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Nellie Bly: Winnovating Investigative Journalism

Posted on May 13, 2013 by in Social Justice |

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Nellie BlyWhen I think of a daredevil female reporter, my first thought is Lois Lane.

How about a real-life Lois Lane?

Meet Nellie Bly. She’s a globe-trotting, muckraking investigative reporter. This turn-of-the-century American woman was a pioneer in undercover journalism; she was one of the few leading ladies in journalism during the late 1800s.

Elizabeth Jane Cochran, alias Nellie Bly, started her journalism career in 1885. She and her mother had moved to Pittsburgh from her native Cochran’s Mills after her father died. (The name’s no coincidence; her father was the town’s founder). After his death, the family of 16 fell on hard times and she and her mother started a boarding house in Pittsburgh.

At the age of 18, Elizabeth inked a spirited rebuttal to an editorial titled “What Girls Are Good For” in The Pittsburgh Dispatch. The writer of the piece, Erasmus Wilson, claimed that a woman’s place was in the home, performing domestic tasks. A working woman was a “monstrosity”. Cochran’s blazing response to the sexist Wilson grabbed the attention of the Dispatch’s editor, George Madden. Impressed, he offered a job writing for the paper under the pen name Nellie Bly. It was a common practice for female writers at the time to use pen names, and hers was taken from the then-popular Stephen Foster song, Nelly Bly.

Nellie the Muckraker

Bly’s early articles for the Dispatch showed a feminist streak and concern for the poor with a focus on working women and slum life. She wrote a series on female factory workers, posing as a sweatshop worker to investigate the poor working conditions which the endured. Bly was prominent for her undercover reporting, as well as unique for writing beyond the narrow confines of the “women’s pages” to which female reporters were relegated.

Facing this growing pressure, Bly took matters into her own hands and traveled to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent at the age of 21. She spent 6 months there, writing about the people, and exposing the corruption and conditions of the poor. Her criticism of the government threatened her safety and impelled her to leave the country. She continued to denounce the government’s oppression and stifling of free press after returning home. Bly’s dispatches were collected and later published as a book: Six Months in Mexico.

 “I am off for New York. Look out for me. Bly.”

In 1887, Bly left Pittsburgh and relocated to New York City, where she began working for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World (history buffs, you’ll remember this publication became famous for “yellow journalism”). One of her first assignments was to detail the experiences of patients at Belluvue Hospital on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island. As blogger Danielle Roussey aptly describes, think Shutter Island combined with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Bly went undercover, posing as a mentally ill woman to get herself committed to the asylum. After 10 days, the World removed her from the asylum and her subsequent expose was a smashing success, spurring an investigation of the hospital and improvements in health care. Her piece illuminated the terrible conditions there: rancid food, standing waste, rat infestations, neglect and abuse by the nurses. Her series on Bellevue was later printed as a book, Ten Days in a Mad-House.

Bly was a pioneer in investigative reporting and continued to uncover malfeasance. Her work took her into sweatshops, jails, and the legislature, exposing corruption and abuse.

Where in the world is Nellie Bly?

On November 14, 1889, Bly set sail from New York to beat the record of the fictional Phileas Fogg, protagonist of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. It was a race of the Elizabeths, as another New York newspaper, the Cosmopolitan, sponsored its own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland to travel the opposite way around the world. The World held a sweepstakes to draw readership, asking readers to guess Nellie’s arrival time to the second, for a chance to win a free trip to Europe.

Traveling by ship, train, horse, rickshaw, and more, Bly circumnavigated the globe in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds and set a new world record. Bly was able to dispatch short progress reports, thanks to the development of the electric telegraph and an efficient network of submarine cables.

Nellie became an international sensation for her Magellanic adventure. She traveled without a chaperone (unheard of at the time) with a single satchel and an overcoat over her dress, which became her trademark. She met Jules Verne and his wife in France. Mrs. Verne reportedly commented on Bly,

“She is trim, energetic, and strong. I believe, Jules, that she will make your heroes look foolish.”

Verne agreed with a laugh.

On the Frontlines of WWI

After the death of her husband, Bly returned to journalism in 1914 as a war correspondent. She was the first female reporter to go to the frontlines and reported on the human cost of war. At one point, Hungarian police arrested Bly, believing her to be a British spy. When a translator arrived and she introduced herself, the translator was astonished. Excited and speaking rapidly to the police, he told Bly, “‘I have told them every child seven years old in America knows Nellie Bly.”

Nellie the Winnovator

Bly pushed the boundaries of a female reporter beyond the “women’s pages”. She was not only a pioneer in investigative journalism, muckraking the social ills of her time, she defied convention and traveled alone to report from around the world. She also has several patents to her name and was one of the most prominent female industrialists of the era, managing an iron manufacturing company after marrying millionaire manufacturer Robert Seamen.

I’d say Lois Lane could take a page out of her notebook.

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Firdaus Arastu graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in Anthropology and Psychology and currently works on global health and development policies at the Aspen Institute. In her spare time, she enjoys watching historical dramas, baking, and reading web comics. She aspires to be a Renaissance woman and a public intellectual. Follow her @Firdalish and read more of her writing on