Throughout human history, there have been rare people who stand out for their charisma, skills, or achievements. Some, like Albert Einstein, are revered for their brilliance. Others are remembered for daring feats of courage or endurance, or for the sheer variety of professions and pastimes they managed to juggle during their lives. For example, some of the American Founding Fathers, like Benjamin Franklin, made important contributions to fields as wide-ranging and unrelated as politics and paleontology.
The range of mental acuity and passion displayed by such persons leaves many of us inspired and with a renewed sense of potential for our own lives. One such person is Nellie Bly, a 19th-century woman with a powerful inner drive that saw her accomplish many impressive career goals.
The Pennsylvania-born Elizabeth Cochran, known later in life by her pseudonym Nellie Bly, made important contributions to journalism, charity, and social reform. She began her career with a brief stint at the Indiana State Normal School in 1879, which trained and educated teachers. As the available money for her schooling venture quickly dried up, her collegiate experience was cut short.
Following her short-lived time at Indiana State Normal School, Cochrane (who changed the spelling of her name as a teenager) broke into writing in 1885, when she was 21 years old. She got her first gig working for the Pittsburgh Dispatch—a job offer that came about in an unexpected way.
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After reading an article published in the newspaper titled “What Girls Are Good For”—which neglected women's abilities to contribute to the workforce, and declared they should be relegated to homemaking and childrearing—Cochrane penned a heated and verve-filled letter to the editor expressing her distaste for the piece. Her letter was signed, Lonely Orphan Girl.
The editor, in turn, was impressed enough to offer her a writing gig at the paper. Her bold convictions were backed up by an enticing literary flair. Very soon, Cochrane was proving just how much a woman could offer to the world, when given the opportunity.
Cochrane's inaugural article in the Dispatch was about the necessity of reforming divorce laws, which she had some relevant knowledge of. Following her father's death in 1871, when Cochrane was six years old, her mother had remarried and subsequently got divorced. Like her earlier letter to the editor, this piece was attributed to “Lonely Orphan Girl.” Women writers frequently used pseudonyms at this time. After this, however, it was decided that she needed a different pseudonym for her byline.
Cochrane decided her new pen name would be “Nelly Bly,” a character from a popular ditty composed by American songwriter and fellow Pennsylvanian, Stephen Foster. Foster's verses sang of meritorious menial labor and of love. A few lines go like this:
Nelly Bly hab a voice like de turtle dove,
I hear it in de meadow and I hear it in de grove.
Nelly Bly hab a heart warm as it can be,
And bigger dan de sweet potato down in Tennessee.
Heigh! Nelly Ho! Nelly, listen, lub, to me,
I'll sing for you and play for you a dulcem melody.
You get the picture. The song serves up some romantic and rather tongue-in-cheek rhetoric. Cochrane's editor misspelled Nelly as Nellie, and the mistake stuck. And while, to her audience, Nellie's message may have sounded like anything but the gentle cooing of a turtle dove, her words nevertheless got the attention they seemed to demand from their readers.
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From there, the writing career of one Nellie Bly grew by leaps and bounds. Her methods became increasingly investigative, and her subjects increasingly social in nature. Some of her reports helped shed light on the terrible living conditions of impoverished communities and the below-standard treatment of women in insane asylums.
From traveling through Mexico to going undercover in a mental hospital and posing as a patient suffering from mental illness, Bly's work stands out for her personal investment in the story and her relentless dedication to digging beneath the surface.
Bly's work became part of a growing movement in the journalistic profession; she is perhaps one of the earliest examples of that breed of reporters which came to be known as muckrakers. These were news writers who, in seeing wrongs perpetuated within society, sought reform—especially through exposing corruption and misconduct. Following her investigative ruse at the mental hospital, her findings were collected and published in Ten Days in a Mad House.
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After regularly writing for the Pittsburgh Dispatch for a time, Bly moved to New York, where, despite her success, she was hard-pressed to find work as a female reporter. So, as she embarked on a period of job-hunting, she continued to contribute to the Dispatch on a freelance basis.
Eventually, she acquired a job at the New York World. Joseph Pulitzer, the famous newspaper publisher and the namesake of the now-revered Pulitzer Prize for writing, hired Bly to the publication, which he had bought out in 1883. Near the end of the decade, the growing newspaper gave Bly a unique, grandiose assignment: to travel around the globe in imitation of Phileas Fogg, the protagonist of Jules Verne's fictitious Around the World in Eighty Days.
The coverage of this spectacle provided Bly with a larger-than-life public image. She even met Jules Verne himself at Amiens, France, a rendezvous in which the reporter got to interview the notable adventure fiction author.
Bly ultimately “beat” Phileas Fogg in the challenge by a matter of days, completing her globetrotting expedition in a mere 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds. Her written experiences from the trip were accumulated and published in a single volume under the oh-so-original title, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days.
Having conducted many other interviews and investigative reports during her time with the New York World, Nellie Bly would move on to write serialized fiction for another outlet. But she inevitably found her way back to hard journalism.
Bly moved to Chicago in 1895, where she soon met and married Robert Seaman, a wealthy industrialist. During this period of her life, Bly had the opportunity to speak with other amazing shapers of society, including women's suffrage activist Susan B. Anthony.
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Through her marriage to her millionaire husband, Bly became increasingly interested in the world of business at a time when industry was, by and large, undergoing a period of major change. When Seaman died in 1904, Bly had the opportunity to take the helm, as it were, of her late husband's company. Over the next few years, Bly successfully filed patents for a number of inventions pertaining to oil manufacturing, and was one of the leading women industrialists in the United States. The company later went bankrupt due to employee embezzlement.
In her later years, Bly was irresistibly drawn back to her passion for reporting, particularly covering the women's suffrage movement in the U.S. She also assisted orphans in finding good homes.
On January 22nd, 1922, Nellie Bly passed away at age 57 of complications due to heart disease and pneumonia. She left behind a legacy of compassion, concern, and courage that embodied not just the energy that stimulated the women's rights movement but also, in many ways, what it takes to be a decent human being.
Sources: PBS, National Women's History Museum