By: Victoria Yates
Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on the 5th of May 1864 to Judge Michael Cochran (for whom her town of birth, Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania was named) and Mary Jane Cochran. Bly was her father’s 13th child, her third by his current wife, and was considered the most rebellious. Her father died when Bly was six, having left no provisions for his second family. Mary Jane and her five children were left having to auction off their mansion home, being thrust into hard times.
As a result of the insecurity, Mary Jane remarried, only to find herself in a disastrous and abusive marriage from which she sought a divorce. Attempting to ease her mother’s financial burden, Bly enrolled in Indiana Normal School at 15 intending to train as a teacher, one of few careers that were at the time accessible to women. However she was unable to pay the tuition past the first semester and had to leave, moving with her mother to Pittsburgh in 1880. The family opened their home to boarders in an attempt to earn an income, a venture in which Bly also worked having failed to find full-time employment.
Five years later Bly came across an editorial in the Pittsburgh Dispatch’s “Quiet Observer” entitled What Girls are Good For in which the writer railed against women for even attempting to be educated or have a career. He argued that instead they should simply stay at home, referring to working women as “monstrosities”. The piece so enraged Bly that she sent in a response signed ‘Little Orphan Girl’. It caught the attention of the editor to such an extent that he put out an ad asking that the writer come and visit the newspaper. At the office, Bly was offered the chance to write a formal rebuttal to be printed in the paper, a challenge she accepted, writing “The Girl Puzzle”. Following this she was offered a full-time job, being given the pen name of Nellie Bly after a popular song by Stephen Foster.
It wasn’t, however, quite the career Bly envisaged as most women in journalism at the time were confined to the “women’s section”; covering gardening, fashion, or society. Bly chose instead to write on issues of social difficulties, focusing on the poverty and oppression she saw and had experienced, including drawing on her mother’s hardships to explore the inherent disadvantage leveled on women during a divorce. Although her work was a point of fascination for many readers, the business community was unhappy with her portrayals, particularly as they related to women working in Pittsburgh’s bottle factories. When they threatened to pull advertising Bly was again assigned to gardening articles, defiant she instead took a working vacation to Mexico from where she continued to write for the paper on issues relating to the lives of Mexican citizens. When her work turned to criticizing the Mexican government, reporting for example the imprisonment of a journalist by the President, she found herself threatened with arrest herself and left the country.
Upon her return to the United States she was again placed in the women’s section, but she handed in her notice to travel to New York. In 1887 she arrived in NYC, attempting to land herself a job at a major publication. However, offers weren’t readily available and she found herself for months on end in the city without employment and nearing bankruptcy. Eventually her persistence paid off and she talked her way into John Cockerill’s office, the managing editor of Joseph Pulitzer’s “New York World”. He assigned her a piece reporting on the mentally ill in New York, whether as a test of her metal or a veiled dismissal. Bly nevertheless undertook the task with wholehearted bravery.
After convincing doctors and judges that she was mentally ill, Bly had herself committed to Blackwell’s Island Asylum. While there, Bly suffered the physical abuse of staff, forced meals of rotten food, and filthy conditions, emerging ten days later with material for two articles that caused uproar in New York. Investigations were held and at their conclusion NY officials gave a cash infusion and a change in the care standards for those in the asylum.
Bly continued to work for the “New York World”, pioneering investigative journalism which helped expose, amongst others, corrupt politicians, the injustices suffered by the poor, the underworld of crooked lobbyists, and the treatment of women by the police. Her solidarity with the poor and marginalized was unfailing, including during the 1894 Pullman Railroad strike in which she was alone in reporting from the perspective of the strikers.
However, this wasn’t enough. Against the worries of her editors for whom a woman traveling alone wasn’t seen as ‘proper’, Bly set out to beat Phileas Fogg’s (Jules Verne’s fictional character) record of 80 days to travel around the world. She set off on November 14th 1889, to return to New York after 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes. Upon her arrival she found herself a new kind of celebrity, cheered on by vast crowds.
Somewhat angered by the paper’s refusal to give her a bonus in light of the new circulation she had generated, Bly resigned. She spent time writing a book on her experience circumnavigating the world, gave lectures, and found herself on board games and trading cards. Eventually she was convinced to return to the Paper, and in 1893 The World ran the headline “Nellie Bly Again”. Immediately Bly immersed herself in tales of corruption and inequality (including the Railroad strike mentioned above), as well as interviewing the suffragist Susan B. Anthony and other well-known names of the time.
Her marriage in 1895 (aged 31) to the 70 year old industrialist Robert Seaman came as a shock to many. Her reporting stopped and instead she involved herself in the running of the company alongside her husband, eventually taking over on her husband’s death in 1904. The company folded however ten years later after fraud and mismanagement emerged from within the company.
Bly again returned to journalism, becoming one of the first female war correspondents after a vacation with a friend in Austria turned into the outbreak of World War I. By 1919 she was writing in New York once more, with her own column in The Evening Journal, offering advice and aid to widows, children, and others in need. Bly unfortunately contracted pneumonia, and died on January 27th 1922 at 58, having written her column up until her death.
In so many ways Bly was a pioneer for her time, leading the creation of investigative journalism as well as breaking all sense of social constraint as they related to women of her time. This work, her place as America’s first female war correspondent, and her trip around the world, all mixed with an unerring sense of social justice have left her one of the true heroes of her time, and one who should be far better known.