At the turn of the century, this young woman wrote her way to fame in the man's world of journalism.
"In spite of . . . the assurance that I would be released in a few days, my heart gave a sharp twinge. Pronounced insane by four expert doctors and shut up behind the unmerciful bolts of a madhouse . . . was an uncomfortable position."
It was her first newspaper assignment in New York City. To get the job, the 23-year-old woman had agreed to go undercover to investigate abuses at an insane asylum. Her name was Nellie Bly.
Nellie Bly: Today, few Americans recognize that name. But 100 years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find any American who did not. Nellie Bly burst upon the scene at a time when a woman's place was, in the words of one newspaper editor, "defined and located by a single word — home." But Bly's "push-and-get-there" style helped to change the way reporters did their jobs. Bly also was a shining example of why women deserve the same opportunities as men.
Bly was born Elizabeth Cochran in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1860s. She landed her first job with a Pittsburgh paper after she wrote a stern reply to a story that had attacked working women. At the newspaper, she took the pen name of Nellie Bly and began developing her distinctive writing style. Her gift was to get the story behind the story through pluck and charm. People she interviewed seemed to trust her, and would tell her details that other reporters could not get. At times, she went undercover to expose wrongdoing.
Pittsburgh was not big enough for her ambitions, however. In 1887, she left only this note for her editors: "I am off for New York. Look out for me. BLY."
Ten Days in the Madhouse
From the beginning, Bly's favorite stories focused on helping the less fortunate. It was no surprise when she accepted an assignment from The World newspaper in New York City to pose as a mentally ill girl. This kind of investigative reporting was new to newspapers at the time. Bly was one of its pioneers.
Inside the asylum, Bly observed how the patients were treated and interviewed them. She got some first-hand experience when she was given a bath:
"The water was ice-cold and I again began to protest. . . . My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head — ice-cold water, too, into my eyes, my ears, my nose, and my mouth. I think I experienced some of the sensations of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering, and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane. . . ."
Bly witnessed how some nurses abused the patients:
"(The nurses) returned to the sitting room and grabbed hold of an old gray-haired woman. . . . My heart ached as she cried, "For God's sake, ladies, don't let them beat me." "Shut up, you hussy!" said (nurse) Grady as she caught the woman by her gray hair and dragged her shrieking and pleading from the room."
After ten days, a lawyer from The World came to free its reporter. The story broke on the following Sunday, with Bly commenting: "What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?"
The story embarrassed New York City officials into taking action. They launched an investigation, then approved additional funds to improve the treatment of the mentally ill. Bly's daring work made the newspaper world take notice of a gutsy new reporter.
Around The World
A different kind of story, though, made Bly's name a household word. In 1873, French author Jules Verne published a novel called Around the World in 80 Days. In it, a fictional hero named Phileas Fogg circles the globe on a bet. But no real person had attempted the feat. In 1889, bored and seeking adventure, Bly proposed that she attempt it as a publicity stunt for The World. The paper's business manager commented that it would be better to send a man because he would not need a chaperone (escort) or as much luggage.
Bly shot back: "Very well. Start the man and I'll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him." She got the assignment.
Bly traveled alone with a single satchel and a coat that became her trademark. While in France, she met Jules Verne and his wife. Mrs. Verne commented on Bly: "She is trim, energetic, and strong. I believe, Jules, that she will make your heroes look foolish." Verne agreed with a laugh.
Newspaper sales skyrocketed as New Yorkers, then the rest of the country, bought copies of The World to keep track of Bly's whereabouts. After a couple of near-disasters in catching departing steamships, she arrived back in New York in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes — beating Phileas Fogg's time by more than a week.
Marriage, Business, War
Bly then returned to what she did best: championing the downtrodden. In 1893, an economic crisis sent shock waves through U.S businesses. In several places, workers fought bosses in nationwide strikes. Bly got the scoop from both sides, but firmly backed the strikers.
In 1895, Bly married millionaire industrialist Robert Seaman. She helped manage his manufacturing company. When he died in 1904, she took over as president. The company flourished. Then, in 1911, embezzlers (employees who steal company money) nearly drained the company dry. A long series of court battles followed, to save the company from bankruptcy.
Three years later, to escape the drudgery of finances and lawyers, Bly returned to journalism. She signed on as a reporter covering World War I in Europe (1914–1918). Bly went to the front lines — the first female reporter to do so — and sent back on-the-spot news stories like this:
"One motionless creature had his cap on his head. . . . Great black circles were around his sunken eyes. Black hollows were around his nose and his ears were black. . . .
"Near him, completely covered by his coat was a form. Occasionally it shivered convulsively. That was all.
"Nearest us was another (lying) on his face. He never moved. Perhaps he was dead. . . . . (The soldier was in a shed with other cholera victims.) Human creatures they were, lying there in a manner our health authorities would prohibit for hogs or the meanest beasts.
"I staggered out into the muddy road. I would rather look on guns and hear the cutting of the air by a shot that brought kinder death."
Later, Bly was arrested by Hungarian police, who mistook her for a British spy. The police ignored her claims that she was an American reporter — until a translator arrived.
"'I am Dr. Friedman,' he announced. 'You are English, they say.'
"'I am Nellie Bly of New York,' I answered.
"Both hands flew up above his head.
"'My God! Nellie Bly,' he cried excitedly. . . .
"The (police) had cleared a space around us. Their mouths were not open but their eyes were.
"They were speechless, dumbfounded. My new friend began to talk rapidly to them. They listened aghast.
"'I have told them every child seven years old in America knows Nellie Bly,' he said aside to me."
After returning to the U.S., Nellie Bly wrote a regular column for The New York Evening Journal. Her special concern was helping abandoned children. She died in 1922. In the obituary, her old newspaper, The World, wrote: "Nellie Bly was THE BEST REPORTER IN AMERICA and that is saying a good deal."
1. March is Women's History Month. Research other groundbreaking women. What obstacles did they have to overcome?
2. Do women still face obstacles to success? If so, how are they similar to those in Nellie Bly's time? How are they different?
Nellie Bly Book Resources
Ehrlich, Elizabeth, Nellie Bly (Chelsea House, 1989)
Emerson, Karen L., Nellie Bly: Making Headlines (Macmillan Children's Group, 1989)
Kendall, Martha, Nellie Bly: Reporter for the World (Houghton-Mifflin, 1992)
Kroeger, Brooke, Nellie Bly: Daredevil Reporter, Feminist (Random House, 1994)
Verne, Jules, Around the World in Eighty Days (Scholastic Inc., 1990)