Relentless. Curious. Direct. Nellie Bly’s character was fitting for a woman who introduced to America the idea of a female reporter. Bly’s life story reads like a novel; at times it’s so good it’s difficult to believe.
Born Elizabeth Cochran in May 1867 in Cochran Mills, Armstrong County, Bly crammed a lot into her short life: She wrote for a Pittsburgh newspaper, became one of the nation’s first female investigative reporters, wrote for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and traveled around the world in record time.
Nellie Bly started as a reporter at the Daily Pittsburgh Dispatch. She was 18 at the time and supporting her mother and two brothers in Pittsburgh. After reading a Dispatch article suggesting women should stay at home and confine themselves to housework, Bly wrote a fiery rebuttal and sent it to the paper. Dispatch managing editor George A. Madden was impressed. He hired the writer and gave her the pen name “Nelly Bly,” from a popular Stephen Foster song. A typesetter misspelled the name and ’Nellie Bly’ was born.
Frustrated by being assigned to write about fashion and flower shows, Bly moved to New York in 1887 and landed a job at the the New York World. She quickly made a name for herself by pretending to be an insane beggar and being admitted to New York’s Hospital for the Insane. She spent 10 days there, then wrote a story detailing barbaric conditions and care at the facility. Her work triggered the state of New York to spend an additional $1 million for the care of the mentally ill.
Bly’s most famous accomplishment came in 1889. Here’s how Bly told the story to The Pittsburgh Press:
“My editor said, ‘Have you any ideas today?’ ‘One,’ I answered slowly, fearing he would laugh at me. ‘I want to go around the world in 80 days or less!’ I was informed that if there was such a trip I would be the one to go. One stormy evening I was called into the office. ‘Can you start around the world day after tomorrow?’ I was asked. ‘I can start this moment if necessary,’ I answered.”
And so the journey began. Nellie Bly wore a heavy dress “which would stand constant wear for three months” and packed a light gown for the tropics — only those two dresses plus a small bag, no umbrella. She boarded the Augusta Victoria on Nov. 14, 1889. After 72 days, six hours and 11 minutes, Bly returned by train to a cheering crowd of 10,000 in Jersey City.
Nellie Bly left journalism when she was 28 and married wealthy industrialist Robert L. Seaman, who was 72. After Seaman’s death in 1904, Bly ran his estate and unsuccessfully managed his business. Lonely and nearly broke, Bly returned to journalism. Arthur Brisbane gave her a job at the New York Journal and she was at it again — this time on behalf of neglected children, making a difference one story at a time.
While on one of her reporting assignments, Bly caught a cold and died of pneumonia on Jan. 27, 1922. She was 57.