On this day in 1889 Nellie Bly, a 25-year-old reporter, received a hero’s welcome in Jersey City for circumnavigating the globe in less than 80 days. (long post, but worth it.)
Nellie Bly, investigative journalist, is my favorite characters in U.S. history. Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864, she made her journalistic debut by writing an op/ed in reply to an article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch entitled “What Girls Are Good For.” The article admonished women not to stray further than the home. This infuriated Elizabeth into writing a scathing reply signed “Little Orphan Girl.” The editor was so impressed, he placed an ad for the Little Orphan Girl to visit the newspaper. When Elizabeth introduced herself, he offered her the opportunity to write a rebuttal piece to be published. Elizabeth went home and wrote her first newspaper article “The Girl Puzzle.” Impressed again, Madden offered Elizabeth a full-time job writing under the name Nellie Bly.
At the time women almost always wrote articles on gardening, fashion or society. Nellie Bly eschewed these topics for hard pressing stories on the poor and oppressed. Drawing from her mother’s experience, she wrote on the inherent disadvantages women had in divorce proceedings. She also wrote numerous articles on the lives of poor women who worked in Pittsburgh’s bottle factories. Nellie’s articles fascinated readers, but drew criticism from the business community. When companies threatened to pull advertising from the Dispatch because of her articles, Nellie was assigned to a gardening story. When she turned in the article, she included her resignation.
Nellie’s next adventure was a six-month trip to Mexico. What started out as a travelogue soon turned into a scathing review of the Mexican government, reporting on President Porfirio Diaz imprisoning a journalist for criticizing the government.
Back in the United States, Nellie decided that her next destination would be New York City. In 1887, Nellie arrived in New York hoping to land a job at a major newspaper, but none was offered. After four months of rejection, and near penniless, she talked her way into the office of John Cockerill.
Determined not to leave without work, Nellie was eventually assigned to go under-cover as a patient in the notorious asylum on Blackwell’s Island and report first-hand on her experience. Nellie convinced doctors and judges that she was insane, and was committed to the asylum. She endured filthy conditions, rotten food and physical abuse from doctors and nurses for ten days before a World agent rescued her. Nellie’s articles “Behind Asylum Bars” and “Inside The Mad-House” created an uproar in New York and reforms were made to provide better living conditions for the people at the asylum.
Nellie would spend the next several years writing articles for The World. She pioneered the field of investigative journalism. Often going under-cover, she exposed crooked lobbyists in government, tracked the plight of unwanted babies, reported on the conditions for poor workers in box-making factories and much more.
Nellie’s most famous story would begin in 1889. She proposed to travel around the world faster than Jules Verne’s character Phileas Fogg in Around The World In Eighty Days. Editors at The World were wary of the idea. (Women didn’t travel without escorts, and they carried too much baggage.) But Nellie Bly stepped onto the ocean liner Augusta Victoria by herself on November 14, 1889. She traveled east from New York and her journey took her from England to Egypt, Ceylon, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan before heading back to the United States. During a stop in France, Nellie met Jules Verne himself, who encouraged her to break his own – fictional – record! In the meantime, to keep interest in Nellie’s trip alive, The World promoted a hugely popular guessing game for her arrival time.
Nellie stepped back on to American soil in San Francisco and then boarded a train that took her across the country. On January 25, 1890, Nellie Bly arrived back at her starting point; seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after her departure. Nellie was now a hugely popular international celebrity. However, to her surprise, The World did not offer Nellie a bonus despite the increase in circulation she had created. Upset over the sleight, Nellie Bly resigned from the newspaper.
Though unemployed, Nellie was not short of opportunities. Her image graced trading cards, board games and numerous other products. She went on lecture tours and wrote Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World In Seventy-Two Days.
In 1893, a new editor at The World convinced Nellie to come back. On September 17th, the headline “Nellie Bly Again” appeared on the front page of The World. For the next three years, Nellie was back with articles about police corruption, the violent Pullman labor strike and an interview with noted suffragist Susan B. Anthony among others.
In 1895, Nellie surprised everyone by marrying noted industrialist Robert Seaman, and by 1896 she had stopped writing for The World. Robert Seaman was owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company which made milk cans, barrels and other steel products. When Robert died in 1904, Nellie (as Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman) took over the company and became the world’s leading female industrialist. Unfortunately by 1914, poor management and fraud within the company forced her into bankruptcy. But her story did not end there.
That same year Nellie traveled to Europe to visit a friend in Austria, where she was at the outbreak of World War I. Nellie got in contact with former World editor Arthur Brisbane who now worked at the Hearst newspaper The New York Evening Journal and made arrangements to become a journalist once again. Nellie Bly was America’s first female war correspondent, writing articles on her experiences at the war’s front lines. Again, what had started as a vacation turned into a five-year tour of duty.
By 1919, Nellie was back in New York and writing regularly for The Evening Journal. She had her own column and dispensed advice as well as her opinion on topics of the day. She helped poor women find jobs and raised money to aid widows, children and others who faced hard times.
Nellie Bly passed away on January 27, 1922 from pneumonia, having continued to write her column up until her death. The next day, The Evening Journal carried a tribute to the pioneering reporter, declaring Nellie Bly “The Best Reporter in America.”