Nellie Bly was born as Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864. She was born into a fairly wealthy family that owned a profitable mill in Cochran, Pennsylvania. However, Nellie’s father died when she was just six years old. Since the family could not maintain the land and the business, they moved and Nellie’s mother soon remarried. Nellie attended Indiana Teacher’s college but soon needed to quit school due to her family’s financial difficulties. No longer able to study, Nellie decided to help her mother focus on running a boarding-school.
One day, after reading a copy of The Pittsburgh Dispatch, Nellie decided to pen (write) a letter to the editor, chiding the newspaper for its negative treatment of women. The editor of the paper not only read the letter, he went so far as to print her letter and even offered her a job as a columnist. Nellie took the editor up on his offer, becoming a newspaper columnist. Upon becoming a writer, she adapted the pen name Nellie Bly. While Bly was a popular columnist, her columns focused solely on women, and she wanted to write about a broader range of topics. Nellie decided to take her talents to New York City, in search of work as a journalist.
In 1886, Bly moved to New York where she found it hard to get a job as a female journalist at first. She decided to take a chance by walking in to the office of the New York World, one of the leading newspapers in the country which was owned by Joseph Pulitzer. Bly proposed to write a series of articles on the immigrant experience in the United States. While the editor rejected Bly’s initial proposal, he proposed instead that Bly write about the condition of mental hospitals in the country, by going undercover and pretending to be a patient.
Bly prepared for the part and then spent ten days in an insane asylum on New York’s Blackwell’s Island. Her subsequent series of articles, entitled Ten Days in a Mad-House made Bly one of the most recognized journalists in the nation. Furthermore, her hands-on approach, helped to pave the way for the practice of investigative journalism.
In 1889, Bly, insipired by the Jules Verne novel, Around the World in 80 Days, decided to take her own trip around the world to see how long it would actually take. Turns out, Bly was able to make it around the world in 72 days, 8 days faster than in the book. This was a record at the time, and it held for several months before being broken.
In 1895 Bly retired from journalism after marrying the wealthy industrialist Robert Seamen. Nellie’s husband died in 1903, leaving her in control of his manufacturing business, Iron Clad Manufacturing. Nellie’s curious nature and independent spirit flourished in this role, as she was able to patent several inventions. With the onset of World War I, Bly returned to journalism to cover the war as well as the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Bly died of pneumonia while working as a journalist on January 27, 1922.
Nellie Bly Fun Facts
- The pen name Nellie Bly comes from the song “Nelly Bly” by Stephen Foster
- Before she wrote about the insane asylum, Bly spent six months in Mexico writing about the Mexican people. Bly upset the Mexican government with her work and ended up having to flee the country.
- Bly received patents for several inventions, including a stacking garbage can.
- A competing newspaper sent their own female journalist Elizabeth Bisland around the world startting in the other direction, but Bisland required 76 days, arriving four days later than Bly.