Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864 in the town of Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania. The town was named for her father, Judge Michael Cochran. Early in life, Elizabeth earned the nickname "Pink" because her mother routinely dressed her in that color. Judge Cochran passed away when Elizabeth was just six. Elizabeth's mother, Mary Jane, would re-marry three years later to a man who was very abusive, forcing her to go through the tortuous process of divorce. This left the family on very hard times. Elizabeth attended Indiana Normal in hopes of becoming a teacher. However, she could not afford tuition and spent only one semester at the school.
In 1880, Mary Jane moved her family to Pittsburgh. Elizabeth assisted her mother with duties around their house which they had opened to boarders. In January of 1885, Nellie read an editorial in The Pittsburgh Dispatch entitled "What Girls Are Good For." The article admonished women for even attempting to have an education or career, suggesting they should stray no further than the home. This infuriated Elizabeth to the point of writing a scathing reply that she signed "Little Orphan Girl." Dispatch editor George Madden was so impressed by the reply, he placed an ad for the Little Orphan Girl to visit the newspaper. When Elizabeth introduced herself to Madden, the editor offered her the opportunity to write a rebuttal piece to be published. Elizabeth went home and wrote her first newspaper article "The Girl Puzzle." Impressed again, Madden offered Elizabeth a full-time job writing under the name Nellie Bly (the title of a popular song by Stephen Foster).
At the time women who worked at newspapers almost always wrote articles on gardening, fashion or society. Nellie Bly eschewed these topics for hard pressing stories on the poor and oppressed. Drawing from her mother's experience, she wrote on the inherent disadvantages women had in divorce proceedings. She also wrote numerous articles on the lives of poor women who worked in Pittsburgh's bottle factories. Nellie's articles fascinated readers, but drew criticism from the business community. When companies threatened to pull advertising from the Dispatch because of her articles, Nellie was assigned to a gardening story. When she turned in the article, she included her resignation.
Nellie's next adventure was a six-month trip to Mexico. She wrote of her travels to Madden, who published her reports in the Dispatch. However, what started out as a travelogue soon turned into a scathing review of the Mexican government. When she reported on President Porfirio Diaz imprisoning a journalist for criticizing the government, Nellie soon found herself threatened with arrest and left the country. Her accounts would later be collected in the book Six Months In Mexico.
Back in the United States, Nellie decided that her next destination would be New York City. In 1887, Nellie arrived in New York hoping to land a job at a major newspaper, but none was offered. After four months of rejection, and near penniless, she talked her way into the office of John Cockerill, managing editor of the Joseph Pulitzer newspaper The New York World.
Determined not to leave without work, Nellie was eventually assigned to go under-cover as a patient in the notorious asylum on Blackwell's Island and report first-hand on her experience.
Nellie convinced both doctors and judges that she was insane, and was committed to the asylum. She endured filthy conditions, rotten food and physical abuse from doctors and nurses for ten days before a World agent rescued her. Nellie's articles "Behind Asylum Bars" and "Inside The Mad-House" created an uproar in New York. After further investigations were launched, New York officials provided more money and a change in care for the people at the asylum. Nellie Bly had arrived.
Nellie would spend the next several years writing articles for The World. She pioneered the field of investigative journalism. Often going under-cover, she exposed crooked lobbyists in government, tracked the plight of unwanted babies, reported on the conditions for poor workers in box-making factories and much more. Nellie was becoming so popular that The World would often use her name in the story's headline. People couldn't wait to see what Nellie Bly was up to next.
Nellie's most famous story would begin in 1889. She proposed to travel around the world faster than Jules Verne's character Phileas Fogg in Around The World In Eighty Days. Editors at The World were wary of the idea. Women didn't travel without escorts, they carried too much baggage. Never one to be denied, Nellie Bly stepped onto the ocean liner Augusta Victoria by herself on November 14, 1889 carrying only two small satchels.
Nellie traveled the world heading east from New York. Her journey took her from England to Egypt, Ceylon, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan before heading back to the United States. During a stop in France, Nellie got to meet Jules Verne himself, who encouraged her to break his own - fictional - record! In the meantime, to keep interest in Nellie's trip alive, The World promoted a hugely popular guessing game for her arrival time.
Nellie would step back on to American soil in San Francisco. She then boarded a train that took her across the country. On January 25, 1890, Nellie Bly arrived back at her starting point; seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after her departure. Nellie was now an international celebrity. However, to her surprise, The World did not offer Nellie a bonus despite the increase in circulation she had created. Upset over the sleight, Nellie Bly resigned from the newspaper.
Though unemployed, Nellie was not short of opportunities. Her image graced trading cards, board games and numerous other products. She went on lecture tours and wrote Nellie Bly's Book: Around The World In Seventy-Two Days. Unfortunately, during this time, her brother Charles died, and Nellie began taking care of his wife and two children.
In 1893, a new editor at The World convinced Nellie to come back. On September 17th, the headline "Nellie Bly Again" appeared on the front page of The World. For the next three years, Nellie was back with articles about police corruption, the violent Pullman labor strike, and an interview with noted suffragist Susan B. Anthony among others.
In 1895, Nellie surprised everyone by marrying noted industrialist Robert Seaman, and by 1896 she had stopped writing for The World. Robert Seaman was owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company which made milk cans, barrels and other steel products. As the marriage progressed, Nellie became more and more involved with the company. She even patented a milk can of her own design. When Robert died in 1904, Nellie (as Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman) took over the company and became the world's leading female industrialist. While in charge, Bly put her social reforms into action and Iron Clad employees enjoyed several perks unheard of at the time: fitness gyms, libraries and healthcare. Ultimately, the costs of these benefits began to mount and drain her inheritance. Unfortunately, by 1911, poor management and fraud within the company forced her into bankruptcy. Years of legal battles ensued, which included mean-spirited wrangles with her mother, Mary Jane, and her brother, Arthur. After three years of court entanglements, Bly consequently reentered the newspaper industry.
In 1914, Nellie traveled to Europe to visit a friend (Oscar Bondy) in Vienna, Austria. Nineteen-fourteen also saw the outbreak of World War One. Nellie got in contact with former World editor Arthur Brisbane who now worked at the Hearst newspaper The New York Evening Journal and made arrangements to become a journalist once again. Nellie Bly was America's first female war correspondent, writing articles on her experiences at the war's front lines, supporting the plight of Eastern Europeans and Austrians. What had started as an escape from her legal troubles turned into a five-year tour of duty.
By 1919, Nellie was back in New York (after proving that her support of Austria and her anti "Bolschewick" sympathies made her a patriotic American). She came back to oversee her on-going legal struggles regarding her companies, but was tempted into writing regularly for The Evening Journal. She had her own column and dispensed advice as well as her opinion on topics of the day. She helped poor women find jobs and raised money to aid widows, children and others who faced hard times. Her work for orphans was particularly important.
Nellie Bly passed away on January 27, 1922 from pneumonia, having continued to write her column up until her death. The next day, The Evening Journal carried a tribute to the pioneering reporter, declaring Nellie Bly "The Best Reporter in America." Because her legal tangles left her nearly bankrupt, she was buried in a modest, unmarked grave in Woodlawn Cemetery (Bronx, NY). In 1978, a tombstone funded by women journalists was finally erected to commemorate her burial site.
2015 Independent Film version of TEN DAYS IN A MAD-HOUSE:
Largely filmed in Salem, Oregon, where One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), another film about the institutional care of the mentally ill, was also filmed. Principle photography took place at the Fairview Training Center, a facility built in the early 1900s for the care of those with cognitive disabilities.
ONE wintry night I bade my few journalistic friends adieu, and, accompanied by my mother, started on my way to Mexico. Only a few months previous I had become a newspaper woman. I was too impatient to work along at the usual duties assigned women on newspapers, so I conceived the idea of going away as a correspondent.
Around the World in 72 Days:
WHAT gave me the idea?
It is sometimes difficult to tell exactly what gives birth to an idea. Ideas are the chief stock in trade of newspaper writers and generally they are the scarcest stock in market, but they do come occasionally.
This idea came to me one Sunday. I had spent a greater part of the day and half the night vainly trying to fasten on some idea for a newspaper article. It was my custom to think up ideas on Sunday and lay them before my editor for his approval or disapproval on Monday. But ideas did not come that day and three o'clock in the morning found me weary and with an aching head tossing about in my bed. At last tired and provoked at my slowness in finding a subject, something for the week's work, I thought fretfully:
"I wish I was at the other end of the earth!"
"And why not?" the thought came: "I need a vacation; why not take a trip around the world?"
It is easy to see how one thought followed another. The idea of a trip around the world pleased me and I added: "If I could do it as quickly as Phileas Fogg did, I should go."
Then I wondered if it were possible to do the trip eighty days and afterwards I went easily off to sleep with the determination to know before I saw my bed again if Phileas Fogg's record could be broken.
Ten Days in a Mad-House:
ON the 22d of September I was asked by the World if I could have myself committed to one of the asylums for the insane in New York, with a view to writing a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein and the methods of management, etc. Did I think I had the courage to go through such an ordeal as the mission would demand? Could I assume the characteristics of insanity to such a degree that I could pass the doctors, live for a week among the insane without the authorities there finding out that I was only a "chiel amang 'em takin' notes?" I said I believed I could. I had some faith in my own ability as an actress and thought I could assume insanity long enough to accomplish any mission entrusted to me. Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell's Island? I said I could and I would. And I did.
[The phrase “chiel amang ‘em takin’ notes” is from a 1789 poem by Robert Burns in which he shows reservations about the real intent of an English historian travelling through Scotland to collect notes and facts about the Scots people.]
The Mystery of Central Park
Summary: THE MYSTERY OF CENTRAL PARK is the one and only novel published from pioneering investigative reporter Nellie Bly (1864-1922). The story revolves around Dick Treadwell and Penelope Howard, two lovers who discover the body of a young woman in New York’s Central Park. However, as the police investigation progresses, Dick himself becomes a suspect. Penelope gives Dick an ultimatum: find the real murderer, or she will not marry him. But how will Dick, a man of high society, solve such a grisly mystery and clear his name?
Chapter One: THE YOUNG GIRL ON THE BENCH.
"And that is your final decision?"
Dick Treadwell gazed sternly at Penelope Howard's downcast face, and waited for a reply.
Instead of answering, as good-mannered young women generally do, Penelope intently watched the tips of her russet shoes, as they appeared and disappeared beneath the edge of her gown, and remained silent.
When she raised her head and met that look, so sad and yet so stern, the faintest shadow of a smile placed a pleasing wrinkle at the comers of her brown eyes.
"Yes, that is — my final decision," she repeated, slowly.
Dick Treadwell dropped despondently on a bench and, gazing steadily over the green lawn, tried to think it all out.
He felt that he was not being used quite fairly, but he was at a loss for a way to remedy it.
Here he was, the devoted slave of the rather plain girl beside him, who refused to marry him, merely because he had never soiled his firm, white hands with toil, nor worried his brain with a greater task, since his school days, than planning some way to kill time.
He was one of those unfortunate mortals possessed of an indolent disposition, and had been left a modest legacy, that, though making him far from wealthy, was still enough to support him in idleness. He lacked the spur of necessity which urged men on to greater deeds.
In short, Richard was one of those worthless ornaments of society that live, and die without doing much good or any great harm.
That he was an ornament, however, none dared to deny, and the expressive brown eyes of the girl, who had seated herself beside him bore ample testimony that she was not unconscious of his manly charms.