Nellie Bly (May 5, 1864 – January 27, 1922) was the pen name of American pioneer female journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochran. She remains notable for two feats: a record-breaking trip around the world in emulation of Jules Verne's character Phileas Fogg, and an exposé in which she faked insanity to study a mental institution from within. In addition to her writing, she was also an industrialist and charity worker.
Born on May 5, 1864 as Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Cochran's Mills, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, 40 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, she was nicknamed "Pink" for wearing that color as a child. Her father, a wealthy former associate justice, died when she was six. Her mother remarried three years later, but sued for divorce when Cochran was 14. Cochran testified in court against her allegedly drunken, violent stepfather. As a teenager she changed her surname to Cochrane, apparently adding the "e" for sophistication. She attended boarding school for one term, but dropped out because of a lack of funds. In 1880, Cochran and her family moved to Pittsburgh. A sexist column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch prompted her to write a fiery rebuttal to the editor with the pen name "Lonely Orphan Girl". He was so impressed with her earnestness and spirit he asked her to join the paper. Female newspaper writers at that time customarily used pen names, and for Cochran the editor chose "Nellie Bly", adopted from the title character in the popular song "Nelly Bly" by Stephen Foster.
Nellie Bly focused her early work for the Dispatch on the plight of working women, writing a series of investigative articles on female factory workers. But editorial pressure pushed her to the women's pages to cover fashion, society, and gardening, the usual role for female journalists of the day. Dissatisfied with these duties, she took the initiative and traveled to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent. Still only 21, she spent nearly half a year reporting the lives and customs of the Mexican 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 Mexican government, then a dictatorship under Porfirio Díaz. When Mexican authorities learned of Bly's report, they threatened her with arrest, prompting her to leave the country. Safely home, she denounced Díaz as a tyrannical czar suppressing the Mexican people and controlling the press.
Burdened again with theater and arts reporting, Bly left the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1887 for New York City. Penniless after four months, she talked her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, the 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.
After a night of practicing deranged expressions in front of a mirror, she checked into a working-class boardinghouse. She refused to go to bed, telling the boarders that 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 pretended to have amnesia. The judge concluded she had been drugged.
She was then examined by several doctors, who all declared her to be 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". The case of the "pretty crazy girl" attracted media attention: "Who Is This Insane Girl?" asked the New York Sun. The New York Times wrote of the "mysterious waif" with the "wild, hunted look in her eyes", and her desperate cry: "I can't remember I can't remember."
Committed to the asylum, Bly experienced its 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. The patients were made to sit for much of each day on hard benches with scant protection from the cold. Waste was all around the eating places. Rats crawled all around the hospital. The bathwater was frigid, and buckets of it were poured over their heads. The nurses were obnoxious and abusive, telling the patients to shut up, and beating them if they did not. Speaking with her fellow patients, Bly was convinced that some were as sane as she was. On the effect of her experiences, she wrote:
"What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, 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."
"...My teeth chattered and my limbs were ...numb with cold. Suddenly, I got three buckets of ice-cold water...one in my eyes, nose and mouth."
After ten days, Bly was released from the asylum at The 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. While embarrassed physicians and staff fumbled to explain how so many professionals had been fooled, a grand jury launched its own investigation into conditions at the asylum, inviting Bly to assist. The jury's report recommended the changes she had proposed, and its call for increased funds for care of the insane prompted an $850,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. They also made sure that all of the examinations were more thorough so that only people who were actually insane went to the asylum.
Around the world
Nellie Bly in her traveling clothes, 1890In 1888, Nellie suggested to her editor at the New York World that 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 November 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.
She brought with her the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials. She carried most of her money (200 £ in English bank notes and gold in total as well as some American currency) in a bag tied around her neck.
The New York newspaper Cosmopolitan sponsored its own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, to beat the time of both Phileas Fogg and Bly. Bisland would travel the opposite way around the world.
To sustain interest in the story, the World organized a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match” in which readers were asked to estimate Bly’s arrival time to the second, with the Grand Prize consisting at first of (only) a free trip to Europe and, later on, spending money for the trip.
On her travels around the world, she went through England, France (where she met Jules Verne in Amiens), Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo (Ceylon), Hong Kong, the Straits Settlement of Penang and Singapore, and Japan. The development of efficient submarine cable networks and the electric telegraph allowed Bly to send short progress reports, though longer dispatches had to travel by regular post and were thus often delayed by several weeks.
She travelled using steamships and the existing railroad systems, which caused occasional setbacks, particularly on the Asian leg of her race. During these stops, she visited an Asian torture garden, a leper colony in China and she bought a monkey in Singapore.
Due to rough weather on her Pacific crossing, she arrived in San Francisco on the White Star liner Oceanic on January 21, two days behind schedule However, World owner Pulitzer chartered a private train to bring her home, and she arrived back in New Jersey on January 25, 1890, at 3:51 p.m..
"Seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after her Hoboken departure" Bly was back in New York. She had circumnavigated the globe almost unchaperoned. At the time, Bisland was still going around the world. Like Bly, she had missed a connection and had to board a slow, old ship called the "Bothina" in the place of a fast ship called the "Etruria". Bly's journey, at the time, was a world record, though it was bettered a few months later by George Francis Train, who completed the journey in 67 days. By 1913, Andre Jaeger-Schmidt, Henry Frederick and John Henry Mears had improved on the record, the latter completing the journey in less than 36 days.
In 1895 Nellie Bly married millionaire manufacturer Robert Seaman, who was 40 years her senior. She retired from journalism, and became the president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co., which made steel containers such as milk cans and boilers. In 1904 she invented and patented  the steel barrel that was the model for the 55-gallon oil drum still in widespread use in the United States. Her husband died that year. For a time she was one of the leading female industrialists in the United States, but embezzlement by employees forced her into bankruptcy. Forced back into reporting, she covered such events as the women's suffrage convention in 1913, and stories on Europe's Eastern Front during World War I.
In 1916 Nellie was given a baby boy whose mother requested Nellie look after him and see that he become adopted. The child was illegitimate and difficult to place since he was half-Japanese. He spent the next six years in an orphanage run by the Church For All Nations[clarification needed] in Manhattan.
As Nellie became ill towards the end of her life she requested that her niece, Beatrice Brown, look after the boy and several other babies in whom she had become interested. Her interest in orphanages may have been part of her ongoing efforts to improve the social organizations of the day.
She died of bronchopneumonia at St. Mark's Hospital in New York City in 1922, at age 57, and was interred in a modest grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Bly was the subject of a 1946 Broadway musical by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen.
In 1981 Linda Purl appeared as Bly in a made for TV movie called The Adventures of Nellie Bly.
A fictionalized account of her around the world trip was used in the comic book "Julie Walker is The Phantom" published by Moonstone Books (Story: Elizabeth Massie, art: Paul Daly, colors: Stephen Downer).
Mentions of her
She provides the hinge of a scene in which Abbey Bartlet declaims Bly's achievements to President Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing episode "And Surely It's To Their Credit".
In several recorded versions of the traditional song "Frankie and Johnny", such as the version recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, the lover of the male character "Johnny" is identified as "Nellie Bly."
Named after her
The Nellie Bly Amusement Park in Brooklyn, New York City, is named after her, taking as its theme Around the World in Eighty Days. The park recently reopened under new management, renamed "Adventurers Amusement Park."
From early in the twentieth century until 1961, the Pennsylvania Railroad operated a parlor-car only express train between New York and Atlantic City that bore the name, "Nellie Bly."
In 1998, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Nellie Bly was one of four journalists honored with a U.S postage stamp in a "Women in Journalism" set in 2002.
Her investigation of the Blackwell's Island insane asylum is dramatized in a 4-D film in the Annenberg Theater at the Newseum in Washington, DC.
Bly, Nellie (1887). Ten Days in a Mad-House.
Kroeger, Brooke (1994). Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist.
Affidavit of Beatrice K. Brown; Surrogates Court, Kings County (1922)
1.^ Kroeger 1994 reports (p. 529) that although a birth year of 1867 was deduced from the age Bly claimed to be at the height of her popularity, her baptismal record confirms 1864.
2.^ Kroeger 1994, p. 25.
3.^ Bly 1887.
4.^ Kroeger 1994, pp. 91–92.
5.^ Ruddick, Nicholas. “Nellie Bly, Jules Verne, and the World on the Threshold of the American Age.” Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 29, Number 1, 1999, p. 4
6.^ Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly – Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Times Books Random House, 1994, p. 146
7.^ Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly – Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Times Books Random House, 1994, p. 141
8.^ Ruddick, Nicholas. “Nellie Bly, Jules Verne, and the World on the Threshold of the American Age.” Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 29, Number 1, 1999, p. 5
9.^ Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly – Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Times Books Random House, 1994, p. 150
10.^ Ruddick, Nicholas. “Nellie Bly, Jules Verne, and the World on the Threshold of the American Age.” Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 29, Number 1, 1999, p. 8
11.^ Ruddick, Nicholas. “Nellie Bly, Jules Verne, and the World on the Threshold of the American Age.” Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 29, Number 1, 1999, p. 6
12.^ Bear, David. “Around the World With Nellie Bly.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 26, 2006
13.^ Ruddick, Nicholas. “Nellie Bly, Jules Verne, and the World on the Threshold of the American Age.” Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 29, Number 1, 1999, p. 7
14.^ Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly – Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Times Books Random House, 1994, p. 160
15.^ Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly – Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Times Books Random House, 1994, p. 158
16.^ *Daily Alta California, "Phineas Fogg Outdone", January 22, 1890
17.^ http://www.skagitriverjournal.com/WA/Library/Newspaper/Visscher/Visscher3-Bio2.html para 16
18.^ New York Times, “A Run Around the World”, August 8, 1913
20.^ The remarkable Nellie Bly, inventor of the metal oil drum, Petroleum Age, 12/2006, p.5.
21.^ "After the poorly received Nellie Bly (1946) ... [stage director Edgar J.] MacGregor retired.", musicals101.com
22.^ per IMDb.com The Adventures of Nellie Bly
23.^ Julie Walker is The Phantom
25.^ National Women's Hall of Fame
26.^ USPS Press Release (September 14, 2002), Four Accomplished Journalists Honored on U.S. Postage Stamps, usps.com
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