People & Events
The girl who would later take on the pen name Nellie Bly and help launch a new
kind of investigative journalism was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864
in Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania. The similarity between her surname and her
birthplace was no coincidence: the town was named after its most prominent
citizen, her father Michael Cochran, a wealthy landowner, judge, and
businessman. He had ten children by his first wife. After she died, he married
again and had five more children, the third of which was Elizabeth, considered
the most rebellious child in the family.
Her father died when Elizabeth, nicknamed Pink or Pinky, was only six years
old. The death was a terrible financial blow, as he left no will to protect the
interests of his second family. A year after his death Elizabeth's family had
to auction off its mansion and was thrown into hard times.
Elizabeth's mother, feeling the need for some financial security, hastily
entered into a disastrous marriage to a man who abused her. When she filed for
divorce, Elizabeth testified at the trial. "My stepfather has been generally
drunk since he married my mother," Elizabeth told the court. "When drunk he is
very cross and cross when sober."
Wanting an independent life, and looking for a way to support her mother, Bly
went to the Indiana Normal School at the age of 15 to train to become a
teacher, one of the few professions open to women of the time. But after one
semester she was told there was no money to continue. She then moved with her
mother to Pittsburgh, which would be Pink's home for the next seven years. She
helped run a boarding house, yet had a hard time finding full-time work.
Her dream of finding work as a writer seemed distant when she read a series of
columns by the Pittsburgh Dispatch's "Quiet Observer," or Q.O., the pen name
for Erasmus Wilson, Pittsburgh's most popular columnist. Wilson wrote that
women belonged in the home doing domestic tasks such as sewing, cooking and
raising children and called the working woman "a monstrosity." Elizabeth, familiar
with the many young women who had to work to survive in industrial Pittsburgh,
read the column with anger and wrote a letter to the newspaper. The paper,
impressed with the spirit of the girl, hired her and gave her the pen name
"Nellie Bly," after the Stephen Foster song.
In a glimpse of her work to come, Bly wrote her first story about the
difficulties of poor working girls. In her second, she called for the reform of
the state's divorce laws. She then did a series about the factory girls of
Pittsburgh. Despite her investigative tendencies, the editors at the newspaper
relegated Bly to the women's page and assigned her stories about flower shows
and fashion. Bly found a way out by convincing the editors to let her be a foreign correspondent in
Mexico, where she observed and then sent back stories about the everyday lives
of the Mexican people. When she returned, however, the "Dispatch" again
confined her to the women's page.
That was enough. Nellie left a note for Wilson that clearly stated her
plans: "Dear Q.O., I'm off for New York. Look out for me. Bly."
For six months, Nellie knocked on the doors of New York newspapers. Finally,
she talked her way into the office of John Cockerill, managing editor of Joseph
Pulitzer's "New York World." In what was either a bold challenge or a veiled
brush off, he asked that she write a story about the mentally ill housed at a
large institution in New York City. She did, impersonating a mad person, and
came back from Blackwell's Island 10 days later with stories of cruel beatings,
ice cold baths and forced meals that included rancid butter.
Her story, appearing with illustrations, was published in the "New York World."
Her report of the cruelty stirred the public and politicians and brought money
and needed reforms to the institution. At only 23 years of age, Bly had begun
to pioneer a new kind of undercover, investigative journalism that her peers,
somewhat jealously called "stunt reporting."
In the years ahead, Bly exposed both corruption and the injustice of poverty,
revealing shady lobbyists, the ways in which women prisoners were treated by
police, the in adequate medical care given to the poor, and much more. The young
reporter always sided with the poor and the disenfranchised, as when she went
to Chicago in 1894 to cover the Pullman Railroad strike and was the only
reporter who told of the strike from the perspective of the strikers. Bly's
personality was always part of her stories, and she injected her reactions,
feelings and observations into whatever the subject she was covering. Bly's
fame also opened up doors of the rich and famous, and she profiled the likes of
boxer John L. Sullivan, suffragist Susan B. Anthony, and anarchist Emma
Perhaps the peak of Bly's fame came when she took a whirlwind trip around the
world in 1889 to beat Phileas Fogg, the fictional hero of Jules Verne's "Around
the World in Eighty Days." Traveling by ship, train and burro, she returned
back to New York in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes as a celebrity, cheered by
crowds of men as well as women.
At the age of 30, Bly married a 70-year-old industrialist named Robert Seaman.
She lived as a New York City matron until her husband died ten years later. She
ran the business until it went bankrupt and then returned to reporting. She
picked up where she had left off, using her forum as a journalist to find homes
for abandoned children. She was employed by the "New York Journal" when she died from pneumonia, in 1922, at the age of 57.