In the late
Victorian era when most young women were content to remain close
to home there were a few who extended their horizons to explore
their world and even write about what they discovered. Today
we often call these persons investigative reporters and most
every newspaper or TV news department has them. Yet in the 1880s
women reporters were almost non-existent. Except for Nelly Bly,
who was not only unique in being a reporter but also in how
she did it.
the world came to know as Nelly Bly was born Elizabeth Cochrane
in a Pennsylvania mill town in 1867 but she left there as a
teenager for Pittsburgh to pursue a writing career. She got
her start in 1885 when she attracted editorial attention at
the Pittsburgh Dispatch upon her submission of a contrasting
opinion to an editorial. The editors were impressed with her
spirit and they offered her a job as a reporter.
As her first
assignment Elizabeth suggested a series of pieces on divorce,
and while the editors doubted that someone so young could handle
such a delicate and controversial subject they agreed. However,
she did it well, using personal stories from the women in her
boarding house, and there were two important results. First,
the series sold papers and second, it was her first use of the
pseudonym Nelly Bly, which came from a popular Stephen Collins
with an expose of the terrible conditions in Pittsburgh ’s slums,
prisons, and work places. However, some locals did not welcome
such attention so the newspaper suggested she leave town for
a while. She headed for Mexico where she continued to submit
similar exposes of the official corruption and poor living conditions
south of the border. Mexican officials weren’t pleased and soon
she was returned to the U.S. but she did manage to smuggle her
notes out in her luggage explaining to inspectors that the suitcase
for New York and there she proposed an article series to Joseph
Pulitzer of the World, the city’s most widely read paper. She
intended to reveal the terrible conditions in the city’s mental
institutions and for that she had to go undercover. After practicing
what she felt were the right shrieks and grimaces before a mirror,
she checked into a boardinghouse with no identification. There
she staged a violent scene in the dining room and was whisked
off to a mental “asylum.” Ten days later she emerged with tragic
stories of cruel nursing personnel, poor food service, and filthy
conditions. The resultant articles brought the necessary reforms
and Nelly was now a celebrity.
target was the New York City prison system. She had herself
framed on a theft charge and put in jail, and when she came
out she wrote a series of New York World articles about corrupt
prison officials and abuse of female prisoners. As before, her
articles brought reforms including the segregation of men and
women prisoners and employment of police matrons for searches
of female inmates.
to use her personal experiences as background for her articles.
One time she threw herself off a ferry to test their rescue
personnel, and another time she posed as someone in need of
a political bribe, and missed the payoff to get back to New
York to finish the story that would lead to the briber’s indictment.
Since the World preserved her true name to assure her anonymity
while doing her research there was widespread speculation as
to who was behind the articles. Some even felt that “Nelly Bly”
was a team of men but the truth would have been hard to believe
since Nelly was a small, demure young woman not yet 22 years
the widespread popularity of Jules Verne’s novel “Around the
World in 80 Days” Nelly got her next idea. She proposed to Pulitzer
that she travel around the world but in less time Pulitzer was
open to the idea and was ready to send a male reporter. “If
you do, then I’ll leave at the same time and race him.” Nelly
said, and Pulitzer agreed to her doing the story..
a plaid cape-like garment and a Sherlock Holmes style cap, and
carrying her belongings in a leather carryall, Nelly set out
from New York on November 14, 1889 . She arrived in Paris to
interview Verne, then continued on through the Suez , India
, Singapore , Japan and then back through the U.S. The World
readers excitedly followed her travels and when she returned
to New York on January 25, 1890 she was greeted a celebration
of factory whistles, flying flags and a parade down Broadway.
She had accomplished her goal for her travel time was just under
73 days. She also found her name to be a household word, as
well as appearing on a board game, a line of clothing, and in
At age 28
Nelly married a much older man – a rich manufacturer and at
his death ten years later she took over his business. She was
in Europe when World War I broke out and she took advantage
of the situation by writing war front accounts for a news service.
After the war she continued writing for another New York paper
but the sentimental, sensationalistic, and emotional style that
had previously made her work so popular was now considered outdated.
Bly died of pneumonia in 1922 at age 55 her obituary appeared
in the inside pages of local newspapers – a great change from
when her name on the front page assured sales. Yet as a pioneer
in her field, Nelly was setting the example to other reporters
– male or female – who would use their research and experiences
to improve the lives of others.
native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern
Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College
, Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State
University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968).
freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in
Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the
junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers'
conferences. Her book "Brittany, Child of Joy", an account of
her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press
in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter "Rainbows
Along the Way."