By Anne Adams
In the late Victorian era when most young women were content to remain close to home there were a few who extended their horizons to explore their world and even write about what they discovered. Today we often call these persons investigative reporters and most every newspaper or TV news department has them. Yet in the 1880s women reporters were almost non-existent. Except for Nelly Bly, who was not only unique in being a reporter but also in how she did it.
The reporter the world came to know as Nelly Bly was born Elizabeth Cochrane in a Pennsylvania mill town in 1867 but she left there as a teenager for Pittsburgh to pursue a writing career. She got her start in 1885 when she attracted editorial attention at the Pittsburgh Dispatch upon her submission of a contrasting opinion to an editorial. The editors were impressed with her spirit and they offered her a job as a reporter.
As her first assignment Elizabeth suggested a series of pieces on divorce, and while the editors doubted that someone so young could handle such a delicate and controversial subject they agreed. However, she did it well, using personal stories from the women in her boarding house, and there were two important results. First, the series sold papers and second, it was her first use of the pseudonym Nelly Bly, which came from a popular Stephen Collins Foster song.
Nelly followed with an expose of the terrible conditions in Pittsburgh ’s slums, prisons, and work places. However, some locals did not welcome such attention so the newspaper suggested she leave town for a while. She headed for Mexico where she continued to submit similar exposes of the official corruption and poor living conditions south of the border. Mexican officials weren’t pleased and soon she was returned to the U.S. but she did manage to smuggle her notes out in her luggage explaining to inspectors that the suitcase contained “unmentionables.”
Nelly headed for New York and there she proposed an article series to Joseph Pulitzer of the World, the city’s most widely read paper. She intended to reveal the terrible conditions in the city’s mental institutions and for that she had to go undercover. After practicing what she felt were the right shrieks and grimaces before a mirror, she checked into a boardinghouse with no identification. There she staged a violent scene in the dining room and was whisked off to a mental “asylum.” Ten days later she emerged with tragic stories of cruel nursing personnel, poor food service, and filthy conditions. The resultant articles brought the necessary reforms and Nelly was now a celebrity.
Her next target was the New York City prison system. She had herself framed on a theft charge and put in jail, and when she came out she wrote a series of New York World articles about corrupt prison officials and abuse of female prisoners. As before, her articles brought reforms including the segregation of men and women prisoners and employment of police matrons for searches of female inmates.
Nelly continued to use her personal experiences as background for her articles. One time she threw herself off a ferry to test their rescue personnel, and another time she posed as someone in need of a political bribe, and missed the payoff to get back to New York to finish the story that would lead to the briber’s indictment. Since the World preserved her true name to assure her anonymity while doing her research there was widespread speculation as to who was behind the articles. Some even felt that “Nelly Bly” was a team of men but the truth would have been hard to believe since Nelly was a small, demure young woman not yet 22 years of age.
Then with the widespread popularity of Jules Verne’s novel “Around the World in 80 Days” Nelly got her next idea. She proposed to Pulitzer that she travel around the world but in less time Pulitzer was open to the idea and was ready to send a male reporter. “If you do, then I’ll leave at the same time and race him.” Nelly said, and Pulitzer agreed to her doing the story..
Wearing a plaid cape-like garment and a Sherlock Holmes style cap, and carrying her belongings in a leather carryall, Nelly set out from New York on November 14, 1889 . She arrived in Paris to interview Verne, then continued on through the Suez , India , Singapore , Japan and then back through the U.S. The World readers excitedly followed her travels and when she returned to New York on January 25, 1890 she was greeted a celebration of factory whistles, flying flags and a parade down Broadway. She had accomplished her goal for her travel time was just under 73 days. She also found her name to be a household word, as well as appearing on a board game, a line of clothing, and in songs.
At age 28 Nelly married a much older man – a rich manufacturer and at his death ten years later she took over his business. She was in Europe when World War I broke out and she took advantage of the situation by writing war front accounts for a news service. After the war she continued writing for another New York paper but the sentimental, sensationalistic, and emotional style that had previously made her work so popular was now considered outdated.
When Nelly Bly died of pneumonia in 1922 at age 55 her obituary appeared in the inside pages of local newspapers – a great change from when her name on the front page assured sales. Yet as a pioneer in her field, Nelly was setting the example to other reporters – male or female – who would use their research and experiences to improve the lives of others.
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968). A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”