Nellie Bly: Daredevil Reporter
“I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall."
Nellie Bly, The Evening-Journal; January 8, 1922
The young woman who helped launch a new kind of investigative journalism was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864. Her father’s death when she was 6 changed her life irrevocably. He left no will so all his assets were sold and the money divided amongst his fourteen children. In the blink of an eye, her family went from living in the largest house in town to having to live in straitened circumstances. Her mother remarried but the marriage was not successful. When her mother took the unusual step of filing for divorce from her second husband, Nellie testified in court about her step-father’s abuse. The experience left her determined to be self-reliant. Forced to leave school when money ran out, she moved with her mother to Pittsburgh, where they ran a boarding house.
Her journalistic juices were piqued in 1885 when she read a newspaper column entitled “What Girls are Good For” in the Pittsburgh Dispatch which implied that girls were only good for two things: having children and keeping house. Incensed by the sexist comments, she off a fiery rebuttal. The managing editor was so impressed that he demanded to know who she really was—and offered her a job!
The newly rechristened Nellie Bly cut her teeth writing hard-hitting investigative pieces about working women who held traditionally male jobs. While not a trained journalist, Nellie was a good interviewer, able to get anyone to talk. But she soon found herself relegated to the women’s pages writing about fashion and parties. Increasingly frustrated, Nellie decided on a bold and risky move. Despite not knowing any Spanish, she headed to Mexico to work as a freelance journalist. But Nellie soon found herself in hot water when she criticized the Mexican government. Threatened with arrest, she fled the country.
In 1887 deciding that Pittsburgh was too small for her ambitions, she left this note for her editors: "I am off for New York. Look out for me." But few newspaper editors in New York took her seriously. After four months of pounding the pavement, she finally managed to talk her way into the offices of one of the biggest newspapers in the country, The New York World. Her first assignment: posing as a mental patient to expose the conditions at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. When Nellie asked her editor how he planned on getting her out, he told her not to worry!
She spent hours in front of the mirror practicing to convincingly play a woman suffering from mental illness. Calling herself Nellie Brown, she checked into a women’s shelter where she refused to sleep, and told anyone who spoke to her that her trunks had disappeared. Sent to Bellevue Hospital, she claimed to be from Cuba and pretended to be confused when questioned. Diagnosed as demented, she was taken by boat across to Blackwell’s Island. For ten days, Nellie experienced firsthand the filthy conditions, spoiled food, and the physical abuse suffered by the inmates. Her series of articles made her a household name at the age of 23 and led to a grand jury investigation into conditions at the asylum. New York leaders voted to increase in funds for the insane and more thorough examinations so that only the seriously ill were sent to the asylum.
But Nellie was just getting started. She proposed the ultimate story to her editor: she would journey solo around the world (just under 25,000 miles) in 72 days to beat the record Jules Verne wrote about in his famous novel and turn fiction into fact. Packing light, Nellie took only the dress she was wearing, an overcoat, underwear and a small toiletry bag. Thanks to the electric telegraph, Nellie was able to send short dispatches about her trip to The New York World with details of her progress. She finally arrived back in New Jersey beating Phineas Fogg by more than a week, a world’s record at the time. The feat and the subsequent book made her a household name.
Bly would continue to champion the rights of laborers and women in her articles over the next few years. After her marriage to wealthy businessman forty years her senior, Nellie retired from journalism. She turned her talents to working for her husband’s company which made steel containers. For a time, she was one of the leading women industrialists in the United States, receiving multiple patents for her inventions. When the business went bankrupt, Nellie went back to her first love journalism, covering World War I and the suffrage movement.
Bly died of pneumonia at the age of 57 but her legacy as a pioneering female journalist continues, inspiring other women to pursue their own journalist ambitions.
Nellie Bly “Fun facts” and inspirational quotes
· Childhood nickname was “Pink” because her mother dressed her in that color to stand out; it then became Nellie’s credo to stand out from the pack!
· When most female reporters (and there were few) were paid around $15/week, Nellie was earning $200/week.
· Met Jules Verne, author of Around the World in 80 Days during her record-breaking circumnavigation of the globe.
· Her editor chose her pen name Nellie Bly from the title character in the popular song by Stephen Foster.
· During her round-the-world journey, Nellie bought a pet monkey in Singapore, which she named McGinty.
· McLouglin Brothers issued a board game that followed the day-by-day progress of her trip.
· Bly received multiple patents for her inventions which included an oil drum and a stackable trash can.
· First woman to file eyewitness reports from the Eastern front in WWI.
Nellie’s route around the world:
Hoboken to London to Calais to Brindisi to Port Said to Ismailia to Suez to Aden to Colombo to Penang to Singapore to Hong Kong to Yokohama to San Francisco to Jersey City (and then by ferry to NYC and to the offices of The World)
“Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.” (said to be NB’s motto/maxim)
“If you want to do it, you can do it. The question is, do you want to do it?”
- Goodman, Matthew (2013). Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World.
- Kroeger, Brooke (1994). Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Three Rivers Press.
- Noyes, Deborah. Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original "Girl" Reporter, Nellie Bly Viking Books for Young Readers (February 23, 2016)