Journalist and reformer Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, better known as Nellie Bly (1864-1922), gained fame at the end of the nineteenth century for her investigative reports of abusive conditions in the cities of Pittsburgh and New York. Her writing style was marked by first-hand tales of the lives of the underclass, which she obtained by venturing into their world in a series of undercover adventures. She riveted the attention of the nation with a more lighthearted assignment in the winter of 1889-90 when she successfully imitated Jules Verne's fictional journey Around the World in Eighty Days in only 72 days.
Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, who wrote under the pen name Nellie Bly, was a journalist who gained nationwide fame for her investigative reports on abuses in various companies and public institutions. Her stories were not only reform-minded, but filled with first-hand adventure; she undertook such stunts as having herself admitted to an insane asylum, working in a factory sweatshop, and getting herself arrested in order to get a glimpse of the experiences of some of the most downtrodden of urban America. In her greatest escapade, Bly set out to imitate Jules Verne's imaginary trip around the world in less than 75 days while Americans anxiously awaited tales of her travel. Bly distinguished herself as a reporter at a time when the field was dominated by men, and her accomplishments won a greater measure of acceptance for other women journalists.
Bly was born Elizabeth Cochran on May 5, 1864, in Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania. She was the youngest of three children of Michael and Mary Jane Cochran. The Cochrans had both been married previously. Mary Jane, who came from a wealthy Pittsburgh family, was a widow with no children from her first marriage. Michael Cochran was a self-made industrialist who had begun his career as a laborer and eventually became a mill owner, property owner, and associate judge. He had seven children from his earlier marriage, including five boys. As a child, Bly was determined to keep up with her older brothers. She would join in even the roughest activities, including races and climbing trees, to prove herself their equal.
Bly was educated at home by her father in her early years, but he died in 1870 when she was only six years old. Her mother married a third time, but it was an unhappy relationship that ended in divorce. She and her mother lived for a while on the money her father had saved and Bly was sent to school near their home to prepare for a teaching career. While her performance at school was not impressive, she proved to be a creative and talented writer. At the age of 16, the family funds were depleted and Bly and her mother moved to stay near relatives in Pittsburgh. Around this time, she added the 'e' to her last name, feeling that "Cochrane" had a more elegant air.
Became Reporter in Pittsburgh
Once in Pittsburgh, Bly looked for a way to make a living so her relatives would not have to support her. At that time, a single woman had few professional options. Basically, she could become a teacher or a companion for a wealthy woman. Bly, however, wanted to become a writer. While the odds were not with her, Bly was able to make a profession out of writing due to her extraordinary personality and determination. She got her break in 1885, after a letter she had written to the Pittsburgh Dispatch caught the eye of the paper's editor, George A. Madden. In response to an editorial maintaining that women should remain at home rather than entering the professional or political sphere, Bly had written a spirited letter that argued women were perfectly capable of independent thought and meaningful careers. Impressed with the words of the piece, which was signed only "Lonely Orphan Girl," Madden published an ad requesting to speak with the writer of the letter. Bly responded, and at a meeting between the two, Madden asked what kind of stories she might write if she could be a journalist. She indicated that she wanted to tell the stories of ordinary people, and so Madden gave Bly her first journalistic assignment—a piece on the lives of women. Upon receiving her submission, Madden was pleased with the results and published it under the "Lonely Orphan Girl" pseudonym.
For her next article, Bly suggested the topic of divorce. Her editor was unsure that a single young woman could write a convincing article on the subject, but Bly produced a well-researched piece that included some of her father's legal notes on divorce as well as interviews with women who lived near her. Madden agreed to publish the article, but insisted that she find a different pen name—it would seem inappropriate for a story on divorce to be signed by "Little Orphan Girl." The story appeared under the name Nellie Bly—inspired, according to some stories, by the popular Stephen Foster song "Nelly Bly"—and this became the moniker that she would work under for the rest of her career.
Uncovered Factory Hazards and Abuses
Bly was hired as a full-time reporter for the Dispatch, earning a salary of five dollars a week. Her initial stories concerned the welfare of Pittsburgh's working class and poor, and the depressed and dangerous conditions she uncovered led to a number of reforms. She developed a reputation for bringing her readers a first-hand look at these topics. To investigate an unsafe factory, she took a job there herself and reported how the establishment was a firetrap that paid low wages to women who were required to work long and difficult shifts. She also traveled to the slums of the city to present a picture of children forced to work all day in order to provide for their families. While Bly's stories raised the indignation of Pittsburgh's citizens and inspired changes, the institutions she attacked were displeased and threatened to remove their advertisements from the newspaper. To appease their customers, the editors of the Dispatch changed the focus of Bly's writing, giving her cultural and social events to cover. While the caliber of her writing remained high, Bly yearned to continue her investigative work. She decided to go to Mexico and write about the conditions of the poor there. For several months, she contributed stories about disparities in Mexican society to the Dispatch. She then returned to Pittsburgh in 1886.
Reported on Asylum Conditions
Seeking a job as a serious journalist, not just a society columnist, Bly moved to New York City in 1887. There she sold some of her stories about Mexico to newspapers, but found that no one wanted to hire a female as a reporter. Resourceful as ever, Bly managed to turn this experience itself into a story that she sold to her former employers in Pittsburgh. Finally, she managed to arrange an interview with the managing editor of the New York World, John Cockerill. Cockerill and the paper's owner, Joseph Pulitzer, liked Bly's stories, but were seeking something more dramatic and attention-getting. Bly was ready for the challenge. With Cockerill, she devised the idea of getting herself admitted to New York's insane asylum for the poor, Blackwell's Island, in order to discover the truth behind reports of abuses there. After being placed in the institution, Bly dropped her act of insanity, but found that doctors and nurses refused to listen to her when she stated she was rational. Other disturbing practices there included feeding the patients vermin-infested food, physical and mental abuse by the staff, and the admission of people who were not psychologically disturbed but simply physically ill or maliciously placed there by family members—as in the case of one woman who was declared insane by her husband after he caught her being unfaithful. After ten days in the asylum, Bly was removed by a lawyer from the newspaper, as had been previously arranged. The resulting stories by Bly caused a sensation across the country, effected reforms at Blackwell's Island, and earned her a permanent post at the World.
New York was ripe with possibilities for Bly's style of reporting, and she gained a national reputation for her daredevil methods of getting a story. To get an inside view of the justice system, she pretended to commit a robbery and found that women prisoners were searched by male officers because no women were employed by the jail. She also exposed a fraudulent employment agency that was taking money from unsuspecting immigrants, a health clinic where unqualified doctors experimented on patients, and a lobbyist who had successfully bribed a number of state politicians. Her work also included interviews with some of the most famous figures of the day, including Buffalo Bill and the wives of presidents Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, and James K. Polk.
Raced around the World
Bly's most notorious stunt, however, was her trek across the globe in the spirit of the 1873 book Around the World in Eighty Days by French author Jules Verne. Bly's plan was to accomplish the feat in only 75 days. Traveling alone, Bly began her journey on November 14, 1889, on an ocean liner heading from New Jersey to London. As she made her way from Europe to the Middle East, Ceylon, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan, Americans kept up on her progress through her stories sent in by cable. The World made the most of the adventure, turning Bly into a celebrity who inspired songs, fashion, and even a game. She returned to New York in triumph on January 25, 1890, after only 72 days. The town welcomed her arrival with a huge celebration and parade.
Bly was married in 1895 to Robert Livingston Seaman, a millionaire who owned the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company and the American Steel Barrel Company. She retired from writing to assist her husband in his businesses and became president of his companies after Seaman's death in 1904. Her business instincts were poor, however, and in 1911 she declared bankruptcy and returned to journalism. During this period of her career she covered World War I from the Eastern Front and then took a job with the New York Evening Journal. But her days as a household name were long past. Upon her death from pneumonia on January 27, 1922, in New York, few people remarked on her passing. Only the Evening Journal published a piece on her significance, calling her the country's best reporter. Despite her relative obscurity at the end of her life, Bly's impact was a lasting one. Her unique and energetic approach to reporting launched new trends in journalism, and her insistence on covering difficult topics—despite her gender—set a precedent for journalistic careers for women.
Further Reading on Nellie Bly
For more information see Belford, Barbara, Brilliant Bylines: A Biographical Anthology of Notable Newspaperwomen in America, Columbia University Press, 1986; Kroeger, Brooke, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist, Times Books, 1994; and Rittenhouse, Mignon, The Amazing Nellie Bly, E. P. Dutton, 1956.