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Around the World in 72 Days | Article

Nellie and other 19th-century writers

Nellie Bly


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 Goldman.

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.

Margaret Fuller


A brilliant literary critic, tenacious reporter, and passionate social revolutionary, Margaret Fuller broke new ground for women in every way that she could.

Born in 1810 in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, Fuller spent her childhood in a grueling course of study prescribed by her father. She read English at age two and Latin at six. By the time she reached her teens, she could discuss classic literary and philosophical works with ease.

After a brief career as a teacher, Fuller relocated to Boston, where from 1839-1844 she led "conversations" for women on intellectual topics. In 1840 the Transcendentalist philosophers, many of whom were Fuller's friends, founded a magazine, "The Dial," with Margaret as editor.

Horace Greeley, editor of the "New York Tribune" brought Fuller onto his staff to write literary criticism in 1844, making her the first woman in America to hold such a position. But Fuller wasn't content with life as a reviewer and made it her business to dig through the city's dark corners, producing stunning reformist exposés. In 1845 Greeley published Fuller's landmark book, "Woman in the Nineteenth Century," which argued for women's equality in all aspects of life.

Fuller traveled to Europe in 1846, becoming the first female international correspondent, entertaining "Tribune" readers with portraits of Thomas Carlyle, Frederic Chopin, and George Sand. Swept into the Italian revolution, Fuller married Giovanni Angelo, a young republican, and headed to the battlefront.

When the French crushed the Italian revolution in 1850, Fuller sailed for America with her family on the Elizabeth, which sank off New York in heavy seas. Among the dead were Margaret Fuller, her husband, and her son. Neither Fuller's body nor her last manuscript, which chronicled the revolution, were ever recovered.

Annie Laurie


From society murders to tidal waves, sex scandals to suffering orphans, the front pages of the William Randolph Hearst's newspapers sold sensation from coast to coast. And on front page after front page, story after story, the byline attached was that of Annie Laurie.

Born on October 14, 1863, in Chilton, Wisconsin, Martha Winifred Sweet began her professional life as an actress. On a trip West in 1889 she bluffed her way onto the staff of Hearst's "San Francisco Examiner," adopted the pen name Annie Laurie, and took her first assignment -- covering a flower show. But Annie Laurie would not settle for life on the society page.

Like Nellie Bly before her, Laurie discovered that shocking stories sold papers and brought acclaim. Disguised as an indigent patient, she exposed improper conduct by the staff of San Francisco's city hospital. She traveled to Utah to titillate readers with details of polygamous marriages among Mormons, and to Hawaii, where she penned firsthand accounts of life in the leper colony at Molokai. Laurie disavowed the appellation "sob sister," but her characteristically maudlin prose often detailed the deaths of unfortunate children, the lives of fallen women, and the travails of the down and out.

Annie Laurie covered some of the most important stories in the nation's history, including the murder trial of socialite Harry K. Thaw, the destruction of Galveston, Texas, by a hurricane, and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. She wrote well into her later years and developed a worldwide following. When she died in 1936, she lay in state at City Hall in San Francisco, where thousands came to mourn her passing.

Ida B. Wells


A militant, one-woman, anti-lynching crusade, Ida B. Wells endured death threats, the destruction of her business, and a hostile legal system as she fought for justice for African Americans.

Ida B. Wells' career as an activist began in 1884. Just twenty-two, she sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad for failing to provide separate but equal facilities for blacks, winning an initial award of $500 that was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

After gaining prominence as a writer for black church newspapers, Wells took part ownership in a Memphis paper, the "Free Speech and Headlight," in 1889. Under her leadership, the "Free Speech" prospered, delivering an equal rights message to blacks throughout the Mississippi delta.

In 1891 whites in Memphis lynched three black grocery operators, all of whom were Wells' friends. When the "Free Speech" responded by encouraging blacks to boycott white-owned businesses or abandon Memphis altogether, angry whites destroyed the paper's offices and threatened to murder anyone who attempted to resume publication.

Wells retreated to New York, where as part owner of the "New York Age," she continued her crusade. She lectured across the North and in venues as distant as Britain, where her compelling speeches fomented anti-lynching sentiment.

After moving to Chicago, Wells married attorney Ferdinand Lee Barnett, owner of the black newspaper, "The Conservator." She published the first compilations of lynching statistics and risked her life to report firsthand from scenes of racial violence. Wells supported many other political causes as well, founding a community house in Chicago's poorest neighborhood and forming the Alpha Suffrage Group, the first such organization for black women. She died in 1931 at the age of 69.

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