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David McCullough, Series Host: Good evening and welcome to The
American Experience. I'm David McCullough.
In the famous novel Around The World in 80 Days by Jules Verne, an
Englishman, Phileas Fogg, sets off to circle the world in the fastest time
possible and for the sole purpose of winning a gentleman's wager.
In others of his books, Jules Verne specialized in amazing developments of
science and technology still to come. He forecast the invention of airplanes,
the submarine, even rockets to the moon. But in Around the World in 80
Days he wrote only of what, theoretically, was already possible when the
book appeared, in 1873, the heyday of such nineteenth century wonders as the
Suez Canal and the new transcontinental railroad across America. The world had
become a great deal smaller, and this Verne dramatized as no one ever had.
Yet it was not until 1889 that anyone dared try what Phileas Fogg had done and
the lone adventurer who did was neither a gentleman nor ficticious, but an
intrepid young American woman who was determined to make the journey even
faster and with a lot more than a bet riding on the outcome.
She was Nellie Bly and she stands now in history as one of the earliest of a
long line of women who distinguished themselves in what had been the all-male
world of journalism and thereby brought increasing interest and vitality to the
pages of American newspapers.
Later would come Ida Tarbell who took on the Standard Oil Company, Dorothy
Thompson, who bravely reported the rise of Hitler, Marguerite Higgens, who
covered the Korean War... the list could be very long.
In the opening lines of his story, Jules Verne describes Phileas Fogg as a
reserved personage who seemed "always to avoid attracting attention." That
definitely could not be said of Nellie Bly, which is another part of our
Around the World in 72 Days
NARRATION: NOVEMBER, 1889: A YOUNG REPORTER PREPARED TO EMBARK ON ONE OF THE
MOST PUBLICIZED JOURNEYS OF ALL TIME.
HER MISSION -- TO BREAK THE RECORD SET BY THE LEGENDARY, FICTIONAL CHARACTER
-- PHILEAS T. FOGG.
FOR THE NEXT TWO AND A HALF MONTHS, THE WHOLE WORLD WOULD FOLLOW THE
ADVENTURES OF NELLIE BLY.
Mitch Stephens, Historian: This was new and this was different and this was
exciting. And when Nellie Bly actually decided to go all around the world, I
mean that was -- that was like going up in the space shuttle!
NARRATION: NELLIE BLY BECAME ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS WOMEN IN THE WORLD BY
DOING THINGS A WOMAN WASN'T SUPPOSED TO DO. SHE POSED AS AN UNWED MOTHER TO
EXPOSE THE BABY-BUYING TRADE... A THIEF TO EXPERIENCE A NIGHT IN JAIL...AN
INSANE WOMAN TO REPORT ON LIFE INSIDE A MADHOUSE. AND EVERYTHING SHE DID SOLD
Maureen Corrigan, Writer: There was something about her voice, something about
the bravado that her pieces exuded that I think really captured readers'
imagination and really made her the premiere female reporter of her time.
Brooke Kroeger, Biographer: She seemed to know how to pick the assignment that
would put her on center stage. I think it was her most remarkable gift.
Muriel Nussbaum, Actress: "I wonder when they'll send a girl to travel 'round
the sky, read the answer in the stars, they wait for Nellie Bly."
NARRATION: A FEW YEARS BEFORE HER DEATH, NELLIE BLY WROTE:
"IF ONE WOULD BECOME GREAT, TWO THINGS ARE ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. THE FIRST IS
TO KNOW YOURSELF, THE SECOND IS NOT TO LET THE WORLD KNOW YOU. "
THE WORLD NEVER KNEW WHAT LAY AT THE HEART OF HER REMARKABLE AMBITION. SHE
NEVER SPOKE OF THE DARKEST DAYS OF HER CHILDHOOD.
HER GIVEN NAME WAS ELIZABETH JANE COCHRAN, BUT EVERYONE CALLED HER PINK. SHE
WAS BORN IN THE LAST YEAR OF THE CIVIL WAR, MAY 5, 1864, IN COCHRAN'S MILL'S
THE TOWN WAS NAMED FOR HER FATHER, JUDGE MICHAEL COCHRAN. HE HAD TEN CHILDREN
WITH HIS FIRST WIFE. AFTER SHE DIED, HE MARRIED AGAIN.
PINK WAS HIS THIRTEENTH AND MOST REBELLIOUS CHILD.
Brooke Kroeger: Great confidence! Dressed in pink -- everyone else is dressed
in brown and black. Her mother has taught her to gather attention and revel in
it. And these are lessons that were never, never lost.
NARRATION: WHEN PINK WAS SIX YEARS OLD, HER LIFE CHANGED SUDDENLY AND FOREVER.
HER FATHER DIED, LEAVING NO WILL TO PROTECT THE INTERESTS OF HIS YOUNG SECOND
FAMILY. THE ELEGANT MANSION THEY HAD LIVED IN FOR ONLY A YEAR WAS AUCTIONED
WITH FIFTEEN HEIRS THERE WAS LITTLE TO GO AROUND AND PINK'S MOTHER FELT SHE HAD
NO CHOICE BUT TO MARRY AGAIN.
Maureen Corrigan: She and her mother were thrown on very hard times when her
father died. And then her mother made a disastrous marriage after her father's
death to a man who abused her and who she finally had to divorce. So I think
Nellie saw a lot of tough times and a lot of the dark side of life.
NARRATION: WHEN PINK COCHRAN WAS 14 YEARS OLD, SHE TESTIFIED AT HER MOTHER'S
DIVORCE TRIAL. THE FUTURE REPORTER PAINTED A DEVASTATING PORTRAIT OF A
"MY STEPFATHER HAS BEEN GENERALLY DRUNK SINCE HE MARRIED MY MOTHER. WHEN DRUNK
HE IS VERY CROSS AND CROSS WHEN SOBER. I HAVE HEARD HIM SCOLD MOTHER AND CALL
HER NAMES -- A WHORE AND A BITCH... I'VE SEEN HER CRY."
Brooke Kroeger: Watching these events unfold, and you're someone with Nellie's
spirit, what do you say to yourself? This is not a sure thing. Love, marriage
may be nice but it is not going to secure my future or my family's future.
NARRATION: PINK COCHRAN WOULD DEPEND ON NO ONE. IN A VICTORIAN WORLD, SHE
WOULD BE AN INDEPENDENT WOMAN.
AT AGE 15 SHE ENROLLED AT THE INDIANA NORMAL SCHOOL IN WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA --
DETERMINED TO ENTER ONE OF THE FEW CAREERS OPEN TO WOMEN. SHE WOULD BECOME A
BUT AFTER ONLY ONE TERM HER MONEY RAN OUT. SHE WOULD HAVE TO SEEK HER FORTUNE
WITHOUT THE ADVANTAGE OF A FORMAL EDUCATION.
NARRATION: LOOKING DOWN ON THE CITY OF PITTSBURGH, SAID A WRITER FOR THE
ATLANTIC MONTHLY, IS LIKE "LOOKING INTO HELL WITH THE LID OFF."
PITTSBURGH WOULD BE PINK COCHRAN'S HOME FOR THE NEXT SEVEN YEARS -- AND THE
PLACE WHERE LUCK AND AMBITION WOULD FINALLY COME TOGETHER.
Brooke Kroeger: Pittsburgh was industrializing. Great fortunes were being
made. It was a place of opportunity and growth. Her brothers had preceded her
to the town. Her mother came to make a home for them. They found their way,
they took in boarders. They made it work.
NARRATION: IN THE LIVES OF THE YOUNG WORKING WOMEN SHE MET, PINK SAW THE DARK
SIDE OF INDUSTRIAL AMERICA. GIRLS AS YOUNG AS 9 OR 10 WORKED IN CANNERIES,
FOUNDRIES, GLASS FACTORIES. THEIR ONLY WAY OUT -- MARRIAGE. BUT PINK
COCHRAN YEARNED FOR MORE THAN FACTORY WORK OR A HUSBAND. SHE WANTED THE SAME
OPPORTUNITIES AS HER BROTHERS, WHO LANDED WHITE COLLAR JOBS QUICKLY IN SPITE OF
THEIR MEAGER EDUCATION.
Brooke Kroeger: Why can't she be a clerk? Of course at this time only young
men can be clerks, not women. Why can't she be a conductor on a Pullman Palace
Why can't she do the same thing? Simply because she's a woman?
NARRATION: FOR FIVE YEARS SHE STRUGGLED -- HELPING HER MOTHER RUN THE BOARDING
HOUSE, SEEKING WORK AS A NANNY OR A TUTOR. PINK WAS 20 YEARS OLD AND GOING
NOWHERE, WHEN SHE READ A COLUMN IN THE PITTSBURGH DISPATCH BY ERASMUS
WILSON, KNOWN AS Q.O., THE QUIET OBSERVER.
NARRATION: Q.O. WAS A CIVIL WAR VETERAN WITH A COURTLY MANNER WHO LOOKED ON
THE PAST WITH NOSTALGIA. HE SAID THAT GIRLS WERE USELESS OUTSIDE THE SPHERE
OF MARRIAGE. THEY SHOULD LEARN TO SPIN, SEW, COOK AND RAISE OBEDIENT CHILDREN.
A WOMAN WHO TRIED TO MAKE A LIVING OUTSIDE THAT SPHERE, HE WROTE, WAS NOTHING
LESS THAN A MONSTROSITY.
Brooke Kroeger: Nellie reads this column and just goes into a rage. Because,
of course, he has not addressed the question of the young women who have really
no choice but to make their way. They don't have families taking care of
So she writes a letter that is really imbued with all this passion. The editor
himself reads the letter. He says, "This writer, who has signed herself,
Lonely Orphan Girl (so he probably has an idea that it's a woman), has no
style, no punctuation, no grammar, but I see a spirit here. I see a spirit
He runs an ad. A little snippet on the editorial page that says, "Lonely
Orphan Girl, will you please come forward." And she does.
NARRATION: AS SHE LATER TOLD THE STORY, PINK COCHRAN SO IMPRESSED THE MANAGING
EDITOR OF THE DISPATCH THAT HE HIRED HER ON THE SPOT.
Ellen Fitzpatrick: The odds are astronomical against such a thing occurring.
At the same time, it was an unsettled age and amazing things did happen and her
very life is the evidence of that.
Nelly Bly, Nelly Bly,
Bring de broom along
We'll sweep do kitchen clean, my dear,
and hab a little song
NARRATION: PINK COCHRAN TOOK HER BYLINE FROM A STEPHEN FOSTER SONG. SHE
WASN'T THE FIRST WOMAN TO WORK FOR A NEWSPAPER. THERE WAS MARGARET FULLER WHO
WROTE FOR HORACE GREELY'S RESPECTED TRIBUNE... AMELIA BLOOMER WHO
STARTED HER OWN NEWS-PAPER, THE LILY, FILLED WITH EDITORIALS ABOUT
WOMEN'S RIGHTS...AND JENNY JUNE WHO PIONEERED THE WOMEN'S PAGE. BUT NELLIE BLY
WANTED TO WRITE ABOUT WHAT SHE SAW ALL AROUND HER -- POVERTY, CHILD LABOR,
DIVORCE. IN ONE STORY, BLY INTERVIEWED FACTORY GIRLS, NOT ABOUT THEIR JOBS,
BUT ABOUT THEIR LIVES AFTER WORK. SOME CAME HOME TO EMPTINESS AND
BOREDOM. OTHERS WENT TO BARS AND GOT DRUNK WITH STRANGERS. BLY ASKED ONE
YOUNG WOMAN, "WHY DO YOU RISK YOUR REPUTATION IN SUCH A WAY?"
Brooke Kroeger: The girl says, "I have no money, I have no books, I have no
where to go. I work all day in a miserable place. What do you want from me?"
And I think that -- it's a much more powerful way of telling the story of the
drudgery of their lives than simply chronicling what they do hour by hour.
NARRATION: BUT OVER TIME, BLY'S EDITOR ASSIGNED HER STORIES ABOUT FLOWER
SHOWS, FASHION AND RUBBER RAINCOATS. TRAPPED ON THE LADIES PAGE, SHE REBELLED
-- AND INVENTED HERSELF ALL OVER AGAIN.
Brooke Kroeger: She gets the idea to go to Mexico. Become a foreign reporter.
As she put it herself, to do something no girl has ever done before. She
writes fantastic letters back from Mexico.... about the food, about the
character of the people. There's no detail that escapes her.
When she goes to a bull fight, she describes how they keep their britches up.
I mean, things that you might not even have the sense to think to ask she's
answered that question for you.
NARRATION: BLY'S REPORTS FROM MEXICO APPEARED REGULARLY IN THE DISPATCH.
HER STRATEGY HAD WORKED SO WELL THAT NOW HER BYLINE WAS PART OF THE
HEADLINE. BUT WHEN SHE RETURNED TO HER OLD JOB AND COLLEAGUES LIKE Q.O.,
SHE FOUND HERSELF BACK ON THE LADIES' PAGE, WRITING STORIES ABOUT THEATER AND
THE ARTS. FINALLY, SHE'D HAD ENOUGH. SHE DECIDED TO LEAVE PITTSBURGH FOR
Brooke Kroeger: She suddenly doesn't show up for work one day. This is pure
Nellie Bly. They look around, they find a note.
It says, "Dear Q.O., I'm off for New York. Look out for me. Bly."
NARRATION: "WHO OWNS THE CITY OF NEW YORK ? THE DEVIL!" SO SAID A 19TH
CENTURY PREACHER. BUT FOR AN ASPIRING YOUNG REPORTER, THIS WAS THE PLACE TO
BE. BLY ARRIVED IN NEW YORK CITY, POPULATION A MILLION AND A HALF, JUST A
YEAR AFTER THE STATUE OF LIBERTY TOOK HER PLACE IN THE HARBOR. SHE HAD
COME TO AMERICA'S PUBLISHING CAPITOL, WHERE MAGAZINES LIKE HARPER'S
WEEKLY DISPLAYED THE FINE ART OF ENGRAVING, TABLOIDS LIKE THE POLICE
GAZETTE TURNED VICE INTO ENTERTAINMENT, AN PHOTOGRAPHER JACOB RIIS EXPOSED
THE SHADOWY PLACES WHERE THE OTHER HALF LIVED. ON STREET CORNERS, IMMIGRANT
BOYS SOLD THE GREAT NEW YORK DAILIES FOR A PENNY OR TWO APIECE.
Mitch Stephens: If you wanted to be a journalist in New York, you knew the
street to visit. It was Park Row, right near City Hall and you could see the
Tribune office was one place and the Times office was another and there was
The World and there was The Herald.
This was an almost exclusively male crowd. This was not a particularly
educated group of people. It was really a little bit more like the Wild West
NARRATION: LOOKING DOWN ON PARK ROW, A BRILLIANT NEW CROP OF PUBLISHERS AND
EDITORS HATCHED SCHEMES TO SELL MORE NEWSPAPERS. THE MOST AGGRESSIVE AND
SUCCESSFUL OF THEM ALL -- JOSEPH PULITZER, PUBLISHER OF THE NEW YORK
WORLD. PULITZER DESIGNED HIS PAPER FOR THE IMMIGRANTS POURING INTO NEW
YORK CITY. HE ENTERTAINED THEM WITH SENSATIONAL STORIES ABOUT RIOTS, MURDERS
AND DISASTERS, EDUCATED THEM WITH CRUSADING EDITORIALS -- AND TAUGHT THEM TO BE
AMERICAN. THE WORLD WAS NELLIE BLY'S KIND OF PAPER -- BUT SHE WOULD
HAVE JUMPED AT THE CHANCE TO WORK FOR ANY OF THEM. FOR NEARLY SIX MONTHS, SHE
KNOCKED ON EVERY DOOR ON PARK ROW.
Mitch Stephens: I think they must have greeted Nellie Bly with her spunk and
her desire to be a reporter with a rather condescending amusement. Now isn't
this interesting, isn't this cute that this woman thinks she can do these sorts
of things. But, she showed them, didn't she?
Maureen Corrigan: She came up with a wonderful ruse to actually meet some of
these people. She decided that she would write a free-lance story for the
Pittsburgh paper about what it would be like for a woman journalist trying to
get a job in New York.
NARRATION: USING HER DISPATCH CREDENTIALS, BLY MADE APPOINTMENTS WITH
EVERY MAJOR EDITOR IN THE CITY. SHE ASKED EACH OF THEM THE SAME QUESTION:
"WHAT CHANCE DOES A WOMAN HAVE IN JOURNALISM?"
Brooke Kroeger: They basically say no chance. The things a woman is suited
for, society reporting for example, she usually does not want to do. No editor
in his right mind is going to send a woman to police court or to cover a murder
or a fire because it puts her life at peril.
And so basically, why hire a woman when you can hire a man?
NARRATION: ONE EDITOR TOLD BLY THAT WOMEN HAD A PROBLEM WITH ACCURACY, BUT HER
METICULOUS REPORTING IMPRESSED SOME OF AMERICA'S TOP JOURNALISTS. THEY CALLED
HER "TALENTED...READABLE...BRIGHT AS A NEW PIN."
IT GAVE HER THE CONFIDENCE TO FAST-TALK HER WAY INTO THE OFFICE OF JOHN
COCKERILL, MANAGING EDITOR OF PULITZER'S NEW YORK WORLD, AND INTO A BOLD
NEW KIND OF JOURNALISM.
Maureen Corrigan: I think there were many times in her life where she managed
to be at the right place at the right time and she was the right person for the
moment. And so when she met with Pulitzer's managing editor and almost
insisted on getting a job as a reporter for the New York World, he had
this idea in the back of his mind which was something of a dare -- if you
really want to be a reporter, let's see what you've got.
NARRATION: THE CHALLENGE WAS TERRIFYING. BLY WOULD CREATE A NEW IDENTITY,
PRETEND TO BE INSANE, AND GET HERSELF COMMITTED TO THE MOST NOTORIOUS MADHOUSE
IN NEW YORK CITY. SHE WOULD EXPERIENCE ALL THE HORRORS OF THE ASYLUM FROM AN
INMATE'S POINT OF VIEW. ONCE RELEASED, SHE WOULD WRITE AN EXPOSE FOR THE
NEW YORK WORLD. IF IT WORKED, SHE WOULD HAVE A JOB.
Ellen Fitzpatrick, Historian: This is actually a brilliant strategy because it
allows the reporter to say, I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. This
isn't a collection of statistics, this isn't an interview with an asylum
keeper, this isn't even a commentary by some poor benighted inmate that has now
been let loose who we could never believe anyway because why were they there in
the first place. You can believe me.
NARRATION: THE WOMEN'S ASYLUM ON BLACKWELL'S ISLAND HAD LONG FASCINATED
WRITERS AND REPORTERS. ON HIS AMERICAN TOUR, CHARLES DICKENS VISITED THE
MADHOUSE. HE WAS ENCHANTED BY THE "SPACIOUS AND ELEGANT STAIRCASE," BUT
OPPRESSED BY THE HOPELESS ATMOSPHERE. HE LEFT IN A HURRY. SOME YEARS LATER, A
REPORTER FOR HARPER'S WEEKLY WROTE A FEATURE STORY ABOUT THE WOMEN'S
ASYLUM. AFTER HIS SUPERVISED TOUR, HE CONCLUDED THAT THE ASYLUM WAS A CLEAN
AND COMFORTABLE PLACE, WHERE INMATES WERE TREATED FAIRLY -- EVEN TENDERLY.
NOW, FOR THE FIRST TIME, A REPORTER WOULD EXPLORE THE ASYLUM THROUGH THE EYES
OF A PATIENT.
Brooke Kroeger: This was her chance. She was not going to say no and show any
sort of cowardice. She was not going to do that. This was her moment to get
NARRATION: BLY HERSELF CREATED THE SCENARIO FOR HER MADHOUSE ASSIGNMENT.
AS SHE LATER WROTE, SHE PRACTICED ALL NIGHT LOOKING DAZED AND CONFUSED IN A
MIRROR. THE NEXT MORNING SHE CHECKED INTO A BOARDING HOUSE FOR YOUNG LADIES,
CLAIMING TO BE AN IMMIGRANT FROM CUBA NAMED NELLIE BROWN. SOON AFTER HER
ARRIVAL, SHE BEGAN RANTING INCOHERENTLY, TERRIFYING THE LANDLADY WHO CALLED THE
POLICE. THEY TOOK HER TO POLICE COURT WHERE SHE APPEARED BEFORE A JUDGE.
Brooke Kroeger: The judge looked on her very kindly and thought that she was
somebody's darling who'd gone astray. Decided to call in the reporters from all
the newspapers to see if running a story about this girl would help bring
forward her family.
NARRATION: THE SUN WONDERED: "WHO IS THIS INSANE GIRL?" THE
TIMES WROTE OF "THE MYSTERIOUS WAIF WITH THE WILD HUNTED LOOK IN HER EYES."
THE NEW YORK WORLD, OF COURSE, SAID NOTHING AT ALL. AT BELLEVUE
HOSPITAL, THREE MEDICAL EXPERTS CONCURRED THAT NELLIE BLY SUFFERED FROM
DEMENTIA WITH DELUSIONS OF PERSECUTION. THEY TOOK HER BY FERRY TO THE WOMEN'S
ASYLUM IN THE EAST RIVER OFF OF MANHATTAN.
Caleb Carr, Writer: Obviously it's one of the first investigative journalist's
escapades of deliberately putting yourself in harms way to discover truths
about public institutions. And Blackwell's Island was a very frightening
NARRATION: WHEN THE DOORS OF THE ASYLUM SHUT BEHIND HER, BLY SAW THE SAME
STAIRCASE DICKENS DESCRIBED -- BUT SHE DIDN'T HAVE THE CHOICE TO LEAVE.
Caleb Carr: It's a very grim place. The buildings were actually, probably
when they built them, quite attractive. But that doesn't change the air of
grimness about it. Like many other mental institutions that have been closed
down that I've seen, there's a real sense of the suffering that went on
NARRATION: AS A PATIENT, BLY SAW THE MADHOUSE AS A PLACE WHERE INSANITY WAS
NOT SO MUCH CURED AS CREATED. "TAKE A PERFECTLY SANE AND HEALTHY
WOMAN," SHE WROTE, "SHUT HER UP AND MAKE HER SIT UP STRAIGHT FROM 6 A.M. TO 8
P.M. DO NOT ALLOW HER TO TALK OR MOVE DURING THESE HOURS, GIVE HER NOTHING TO
READ, LET HER KNOW NOTHING OF THE WORLD OR ITS DOINGS, AND SEE HOW LONG IT WILL
TAKE TO MAKE HER INSANE." MEALTIMES PUNCTUATED THE BOREDOM WITH A SPECIAL KIND
OF TERROR. THE INMATES CHOKED DOWN STALE BREAD AND RANCID BUTTER. SOME
REFUSED TO SWALLOW THE FOOD AND WERE THREATENED WITH PUNISHMENT. FOR NELLIE
BLY THE MOST FRIGHTFUL EXPERIENCE WAS BEING GIVEN A BATH.
Brooke Kroeger: To be taken naked by very unkindly attendants to a big tin tub
filled with freezing cold water, to stand there stark naked, have this water
poured over your head in some approximation of a washing...that's the image
that stays with me the most.
NARRATION: "MY TEETH CHATTERED AND MY LIMBS WERE GOOSE-FLESHED AND BLUE WITH
COLD. SUDDENLY I GOT THREE BUCKETS OF WATER OVER MY HEAD -- ICE COLD WATER
TOO -- INTO MY EYES, MY EARS, MY NOSE AND MY MOUTH. I THINK I EXPERIENCED THE
SENSATION OF A DROWNING PERSON AS THEY DRAGGED ME, GASPING, SHIVERING AND
QUAKING, FROM THE TUB. FOR ONCE, I DID LOOK INSANE." BLY WROTE OF LISTENING TO
THE SCREAMS OF A YOUNG WOMAN AS THE ATTENDANTS BATHED AND THEN BEAT HER. THE
NEXT MORNING THE WOMAN WAS DEAD. THE DOCTORS BLAMED HER DEATH ON CONVULSIONS.
BLY BELIEVED THAT SOME OF THE INMATES WEREN'T CRAZY AT ALL -- THEY WERE SIMPLY
DESTITUTE IMMIGRANTS UNABLE TO DEFEND THEMSELVES BECAUSE THEY COULDN'T SPEAK
Caleb Carr: Anybody who can't be made to fit neatly is going to be put away.
I mean, they're going to find a way to get rid of that person. That's what's
so ground breaking about the work that Nellie Bly did is that it reinforces
this notion that, well wait a minute, asylums may not be hospitals. They may
be just clearing houses for people that society finds troublesome and that's
NARRATION: IN A FEW DAYS, BLY QUIT HER THEATRICS AND BEGGED TO BE RE-EXAMINED.
BUT THE MORE SHE TRIED TO ASSURE HER DOCTORS OF HER SANITY, THE MORE THEY
DOUBTED IT. ON THE TENTH DAY, PULITZER SENT AN ATTORNEY TO RESCUE HER.
"THERE WAS A CERTAIN PAIN IN LEAVING," SHE REMEMBERED. "FOR TEN DAYS I HAD
BEEN ONE OF THEM. IT SEEMED INTENSELY SELFISH TO LEAVE
THEM TO THEIR SUFFERING."
Mitch Stephens: This is, this is one of the most amazing aspects of the Nellie
Bly story. What a difficult test the editor of the New York World
devised for her. I think of all the escapades she went on, this is probably
the one that must have taken the most courage.
NARRATION: JUST DAYS AFTER HER RELEASE, BLY'S MADHOUSE EXPOSE, COMPLETE WITH
ILLUSTRATIONS, APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK WORLD.
NARRATION: PAPERS ACROSS AMERICA PRINTED THE EXPLOSIVE SERIES. DOCTORS AT THE
ASYLUM DENIED BLY'S CHARGES OF CRUELTY, BUT COULDN'T EXPLAIN HOW SHE HAD FOOLED
THEM ALL SO EASILY.
Brooke Kroeger: Joseph Pulitzer, of course, loved this and was asked by an
old reporter friend of Nellie's what he thought of her feat. And he said,
"Obviously this girl is very suited for this profession, and of course I have
given her a very large bonus."
NARRATION: THAT YEAR, NEW YORK CITY VOTED A SUBSTANTIAL INCREASE IN FUNDS TO
IMPROVE CONDITIONS AT THE ASYLUM. AND BLY PUBLISHED A BOOK BASED ON HER
NEWSPAPER STORY. AS FOR THE REPORTERS WHO'D BEEN DUPED BY THE MYSTERIOUS
NELLIE BROWN -- THEY HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO RECOGNIZE THE NEW TALENT IN THEIR
MIDST. BLY WAS ONLY 23 WHEN SHE PIONEERED A NEW KIND OF UNDERCOVER,
INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM. They called it stunt reporting.
Brooke Kroeger: It was aimed at boosting circulation, but at the same time it
was very much aimed at investigation and doing good and changing society. It
involved, you know, Nellie posing as a domestic employee to see how the
employment agencies were treating women who came with little education and
little possibility to find work. It would have her posing as an unwed mother
trying to sell a baby to expose the baby-buying trade in New York. It used a
million avenues like this that really were about social reform, which of
course, was such an important part of what was happening in the 1880's and
NARRATION: STUNT REPORTING SOLD NEWSPAPERS AND PULITZER PUSHED FOR MORE. WEEK
AFTER WEEK, BLY FILLED THE PAGES OF THE NEW YORK WORLD WITH CLEVER, ACCURATE,
FEARLESS REPORTING. ONE OF HER STUNTS FORCED A CROOKED LOBBYIST TO LEAVE TOWN.
HE NEVER DREAMED SHE WAS A REPORTER.
Catherine Robe, Journalist: And she really played up this -- this aura of
innocence, naiveté to trap the people who would have never thought that
she was what she was. I don't know, they -- people thought that reporters were
hard boiled men who drank a lot and swore a lot and smoked a lot of cigars.
And Nellie Bly just didn't fit that stereotype.
Narration: BY THE NEW YEAR OF 1888, BLY WAS PERFORMING A STUNT A WEEK. AT
TIMES SHE PLAYED THE ROLE OF THE TOWN REFORMER. AT OTHERS, THE TOWN FLIRT.
SHE POSED AS A CHORUS GIRL FOR A DAY AND TOLD OF DRESSING IN A CROWDED ROOM,
TIGHTS THAT DIDN'T FIT, AND MAKING A FOOL OF HERSELF ON STAGE.
While interviewing the boxer John L. Sullivan, she felt his muscles, asking:
"Do you take cold bath showers? How are you rubbed down?" Afterwards,
according to Bly, Sullivan told her , "I have given you more than I ever gave
any reporter in my life."
Catherine Robe: Always, the main character in any Nellie Bly story is Nellie
Bly herself, and she was very much a character.
Brooke Kroeger: She wasn't modest about anything. I mean, this was very much
part of the Bly persona. And part of, I think, what made her reading so
compelling because you were just astonished at what she was willing to say
about herself, including, you know, her sparkling eyes and her fantastic smile
and her tiny little wasp-waist. We hear about these things over and over and
Maureen Corrigan: I mean, reporters use what they have and the fact that she
was a woman was really a strike against her so if she could turn that around
and somehow make the fact of her being a female interviewer an asset in a
story, I say more power to her.
NARRATION: IN A VICTORIAN WORLD, NELLIE BLY WAS A HINT OF THINGS TO COME. AS A
NEW CENTURY APPROACHED, AMERICAN WOMEN WERE BREAKING THE RULES. THEY RODE
BICYCLES, WORE BLOOMERS, SMOKED CIGARETTES -- ENTERED POLITICS. DECADES BEFORE
WOMEN HAD THE RIGHT TO VOTE, BLY INTERVIEWED ATTORNEY BELVA LOCKWOOD, THE FIRST
WOMAN ALLOWED TO PLEAD A CASE BEFORE THE SUPREME COURT AND THE SECOND TO RUN
FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. LOCKWOOD SAID HER SUPPORTERS WERE
NEITHER WORKING SLAVES NOR SOCIETY DOLLS "THINKING WOMEN" SHE
CALLED THEM. WHEN BLY INTERVIEWED SUSAN B. ANTHONY, SHE WANTED TO KNOW IF THE
FEMINIST LEADER HAD EVER BEEN IN LOVE. "YES," WAS THE ANSWER. "BUT I NEVER
FELT I COULD GIVE UP MY LIFE OF FREEDOM TO BECOME A MAN'S HOUSE-KEEPER."
Maureen Corrigan: And what she seems to do is involve her reader in the
daringness of asking these questions. So, there was a way that she had, I
feel, of hooking the reader into the adventure of the interview that she was
NARRATION: BY THE FALL OF 1889, BLY WAS WORKING HARDER THAN EVER. BECAUSE NOW
SHE WASN'T THE ONLY STUNT GIRL IN THE BUSINESS.
Brooke Kroeger: Joseph Pulitzer had a very specific tactic of always pitting
talent against talent. He did this among his managers, and he did this among
his best reporters. He would always lay on competition.
Catherine Robe: The World made copies of Nellie Bly. Picked women --
other women journalist, said do exactly this -- do exactly what she does.
Write exactly like she does.
Brooke Kroeger: We had young women posing as flower vendors outside the Union
Club to see who would come and solicit them among New York's social elite. We
would have Viola Roseborough posing as a raggedy beggar to see what it's like
to be a beggar for the day. I'm not sure what the social value of that was,
but it certainly made for good reading.
Catherine Robe: One of my favorites is -- Meg Merriles feels what it's like to
be shot! And there's a picture of her standing against a wall, very bravely,
with an early bullet-proof vest on. And she was actually shot and they show a
picture of the bullet before and after and. Completely dangerous, ridiculous
stunts that really proved nothing. And yet because they were -- they grabbed
your attention these women did them and it was a way for them to enter
Brooke Kroeger: What I think stunt journalism achieved for women because it
was effective as a circulation booster for almost a decade, which is pretty
long time for a gimmick to stay operative, was the fact that it gave women an
opportunity to display that they had the skills of any good reporter -- because
you needed all those skills to do this work. Nellie Bly, two and a half years
into her tenure on the World was a goddess. She certainly did this better,
more sensationally, and to greater effect than anyone else.
AROUND THE WORLD
NARRATION: IN THE FALL OF 1889, THE NEW YORK WORLD LAID A
CORNER-STONE FOR A BRAND NEW BUILDING. IT WOULD HAVE A GOLD DOME AND AT
TWENTY-SIX STORIES, WOULD BE THE TALLEST OFFICE BUILDING IN THE WORLD. TO
CELEBRATE HIS NEW IMAGE, PULITZER WAS SEARCHING FOR A GREAT NEW STUNT. BLY
CAME UP WITH A BRILLIANT IDEA, BUT SHE HAD TO CONVINCE PULITZER'S EDITOR TO LET
HER DO WHAT NO ONE -- MAN OR WOMAN -- HAD EVER DONE BEFORE.
Muriel Nussbaum: Finally, he comes to her and he says, "Can you leave for
around the world the day after tomorrow? The steamship Augusta Victoria
is leaving for Southampton England. Can you be ready? And she said, "Yes, I
NARRATION: IT WAS THE RIGHT TIME IN HISTORY FOR A RECORD-BREAKING STUNT.
JULES VERNE'S AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS HAD APPEARED IN ENGLISH
FIFTEEN YEARS BEFORE. A SPECTACULAR DRAMA BASED ON THE NOVEL PLAYED TO
SOLD-OUT CROWDS IN NEW YORK CITY AND THE FICTIONAL PHILEAS FOGG WAS NOW AN
AMERICAN HERO. BUT NO ONE HAD EVEN TRIED TO BREAK FOGG'S RECORD. MOST
AMERICANS SAW THE WORLD THROUGH A POPULAR DEVICE CALLED A STEREOSCOPE. THE
BRAVE FEW WHO VENTURED AROUND THE WORLD WERE LUCKY TO MAKE IT IN LESS THAN A
YEAR. TO DO IT IN LESS THAN 80 DAYS, BLY WOULD NEED EVERY BREAK SHE COULD GET.
ABOVE ALL, SHE WOULD HAVE TO TRAVEL LIGHT. SHE TOOK 200 BRITISH POUNDS SILVER,
AND A SMALL AMOUNT OF AMERICAN MONEY -- AS AN EXPERIMENT TO SEE IF OTHER
COUNTRIES WOULD ACCEPT IT. SHE BROUGHT ALONG A 24 HOUR WATCH AND, THOUGH SHE
HAD NO ROOM TO SPARE, A BULKY JAR OF COLD CREAM. SHE CARRIED MOST OF WHAT SHE
TOOK IN A TINY GRIP SACK. DRESSED IN WHAT WOULD BECOME HER SIGNATURE COAT, SHE
WAS ABOUT TO EMBARK ON THE "LONGEST JOURNEY KNOWN TO MANKIND" -- IN THE
SHORTEST POSSIBLE TIME.
NARRATION: NOVEMBER 14, 1889. NELLIE BLY SAILED FROM NEW JERSEY ON THE
STEAMSHIP AUGUSTA VICTORIA --PREPARED TO TRAVEL BY SHIP, TRAIN,
CARRIAGE, DONKEY, JRICKSHA, SAMPAN AND CATAMARAN. SHE LEFT WITH OMINOUS
THOUGHTS OF KILLER STORMS AND SHIPWRECKS, WONDERING IF SHE'D MAKE IT HOME
ALIVE. HER EDITOR ENTERTAINED NO SUCH FEARS: "SHE'LL ADD ANOTHER TO HER LIST
OF TRIUMPHS," SAID THE HEADLINES. NELLIE BLY A "VERITABLE FEMININE PHILEAS
FOGG." IF THE GOAL WAS SELLING NEWSPAPERS, THIS WAS THE PERFECT STUNT. THE
AUGUSTA VICTORIA CROSSED THE ATLANTIC IN 6 DAYS, 21 HOURS.
A CORRESPONDENT FOR THE NEW YORK WORLD MET BLY IN ENGLAND WITH AN
IRRESISTIBLE PROPOSAL: IF SHE WERE WILLING TO RISK FALLING BEHIND SCHEDULE,
SHE COULD MEET JULES VERNE. A FRANTIC TRAIN RIDE, CARRIAGE RIDE AND CHANNEL
CROSSING LATER, BLY WAS SHARING WINE AND BISCUITS WITH JULES VERNE AT HIS HOME
IN AMIENS, FRANCE.
Muriel Nussbaum: And then he took her out into the hall where he had a map
with Phileas Fogg's route and then on the same map he lined up her route. So
she was very excited about that.
NARRATION: FRANCE TO ITALY. NOW SHE HAD TO MAKE EVERY CONNECTION ON TIME,
STOPPING TO CABLE HER NEWSPAPER WHENEVER SHE HAD THE CHANCE. DAY 11 --NOVEMBER
25. BLY ARRIVED BY MAIL TRAIN IN BRINDISI, ITALY AND WENT ON A FRENZIED
SEARCH FOR THE NEAREST TELEGRAPH OFFICE. "IT WAS IN A BUILDING DOWN A DARK
STREET," SHE WROTE. "IT HAD ONE SMALL WINDOW LIKE A SHOP WINDOW IN A POST
OFFICE. BUT IT APPEARED TO BE CLOSED." BLY'S ARRIVAL WOKE UP THE AGENT.
BEFORE HE SENT HER CABLE, HE HAD A QUESTION: IN WHAT COUNTRY EXACTLY IS THIS
PLACE CALLED NEW YORK? BLY'S CABLE WENT FROM BRINDISI TO THE MAIN TERMINAL IN
ROME, THEN THROUGH GIANT CABLES STRUNG FOR 2,500 MILES ALONG THE BOTTOM OF THE
ATLANTIC OCEAN -- REACHING NEW YORK CITY IN JUST A FEW HOURS. BUT HER
DETAILED HAND-WRITTEN REPORT WOULD TRAVEL BY SHIP AND TAKE TWO WEEKS. IN THE
MEANTIME, HER EDITOR HAD TO MAKE A LOT OUT OF A LITTLE.
Brooke Kroeger: So The World vamped. They had to keep interest up so
they were running geography lessons on the places she was going to visit. They
were running reports from other newspapers about what people were saying about
fantastic Nellie on the fly.
Catherine Robe: Well, it involved all of the characteristics of a great thing
to watch. It had unusual modes of transportation. She talked about eating
strange things -- all sorts of things that people who lived in New York would
never have the chance to see. It's gotta be big, it's gotta be flashy, and
Nellie Bly's trip around the world certainly was.
Muriel Nussbaum: When she went to the ticket office in Hong Kong, to buy her
ticket to Japan, that's when she learned about Elizabeth Bisland, who had been
sent by Cosmopolitan Magazine to see if she could beat Nellie Bly. And the man
behind the ticket office says, "Miss Bly, I'm afraid you are going to be beaten
in your trip around the world. So she thinks it over and she says, "No, I'm
not racing with anyone. If somebody else thinks she can do it faster than I
can, that's her business. I know what I have to do. I promised my editor
that I was going to go around the world in 79 days or less. May I please have
my ticket to Japan?"
NARRATION: DAY 41. CHRISTMAS. NELLIE WAS HALFWAY AROUND THE WORLD SPENDING
THE MORNING AT A LEPER COLONY IN CANTON, CHINA AND HAVING LUNCH AT THE TEMPLE
OF THE DEAD. NEW YEARS DAY 1890. ON BOARD THE OCEANIC SAILING FOR
JAPAN, BLY ENDURED ANOTHER BRUTAL STORM. SHE COULDN'T AFFORD TO LOSE EVEN A
Brooke Kroeger: At the point at which it appeared that she might not make it,
her first response is, "I would rather go back to New York dead, than not a
winner." That's how important it was to her.
NARRATION: DAY 55. 8,000 MILES TO GO. THE OCEANIC SET SAIL ACROSS
THE PACIFIC. TWO WEEKS OF DARK SKIES, WIND AND WATER INSPIRE NOTHING BUT
WORRY. WHERE IS HER COMPETITOR, ELIZABETH BISLAND? DAY 68. THE
OCEANIC DOCKED IN SAN FRANCISCO. HEARING A RUMOR ABOUT A SMALLPOX
QUARANTINE ON BOARD SHIP, BLY JUMPED INTO A TUGBOAT WITH HER MONKEY, AND HEADED
FOR LAND. TWENTY THOUSAND MILES BEHIND HER -- THREE THOUSAND TO GO.
Muriel Nussbaum: Her trip home was an absolute triumph from the minute she
arrived in San Francisco. As she says, "There were crowds, flowers, cheering,
The World had chartered a special train to take me as far as Chicago.
It consisted of one sleeping coach and one engine. And that trip from San
Francisco to Chicago was the fastest on record, 67 hours."
NARRATION: IN CHICAGO, IN THE WHEAT PIT, STOCKBROKERS VOTED NELLIE BLY ONE OF
THE BOYS, TO THE SOUND OF THREE CHEERS AND A TIGER! HALLEN AND HART SANG A NEW
TUNE "GLOBE TROTTING NELLIE BLY," ELIZABETH BISLAND HAD FALLEN HOPELESSLY
BEHIND. IN PITTSBURGH, PANDEMONIUM -- HALF THE PEOPLE IN THE CHEERING CROWD
WERE WOMEN. PITTSBURGH TO JERSEY CITY -- 300 MILES TO GO. THE ONLY QUESTION
NOW -- WHAT WILL HER FINAL TIME BE? JANUARY 25, 1890. NELLIE BLY ARRIVED IN
JERSEY CITY WHERE HER TRIP HAD BEGUN. CANNONS BOOMED, TIMEKEEPERS STOPPED
THEIR WATCHES: 72 DAYS, SIX HOURS, ELEVEN MINUTES, AND FOURTEEN SECONDS.
SHE'S BEATEN PHILEAS FOGG BY NEARLY A WEEK.
NARRATION: "THE STAGECOACH DAYS ARE ENDED," CROWDED THE NEW YORK
WORLD. "THE NEW AGE OF LIGHTNING TRAVEL BEGUN." AROUND THE WORLD, A
SLENDER YOUNG WOMAN IN A CHECKERED COAT BECAME A SYMBOL OF AMERICAN PRIDE AND
Catherine Robe: She was a celebrity at a time when the whole notion of
celebrity was beginning to be invented. She was an advertiser's dream because
everyone recognized her name and everyone assumed that if her name, Nellie Bly,
was connected with something it would sell. Which showed that she was big
NARRATION: THEY NAMED A HOTEL AFTER HER -- AND A RACE HORSE AND A TRAIN. AT
AGE 25, NELLIE BLY WAS THE MOST FAMOUS WOMAN ON EARTH. HER
MOMENT DIDN'T LAST LONG. THE AGE OF LIGHTNING TRAVEL USHERED IN THE AGE OF
MOTION PICTURES, HORSELESS CARRIAGES, AND YELLOW JOURNALISM. IN SUCH A WORLD,
THE STUNT GIRL CAME TO SEEM MORE QUAINT THAN DARING. SOME OF BLY'S BEST
REPORTING LAY AHEAD. IN 1893, SHE INTERVIEWED ONE OF THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL
POLITICAL FIGURES IN THE COUNTRY, ANARCHIST EMMA GOLDMAN. WHEN SOCIAL UNREST
SEEMED TO BE TEARING THE NATION APART, BLY WENT TO CHICAGO TO COVER THE PULLMAN
RAILROAD STRIKE. FEDERAL TROOPS HAD FIRED ON WORKERS AND SHE WAS THE ONLY
REPORTER TO TELL THE STORY FROM THE STRIKER'S POINT OF VIEW. NELLIE BLY DIDN'T
WANT TO BE A REPORTER FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE, BUT SHE NEVER FOUND ANYTHING
ELSE SHE COULD AS WELL. SHE WROTE A NOVEL, WHICH FAILED TO SELL. AT AGE 30,
SHE MARRIED A 70 YEAR OLD INDUSTRIALIST NAMED ROBERT SEAMAN, AND FOR A WHILE,
ENJOYED LIFE AS A WEALTHY NEW YORK MATRON. AFTER TEN YEARS OF MARRIAGE HER
HUSBAND DIED. SHE TOOK OVER HIS IRON CLAD FACTORY, ADVERTISING HERSELF AS "THE
ONLY WOMAN IN THE WORLD PERSONALLY MANAGING INDUSTRIES OF SUCH A MAGNITUDE."
WHEN THE BUSINESS WENT BANKRUPT, BLY RETURNED TO REPORTING -- USING HER FORUM
AS A JOURNALIST TO FIND HOMES FOR ABANDONED CHILDREN.
Brooke Kroeger: I think she was quite prominent but I also think she was seen
as more relic than icon. Young reporters no longer saw her as a model, they
saw her more as a curiosity. As someone who was kind of left over from another
NARRATION: NELLIE BLY DIED OF PNEUMONIA IN 1922. SHE WAS 58 YEARS OLD.
"ENERGY RIGHTLY APPLIED CAN ACCOMPLISH ANYTHING" HAD ALWAYS BEEN HER MOTTO.
THE GIRL FROM COCHRAN'S MILLS WHO COULD HARDLY SPELL WAS PROCLAIMED, IN THE
END, "THE BEST REPORTER IN AMERICA."