A pioneer of investigative journalism in the 1890s, a celebrity and for a while one of the leading female industrialists in the United States, Nellie Bly has earned her spot in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Born Elizabeth Cochran, she started her career in journalism by rebuking a columnist in the Pittsburgh Dispatch who called working women “a monstrosity.” Her fiery rebuttal impressed the editor.
Hired under the pen name Nellie Bly, she produced investigative articles about terrible conditions for female factory workers.
After taking her talents to New York City in 1887, Bly talked her way into an undercover assignment at Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, The New York World. She would get herself committed to an insane asylum so she could report on conditions there.
EL: Is it true that after practicing crazy faces in front of a mirror, you checked into a boardinghouse and refused to go to bed, telling the boarders they looked scary, like lunatics?
EL: They called the cops, you faked amnesia to a judge, and you were examined by several doctors, all of whom declared you insane?
Bly: True. One called me “positively demented.”
EL: The media picked up on this case of the “pretty crazy girl.” And in the asylum, you experienced conditions firsthand: rotten food and dirty water, dangerous patients tied together, rats crawling around, icy bathwater poured over your heads and abusive nurses. What gave you courage?
Bly: I watched patients gaze toward the city they’d probably never see again. It seemed so near, and yet heaven is not further from hell. I had to help them.
EL: You couldn’t persuade the doctors that you were sane.
Bly: No. I always made a point of telling them I was sane and asking to be released, but the more I tried to assure them of my sanity, the more they doubted it.
EL: After 10 days, you were released at the request of your newspaper. Your report, later published in a book, caused a furor. A grand jury investigation prompted some big changes.
Bly: My next assignment was to travel. The newspaper sent me around the world in 80 days, a la Jules Verne. I did it in record time, 72 days. Never having failed, I couldn’t picture what failure meant.
EL: You kept reporting on corrupt officials, shady lobbyists and brutal cops until you married an industrialist.
Bly: Yes. Robert Seaman owned the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. After he died, I took over the company and even won a patent. But fraud bankrupted us. In 1914, I went to visit a friend in Austria and World War I broke out. My old editor hired me back.
EL: You were America’s first female war correspondent.
Bly: For five years.
EL: What qualities make a leader?
Bly: A certain daring, I suppose, and persistence.
At the asylum, I took it upon myself to play the role of a poor, unlucky, crazy girl, and it was my duty to accept the consequences. Energy correctly applied and directed can accomplish anything.
Sources: PBS; NellieBlyOnline.com; The New York World.