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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: America’s First Female Investigative Reporter

By Tom Morrow

Nearly everyone has heard the name “Nellie Bly,” but who was she? What did she do during here lifetime?

Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, a.k.a.. Nellie Bly, was born May 5, 1864. Nellie Bly was an American journalist who was widely known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days, in emulation of Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg, and an exposé in which she worked undercover to report on a mental institution from within. She was a pioneer in her field, and launched a new kind of investigative journalism.

As a young girl, Elizabeth wanted to portray herself as more sophisticated, and changed her surname to “Cochrane.”

In 1880, Cochrane’s mother moved her family to Pittsburgh. A newspaper column entitled “What Girls Are Good For” in the Pittsburgh Dispatch implied that girls were only good for birthing children and keeping house. This prompted Elizabeth to write a response under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The editor, George Madden, was impressed with her passion and ran an advertisement asking the author to identify herself. When Cochrane introduced herself to the editor, he offered her the opportunity to write a piece for the newspaper, again under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl.” Madden was impressed again and offered her a full-time job. The editor chose the pen name “Nellie Bly,” adopted from the title character in the popular Stephen Foster song, “Nelly Bly.”

Bly became dissatisfied with her work writing about working women and requested a different assignment. She traveled to Mexico as a foreign correspondent. At age 21, she spent nearly half a year reporting on the Mexican people. Her dispatches critical of the government and later were published in book as Six Months in Mexico. Safely home, she accused President Portirio Díaz of being a tyrannical czar, suppressing the Mexican people and controlling the press.

In 1887, Bly left the Pittsburgh Dispatch for New York City. She talked her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and took an undercover assignment for which she agreed to feign insanity to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. It would be her first entrance onto the national journalistic stage.

After a night spent practicing expressions in front of a mirror, she checked into a boardinghouse. She refused to go to bed, telling the boarders she was afraid of them and that they looked “crazy.” They soon decided that she was “crazy,” and the next morning summoned the police. Taken to a courtroom, she claimed to have amnesia. The judge concluded she had been drugged.

Several doctors then examined her; all declared her insane. “Positively demented,” said one, “I consider it a hopeless case. She needs to be put where someone will take care of her.” The head of the insane pavilion at Bellevue Hospital pronounced her “undoubtedly insane.” Committed to the asylum, Bly experienced the deplorable conditions firsthand. The food consisted of gruel broth, spoiled beef, bread that was little more than dried dough, and dirty undrinkable water. The dangerous patients were tied together with ropes. On the effect of her experiences, she wrote:

What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? … I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action … 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.

“My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my heas – ice- cold water, too – into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth.”

After 10 days, the asylum released Bly at The New York World’s behest. Her report, later published in book form as Ten Days in a Mad-House, caused a sensation and brought her lasting fame. A grand jury launched its own investigation, inviting Bly to assist. The jury’s report recommended the changes she had proposed. The grand jury also made sure future examinations were more thorough so only the seriously ill went to the asylum.

In 1888 Bly suggested to the New York World she take a trip around the world, attempting to turn the fictional Around the World in Eighty Days into fact for the first time. A year later, at 9:40 a.m. on Nov. 14, 1889, and with two days’ notice, she boarded the Augusta Victoria, a steamer of the Hamburg America Line, and began her 24,899-mile journey.

The New York Cosmopolitan sponsored its own reporter to beat the time of both the fictional Phileas Fogg and Bly. Elizabeth Bisland would travel the opposite way around the world.

Bly went through France (where she met Jules Verne), then on to Suez Canal, Hong Kong, and Japan before crossing the Pacific. Cable networks and the electric telegraph allowed Bly to send progress reports daily.

As a result of rough weather on her Pacific crossing, she arrived in San Francisco two days behind schedule. New York World owner Pulitzer chartered a private train and she arrived back in Hoboken, New Jersey on Jan. 25, 1890, at 3:51 pm., 72 days to circumnavigate the globe. Bisland arrived four and a half-days later.

Bly’s journey was a world record, although it was undone a few months later by George Francis Train, who did it in 67 days.

In 1895, at age 31, Bly married millionaire Robert Seaman and retired from journalism. In 1904, she succeeded her husband as head of his Iron Clad Manufacturing Co., and became one of the leading women industrialists in the United States. Embezzlement by a factory manager caused the company to go bankrupt.

Back to journalism, Bly reported in Europe during World War I and notably covered the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913. Under the headline “Suffragists Are Men’s Superiors,” her parade story accurately predicted that it would be 1920 before women in the United States would be given the right to vote.

Bly died of pneumonia at St. Mark’s Hospital in New York City in 1922 at age 57, slowly fading into obscurity. She was interred in a modest grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.

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