Her life story fails miserably as a work of fiction. No self-respecting publisher would buy it. A would-be Shakespeare, spinning her tale in a local theater, would get laughed off the stage. Her story had to be true, because it was too pat, too dramatic, too epic to be made up.
One of 15 children, uneducated and thrust into poverty at an early age during a period in American history when even educated, advantaged women lived in the shadows of their husbands, Bly overcame all that to revolutionize American journalism and leave an indelible mark on American business and technology. She was once so obscure that historians lost her trail for five years; a decade later, she was perhaps the most famous woman in the world.
It’s preposterous. All of it.
Elizabeth Jane Cochran was born May 5, 1864 in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh. She was the thirteenth of Judge Michael Cochran’s fifteen children. Cochran’s Mills, formerly Pitts’ Mills, was renamed for Judge Cochran in 1855, five years after he was elected associate justice of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. In addition to his duties as a justice, Judge Cochran was a store owner, mill operator, and real estate speculator. Young Elizabeth’s family called her “Pink” for her brightly colored dresses.
Pink’s father provided his enormous family a comfortable living, but he died when Pink was six; he neglected to leave behind a will. The family’s assets were auctioned off and split among the judge’s many heirs; Pink’s mother was left with a small annuity and a negligible allowance for her minor children.
Forced to move and desperately short of money, Pink’s mother married John Jackson Ford in 1873. Ford was abusive, and they divorced in 1879. Testifying on her mother’s behalf, 15-year-old Pink recounted her stepfather’s brutality in open court.
Pink learned to read and write in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Apollo, Pennsylvania. At fifteen she dropped her childhood nickname, changed her surname from Cochran to Cochrane – possibly for legal reasons, but more likely because she didn’t know how to spell her own name – and enrolled at the State Normal School in Indiana, Pennsylvania.
Her college experience was short-lived. Her mother lost a lawsuit regarding her father’s will, and Elizabeth ran out of money before she was able to complete her first semester. Her formal education at an end, Elizabeth joined her mother and her older half-brothers, Albert and Charles, in Allegheny City, a suburb of Pittsburgh, in 1880. Little is known about the next few years of her life.
Elizabeth popped back into the public record in 1885. Under the pseudonym “Little Orphan Girl,” she wrote a scathing response to what she perceived to be a sexist editorial by Erasmus Wilson in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. The Dispatch managing editor, George Madden, impressed by her lively writing style, placed an ad in the January 17, 1885 edition, asking “Little Orphan Girl” to reveal herself. Elizabeth appeared in Madden’s office the next day, and Madden made her his newspaper’s first-ever female reporter.
Her first article, “The Girl Puzzle,” appeared in the paper on January 25, 1885 under the byline, “Orphan Girl.” Madden felt Elizabeth needed a more permanent pen name; someone walked by his door, whistling an old Stephen Foster song – accounts disagree on the identity of the whistler – and Madden’s little orphan girl became Nellie Bly.
Bly wasn’t a polished writer, but she quickly built a reputation for the vivid, compelling characters that lept from the pages of her fiery prose. First drawing on her own life, she called for women’s rights advocates to put their money where their mouths were, and suggested that men of poor character should not be allowed to marry. Once she had her feet set, she embarked on a serious of eight articles about conditions in the Pittsburgh slums, focusing on the plight of working-class women.
The series was controversial; Bly generated sympathy when she described the poor working conditions, but her ribald tales of drunken promiscuity garnered less charitable reactions from the paper’s Victorian audience. Madden, bowing to pressure from conservative readers, sent Bly to the woman’s desk and told her to focus on feminine issues. Chafing against her gender-protected yoke, Bly started a weekly column in which, among other things, she agitated for a women’s version of the YMCA.
Bly’s column, and her subsequent employment at the Dispatch, was short lived. There are a number of differing versions of her exit from the Dispatch. According to Laurie Delaney, when Bly bumped egos with established Dispatch columnist Bessie Bramble, arguing that Bramble’s favored Women’s Christian Association “did not do enough for working women,” Bramble got the uppity young columnist booted back to the woman’s beat. Bly resigned her position with the paper shortly afterwards. According to Lea Ann Brown, who did not go into specifics – or mention Bramble – Bly simply tired of the woman’s beat and talked Madden into sending her to Mexico for sun, fun, and a story she could sink her teeth into. According to Bly, in her book Six Months in Mexico, she was in Mexico as a correspondent for the Dispatch.
Bly originally traveled to Mexico City with her mother, but her mother fell ill and Nellie sent her home, “defying conventions of the period that frowned on unescorted women.”
Bly traveled the countryside freely, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of American poet Joaquin Miller. She learned to speak a good bit of Spanish, and she found ways to communicate with villagers who spoke in regional dialects – Spanish mixed with tribal tongues.
Bly wrote extensively about Mexican customs, food, and weather, along with a number of other subjects that any travel writer would cover, but she also wrote unflinching exposés when she uncovered corruption, up to and including the top levels of the Mexican government. When word of her Dispatch articles trickled back into Mexico, Bly was forced to leave the country.
When Bly returned to Pittsburgh, she decided that she was ready for a larger challenge. So, in the summer of 1887, armed with her press clippings and little else – she had less than $100 to her name – she moved to New York. Bly believed that her reporting style fit perfectly with the stated mission of Joseph Pulitzer’s World. She spent most of the next few months at the World offices, trying to get in to see Pulitzer and his managing editor, John Cockerill, but she was continually rebuffed.
After being mugged in Central Park – and robbed of her savings – Bly was forced into a make-or-break, final assault on the World offices. She held the offices under siege for three hours before an opening presented itself. While the guards were arguing over what to do with her, Bly simply walked past them into Pulitzer’s office, where Pulitzer and Cockerill were taking a meeting. The men were impressed with her pluck as well as her portfolio. She wasn’t hired at once, but she was given a retainer to tide her over until they figured out what to do with her.
In September, Cockerill gave Bly the assignment that would make her famous and establish her reputation as an investigative reporter. She was to fake insanity and get herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. After a night spent practicing her insane look in a mirror, she took a room in a working girl’s home and put on a show. Nellie Bly became Nellie Brown – plus, for a short time, Nellie Moreno when a judge mistook her for Cuban when she responded to him in broken Spanish – and convinced everyone around her that she was amnesiac and unhinged. Transferred to the asylum, she immediately dropped her insane persona and returned to her normal manner so as to avoid the appearance of “baiting” the guards into action. She lived in the asylum for ten days before the World came and got her out. The series of articles she wrote for the World ultimately became her book, Ten Days in a Madhouse.
In her article series, Bly described the conditions in the asylum, and the treatment inmates received from the staff. She described baths of ice-cold water, filthy clothing, threadbare blankets, and spoiled food. The rooms had no heat, and the inmates were forced to get through the nights with a single blanket. The staff used violence to control the population, administering beatings to inmates who acted out. She recounted how inmates were forced to sit still for hours on end; they were not allowed to talk, read, or interact in any way with other people. She expressed the opinion that a sane person, forced to live in such conditions, would go insane within a few months. She believed that many of the inmates, especially the ones who could not speak English well, may have been sane when they were admitted. Bly had dropped her insane act as soon as she entered the asylum, but nobody had noticed. After her release, which the Asylum fought, Bly called the Blackwood Island asylum “The human rat-trap, easy to get into, impossible to get out of.” An official inquiry and Grand Jury investigation directed the State of New York to earmark an additional $1 million per year towards the asylum, to upgrade the conditions and inmate care.
The World hired Bly as a fulltime reporter, and Bly’s eyes, ears, pen, and magnifying glass went to work, rooting out corruption wherever she could find it. She went after employment bureaus, arguing for the regulation on both sides of the employment equation. Hers was one of the first voices calling for fair labor practices, at the front end of what became a major labor movement. She spread gallons of ink in defense of working women, going after factories, sweatshops and schools, who promised big things for working girls but failed to deliver. She uncovered a baby-selling ring, conducted interviews with such subjects as Women’s Suffrage Party presidential candidate Belva Lockwood, Buffalo Bill, John L. Sullivan, and the wives of presidents U.S. Grant, James Garfield, and James Polk. She went undercover as a lobbyist and successfully bribed “The Fox,” Edward R. Phelps, who was known as “the King of the lobbyists.” She even trained elephants, though their corruption wasn’t considered a crime to anyone wearing waterproof shoes. She put her life in danger time and time again, exposing herself to malaria, yellow fever, cholera, and tuberculosis, and a number of dangerous animals – most of them on two legs.
Bly’s success as a stunt reporter led to a long, roaring river of imitators, many of whom were put to work by the World. Ada Patterson, from the St. Louis Dispatch, was called “the Nellie Bly of the West.” One Nellie Bly imitator put on a bullet-proof vest and had herself shot for her story, titled “Meg Merilee feels what it’s like to be shot!” “Meg Merilee” became a catch-all term for Bly’s imitators. The “Meg Merilees” had little trouble mimicking Bly’s surface attributes; the standard template was for a pretty, young, innocent-looking girl to place herself where a pretty, young, innocent-looking girl wouldn’t normally be found. However, they rarely aspired to what elevated Bly’s work above the level of publicity stunt to the level of investigative reporting. Being shot was sensational, but it was pointless. It revealed nothing, and it led to nothing. Many of Bly’s stunts effected genuine change, and substantive reforms. Bly’s stunts shined light into shadowy corners, scattering the vermin who hid in the darkness. The Meg Merilees just clamored for attention.
Bly is best known for two stunts: Ten days spent in a madhouse, and seventy-two days spent circling the globe. The inspiration for her second stunt was the Jules Verne novel, Around the World in Eighty Days. Bly proposed the stunt to her editors in 1888, over a year before she left, but the paper hesitated. The World’s business manager did not believe that Bly could travel without dragging so much luggage along that transfers would be difficult and time-consuming, or that she could travel without an escort. He suggested that the paper should send a man. Bly’s response was blunt: “Start the man,” she told him, “and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” The World did not agree to the stunt right away, but they promised Bly that they would send her if they ever decided to try it. It was over a year later when she received a note to see the editor in his office. Cockerill asked her, “Can you start around the world the day after tomorrow?” Bly packed one tightly-stuffed bag and she was ready to go.
The trip was recounted in a series of articles, posted to the paper from all over the world and later published as Around the World in Seventy-two Days. A contest was conducted, with a trip to Europe awarded to whomever could guess the correct time of passage; nearly a million entries were received. Cosmopolitan magazine, then a struggling young monthly paper, sent reporter Elizabeth Bisland out on the same day, in a different direction – giving the young Meg Merilee six hours’ notice to get ready – in an attempt to beat Bly around the world. A bad connection in Southampton, England, variously attributed to shenanigans by both groups, doomed Bisland to second place and obscurity. Bly was able to overcome delays of a day in Amiens, France, taken out of the schedule to meet with Jules Verne; five days in Colombo, Ceylon; five days in Hong Kong; and four days in Yokohama, Japan to beat the fictional Phileas Fogg’s “record” of eighty days by over a week. Cannon fire, fifteen thousand screaming fans, and most of the Jersey City government greeted Bly when she reached the New Jersey Depot of the Pennsylvania Railroad at 3:51 PM, January 25, 1890. The crowd cheered wildly as Bly was “clasped once more in her anxious mother’s arms.”
Bly’s trip made her a worldwide celebrity. She went on lecture tours, traveled the party circuit, and rubbed elbows with the rich and famous. She pioneered a Sunday column in 1893 that paid her a reported $20,000 per year. She covered the violent Pullman strike – the only national reporter to report the story from the side of the strikers – and she continued to conduct interviews, adding activist Emma Goldman and Socialist leader Eugene Debs to her guest book.
By the time she interviewed Debs she had transferred her byline to the Chicago Tribune,. She worked there just five weeks before marrying 72-year-old millionaire Robert Livingston Seaman, on April 5, 1895. She was 31. She continued to write, returning to the World in 1896. She covered the National Women’s Suffrage Convention in 1896, interviewing Susan B. Anthony. Her final article as a World reporter came in March of 1896; in it, she proposed the formation of an army of women to fight in Cuba. Shortly after, she left for Europe with her husband.
Bly’s marriage to Seaman had gotten off to a rocky start. The newlywed Bly criticized her husband in print, writing about how a proper husband should act. Seaman hired his caretaker, Henry Hansen, to follow his new wife around, to see what she was up to. She had Hanson arrested. Seaman’s relatives did not care for the youthful Bly, who had positioned herself to siphon off their potential inheritance. Bly, in turn, did not care for Seaman’s friends and family, or “the company her husband kept.”
Bly often ate alone, partly due to her husband’s friends, but partly because she had spent her entire life dealing with the world as a single woman. Bly was charming and personable when she needed to be, but she had never cultivated close friendships. Other than her mother, she rarely dealt with her family outside of a bewildering array of lawsuits that began while her father’s body was still warm and continued on past Bly’s own death, decades later. Bly was not a family-oriented person, in all likelihood, because her own family had made her life a living hell.
Forewarned is forearmed. Bly had been fighting with her family in the courts since she was a child; she was not about to put herself in that position again. While the couple was in Europe, she convinced Seaman to change his will, making her the beneficiary. She also convinced him to transfer much of his property into her name, so she would not have to fight with her in-laws in probate. After the couple returned, in 1899, Bly immersed herself in Seaman’s business, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. Seaman’s death, in 1904, led to a five-year inheritance battle, but by then most of the estate was already in Bly’s name. She paid little attention to the court proceedings, which ultimately were decided in her favor. She concentrated on running the family business.
By 1901, Bly was listed as the sole owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. The company manufactured metal products, including milk cans, boilers, tanks, and kitchen ware. Bly introduced several innovations to enhance employee morale, including healthcare, gyms, and libraries. Bly, or Bly’s company, was awarded patents for the stacking garbage can, the forty-two gallon steel oil barrel – the forerunner of today’s fifty-five gallon oil barrels – and a new type of milk can. Bly came up with the idea for the steel oil barrel while visiting Europe, where she saw steel glycerin containers.
Company superintendent Henry Wehrhahn received two patents in 1905 for the new design, which he assigned to the company. The first was for flanged encircling hoops that allowed the barrels to be maneuvered while they were being rolled; the second was for the design of the barrel lid, which was readily detachable but provided an effective seal. The company flourished for several years, employing 1,500 people and producing 1,000 barrels per day, but by 1911 the company was in serious trouble. Fraud committed by some of the company’s older employees led to bankruptcy proceedings, lawsuits, and a charge against Bly for obstruction of justice.
According to conflicting accounts, Bly traveled to Austria either to flee from the arrest warrant, to search for financial backing, or both. She was still there when World War I began. Penniless, she returned to the newspaper business, reporting from the front lines for the New York Evening Journal. She walked through the trenches to share the experience with her readers, and she appealed for aid to Austria for war relief.
Arrested as a British spy, Bly was freed when the assigned translator recognized her. Arms in the air, he cried, “Every child in America seven years old knows Nellie Bly!” Austria ultimately landed on the wrong side of the war, creating a ticklish situation for Bly when she returned to America in 1919. She was repeatedly debriefed by the War Department, who questioned her patriotism even though she wore an American flag on her sleeve throughout the war. Once cleared by the War Department, Bly returned home. She continued to write for the Evening Journal, writing advice columns.
In her spare time, Bly worked to find homes for orphans, even adopting a child herself, and she worked to help the destitute find jobs. Her reputation as a writer had lost some of its luster, partly due to negative perceptions about her efforts on the behalf of Austria, partly due to the failure of her business, and partly due to her lukewarm level of enthusiasm for women’s suffrage, but mainly because the world had lost interest in her crusading, immersive reporting style. While she was still universally respected, many of the younger writers saw her as a relic from a bygone age. She covered the 1920 Presidential conventions for the Washington Times; even though she had been covering conventions for decades, she was once again reduced to the position of sideline reporter, tasked with giving the “human perspective.” In other words, Nellie Bly was back on the women’s beat.
The Roaring Twenties grabbed a hold of American society, but without the old reporter. The 57-year-old Bly died in Saint Mark’s hospital on January 22, 1922. Bly had come down with pneumonia two weeks earlier, and had gone downhill quickly. Her obituary ran in newspapers all over the world, and her longtime friend and colleague, New York Evening Review editor Arthur Brisbane, called her “the best reporter in America.”
Bly is mostly forgotten today. Her legacy surrounds us, though, because her innovations have proven to be remarkably durable. She built, filled, and made famous the role of the investigative reporter, developing an investigating template that was used by Woodward and Bernstein to expose the Watergate scandal. She brought barrel design into the twentieth century, and her designs still work in the twenty-first century. She walked the trenches in Austria, a model for today’s embedded war reporter. Her Mexico and around-the-world trips inspired great travel writers, from Hemingway to Kerouack.
Bly led the way everywhere she went. She interviewed radicals before anyone else was radical, and she championed causes before anyone else was a champion. She moved labor reform before it became a movement. She agitated against horrible conditions for working girls 20 years before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and she demanded better conditions in asylums 75 years before Ken Kesey wrote “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Bly led the push for large scale adoption agencies, job source organizations, and battered women’s shelters. She championed better working conditions for her own employees, and provided them healthcare benefits long before it became a popular employer incentive. She reported on strikes from the strikers’ point of view. She changed the world, time and time again – always out in front of the pack.
Little Pink Cochran’s epic transformation, from penniless orphan to the world-famous, world-changing Nellie Bly, was a story too fantastic, too perfect, too ridiculous for fiction. She had to be real.
And so she was.
I wonder when they’ll send a girl to travel around the sky.
Read the answer in the stars, they wait for Nellie Bly – Jayne Garrison
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