Nellie's First Job
After her divorce, Nellie Bly's mother Mary Jane took her daughter to Allegheny City, an unincorporated part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where two of her sons were living. By that time the city, the steel capital of the country, had earned the reputation as the "blackest, dirtiest, grimiest city in the United States," as one contemporary described it.
The city had only 60,000 people, yet boasted seven daily newspapers. The Pittsburgh "Dispatch" was one of the city's two major morning papers and employed the most revered newspaper columnist in town, Erasmus Wilson. He was the newspaper's "Quiet Observer," or Q.O. for short, author of a column that ran for more than three decades.
One of the column's most avid readers was the 20-year-old Elizabeth Jane Cochrane. (Pinky, as she was called, added the "e" to her last name to give it more sophistication.) She read the series in which Wilson complained about women who were entering the work force. He told women to let up on the business sphere and make the "home a little paradise" and to play "the part of angel." In another piece, Q.O. wrote that a woman who worked outside the home was "a monstrosity.... There is no greater abnormality than a woman in breeches, unless it is a man in petticoats."
Bly, like many women in the city, was offended by the series, and unleashed her anger in a letter to the paper. Bly wrote that Q.O. had no understanding of the plight of young women, explaining that she had spent the last four years in working class Allegheny row houses. There, she had met the poor young women who so often were unable to find a good job. She signed it "Lonely Orphan Girl."
The letter first landed on the desk of George Madden, managing editor for the "Dispatch," who was struck by its spirit. He passed it on to Wilson saying "she isn't much for style, but what she has to say she says right out regardless of paragraphs or punctuation." He thought the girl might be able to bring something to the newspaper and the men placed an ad asking for the girl to identify herself by name and address.
Bly skipped the letter and instead showed up at the office. Madden, impressed with her, asked her to compose an article on "the woman's sphere." Bly obliged. The piece was a harbinger of things to come, as Bly spoke of the rights of women and the injustices of poverty. It was entitled "The Girl Puzzle."
In the piece, she spoke of those "without talent, without beauty, without money." She continued: "We cannot let them starve. Can they that have full and plenty of this world's goods realize what it is to be a poor working woman, abiding in one or two bare rooms, without fire enough to keep warm, while her threadbare clothes refuse to protect her from the wind and cold, and denying herself necessary food that her little ones may not go hungry; fearing the landlord's frown and threat to cast her out and sell what little she has, begging for employment of any kind that she may earn enough to pay for the bare rooms she calls home."
Showing her flare for powerful and dramatic insight, Bly went on to tell the wealthy that these poor women "read of what your last pug dog cost and think of what that vast sum would have done for them -- paid father's doctor bill, bought mother a new dress, shoes for the little ones, and imagine how nice it would be could baby have the beef tea that is made for your favorite pug, or the care and kindness that is bestowed upon it."
The young Bly even suggested remedies. If ambitious young men could start as errand boys and climb up the ladder to responsible and well-paying positions, why not girls? "Just as smart and a great deal quicker to learn; why, then, can they not do the same?" Instead of working young women in airless factories, Bly suggested employing them as messengers or office "boys." She asked: why not make a girl a conductor on the Pullman Palace car?
The "Dispatch" paid her for her first article, and her second, on divorce, entitled "Mad Marriages." Bly recommended that Pennsylvania's divorce laws be reformed and called for potential spouses to reveal who they were in writing before they be allowed to sign a marriage license. In an echo of her mother's own failed marriage to an alcoholic, Bly also asked that women be allowed to get a divorce from men who were criminals or "by means of dissolute habits, laziness or poverty, are likely to make the home wretched."
Bly then suggested she write a series on the factory girls of Pittsburgh for the newspaper. Madden had seen enough. He hired her at $5 a week, a little more than made by the factory girls Bly would soon be interviewing.
Madden knew the name "Orphan Girl" would no longer do as a byline. In the custom of the period, women journalists were not supposed to reveal their true identities. Madden called for a name that was "neat and catchy." The men in the newsroom made suggestions and the name "Nellie Bly" was proffered. The name had been made famous by one of Pittsburgh's favorite sons, the great songwriter Stephen Foster. The working class reporter was named after a "colored servant" that Foster had made famous in a song written before the Civil War.
In his haste, though, Madden spelled the Nelly of the song as "Nellie." It didn't matter. However her name was spelled, it was clear that the reporter Nellie Bly, just 20 years old, was named appropriately as she would continue to write for the likes of Nelly and her many under-privileged sisters.
A Trip Around the World
As Nellie Bly tells the story, it was on a Sunday in the fall of 1888 that the idea came to her. Feeling restless, she had the urge to go elsewhere and travel the globe like the fictional Phileas Fogg, the protagonist of Jules Verne's well-read "Around the World in Eighty Days."
It was then that the inspiration came to Bly: Why not have the "New York World," the newspaper she worked for, send her on a race around the globe to beat the 80-day trek of the fictional Fogg? Like so many other Bly story ideas, this was a winner that would capture the public's interest -- and once again put the young female journalist on center stage.
On Monday morning, she proposed the idea to managing editor John A. Cockerill. For a year, Cockerill and the other men at the newspaper put off Bly. Much of the senior staff's reluctance had to do with Bly's gender. "World" business manager George W. Turner preferred a man for the project. A man did not need a chaperone, Turner argued. Besides, he said, a man could leave behind the "dozen trunks" that a woman would also need for such a trip.
Bly was far from convinced. She replied that she would travel light -- and that she did not need a chaperone. After a year of rebukes, Bly heard rumors that the editors had selected a man. Her direct and feisty response was classic Bly. "Very well," she threatened. "Start the man and I'll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him."
Cockerill acquiesced. The decision was made to send her on a Monday, and on Thursday she sailed off in an attempt to better the 80 days of the fictional Fogg. Bly carried only one piece of hand luggage for the journey and it was just 16 inches wide and seven inches high. Into it she squeezed two traveling caps, three veils, a pair of slippers, toilet articles, an ink stand, pens, pencils, paper, pins, needles, thread, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, a small flask, a drinking cup, a few changes of underwear, handkerchiefs and a jar of cold cream. Many suggested she take along a revolver. She left it behind.
"It will be seen," Bly wrote, "that if one is traveling simply for the sake of traveling and not for the purpose of impressing one's fellow passengers, the problem of baggage becomes a very simple one."
The "World" gave her 200 pounds in English gold, which went into her pockets, and bank notes that she stored in a chamois-skin bag. She also took along some American money to see who in the world would accept it.
On the morning of November 14, 1889, Bly set sail from Hoboken Pier on a liner named the Augusta Victoria. The "World," once reluctant to send her, now put its full resources behind the voyage. "The `World' today undertakes the task of turning a dream into reality. . . " read the newspaper's page-one story. "Nellie Bly, so well known to millions who have read of her doings, as told by her captivating pen, will set out as a female Phileas Fogg.... ''
In a little over six days, Bly arrived in England. The "World"'s London correspondent, Tracy Greaves, met her and told her that Jules Verne wanted to meet her. Assured the side trip would not ruin her tight schedule, Bly traveled day and night to Amiens, France.
Verne asked her where Bly would stop. She had her itinerary memorized: New York to London, then Calais, Brindisi, Port Said, Ismailia, Suez, Aden, Colombo, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Yokohama, San Francisco, and then, if all went as planned, a triumphant return to New York City. If Bly could be said to be riding on Verne's literary success, she repaid the favor by bringing fresh publicity to his novel. "Around the World in 80 Days" was re-issued in over 10 new editions.
Since Bly's reports took a long time to arrive back in New York, the "World" had to fabricate news during the time she was gone. One ploy was to launch a sweepstakes that asked readers to guess exactly how long Bly's trip would take. By the end of the solo circumnavigation, the newspaper would receive over half a million guesses.
Everywhere Bly went, she brought her feminist and progressive perspective on the world. In Port Said, Bly saw that, to keep the beggars at bay, the male boat passengers took to the streets with canes and the women with parasols . Bly, refused to take the casual weapons with her, saying that "a stick beats more ugliness into a person than it ever beats out." On shore in Singapore, Bly visited a Hindu temple, but a holy man prevented her from entering. Bly's response was true to form:
"Why?" I demanded, curious to know why my sex in heathen lands should exclude me from a temple, as in America it confines me to the side entrances of hotels and other strange and incommodious things.
"No, señora, no mudder," the priest said with a positive shake of the head. "I'm not a mother!" I cried so indignantly that my companions burst into laughter, which I joined after a while, but my denials had no effect on the priest.
Bly observed the world around her carefully, but also kept a worried watch on the pace of her trip. After a required overnight in Singapore that threatened her next connection in Hong Kong, she later wrote, "What agony of suspense and impatience I suffered that night!" Caught in a brutal storm on her way to Japan that again threatened the success she said, "I'd rather go back to New York dead than not a winner."
When she arrived in San Francisco, it became apparent that her fears were for naught: she would best Fogg's fictional record. She described the transcontinental run that followed as a "maze of happy greetings, happy wishes, congratulating telegrams, fruit, flowers, loud cheers, wild hurrahs, rapid hand-shaking and a beautiful car filled with fragrant flowers attached to a swift engine that was tearing like mad through flower-dotted valleys and over snow-tipped mountains."
Bly described her journey as a queen's ride. Everywhere she went she met cheering crowds. Bly wrote that she "rejoiced with them that it was an American girl who had done it." At the tender age of 25, Bly was the most famous woman on earth. Nellie Bly songs were sung in music halls. A Nellie Bly housecoat was advertised. The "World," not afraid to cash in on its star reporter, even marketed a parlor game called "Round the World with Nellie Bly."
When a reporter from "The San Francisco Chronicle" remarked that her mad dash around the world was something quite remarkable, Bly responded: "Oh, I don't know. It's not so very much for a woman to do who has the pluck, energy and independence which characterize many women in this day of push and get-there." Bly was suggesting that she was more than just a lone and feisty reporter. Her bold trip was a symbol of the newly politicized and independent women of her age who fought for new possibilities that now included a trip around the world -- without a chaperone.