Elizabeth Cochrane was born in 1867 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Little is known about her early life except that she grew up in a large family and was particularly independent minded. While still a teenager, she was offended by a Pittsburgh newspaper editorial titled “What Girls Are Good For”. The paper claimed that girls were “good for nothing except cooking, sewing and bearing children.” Cochrane wrote a fiery retort to the newspaper. Soon she was hired by the paper’s editor for five dollars a week. He stipulated that she use a pseudonym for her writing and suggested Nellie Bly after a name taken from a Stephen Foster song. Thus, reporter Nellie Bly was born.
She got her start writing articles about divorce, a subject that was taboo at the time. As a reporter she was unafraid to seek out stories in unusual places. She spent time in slums, sweatshops, factories, and poor houses. Seeking greater opportunity, she moved to New York where she landed a job reporting for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, The World. Always interested in reporting based on firsthand experiences, she feigned madness in order to be admitted to Blackwell’s Island, an insane asylum for the poor, located in New York’s East River. It was her story titled “Behind Asylum Bars” that launched her notoriety. She wrote about the brutal treatment of patients and the inedible food. Her revelations led to a grand jury investigation, and a three-million-dollar investment in improving conditions at the asylum. It was groundbreaking work for a woman and groundbreaking investigative journalism.
Her biggest reporting assignment came soon after and was even more noteworthy. In 1889 she set off on a race around the world. The goal was to beat the record of fictional hero Phileas Fogg of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Pulitzer was convinced that articles from Bly about her trip would generate publicity and boost circulation for The World. Bly was given 4 days to prepare. She is said to have packed three veils, an extra dress and a makeup kit consisting of a jar of cold cream in her black traveling satchel.
By all accounts, Bly’s trip was a roaring success. She had traveled by steamship, train, rickshaw, horse and buggy and burro. At only the age of 22, and traveling alone, she had crossed continents, oceans, and the Suez Canal, enduring monsoons, and seasickness. Her dispatches from abroad enthralled readers. Bets were placed on when she would reach the next point in her travels. The World offered a free trip to Europe to the person who guessed most closely how long her journey would take. The last leg of her trip was aboard a special transcontinental train Pulitzer had dispatched to California to collect her. Nellie Bly received a tumultuous welcome upon her return to Manhattan. Her record time was front page news – 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.
Songs were composed in her honor. Someone invented a “Round the World with Nellie Bly” board game.
Newspapers poked fun at other, slower explorers who had circumnavigated the world in earlier eras.
Less than a decade after her globe-trotting adventure, Bly married millionaire hardware manufacturer Robert Seaman. She was 31. He was 73. Before long, failing health began to interfere with his ability to manage his business. That left Nellie in charge of the Ironclad Company. She took a particular interest in metal working and the problem refineries had struggling to ship oil in expensive and leaky wooden barrels. Inspired by a steel barrel holding glycerin she had seen in Europe, she oversaw the patent for a 55-gallon barrel for mass production in her factory.
She started by manufacturing five barrels a day but was soon able to crank out a thousand daily. She spun off a subsidiary – the American Steel Barrel Company – and worked long hours overseeing production and factory operations. For a time, she was one of the leading female industrialists in the United States. But while Bly was well versed in the manufacturing aspects of her company, she paid little attention to the finances. Some untrustworthy employees took advantage of the lack of oversight and began forging her signature on checks. Before long, Ironclad had lost more than two million dollars. Bly had to declare bankruptcy and suffered a series of legal entanglements.
Bly moved to Europe and spent the First World War living in Austria. She did some reporting as a newspaper correspondent but suffered from ill health. Eventually she returned to the U.S. and took a job with the New York Evening Journal. She covered the Republican National Convention in 1920 and, after witnessing an execution, wrote a blistering story condemning capital punishment. Then, in 1922, at the age of 57, she died of pneumonia. It was an untimely and inglorious end for someone who had been so celebrated as a young woman and so successful as an undercover journalist and industrialist. You can learn more about Nellie Bly in the Ernest C. Miller papers at the American Heritage Center.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.