Nellie Bly so impressed a newspaper editor that she began her journalism career at 18; by her twenties, she was world famous.
Nellie Bly was the penname of Elizabeth Cochrane, a pioneer for women in journalism. Born in May of 1864 or 1865 (the year is disputable), she grew up in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, which was named for her father, Michael. She came from a large family: her father had 10 children from a previous marriage and 5 children with Elizabeth’s mother, Mary Jane Kennedy Cochran. Elizabeth, who always dreamed of being a writer, was known as the most rebellious one. Her independence is further revealed in her addition of an “e” to the family name, making herself “Cochrane,” instead of “Cochran.”
That pioneering spirit became even more important after her father died when she was six. It was difficult for widows to support their children alone in that era, and her mother remarried as a means of supporting the family. The stepfather was abusive, though, and Elizabeth’s mother went to court to divorce him. Divorces were not routinely granted then, and Elizabeth spoke on her mother’s behalf at the trial, testifying, “My stepfather has been generally drunk since he married my mother.”
Elizabeth saw firsthand how difficult it was for a woman to be financially independent, and in 1880, when she still was in her mid-teens, she enrolled at the Illinois Normal School – as teacher-training colleges then were called. After one semester, though, Elizabeth had to abandon school because there was no money to pay the tuition. She and her mother then moved to Pittsburgh, where Elizabeth helped run a boarding school.
Elizabeth never abandoned her love of writing. In 1885, when she probably was 18, she wrote a letter-to-the-editor of the Pittsburg Dispatch denouncing a sexist article, “What Girls Are Good For” by Erasmus Wilson. He had called the working woman a "monstrosity," and she signed her letter “Lonely Orphan Girl”. The paper’s editor, George Madden, was impressed with the passion of the anonymous writer and ran an ad asking her to identify herself. Elizabeth went to the newspaper’s office, was hired almost immediately, and took on the penname Nellie Bly, after the song with the same name by Stephen Collins Foster.
Many writers in this era used pseudonyms, but women were more likely to do so than men because it was considered improper for ladies to be employed. Nellie Bly began her career at the Pittsburgh Dispatch with gusto, writing articles aimed at social justice: her issues included labor laws to protect working “girls” and reform of Pennsylvania’s divorce law, which greatly favored men. After just a year at the paper, she convinced her bosses to send her to Mexico as a foreign correspondent. When she exposed political corruption there that kept most citizens in poverty, the Mexican government expelled her.
She later turned that experience into a book, Six Months in Mexico (1888), but the Dispatch responded to her exploits with excessive protection and innocuous assignments. Frustrated with “stories about flower shows and fashion,” she left a note telling her editor that she was leaving and moved to New York City at age 23.
She retained the pseudonym of “Nellie Bly,” however, and within six months, publishing mogul Joseph Pulitzer hired her for his newspaper, The New York World. For her first assignment, Bly feigned mental illness to report on conditions in the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. 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, which led to reform of the institution. She wrote about this experience in her first book, Ten Days in a Madhouse (1887).
This type of reporting was new and some of her peers referred to it as “stunt reporting.” Today, however, we call it “investigative journalism,” and it is a justifiably proud tradition. For the next two years, Bly continued to work undercover to expose injustices. Among her exploits, she arranged to be thrown into jail to expose the treatment of female inmates and worked in a sweatshop to write a story about the poor treatment of the workers.
Her most famous exploit, however, was more in the nature of a “stunt.” In 1889, Bly emulated Jules Verne’s popular book Around the World in Eighty Days (1872). She reached international celebrity status when she circled the globe by ship, train, burro, balloon, and more. She accomplished the feat in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes, well ahead of Vernes male fictional hero. Millions of people followed the telegraphed news of her journey, and its appeal to a populace that was only semi-literate resulted in greatly increased newspaper readership. She also turned that adventure into Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days (1890).
PBS states that throughout her career, “Bly exposed both corruption and the injustice of poverty, revealing shady lobbyists, the ways in which women prisoners were treated by police, the inadequate medical care given to the poor, and much more. The young reporter always sided with the poor and the disenfranchised.” Nellie Bly was not the first female reporter, but “the social issues her stories highlighted helped open the profession to coming generations of women journalists who wanted to write hard news rather than be relegated to light features and society columns.” 1