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Nellie Bly

A Pioneer of Investigative Reporting

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Nellie Bly was the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, one of America’s first woman journalists and a pioneer of investigative reporting.

Elizabeth Jane Cochrane was born 13th out of 15 children in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1867. Her father was a self-taught lawyer who became a judge. The family was well-to-do, but when her father died he did not leave a will, so that their property had to be sold at auction and the family was subsequently plunged into near-poverty. Her mother eventually remarried, but her new stepfather was very abusive. 

Nellie Bly -- A Pioneer of Investigative Reporting

She quit school and moved to Pittsburgh when she was 16 to get away from her stepfather, and worked at a series of low-paying jobs. There were few employment options available to her and she resented the limitations that society placed on women. Elizabeth understood the danger of being dependent on a man, and that motivated her throughout her life to be self-sufficient and to work towards improving women’s lives. 

In 1885, she read a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch called, What Girls are Good For, that argued that women should not vote or work, but stay in the home and take care of children. She was so outraged that she wrote an anonymous letter to the editor complaining about it. She signed her letter "Lonely Orphan Girl." The editor was so impressed with her letter that he placed an ad in the Sunday classifieds asking her to contact him.

She was hired immediately and started writing a column under the name Nellie Bly. In those days it was considered unseemly for women writers to use their real names, so she took that name from a Stephen Foster song. Nellie wanted to expose the unsafe working conditions, low wages and child labor of the sweat shops, so she posed as a sweatshop worker and wrote a series of articles that received a lot of attention.

Many of the businesses Nellie wrote about were advertisers in her paper. The advertisers began to complain about her reports and threatened to withdraw their advertising. Her editor wanted her to concentrate on flower shows and other fluff pieces, but Nellie decided to go to Mexico and write about the plight of the poor there and government corruption. When the Mexican government realized what she was up to she was ordered out of the country. He articles later became a book, Six Months in Mexico.

One day, Nellie left a note for her editors that said "I am off for New York. Look out for me. BLY" and moved to New York City, thinking that she could easily get a job with a newspaper there. She wanted to work for Publisher Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, but couldn’t get an interview. After four months, she still hadn’t found a job and had run out of money. Her situation was getting desperate, so one day she talked her way past the guards at the World and into the office of the managing editor, Colonel Cockerill. He was so impressed with her that he gave her a $25 retainer before she left his office to hold her till she could be hired.

Her first assignment was to get herself committed to the Woman’s Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She rented a room in a tenement and started acting crazy. The police were eventually called, and a judge ordered her carted off to the asylum. Her journal of that experience exposed the horrific conditions at the asylum and the cruelty and abuse of patients by the staff. She also noted that many of the people held there weren’t even crazy. There were women who’s husbands had them committed just to get rid of them and women who’s only problem was that they didn’t speak English.

Nellie Bly at the Asylum

Nellie wrote, "I always made a point of telling the doctors I was sane, and asking to be released, but the more I endeavored to assure them of my sanity, the more they doubted it…The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out." Nellie was fortunate that her boss came to get her out after 10 days.

She wrote a book called, Ten Days in a Madhouse, and it made the 23 year old Nellie famous. Her courageous reporting prompted many much-needed reforms. The fact that she was very pretty young woman, working in a male-dominated industry and taking great risks, made her very popular with her readers. Nellie was the first woman to have her own byline on all her stories in a time when very few men were accorded that honor.

Nellie became a champion of the poor and downtrodden. She focused on women’s issues, social problems and corruption. She was fearless and passionate about her beliefs. Nellie was able to charm people and get them to trust her so that they would reveal to her the story behind the story. She went undercover as a chorus girl, a maid and an unwed mother. In an effort to get the story on poor treatment of women prisoners, she even got herself arrested for theft.

Her editors dreamed up another publicity stunt to boost their circulation. They wanted to see if someone could travel around the world in less than the 80 days it took Phileas Fogg, the fictional character in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Nellie wanted to do it, but the editors preferred to send a man because a man wouldn’t require an escort. Nellie insisted that she could beat whoever they sent and she would be doing it for another newspaper if necessary. She got the assignment.

Nellie Bly in her checked coat going Around the World in 72 Days

She traveled alone, with only a small satchel and a checked coat that would become her trademark. Nellie traveled by steamship, rail, horse and rickshaw. Her articles created a sensation and were eagerly anticipated. The New York World capitalized on the excitement by running a contest to see who could guess the exact amount of time it would take her. Nellie arrived back in New York 72 days later, beating Phileas Fogg’s time by more than a week. She soon realized how much the newspaper had profited from her reporting, and was very disappointed that her editors didn’t give her a raise, thank her, or otherwise acknowledge her contributions—so she resigned.

Nellie then married 70 year old millionaire Robert L. Seaman in 1895. It’s likely that she married him more as an investment than for love, because he was 40 years older than her. He died soon after and she took over running his manufacturing businesses. Nellie instituted many reforms to help the workers, starting with eliminating piece work and added benefits like paid health care, gymnasiums and libraries. The business prospered, but by 1910, the accounting staff had embezzled much of the money and the company was forced into bankruptcy.

Nellie went to Europe for a vacation to escape her troubles and was there at the start of World War I. She became the first female war correspondent, and her reporting from the front provided a vivid look at the war’s cost in human terms. She spent four years reporting in Europe, and after her return home she went to work for the New York Evening Journal, writing an advice column. She did a lot of charitable work for the city’s poor and focused on helping unwed mothers and abandoned children.

Nellie Bly died of pneumonia in 1922, at the age of 55. Newspapers around the world carried her obituary and The New York World wrote, "Nellie Bly was THE BEST REPORTER IN AMERICA."
 

 

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