“I was too impatient to work at the usual duties assigned women on newspapers.”
—Nellie Bly, Six Months In Mexico, 1888
At a time when women who worked at newspapers were writing articles on fashion, gardening, or society, intrepid American journalist Nellie Bly was traveling the world, reporting from the front lines, going undercover, and gaining fame for her daredevil feats and bold exposés in what was then considered a “man’s job.” A pioneer of investigative journalism, Bly wrote for several newspapers on many controversial issues, often focusing on the plight of the poor, immigrants, and women in America.
Nellie Bly was the pen name of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman. She was born on May 5, 1864, in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. The town was named for her father, Judge Michael Cochran. Her birth name was Elizabeth Cochran, but she later added an e to her last name. Judge Cochran died when Elizabeth was 3 years old. Her mother later remarried an abusive man whom she divorced. In 1880, Elizabeth moved with her family to Pittsburgh.
At the age of 20, Elizabeth read an editorial in The Pittsburgh Dispatch entitled “What Girls Are Good For.” The article admonished women for attempting to pursue an education or a career and suggested that a woman’s place was in the home. This so infuriated Elizabeth that she wrote a letter to the paper’s editor in support of women’s rights. She signed it “Little Orphan Girl.” The Dispatch’s editor, George Madden, was so impressed by the letter that he placed an ad for the Little Orphan Girl to visit the newspaper. When Elizabeth introduced herself to Madden, he offered her an opportunity to write a rebuttal piece to be published. Elizabeth’s first newspaper article was “The Girl Puzzle.” Madden offered Elizabeth a full-time job as a reporter. He gave her the pen name “Nellie Bly” a misspelling of the song “Nelly Bly” by the American composer Stephen Foster. While at the Dispatch, Nellie Bly wrote a series of stories about the lives of women who worked in Pittsburgh’s bottle factories. Although the stories captivated readers, they drew ire from the business community. Bly was then assigned to a gardening story. She turned in the article, along with her resignation.
Bly then traveled to Mexico, where she spent nearly half a year reporting on the lives and customs of the country’s people. Her dispatches were later published in book form as Six Months in Mexico. In one report, she protested the imprisonment of a local journalist for criticizing the country’s dictatorship government. When Mexican authorities learned of Bly’s report, they threatened her with arrest and she left the country.
In 1887, Bly, penniless, arrived in New York City, New York, where she talked her way into a job at the New York World. Later that year, she pretended to be insane to get inside a New York City mental hospital. Her articles “Behind Asylum Bars” and “Inside The Mad-House” caused an uproar in New York. Her reports of cruelty to patients brought reforms. In February 1889, Bly pretended to be a thief and got arrested so that she could learn how the police treated women prisoners.
Sometimes Bly herself made headlines for her daring feats. In November 1889, Bly sailed from New York City on a trip around the world. The New York World sent her to outdo Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days. She made the trip—by ship, train, jinrikisha (handcart), and burro—in a record 72 days 6 hours 11 minutes.
In 1895, Bly married industrialist Robert Seaman. When he died in 1904, Bly took over the company and became the world’s leading female industrialist. However, a decade later, the company was forced into bankruptcy. Around this time Bly began working for the New York Evening Journal, where she became America’s first female war correspondent, writing articles on her experiences from the front lines during World War I (1914-1918). Bly wrote a column for the Journal until her death on Jan. 27, 1922, from pneumonia. The next day, the Journal carried a tribute to Bly, declaring her “The best reporter in America.”