Hello, everyone, and welcome to June’s Badass Ladies in History! This month I wanted to highlight a badass lady who was suggested by one of our readers: Mikaila Cober from Ontario, Canada! Mikaila, thank you so much for the suggestion, and I hope to do this badass lady some justice this month!
Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Cochran on May 5, 1864, in Cochran’s Mill, PA, to Michael and Mary Jane Cochran. The town was actually named after Michael, who was a landowner and town judge. Growing up, Nellie was always surrounded by a large family. Her father had ten children from a previous marriage, and Michael and Mary Jane had a total of five children together. Nellie was always incredibly independent, and she decided to set herself apart by adding an “e” to her last name, renaming herself Elizabeth Cochrane.
In 1870, the Cochran family was dealt a very heavy blow when Michael died without leaving a will, thus leaving the family with no legal claim to his estate. Elizabeth stepped up to the plate to help and support her now single mother, enrolling herself into the Indiana Normal School to study to become a teacher. But, due to financial constraints the family was experiencing, Elizabeth had to leave the school so that she and her family could move to Pittsburgh, where they ran a boarding house.
Around the time Elizabeth was 18 years old, she started to receive attention from an editor at a local newspaper, the Pittsburgh Dispatch, after she wrote a scathing rebuttal to a sexist column they had published called “What Girls Are Good For.” The writer of the article believed that women were only suited for domestic duties and wrote that the working woman was a “monstrosity.” After reading this, Elizabeth wrote in under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl,” and her response was so good that George Madden, the managing editor, put out an ad in the newspaper asking for “Lonely Orphan Girl” to reveal her true identity so he could hire her. Elizabeth was offered a full-time writing position at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, and there she was given the pen-name she is most famous for, Nellie Bly, after the popular Stephen Foster song “Nelly Bly.” It’s said that her editor misspelled Nelly with an “ie,” and the mistake stuck for the rest of Nellie’s career.
Nellie’s early work consisted of articles enlightening her audience on the negative consequences of sexist ideologies and the plight of the working woman. After Nellie’s work became extremely limited by her editors, who wanted her to write for the “Women’s Pages,” Nellie pushed to become a foreign correspondent in Mexico. She got her wish, and at the age of 21 she spent six months in Mexico reporting on current events and the culture and customs of the Mexican people. One of Nellie’s last reports was on the wrongful imprisonment of a journalist who was very critical of the Mexican government. After reporting on the journalist’s imprisonment, the government got word of Nellie’s report and had her expelled from the country. After her return to the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Nellie was still pressured to write for the women’s pages, so she quickly resigned after her editors still would not give her legitimate assignments.
In 1887, Nellie moved to New York, where she spent her first four months being rejected by every newspaper in town. Nellie didn’t take the rejection lying down, though. After being penniless for those four months, she eventually pushed her way into the managing editor’s office of Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, the New York World.
The New York World quickly hired her for undercover investigative work, and her first assignment was to report on the conditions and experiences of patients at Blackwell Island’s Women’s Lunatic Mental Asylum. Nellie feigned insanity so she could get behind the walls of the infamous asylum, where it was rumored to have dreadful living conditions. After she was admitted, Nellie dropped the guise of insanity altogether and began her work. She experienced firsthand the conditions of the asylum that included, but were not limited to, physical abuse by the staff, gruel broth, frigid baths, spoiled food, and waste all around the eating quarters. Patients who were considered dangerous were tied together by ropes, and when Nellie would speak to the patients, it was clearly evident that they were just as sane as she was. Once she revealed to the doctors and nurses that she was sane and was actually an undercover reporter, they refused to let her go, and the editor at the New York World had to request her release.
After being let out of the asylum, Nellie went to work on her exposé. Her exposé concerning the conditions of Blackwell’s Island Mental Asylum was a major success, so much so that an official investigation was launched, resulting in several charges against New York City’s Department of Public Charities & Corrections. Bly even assisted with the investigation, and her input was used for reformative action within the asylum and the department altogether. The changes to the way the asylum was run resulted in an $850,000 budget increase to the Department of Public Charities & Corrections, and Nellie’s undercover work was the catalyst that eventually shut down Blackwell’s Island Mental Asylum for good. Nellie’s experience and exposé was turned into a book called Ten Days in a Madhouse, in which she chronicles her time on the island.
Nellie’s column on the mental asylum resulted in lasting fame for her investigative work, but in 1888 she became an international celebrity when she decided to emulate Jules Verne’s book Around the World in Eighty Days. Her journey around the world was reported through telegraph and resulted in an influx of newspaper sales, seeing as everyone around the world — literally — wanted to keep track of Nellie’s journey. Nellie ended up beating the 80-day time limit, making it back to New York in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds.
In a surprising move, Nellie decided to retire from reporting in 1895 and married millionaire industrialist Robert Seamen, who was 73 years old; Nellie was 31. The marriage was happy, but Robert passed away ten years after they married. Nellie stepped up after her husband’s death and took over his business, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, where milk cans, barrels, and other steel products were manufactured. While running the business, Nellie even patented a milk can of her own design. Sadly, though, due to bankruptcy, Nellie had to shut down the company. After the loss, Nellie returned to her first love, journalism, and in 1920 she began working for the New York Journal. Although she never regained the fame of her investigative work of the late 1880s, she was still incredibly active as a working journalist until her death on January 27, 1922. She died of pneumonia at the age of 58.
Although Nellie wasn’t the first female reporter, she does stand out as an important milestone for female writers who dared to not be limited to the society pages of newspaper publications. Nellie fought for legitimate work that dealt with the nitty-gritty experiences of a world that was deemed unsuitable for a woman writer at the time. During her time as a journalist, she worked incredibly hard to expose injustice and corruption, specifically the injustices dealt against her fellow woman. She was never persuaded to take her “rightful place” in a world that wanted to restrict her to suitable “women’s work.” Because of her determination to succeed and overcome all odds, she helped widen the door for women journalists who wanted to report the real news rather than be complacent and unfulfilled within the confines of the newspaper’s society pages.
So, three cheers to Nellie Bly! Her investigative work and her unyielding persistence to be recognized as a legitimate reporter is something to be admired and shared with everyone!