Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly

(1864 – 1922)

DJ Name: Fly Bly

With little formal writing training, Nellie Bly proved throughout her life that the pen was mightier than the sword. Nellie was a sneaky gal, nosing her way around town and blowing things wide open in newspapers. When Nellie began her career, women weren’t writing breaking news headlines. Rather, they were relegated to the “women’s pages,” which included stuff like “Dear Abby” segments and fashion trends. But Nellie broke free from that tradition and covered a wide variety of issues ranging from conditions inside mental institutions to working girls in Pittsburgh. She also spent time as a foreign correspondent in Mexico. But she couldn’t have done it all without a li’l help from her favorite Spotify playlist, which she shuffled up to remind herself that she didn’t always have to be in investigative mode.

Nellie Bly’s real name wasn’t Nellie Bly. In fact, because she was such a music enthusiast (and Spotify fan) she took her pen name from 1850’s Top 40 song, “Nelly Bly,” by Stephen Foster. Elvis Duran called it “catchy,” “cute” and “kind of a stupid-sounding love song, in retrospect.” Nellie was born Elizabeth Cochran on May 5, 1864, in Cochran’s Mills, which is now part of the Pittsburgh suburb of Burrell Township, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. Her dad, Michael Cochran, married twice. He had 10 kids with his first wife, and had another five kids, one of whom was Nellie, with his second wife, Mary Jane Kennedy. He had a hard time keeping all his rugrats straight, so, as a kid, Nellie was often called “Pinky.” She allegedly earned the nickname because she wore a lot of pink but, like, we think Papa Cochran just had to assign a different color to each kid in order to remember who was who.

Speaking of Papa Cochran, he started out as a laborer and mill worker before buying the mill and the land surrounding the family’s farmhouse. He later worked as a merchant, postmaster and associate justice. Gotta hustle hard to feed all those hungry kiddos. Sadly, Papa Cochran passed away when Elizabeth (read: Nellie) was six years old and his money was divided among the many kiddos. Mama Cochran remarried, but turned around and divorced very quickly because that relationship turned out to be abusive. The family relocated to Pittsburgh. 

As Nellie grew up, she dropped the nickname “Pinky” so that she would sound more sophisticated. She also added an “e” to her last name, making it Cochrane. Wow! Much sophistication! She enrolled at Indiana Normal School — which is now called Indiana University of Pennsylvania — with the plan to become a teacher but she had to drop out after one semester because she ran out of money. But she certainly still knew her worth, even with only ⅛ of a college education. So when the Pittsburgh Dispatch published an article called “What are Girls Good for?” (rude), Nellie took issue with that day’s newspaper issue. Nellie said “boy, blye” and wrote a strongly worded rebuttal to the editor. This written letter landed on the editor’s desk, and he was so impressed with her writing that he posted a note asking that the, “Lonely Orphan Girl,” which was her pen name, reveal herself. Elizabeth (read: Nellie) strutted into the Pittsburgh Dispatch office and introduced herself. He offered her a job as a reporter. It was at this job that she started going by the name Nellie Bly (the journalistic spy).

Not before long, Nellie Bly the spy was under cover at a Pittsburgh factory and exposed the unfair wages, unsafe working conditions and insanely long hours. Local factory owners were not happy with Nellie’s piece and in response to the outcry her boss assigned her to a society column that focused on (you guessed it) #justgirlythings. Bly was given the rare opportunity to travel to Mexico and report on wider issues. She wrote a series of articles that highlighted political corruption and the conditions of the poor. Her articles angered Mexican officials and she was expelled from the country. 

Tired of her society column at the Dispatch and eager for a consistent journalism gig that would allow her to write about anything other than a woman’s destiny for marriage, family life and corsets, Bly said bye, bye, bye to Pittsburgh, packed her bags and arrived in the concrete jungle where dreams are made of with a few pennies and a purpose to be a beat reporter for anything other than Page Six. In a New York minute, Bly began to write for the Joseph Pulitzer-owned New York World and was put to work with one of the first cases of “stunt journalism” in American media

The New York World asked if Bly would fly neither east nor west but rather over the cuckoo’s nest and spend time in an asylum to document its conditions and the treatment of patients. Asylums were notoriously overcrowded and underfunded. There was no direction on how she could get in nor how she could get out. Pulitzer wanted a story and he needed Nellie to write it. When she was 23, Nellie “Brown” as she was known during her days in the asylum pretended to have amnesia, was admitted and spent 10 days at Blackwell’s Island before being discharged with the help of lawyers from the World. Her series of articles exposed that all was indeed not well at Blackwell’s Island. There was spider-infested bread, expired food and two towels for just 45 patients to share. Ew, David. Also, the shower water was cold as ice. Ah, refreshing! The temperature inside was freezing, and as a form of entertainment for the patients, the nurses had them sit still on benches and if they spoke a word, they were scolded. Fun! She wrote:

I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action… to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, 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.

Word. Bly put the nurses on blast too. She wrote that they abused and taunted patients, oftentimes over drugging them. After her two-part exposé was published in the New York World for the world to read, a grand jury launched an investigation into the conditions of the asylum and asked Bly to accompany them. When they arrived, Nellie noticed that inmates who she interviewed were transferred or released, hallways were scrubbed and the food was better. We smell a good ol’ coverup. Despite this, the grand jury added $1 million to the asylum’s budget that would help improve the conditions and bring about needed improvements in patient care. 

Ten Days in the Mad House turned our gal Nellie into an influential journalist whose stunts didn’t stop there. She was part of the muckraker squad of writers who raked up the muck AKA corruption in all its forms in mainly big businesses and reported their detailed, accurate findings in outlets such as popular magazines and newspapers. This push for juicy headlines and shocking stories AKA yellow journalism intensified as competition between newspapers such as the New York World and New York Journal grew. OK, after that brief middle school history lesson, let’s get back to Nellie Bly the journalistic spy who, two years later, went around the world in 72 days and wrote about it. 

Inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and motivated to beat Phileas Fogg’s travel time, Bly circumnavigated the globe with a small travel bag. Yes, she wanted to set a new record, but she also wanted to go all Eat, Pray, Love, ya know? LOL. JK. Her goal was to prove that women could travel just as well if not better than men. Bly’s adventure challenged the classic assumption that women couldn’t travel without numerous suitcases, outfit changes and vanity items. The New York World documented her travel vlog daily to her fans and subscribers as she boarded ships, trains, rickshaws and even horses. For the final stretch of her journey, she traveled from San Francisco to New York by special train and was greeted with crowds, fireworks and even a celebratory brass band. Her final time was 72 days 6 hours 11 minutes 14 seconds (but this record was broken a few months later). Emmy and Camille will start their journey around the world tomorrow and promise to set a new record. Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World in Seventy-two Days became a bestseller. Take that Phileas Fogg! 

In 1895, a few years after she completed her #worldtour, Nellie settled down into domesticity and married Robert Seamen, who was a millionaire, and she retired from journalism. She was just 31 years old at the time, but Robert was 73. Eight years into their marriage, Robert passed away, leaving Nellie to oversee his huge manufacturing company. Though this wasn’t exactly in Nellie’s wheelhouse, she excelled nonetheless and let her curiosity guide her. She ended up patenting several inventions related to oil manufacturing, many of which are still in use today.

However, although she was a creative mastermind, she simply was not a savvy business babe. According to Brooke Kroeger, who is Nellie’s biographer but also the director of Emmy’s master’s program: “She ran her company as a model of social welfare, replete with health benefits and recreational facilities. But Bly was hopeless at understanding the financial aspects of her business and ultimately lost everything. Unscrupulous employees bilked the firm of hundreds of thousands of dollars, troubles compounded by a protracted and costly bankruptcy litigation.”

As her late husband’s company tanked, Nellie returned to journalism. This time, she covered Europe’s eastern front during World War I. She was the first woman to visit the war zone between Serbia and Austria, and she was even arrested after she was mistaken for a British spy. But nay, Nellie was a journalistic spy, not, like, the espionage James Bond flavor of spy. When she returned home, she covered the women’s suffrage movement for the New York Evening Journal. She predicted that it wouldn’t be until 1920 that women earned the right to vote. She was right on the money.

While still putting pen to paper and raking up muck, Nellie passed away in 1922 in New York City after catching a nasty bout of pneumonia. She was 57. Nellie Bly has hardly been forgotten, though. She was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and she got her own postage stamp in 2002. She was also the subject of a Broadway musical, a one-woman show and has been portrayed in numerous films. She remains a fixture in journalism and her investigative work continues to be emulated in publications all over the country.

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