Nellie Bly (1864-1922) – Journalist, Feminist
Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Cochran’s Mills. Pennsylvania, on May 5th, 1864. Elizabeth, or Pink as she was so nicknamed, was her mother’s third child and her father’s thirteenth. Her mother, Mary Jane Cochran, had been a childless widow when she married Michael Cochran, a wealthy widower with ten children. Michael Cochran was an important man in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. Michael and Elizabeth had two children before Pink was born, and two afterwards.
Eventually, Cochran relocated his family to his hometown of Apollo, Pennsylvania, about 25 miles from Pittsburgh. Apollo was a mill town, and Michael Cochran was one of the richest men there. They lived in a two-and-a-half story mansion, with lots of land, animals, and a carriage. They were a well-respected family in the town, and Michael had been given an honorary judgeship.
Pink, nicknamed after the color in which her mother usually dressed her, was a lively young girl who enjoyed going to school. Pink loved to read, and would stay up late into the night inventing stories in her head. She had an idyllic childhood playing in rural Western Pennsylvania, until two months after her sixth birthday.
At that point, Michael Cochran became ill and died. He had not thought of making a will before his death, and his 10 grown up children all wanted a piece of his inheritance. This resulted in his home and property being sold within a year of his death. Mary Jane was entitled to $16 per week under Pennsylvania law. She rented a house for herself and her five children to live in. It was much smaller than the mansion that they had been accustomed to.
Over the next few years, Mary Jane sold everything that she could in order to earn money, but it was not enough to support herself and her young children. In 1873, she married John Jackson Ford. Jack Ford was a drunkard. Mary Jane stayed married to him for five years until she made the brave decision to divorce him.
After the divorce, Mary wanted to leave behind the scandal that she had caused in the small-town of Apollo, Pennsylvania. She relocated the family to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where her older sons could find work in mills or in mines. Pittsburgh was known for its iron and steel mills, and the older boys went to work there. The family was still struggling, and Pink helped out where she could. She was able to earn some money as a housekeeper, kitchen maid, nanny, and tutor. Mary Jane even took in boarders to earn extra income.
Knowing that she had to earn money to help support her family, Pink decided to try to become a teacher. She knew that she could not afford the tuition at a teaching school, but was told by Colonel Samuel Jackson, who was in charge of Pink’s inheritance from her father, that she could have the money to attend school. Pink attended Indiana State Normal School to train as a teacher. Pink had an excellent time there, and was learning a lot. After the term was over, Pink realized that she was out of money. She later went on to sue Colonel Jackson for mismanagement of her inheritance. Pink knew at this point that she needed to find another way to earn money.
Pink saw an opportunity in Pittsburgh, which boasted 10 newspapers at that point in time. She eventually wound up finding a job at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, working for editor George Madden. One of her first articles for the newspaper was a piece about Pittsburgh’s poor working girls. She chose to write about what they did in the hours after work, such as going home with men who they had met in saloons. Pink humanized them by telling how they were tired of labor and looking for something new. She also heard the sad stories of other young workers, that they could not go anywhere because they had no clothes or money. This piece turned into a series that ran every Sunday for two months, and focused on the lives of factory workers. Other articles she wrote railed against the mistreatment of women.
After working for the Pittsburgh dispatch for about nine months, Pink decided to move to New York City. She left Pittsburgh in May of 1887, promising her mother that she would send for her as soon as she found work. Pink was confident that her experience and tenacity would land her work at once. She was wrong.
Pink hit rock bottom one day when her purse was stolen, along with the last of her savings. It was then that she decided to haunt the lobby of the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s award-winning newspaper. She would not leave the offices of the world until she had spoken with Colonel John Cockerill, editor-in-chief of the paper. When Cockerell finally agreed to see her, she pitched an idea for a story that would involve her sailing to Europe, then returning in steerage, and writing a piece about it. Cockrell shot that idea down, but proposed another concept. He asked her if she thought that she would be able to get herself admitted into an insane asylum, and report on the conditions there. Pink agreed, and it was at this time that she took on the pen name Nellie Bly.
Nellie devised a devious way in order to be admitted into the insane asylum. First, she read about how the insane look as wide-eyed as possible and practiced this look in her mirror. She then read ghost stories by dim light in order to stay up all night. She donned older clothing, and then made her way to a boarding house in New York. Nelly rented a room at the boarding house, and began to refuse to go to bed. Nelly stayed up all night again, perched on the end of the bed. In the morning, she began to rant and rave about some imaginary missing trunks. The owner of the boarding house took her to the police, who sent her to Blackwell’s Insane Asylum.
The insane asylum, Nellie managed to fool several nurses and doctors, where they gave her the diagnosis of “sheer delusion”. Nellie found the conditions in the insane asylum to be inhumane. The food was rancid, the inmates ate with no utensils, and spiders and other vermin were found in the food. All of the patients bathed only once a week, all in the same water, and used the same towel to dry off. Patients only received a fresh dress once a month. The inmates were forced to do most of the chores. Patients were routinely force-fed morphine and chloral in order to keep them docile.
After chores and a morning walk, the patients were made to sit for hours on hard benches. They were given no recreation, and were not allowed to talk or sing. Many of the nurses were cruel, and withheld warm clothing, proper blankets, and food from the patients. They also physically abused the patients at times.
After Nellie had been in the asylum for ten days, the World sent an attorney to get her out of the asylum. Nellie felt guilty about leaving the inmates behind, but knew that she could help them by writing an expose about the conditions of the asylum. Her two part series was published in the World in October of 1887 and went by the title Behind Asylum Bars. This series captivated readers, and later on in that month, Nelly was summoned before a grand jury. The grand jury went to inspect the insane asylum, but the asylum had been given warning of the impending visit, and conditions were considerably improved. Even the inmates said that since Nellie had left, things were much better. As a result of Nelly’s expose, the Committee of Appropriation gave 1 million dollars more to the insane asylums in New York.
Nellie’s stories of the insane asylum earned her a full-time job at the World. She kept thinking of new subjects about which to write, such as posing as a maid for a series about unemployment agencies, and as an unwed mother for an expose about selling babies. She also was hired at a factory, and wrote a series about the poor wages and working conditions of factory girls. All of this resulted in her being able to bring her mother to New York City to live with her. She was able to afford better lodging, and more fashionable clothes. She and her mother began to enjoy everything that New York City had to offer, such as shows and parks.
In October of 1889, Nellie’s editor sent her on another adventure. She was going to try to circle the globe faster than the main character in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days. Nelly knew that she could pull this off, but some of the male staff at the World were worried about her need for a chaperone, and the number of trunks that she would need to bring. Her editor gave her a day and a half’s notice, so she went to the dressmaker, and had a practical traveling dress made. She was able to pack only one bag, with wardrobe basics, things to write with, and a few personal items.
Throughout her travels, Nellie visited France, Italy, Egypt, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, China, and other countries. She was often invited to dinners or gatherings in her honor, but mostly refused them in order to keep to her itinerary. During her time in China, Nellie adopted a pet monkey that terrorized her shipmates for the rest of her journey.
She departed from Japan shortly after the New Year in 1889, and it was a rough voyage. The sailors on the ship blamed her monkey for the bad weather. She almost ran into disaster before the ship docked at San Francisco, because the ship’s bill of health had gone missing. It was finally found, but when she came off board, she found that snow had blocked train travel for the rest of the week. However, the World had paid for a special train to take her to Chicago around a southern route that would avoid the storm.
The rest of Nelly’s journey was a transcontinental train trip that required her to change trains on several occasions. She arrived at the end of her journey in Jersey City on January 25th, 1890. Nellie’s journey had taken 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds. This shattered the goal that she had set, and broke every world record.
After this, Nellie became even more famous. Her traveling outfit was copied by thousands of young women. Songs were written about her. Nellie merchandise such as housecoats, caps, cakes, and canned goods were all available. Even so, her publisher offered no raise and no bonus after this trip. It was then that Nellie quit the World
Upon doing so, Nellie began writing dime novel fiction, but did not enjoy doing so. At this time, the World was in a state of flux, due to new editors and owners taking over. The new editor invited Nellie back. For her comeback story, Nellie interviewed a young radical named Emma Goldman in prison. She also reported on the New York State Democratic Convention, and went to Chicago to cover the Pullman Palace Car Company’s railroad worker strike. She soon quit the World again and accepted a job at the Chicago Times Herald, but quit after 5 weeks to marry a 70 year old millionaire named Robert Livingston Seaman. She married him after only 2 weeks of courtship, and their marriage was believed by many to be another publicity stunt.
She became involved with her husband’s business, the Ironclad Manufacturing Company. During this time she was supporting her mother, her brothers and their wives, her deceased sister’s daughter and her brother Charles’s two teenage children.
She took over the business after her husband died in 1904. This ended in tragedy, after she found out that several employees had been scamming her, and had taken 2 million dollars from the company’s account. This resulted in Nellie having to file for bankruptcy. She decided to go to Austria to see a friend, but this wound up being a five-year stint as a war correspondent. Nellie arrived in Austria right as World War I was getting underway. She reported for the New York Evening Journal for the war effort. Upon arriving back in New York, she continued writing for the newspaper.
During 1920 and 1921, Nellie began to have trouble with her lungs, and contracted pneumonia in early 1922. She died at Saint Mark’s Hospital in New York at the age of 57.