time when a woman’s place was considered to be the home, Bly’s travels had her as a passenger of ships, trains, rickshaws, camels, and even burros. Bly did beat Fogg’s record: in just 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes, Bly returned to a crowd of cheering people.
But this isn’t all that earned Bly her fame. She was a leader in women’s equality and this sometimes gets overshadowed by her exciting trip around the world. So what do you need to know about Nellie Bly to realize she’s one of the most awesome ladies in history? Actually, quite a lot. She was a leader in investigative journalism with a spirit that couldn’t be tampered or toned down by anyone.
Elizabeth Jane Cochran, the thirteenth and most rebellious child of the wealthy landowner, judge, and businessman Michael Cochran, would someday grow up to be a famous journalist under the pseudonym Nellie Bly (a name she chose from the Stephen Foster song). Bly’s family fell into financial ruin when her father died when she was just six years old, leaving behind no will to protect the children of his second wife, including Bly and four of her siblings.
From an early age, Bly was not afraid of controversy or standing up for women. She testified against her mother’s second husband during their divorce trial about his abuse and alcoholism. She attempted to find an independent living for herself that would also help her support her mother and went to train to become a teacher at age 15, but was forced to give it up after only one semester because of insufficient finances.
Bly worked for a few years in jobs that brought her little money and no recognition. Then, incensed by an article written by popular columnist Erasmus Wilson on how women belonged in the home cooking and sewing and the like, going as far as to call the working woman a “monstrosity,” Bly was compelled to write in an angry, spirited response signed “Little Orphan Girl.” Her fiery attitude and well-reasoned response actually impressed the editors; Wilson wrote an open letter to “Little Orphan Girl” to get her to present herself. She did, and was hired.
But this wasn’t yet a major breakthrough for women. After a few stories that contained substance, the editors demoted Bly to write on the things they deemed appropriate for a woman because her exposé on the conditions of female factory workers upset factor owners. Her new assignments were on flowers and cotillion dances. Bly found this unacceptable; she continued writing stories with meaning, but was rejected. She even traveled down to Mexico and reported on its culture and exposed political corruption, but this merited nothing. Her frank reporting was getting her in trouble. Fed up, Bly quit, writing a simple two weeks notice to Wilson and made her way to New York City, telling him to “look out for her.”
Wilson couldn’t have missed her if he tried.
In New York, Bly searched for six months until Joseph Pulitzer (of the Pulitzer Prize) hired her for New York World. Her first assignment was to write a feature story about the conditions inside the local insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island. One of the first reporters to go undercover for a story, Bly made up an entire identity, faked insanity, fooled the psychiatrists, and got herself admitted. She stayed there for ten days.
Her articles on the asylum shocked everyone, revealing the abusive conditions these women were forced to live under, such as ice cold baths, cruel beatings, and meals made with rancid butter. It caused an absolute media frenzy and secured an $850,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections and a reform of the institution. Bly’s work was finally starting to get the attention it deserved. She was a founding mother of investigative journalism, but she didn’t stop there.
She got herself landed in jail and hired by a sweatshop to uncover injustices and poor treatment of the vulnerable, voiceless people in those places. An advocate for social justice and a voice for the disenfranchised, Bly reported on corruption, shady lobbyists, and inadequate medical care given to the poor. Her report on the Pullman Railroad Strike in Chicago was the sole article to give a voice to those that were actually on strike. She always injects personality into her stories, giving her reactions, feelings, and observations along with the facts.
At 30, Bly retired and happily married industrialist 70-year-old Robert Seaman. When he died ten years later, she became president of a steel manufacturing company and
became a leading female industrialist of the time, setting a precedent for working conditions that included ensuring fair pay and health care. There are alternate claims, but some believe she went and invented the steel barrel that became the model for the widely used 55-gallon drum (others think the credit belongs to a man named Henry Wehrhahn). She did, however, invent a stacking garbage can and a novel milk can. Eventually, however, the business went bankrupt due to embezzlement by employees. She returned to reporting and helped find homes for abandoned children, wrote on the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Convention, and stories Europe’s Eastern Front during WWI.
Basically, Nellie Bly did more than many of us can ever hope to do in terms of pioneering. And she did it in a time when it seemed even more impossible. But she remains an model of encouragement: in the present, women’s issues are at the forefront of our attention, and it’s inspiring to be reminded that with a determined, blazing spirit, we can make things happen and change the world.
Full texts are available if you are interested in reading Nellie Bly’s famous article on the asylum.