Legends Series: Nellie Bly

Explorers
Nellie Bly birthed the style we now know as investigative journalism.

Nellie Bly was such a dedicated journalist that she had herself committed to a mental asylum for an undercover exposé. The story earned her a rare byline outside of the “women’s pages”, exposing conditions best kept secret from society. Journalism took her to exotic places, including an around-the-world race.

Born Elizabeth Cochran in 1864, Bly created her pen name when she began working for the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885.

She’d been offered the role after writing an angry rebuttal to the editor’s uncomplimentary article entitled What Girls Are Good For. Bly’s letter was so good that she was offered a job.

At first, she covered local stories for the women’s column. Then she branched out into human interest stories, which were her primary focus.

Often, she tackled confrontational topics that were usually brushed beneath the surface. Bly was treading new ground, particularly as a woman in a profession typically left for men.

Bly in Mexico, at the start of her journalism career.

Expelled from Mexico

Eventually, she earned opportunities to tackle wider stories. First, she covered Mexico’s corruption under dictator Porfirio Diaz.

On this seven-month assignment, she sent back regular reports to her editor. But Mexican officials did not receive her scathing reports well, and they expelled her from the country.

Within two years, Bly was ready to report on more explicit stories. She moved to New York, hoping to gain a notable position. Instead, she spent four months facing gender-based rejection. She finally won a position at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, one of the most popular publications of the time.

A 23-year-old Bly threw herself into her first assignment. Working to expose patient conditions at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, she went undercover, faking insanity. She was successfully committed.

For 10 days, she reported on the cruelty and neglect suffered by in-patients. It was worse than she expected. Sixteen hundred patients were crammed into a 1,000-capacity facility. Barely trained staff with little compassion ordered brutal treatment of those considered “mad”.

At 23, Bly had herself committed for 10 days to Women’s Lunatic Asylum to investigate the conditions there.

First investigative journalism

Patients had to take ice-cold baths and remain in wet clothes for hours. Others had to sit still and silent on benches for 12 hours at a time. Some patients were tethered together and forced to pull carts around like mules. Food and sanitary conditions were horrific.

Worst of all, many patients were not actually ill. Some had been victims of language barriers during immigration. Others were poor and had fallen through the cracks of society with nowhere to turn.

When she was committed as a patient, there was no promise she’d be allowed to leave. But her courage earned her a captivating story.

“Nearly all night long I listened to a woman cry about the cold and beg for God to let her die. Another one yelled, ‘Murder!’ at frequent intervals and ‘Police!’ at others until my flesh felt creepy,” she wrote about her first night in the asylum.

Bly’s editor secured her release and the report that followed shocked readers. It prompted a grand jury investigation, which led to long-overdue improvements to mental health patient care.

She later published her report into a book called Ten Days in a Mad-House. Already this secured her legacy because it was the beginning of what we now know as investigative journalism.

The exposé shot her to fame as the leading woman journalist of the time. She was taken into sweatshops, jails, and other institutes where people were desperate to tell their stories. But her best story was on the horizon.

Around the world in 72 days

A decade earlier, Jules Verne’s adventure novel Around the World in 80 Days hit bookshelves. It was born of the age of global tourism that was exploding after the Suez Canal opened, the linking of the Indian railways, and the first transcontinental road across America. Times had shifted from exploration to world travel.

Verne’s book sparked a sensation, inspiring pioneers to cross boundaries and attempt new adventures. Bly was no different.

With difficulty, she convinced her editor to let her turn Verne’s book into reality. “No one but a man can do this,” he insisted.

“Very well,” she replied, “Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”  In 1889, she set off around the world to challenge the novel.

Nellie Bly, off around the world.

Unknown to her, a rival woman journalist was actually competing against her on the same mission. Elizabeth Bisland of Cosmopolitan magazine traveled in the reverse direction and was hot on her heels.

It took Bly 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes to traverse the globe by train, ship, horse, rickshaw, and any other mode of transport native to the place she was in. Her project attracted worldwide attention, and she broke the record for the fastest time around the world. Bisland returned four days after Bly, awarding Bly the record and international stardom.

Bly’s courageous, bull-headed approach to confronting the narrative that female journalists faced was singular for its time.

Becomes an industrialist

When she married millionaire Robert Seamen in 1895, at the age of 31, she retired from journalism. He was more than 40 years her senior and he died eight years after they wed. Bly was left with control of his substantial manufacturing firm, Iron Clad Manufacturing Co.

She took up Seamen’s business with the same vigor and pioneering spirit that she had applied to journalism. She patented several inventions at the iron mill, some of which remain in use today.

Bly and her oil drum patent.

If anything, she surpassed her great name in journalism and adventure and became a leading women industrialist in the United States. But soon the financial aspects of running a large company suffocated her, and the company filed for bankruptcy.

The timing was not all bad for Bly, though. World War I provided plenty of opportunities to return to her roots and pen human interest stories. Journalism took her offshore again as the first woman to visit the war zone between Serbia and Austria.

When the Women’s Suffrage movement rose, Bly was once again in her reporting element. Her provocative article, Suffragists Are Men’s Superiors, stopped readers in their tracks. Within the piece, she accurately predicted when women would win the right to vote in the United States.

In 1922, two years after that momentous event in women’s rights, Bly died of pneumonia.

Bly’s stories have inspired countless books and films, including The Adventures of Nellie Bly (1981), 10 Days in a Madhouse (2015), and the 1946 Broadway musical, Nellie Bly.

In 1998, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2002, she was one of only four journalists to be honored with a U.S. postage stamp in a Women in Journalism set.

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About the Author

Chasing Dreams Travel

Alex Myall

After 22 years in the exercise industry, offset by long-haul adventures around the world, Alex Myall found a better option a few years ago and has never looked back. She took a diploma in travel journalism, backed it up with travel industry certificates, then launched Chasing Dreams Travel NZ, her own travel agency.

Now she combines her love of writing and world travel with running her business from her home on the spectacular South Coast of Wellington, New Zealand, while simultaneously being mum to a gorgeous baby girl. She maintains a “life’s too short to do things by halves” attitude.

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