Nellie Bly was a writer, a reporter, and sometimes an inventor. But at her core, Nellie Bly was a seeker. She was a seeker of truth, of adventure and, most certainly, of a great story.
In the annals of history, Bly is most well-known for her intrepid and record-breaking trip around the world, one which took her seventy-two days (eight less than the eighty days it took Jules Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg character that she was trying to emulate). And while her feat was worldwide news at the time, Nellie Bly can also be credited with inventing an entirely new style of investigative journalism that put the reporter at the center of their story.
Born Elizabeth Mary Jane Cochran near Pittsburgh in 1864, she began contributing to the Pittsburgh Dispatch under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl” when she was still just a teenager. Soon, she was contributing regular on topics that were light years ahead of their time, such as arguing for reform of divorce laws. The owner and editor of the paper offered her a full-time job under the condition that she write under a pen name, as was customary for women writers of the era. As Stephen Foster’s “Nelly Bly” was a popular song at the time, the editor suggested it for Cochran, though his misspelling as “Nellie” stuck with her for the rest of her life.
Bly continued her work with the Dispatch, focusing on the plight of the working woman in and around Pittsburgh, writing a series of investigative stories covering the conditions and lives of factory workers. The column was a hit though it caused enough discord that the factories began to complain to the paper, leading to Bly’s reassignment to the “women’s pages,” covering fashion, gardening and society. Dissatisfied with the work, Bly left for Mexico to work as a foreign correspondent, something virtually no woman had done before. She was only twenty-one years old.
Upon her return to Pittsburgh, the Dispatch once again assigned her to the “women’s pages,” leading Bly to leave the paper and her hometown for New York City. Soon, she talked her way into a position writing for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World by agreeing to go undercover to report a story on the conditions of brutality and neglect at New York’s Women’s Lunatic Asylum.
After ten days in the asylum, Bly was released (at the World’s behest) and wrote her account, eventually publishing it in book form, titled Ten Days in a Mad-House. The book was a sensation, leading to asylum reform and affording Bly national fame.
In 1888, Bly approached her editor with the idea that she undertake a trip around the world, attempting to recreate the fictional trip taken by Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s massively popular Around the World in Eighty Days. Traveling with basically the clothes on her back, Bly circumnavigated the world by train, boat and car, sending dispatches back home via post and wire. After seventy-two days, Bly arrived back in Hoboken, from where she departed, to massive fanfare and international acclaim.
Later in life, Bly invented and filed patents for the novel milk can and the stackable garbage container under the name “Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman.” She reported on the Eastern Front during the First World War, at one point being arrested under suspicion of being a spy.
Nellie Bly died of pneumonia in April of 1922, aged 57, after having living a life that will long be regarded as legendary.