Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, known to the world as “Nellie Bly” was an American female reporter who pioneered the field of investigative journalism. Throughout her career, she frequently went undercover to expose the ills of society, traveled around the world, advocated for women’s suffrage and reported from the front lines as one of the first female war correspondents.
Before getting into her work, here is a Bit of History:
Elizabeth Cochrane was born in Pennsylvania in 1864. She attended Indiana Normal School aiming to become a teacher but was only able to complete one semester as tuition was too expensive.
It was in 1885 Cochrane’s began her journalism career. Moved by anger, she replied to an editorial entitled “What Girls Are Good For”, which suggested women had no place outside of the home and completing an education or striving toward a career was outside female capabilities. The managing editor of The Pittsburg Dispatch was impressed enough to invite Cochrane to the newspaper and offered her a job. Her first article “The Girl Puzzle” was published as a rebuttal to “What Girls Are Good For”. From this point forward, Cochrane began writing under the pen name “Nellie Bly” taken from the title of a popular song.
Bly moved to New York City in 1887 after a brief stint at the Dispatch and a six-month trip to Mexico. Determined to land a job at a big newspaper, she talked her way into the office of John Cockerill (the managing editor of The New York World owned by Joseph Pulitzer). Her first assignment with The World was to go undercover and expose the mistreatment of patients at Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. Bly unsanitary conditions, rotten food, and both physical and mental abuse for 10 days. Her account of asylum life convinced city officials to investigate deeper, increase funding, and provide better care for the patients.
Following the success of her madhouse articles, she continued undercover work, helping pioneer the field of investigative journalism.
In November of 1889 Bly set of on her famous trip around the world, inspired by Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days. She returned to the United States 72 days later, breaking the fictional record and becoming a household name. She covered big stories such as the Pullman Strike, the women’s suffrage movement, and even interviewed Susan B. Anthony.
Though Cochrane didn’t plan to wed, She married Robert Seaman, a wealthy owner of a manufacturing company. Cochrane took over the business nine years later upon her husband’s death. The business went bankrupt in 1914 and Cochrane left for Austria to visit a friend.
While overseas, World War I began, compelling Cochrane to assume the role of Nellie Bly once more and race to the front lines. Risking her life, Bly reported back to Americans through The New York Evening Journal giving the country a first-hand account of the action.
Returning to New York when the fighting was over, Bly obtained her own column in the Evening Journal. She kept up with her column until her death in 1922. The Evening Journal paid tribute to Bly calling her “The Best Reporter in America”.
10 Days in a Madhouse Kickstarts Nellie’s Career
Nellie Bly made her mark by daring to write about sensitive topics most people didn’t want to talk or read about. Her success came from gumption, passion and pluck. However, she would never have made it into the madhouse, around the world, or to the front lines had she ignored the “What Girls are Good For” editorial.
In her first article, “The Girl Puzzle” she addresses all men as well as wealthy, more educated women advocating for women’s (especially the poor) right to work and fair wages.
“In being a merchant traveler or filling similar positions a true woman will protect herselft anywhere –– as easily on the road as behind the counter, as easily as a Pullman conductor as in an office or factory.”
While this first article earned her attention, her work at The Pittsburg Dispatch proved unsatisfying and she eventually left the paper for bigger and better opportunities in New York.
Once on the madhouse assignment, Bly wasted no time procuring a room at a boarding house for working women, using the name “Nellie Brown”. She admitted to being nervous and uncomfortable with the idea of living among mad women but was determined to see it through. Her strategy was to talk nonsense and stare blankly with wide eyes to convince the other women she was crazy. It works alarmingly well. The next morning, she is taken by the police before a judge and doctor who declare her insane. The poor treatment of suspected insane people is already apparent. Only a few people have treated her with kindness and sympathy. Sent to a hospital, Nellie is again questioned and examined by an “insane expert” who asks her ridiculous questions, concluding she is crazy.
Upon the expert’s suggestion, Nellie is sent to Blackwell’s Island. Bly informs readers she decided to drop the act, proving doctors can’t tell or don’t care whether someone is insane or not. Up until this point, Bly’s writing style is mostly to-the-point and factual with doses of her own feelings and opinions. When she arrives on the island, her style becomes more impassioned yet remains as objective as possible. Though her writing is plain, it has an easy, comfortable cadence. Her use of imagery brings the characters and events to life. Her first impression of the asylum gives readers a grim outlook on what can be found inside.
“…how much easier it would be to walk to the gallows than to this tomb of living horrors.”
Bly discovers all food served to patients is rotten and stale. Baths are cold and patients are forcibly bathed by a fellow patient. Nurses are never gentle, force patients to do their work, and find pleasure in the women’s pain.
“Well, you don’t need to expect any kindness here, for you won’t get it here.” – Miss Grupe to Nellie
Doctors ignore patients pleas of sanity and refuse to treat real illnesses like colds or fevers. Bly thinks the mistreatment (and occasional forcing of drugs) is enough to make any sane woman insane and the mad madder. It pains her to watch insanity slowly creep into the minds and souls of women she has bonded with. 10 days in a madhouse seemed like a painful eternity but even release is bittersweet. Bly writes that she felt guilty for being the one to escape while others are left behind.
Back in comfortable society, Bly appeared in court to relay her findings to a judge and jury. The jurors ask her to take them BACK to the island to see the asylum for themselves making both Bly and readers uneasy. Nellie finds the madhouse much changed and hears the attendants were alerted before their arrival. Everything had been made presentable, casting doubt on her story. They look around for some of the women Bly encountered but none can be found. Still, the jury believes Bly’s account to be accurate.
The startling stories of asylum life, paired with Bly’s objectivity, led to nationwide outrage and convinced city officials to make changes.
This is only the beginning of Nellie Bly’s career and personal story. As her career progressed, her style changed in little ways, allowing the voices of her subjects come through. However, her objective remained the same: write so the voices of the unheard could be heard and promote change through facts.