As probably many of you already know from Google, Twitter or personal knowledge, today we celebrate the birth of Nellie Bly. As I have read her books recently and was already planning on writing about her work, I decided that this is the perfect moment to share with you what I have learned about this extraordinary American woman journalist.
First, some general information…
- Real name: Elizabeth Jane Cochran
- Born: 5 May 1864, Burrell Township, Pennsylvania, U.S.
- journalist, famous for: the 72-days around the World trip; faking insanity and writing about the real life inside a mental institution. She launched a new kind of investigative journalism.
- Death: 27 January 1922
The beginning of a journalism career
As a young lady, Elizabeth read in the Pittsburgh Dispatch newspaper and article titled What girls are good for, which she found to be misogynistic. She send a reply to the article, and the editor, after reading the great piece of writing, asked the author of the letter to identify herself. Elizabeth did so, and she was hired as a full-time journalist. It was common for women in the press to assign a pen name, so Elizabeth’s editor decided on Nellie Bly for her, after the Stephen Foster song, Nelly Bly.
Her main focus were hard working women. She wrote a series of articles on subjects such as women factory workers. But soon, she felt pressured to write about more ‘feminine’ topics, such as gardening or fashion, which she found dissatisfying.
She left for Mexico, where she worked as a foreign correspondent. Her writing on the Mexican people can be found in a book called Six Months in Mexico. Due to some issues with the authorities, she had to return back home to the U.S.
Ten Days in a Mad-House, 1887
Bly found work in New York at the New York World newspaper. Her most famous assigment at that time was the faking of insanity in order to get into the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Once there, she was to report on the conditions inside the facility.
It was easy for Bly to convince people she was crazy, and she was soon admitted to the asylum, after superficial examinations. As expected, the food was horrible, the water was undrinkable. The patients were give almost no clothes able to protect them from the cold and the baths consisted of dropping cold water on their heads. Nellie Bly was convinced that some of the patients were sane, as she was, but they were wrongly admitted there and became instable afterwards.
What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treament?
Bly was annoyed with the lack of empathy from the nurses and the absence of any recovery, assistance or consolation for the patients. Who wouldn’t, under such conditions, start acting crazy? Her reports were published in book form in 1887, under the title Ten Days in a Mad-House, after, of course, her release from the facility at the intervention of the newspaper editor. After the story was made known to the public, the Grand Jury tried to make sure that possible patients were to be examine thoroughly, to avoid any mistakes. Furthermore, because of Nellie Bly’s account, the funds allocated for the facility increased.
Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, 1890
A year after this event, in 1888, Bly proposed to her editor for her to take a trip around the world and to beat the fictional record of the journey of Around the world in eighty days by Jules Verne. It wasn’t the right moment, but the idea came to fruition a year later. With two days notice, Bly boarded the Augusta Victoria, off to starting the long journey around the Globe.
She explains in her report how people expected her to take a lot of luggage, which would only disfavor her timing, but more than that, they didn’t think she would make it, mostly because she was a woman traveling alone, a custom that wasn’t proper for a young lady at the time. She, instead, not only brought one dress change and a few other necessities, she also was set up to meet different companions along the was, as it was planned by the editor.
On her trip, Bly had the opportunity to meet Jules Verne and his wife. It was a short, pleasant visit, and she mentions in her notes that the kindness of Mrs. Verne has pleasently surprised her. Despite the language barrier that stopped them from having a proper conversation, the two women understood each other with looks and gestures and got along wonderfully.
When Mr. Verne showed Nellie Bly his study, she was astonished.
I had expected, judging from the rest of the house, that M. Verne’s study would be a room of ample proportions and richly furnished. […] But when I stood in M. Verne’s study I was speechless with surprise. He opened a latticed window, the only window in the room, and Mme. Verne, hurrying in after us, lighted the gas jet that was fastened above a low mantel. The room was very small. […] It was also very modest and bare. Before the window was a flat-topped desk. The usual litter that accompanies and fills the desks of most literary persons was conspicuosly absent, and the waste-basket that is usually filled with what one very often considers their most brilliant productions, in this case held but a few little scraps.
She then continues to describe the enormous library next door and the prized books which laid in them.Bly felt sad when she had to left the Verne household, as she began to feel comfortable around them, considering them friends.
The specifics of her journey are a treat to read, so I won’t divulge more. What is important to notice, though, is that despite the little time she had between train rides and ship journeys, Bly still tried to make the best of it and visit local shops and markets. She wanted to immerse herself into the different cultures. She even bought a monkey in Singapore! She reached the end of her trip happy that she was back home. She did it! She traveled the World in 72 days! And, most importantly, she published the book than tells the story.
In 1895, Bly married a 73 year old millionaire manufacturer, that later died in 1904. She retired from journalism and became an inventor and entrepreneur, receiving several patents, for a milk can and stacking garbage can. She returned to journalism with a few articles, such as the known coverage of the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913. In 1922, at the age of 57, she died of pneumonia.
To read Nellie Bly’s work, click here.
Happy birthday, Nellie Bly!