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Meet Nellie Bly: America’s Record Smashing, Barrier Breaking Pioneer of Journalism

Not many will have heard of the name Nellie Bly.

It is almost as though she has become a myth, despite being one of the most renowned journalists of the 1800s. Her story is one of a girl who went from battling poverty and adversity at a young age to being catapulted into international stardom before her thirties, all thanks to her dogged determination and flair for the dramatic.

Early Life

Born Elizabeth Cochran on the 5th of May 1864, she grew up in Burrell Township, Pennsylvania. Her father, Michael Cochran, married twice: having ten children with his first wife, Catherine Murphy and five with his second wife, Mary Jane Kennedy, who was Elizabeth’s mother.

Her early childhood was idyllic, living blissfully in the countryside until her father died when she was only six years old. Michael Cochran left no will, and from then on, the family struggled financially.

Elizabeth was a bright student who enrolled in Indiana Normal School (now Indiana University of Pennsylvania) in 1879. However, she was forced to drop out after just one term because her family could not afford the fees.

Eventually, Elizabeth’s mother moved the family to Allegheny City (which later became part of Pittsburgh), and this is where Bly’s career truly began.

Early Career

In 1885, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Erasmus Wilson, wrote a piece titled ‘What Girls are Good For’. In his article, he discussed the “alarming” number of women being employed in shops and factories; instead of raising children and “making her home her little paradise, she herself playing the part of the angel”.

Elizabeth, who was 21 at the time and struggling to find a job to support her family, was infuriated by Wilson’s article. She responded by writing a letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch under the pseudonym ‘Lonely Orphan Girl’.

The editor, George Madden, was so impressed by her quality of writing that he dedicated a message to the following issue, asking her to reveal herself. Half expecting a man to turn up at his office, Madden was met with young Elizabeth, who he hired under the pen name Nellie Bly (as was custom for female journalists at the time).

Her first article for the paper, titled ‘The Girl Puzzle’, argued that American society should increase the economic opportunities available to women, and her second piece, called ‘Mad Marriages’, called for reforms in divorce rights for women. Madden was ultimately impressed, and she was offered a full-time position at The Dispatch.

A Natural Reporter

From then on, almost all of her work centred around women’s rights and the plight of women in a country where they were treated as second-class citizens. Bly began to gain notoriety for her series of articles called ‘Our Workshop Girls’, in which she interviewed female factory workers and women of the lower classes, who would often engage in ‘dishonourable’ behaviour like drinking in bars after work. The content may have shocked some of the Dispatch’s readers, but the paper’s sales increased.

To reward her for her hard work and perhaps to placate the factory owners who had begun complaining about her reporting, Bly was promoted to author of the Society column (a role often given to female journalists), in which she’d be confined to writing about gardening, fashion and the theatre. She stuck out at the job, but when there was an opening for a Foreign Correspondent at the Dispatch, she jumped at the opportunity.

She spent the next six months in Mexico, reporting on local customs and the plight of women in Central America. However, during her last few months in the country, she began to be threatened for her outspoken ways. Bly had witnessed a local journalist being jailed after publishing an article which criticised the Mexican government and Mexico’s leader, Porfirio Díaz. She refused to remain silent, and in response, Bly wrote to the Dispatch accusing Díaz of being a dictator who threatened the integrity of Mexico’s press.

After local authorities began to threaten her for exposing their corruption, she swiftly returned home to the US. Dismayed by the thought of being driven back to the Society column, Bly left the Pittsburgh Dispatch, and in fact, Pittsburgh altogether, to begin searching for employment in New York City.

Forging a New Kind of Journalism

In New York, things began to look bleak. She went without employment for four months, being turned down repeatedly by editors simply because she was female and could not be taken seriously.

Bly never gave up hope, and she was anything if not persistent. Every day, she would walk into the offices of some of New York’s biggest papers, asking whether they had a vacancy for her. Eventually, she took on an undercover assignment for The New York World, posing as a madwoman in order to gain access to Blackwell’s Island insane asylum.

While there, she found her surroundings to be highly unsanitary and witnessed numerous incidents where nurses abused their patients. She later published her report on the deplorable conditions women faced in a book titled Ten Days in a Mad-House, which gained her national recognition and celebrity status across the US. Her exposé also led to New York City Council spending $50,000 on the management and development of asylums to improve the quality of life for patients.

The rest of her career was hugely successful, and Bly continued to conduct investigations that exposed corruption and the mistreatment of marginalised groups within the US. She truly pioneered a new kind of investigative journalism, and showed that ‘stunt girl’ journalism (a term often used derogatorily), was a legitimate form of reporting.

Record Breaker

However, what Bly is best known for is travelling around the world in a record-breaking 72 days. At the age of 25, she told The World’s executives that she wanted to beat Phileas Fogg’s fictional record of travelling the world in 80 days. They were appalled by the fact that a woman should be travelling such great distances unchaperoned, but Bly went ahead and did it anyway, reporting back to the paper on the places she saw, the host of characters she met, and the sticky situations she got herself into.

The series was an absolute success, and The World began a competition to see who could guess how long she would take, which over a million people took part in. Eventually, Bly returned to the US after 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds. By this time, she had gained such widespread recognition that undercover reporting would never be possible for her again.

Bly’s Final Years

While investigative reporting was no longer an option for her, Bly was able to go on a lecture tour across the US before settling down at the New York Family Story Paper to write fiction in 1893.

But having spent years of her life working undercover in risky situations, she quickly found fiction to be too boring, and so she continued to write for The New York World, exposing corruption within numerous industries and eventually moving on to other well-known publications like the Times-Herald (where she met her future husband Robert Seaman) and the Journal.

In 1922, she developed pneumonia which developed quickly. Bly died within two weeks of contracting the disease.

Despite her sudden death, her legacy continued to live on. Arthur Brisbane, editor of the Journal, heralded her as “the best reporter in America”, while academic Kim Todd said she “redefined what it meant to be a journalist”.

Bly’s tenacity and persistence forged the way for female journalists during an era when their achievements were not taken seriously. She showed America and the world just how successful a woman can be when she puts her mind to something.

Despite being born almost 200 years ago, her story is unfortunately quite relatable to many female reporters today who still face sexism in the world of journalism. Bly’s talent and determination (and even her mischief) teach us that when we break down barriers, we can achieve great things.