In the 1880s, the newspaper business was strictly a male enterprise. But with nerve and pluck, Elizabeth J. Cochrane became Nellie Bly—one of the most daring reporters of her time.
It started in 1885, when Cochrane wrote a letter to the editor of The Pittsburgh Dispatch, in response to a misogynistic article. What did a male reporter know about the plight of women, the 21-year-old asked anonymously.
“I have heard the hard-luck tales of poor, young women like myself,” Lonely Orphan Girl wrote. “I, too, have known the frustration of needing a good job and not being able to find one.”
The letter caught the eye of a Dispatch editor. “She isn’t much for style,” he said, “but what she has to say she says right out.”
The Dispatch hired Cochrane, giving her the byline “Nellie Bly." For her first assignment, she traveled to Mexico as a foreign correspondent—only to be expelled for writing stories critical of the government.
Bly later stormed into the offices of The New York World, demanding a job. Not even Joseph Pulitzer, the famous World publisher, could refuse this fearless rebel. Among other journalistic exploits, Bly got herself admitted to a notorious “insane asylum” in New York City. She also bested Phileas Fogg’s fictional globe-trotting record in Around the World in 80 Days—making the trip in 72 days.
Our special edition of The Scholastic Tribune (PDF), in honor of Women’s History Month, features excerpts from Bly’s “Ten Days in a Mad-House” (1887) and “Around the World in 72 Days” (1889). To help you get more out of this Common Core-ready resource, designed for middle and high school students, here are five evidence-based questions and a brief chronology of Bly’s life. Below is a list of additional reading so that students can compare differing viewpoints and genres when delving more into the life of a one-of-a-kind journalist.
Bly’s old-world style and convoluted syntax may prove challenging for today’s students. But decoding efforts will yield the discovery of a keen observer with a sharp wit.
Anyone who lives in fear of the alarm clock will smile at this passage from “Around the World in 72 Days”:
Those who think that night is the best part of the day and that morning was made for sleep, know how uncomfortable they feel when for some reason they have to get up with—well, with the milkman.
Of course, students don’t remember the days when milk was delivered before dawn in thick glass bottles. Maybe you don’t either. But at least gossip has not gone the way of the landline:
I think it is only natural for travelers to take an innocent pleasure in studying the peculiarities of their fellow companions. We were not out many days until everybody that was able to be about had added a little to their knowledge of those that were not. I will not say that the knowledge acquired is of any benefit. Nevertheless, it was harmless, and it afforded us some amusement.
Brooke Kroeger (Three Rivers Press, 1995)
Nellie Bly was the most famous female reporter of her day. She had herself committed to an insane asylum, circled the globe in 72 days, and worked as an elephant trainer, all for a good story.
Sue Macy and Linda Ellerbee (National Geographic Children’s Books, 2009)
The life story of this daring news reporter, globetrotter, and advocate for women’s rights
Matthew Goodman (Ballantine Books, 2013)
The sensational, highly publicized race around the world between two women reporters, including the scrappy Nellie Bly
Nellie Bly (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011)
Primary Source—Newspaper article
Bly’s harrowing account of her undercover investigative assignment at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York City
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