In January 1885, Elizabeth Cochran grew incensed after reading a sexist screed in the Pittsburgh Dispatch declaring that a woman’s domain “is defined and located by a single word—home.” The searing letter she sent to the newspaper in response so impressed the managing editor that he hired the 20-year-old as a reporter. Cochran took on a pen name, based on a popular Stephen Foster song, which would make her world-famous—Nellie Bly. On the anniversary of her birth on May 5, 1864, explore the biggest stories broken by this pioneer of investigative journalism.
1. “Our Workshop Girls”
Among Bly’s first assignments for the Dispatch was an eight-part illustrated series examining the working conditions for women toiling in dozens of the city’s sooty factories. The series gave readers a rare glimpse at the daily lives and dreams of female laborers and exposed some of the dangerous, unsanitary and exploitative conditions in which they worked. As the series progressed, factory owners shuttered their doors to Bly and her prying pen. Undeterred, the scrappy journalist instead dressed in tattered clothes and went undercover as a worker in order to report first-hand on factory conditions. In spite of the success of the series, Bly’s editors returned her to the “women’s page” to write puff pieces on hair care, fashion, gardening, shopping, high society and homemaking.
2. “Nellie in Mexico”
Dissatisfied with her trivial assignments, Bly lobbied her editors to send her to Mexico as a foreign correspondent. Although they believed the assignment too dangerous for a woman, Bly’s editors relented under her persistent entreaties. For five months, her regular reports offered her readers a portrait of the customs and daily life of its little-known neighbor to the south. She unflinchingly wrote that the poor of Mexico City were “worse off by thousands of times than were the slaves of the United States.” She exposed massive political corruption and, although against the law for a foreign journalist to do so, criticized the country’s dictatorial government for jailing a local newspaper reporter. Under the threat of arrest, Bly returned to Pittsburgh where she was again assigned to the “women’s page.” In the spring of 1887, the 21-year-old left this note for her Pittsburgh Dispatch colleagues: “I am off for New York. Look out for me—BLY.”
3. “Inside the Madhouse”
Bly finally received her big break in September 1887 when Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, the country’s premier newspaper, agreed to give her a daunting trial assignment—to impersonate a mentally disturbed person to verify rumors of the mistreatment of the female patients confined to the Asylum for the Insane on Blackwell’s Island. Bly took to the streets of New York, feigning a Spanish accent and displaying strange behavior. Doctors diagnosed her with “dementia with delusions of persecution” and committed her to the asylum. Inside, Bly was fed revolting food, tormented by nurses and stripped of her clothes in unheated bathrooms and washed with ice water and dirty rags. After enduring 10 days in the asylum, the New York World rescued her. Bly’s bombshell report offered a “plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients.” It detailed “the terrors of cold baths,” “cruel, unsympathetic nurses” and “attendants who harass and abuse patients and laugh at their miseries.” Her graphic account sparked reform, earned her a job as a full-time reporter for the New York World and made her such a journalistic sensation that her name subsequently appeared not just in bylines, but in headlines as well.
4. “What Becomes of Babies”
As a New York World staff writer, Bly continued her undercover work as a literary crusader exposing the tarnished underbelly of Gilded Age America. Just weeks after the story about the abuse on Blackwell’s Island, Bly wrote a piece exposing New York’s secret underground baby trade. Posing as a new mother wishing to dispose of a baby born on May 5 (her own birthday), Bly visited doctors who told her they could sell her unwanted baby for a small fee. When she told one doctor that her baby was a girl, he replied, “Too bad. They are very hard to get rid of. Now, if it was only a boy you would have had more chance.” The same doctor told Bly that the death rate of babies he placed in boarding houses was a shocking 80 percent. “You think it horrible? Well, it’s the way of the world,” the doctor told Bly.
5. “Around the World in 72 Days”
On November 14, 1889, Bly set sail from New York City on an epic adventure. In a quest to beat the time of Phileas Fogg, the fictional hero of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel “Around the World in Eighty Days,” she embarked on a circumnavigation of the globe by boat, by railroad and even by burro. “Can Jules Verne’s great dream be reduced to actual fact?” the New York World asked its readers, who read Bly’s dispatches from foreign ports as she raced both Fogg and Elizabeth Bisland, a journalist from a rival magazine who left New York on the same day to span the world in the opposite direction. Crossing France, Bly met Verne, who expressed doubts that she could circle the planet in 80 days but promised to “applaud with both hands” should she be able to do it. Traveling solo most of the voyage and toting only a small leather gripsack, the 25-year-old completed her around-the-world journey in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, four days ahead of Bisland and faster than any person had ever before accomplished the feat.