Nellie Bly focused her attention on women’s rights issues. Nellie invented undercover investigative reporting. Nellie is also known for a record-breaking trip around the world.
Born on May 5, 1864, Nellie Bly was originally named Elizabeth Jane Cochran. Her mother taught her how to gain attention for herself by wearing dressing her in a bright pink gown, this earned her the nickname, “Pink”. Bly was born about forty miles north of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Bly’s father died when she was six. Her father did not have a formal will and the family’s estate was sold in auction. Shortly after her father’s death, her mother re-married. Unfortunately her new husband was an abusive alcoholic and her mother filed for divorce when Bly was 14.
In 1908, a sexist column was published in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Bly was so appalled by the article that she wrote a letter to the editor. Impressed by Bly’s earnestness and spirit, he asked her to join the newspaper. She was hired and given the pen name, Nellie Bly. At that time it was improper for a woman to write for a newspaper and use her true identity.
Nellie primarily focused her work on women’s rights issues. She was a master at under-cover journalism and wrote a series of investigative articles on women in factories. Bly once posed as a poor sweat-shop worker and published a story on the cruelty and awful conditions in which the women worked. The sweatshop owners threatened to pull their advertising from the Dispatch and Nellie was assigned to work on the fashion column.
Nellie went to Mexico on a six moth hiatus at the age of 21. She wrote articles on the working poor in Mexico and the unfair treatment they received from their government. Her writings were published in a book, Six Months in Mexico. Bly was eventually run out of the country by the government when they threatened her with arrest.
In 1887, Nellie joined the staff of the New York World. The first assignment she undertook was to be an undercover mental patient at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. Bly practiced for a night in front of a mirror to ask like an “insane” person. She was deemed insane by the court and was committed to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. During her time in the Asylum, Bly determined that many of the patients were “sane” individuals who were treated unfairly. She stated the food was inedible and the staff was rude and used physical force to quiet the patients. Of this experience, Bly wrote:
“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A. M. until 8 P. M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”
After 10 days, Bly was released by request from the New York World. Her report later published as a book, Ten Days in a Madhouse, brought national attention to Bly and the terrible conditions of the patients. A grand jury launched its own investigation and eventually gave $850,000 for proper care of these patients.
In 1888, Bly took a 72 day tour of the world. This famous journey lead Bly to become a symbol of independence of women.
Later Years and Death
Bly married Robert Seamon in 1894. Seamon was 40 years older than Bly and despite harsh criticism from family and others, the couple stayed married until his death ten years later. After his death, Bly began covering women’s suffrage stories.
On January 2, 1922, Bly died of pneumonia in New York City.