Elizabeth Jane Cochran, AKA "Nellie Bly" (1864-1922)

NELLIE BLY

Newspaper reporter Elizabeth Jane Cochran, pen name Nellie Bly, was the inventor of investigative reporting.  Born in May 1864, in Pennsylvania, Bly’s father was a prominent landowner, judge and businessman.  Bly was the thirteenth of his fifteen children (born to her father’s second wife).  Her father died when she was six years old, leaving her family in near poverty because he did not include his second family in his will.  After her mother ended a disastrous second marriage, Bly went to the Indiana Normal School at age 15 to become a teacher so she could help support her family.  However, she had to quit after one year because there was no more money to fund her education.  Bly and her mother moved to Pittsburgh, where they ran a boarding house. 

While in Pittsburgh, Bly wrote an indignant letter to the newspaper Pittsburgh Dispatch over a columnists’ assertion that women only belonged in the home doing domestic tasks and condemning working women.  The newspaper editor was impressed by the letter and offered her a job, also giving her the pen name Nellie Bly.

Bly’s first story was about the hardships facing poor working-class girls.  Her second story called for reform of the state’s divorce law, something she knew about firsthand from her mother’s divorce from her abusive second husband.  Bly then did a series on factory girls working in Pittsburgh.  Usually though, Bly was assigned to stories about flower shows and fashion, and after being denied the chance to take on different stories, Bly left the newspaper for New York.   

After looking for a work for six months, New York World offered Bly a job.  Bly’s first assignment was to write about the mentally ill living in a large institution in New York City.  Bly decided to go undercover for this story.  Posing as a mentally ill patient, she lived at the institution for 10 days, observing physical cruelty, cold baths, and forced meals of old food.  Her report of the cruelty prompted public and political action and led to the reform of the institution.  This type of reporting was new and some of her peers referred to it as “stunt reporting,” however it became a popular and lasting style of reporting.

Throughout her reporting career, Bly exposed corruption and injustice in many situations and she was one of the few reporters who always told the story from the side of the poor and disenfranchised. 

In 1889, Bly reached international celebrity status when she traveled around the world by ship, train and burro in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes, ahead of the fictional hero of Jules Verne’s popular book Around the World in Eighty Days.     

Bly retired from reporting for a while when she married an industrialist named Robert Seaman, who was forty years her senior.  When he died ten years later, Bly ran his business.  She turned his industries into multimillion-dollar companies, and continued her social reforms by paying her workers well, providing them with gymnasiums, staffed libraries, and health care. 

During World War I, she started reporting again.  She was still reporting, working for the New York Journal when she died in 1922 at the age of 58

Not only did Bly pioneer investigative reporting, but also many people considered her the best reporter of her time.

 

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Books:

  • Beasley, Maurine Hoffman and Sheila Jean Gibbons. Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism. Washington, D.C.: American University Press, 1993.
  • Christensen, Bonnie. The Daring Nellie Bly: America’s Star Reporter. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2003. [for ages 4-8]
  • Davidson, Sue. Getting the Real Story: Nellie Bly and Ida B. Wells. Seattle, Washington: Seal Press, 1992.
  • Krensky, Stephen and Rebecca Guay. Nellie Bly: A Name to Be Reckoned with. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 2003. [for ages 4-8]
  • Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. New York: Times books/Random House, 1995. 

 

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