Childhood & Early Life
Nellie Bly was born as Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864 in Cochran’s Mills, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, to a mill worker Michael Cochran and his wife Mary Jane. She had several siblings and half-siblings.
Young Elizabeth attended boarding school but just for a term before dropping out due to insufficient funds. Her father’s death when she was quite young had left the Cochran family with meagre means.
In 1880, the family moved to Pittsburgh where Elizabeth supported her single mother by running a boarding house.
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Elizabeth’s writing career started abruptly and unintentionally. A misogynistic column in the daily, ‘The Pittsburgh Dispatch’, prompted her to pen a fiery rebuttal to the editor under the pseudonym ‘Lonely Orphan Girl.’ Such was the impression of her writing that it won her a full-time employment with the newspaper.
As was the trend then, women writers wrote under pen names. Elizabeth too began writing under the pen name ‘Nellie Bly’ after the Stephen Foster song.
Most of Bly’s early works revolved around the negative consequences of sexist ideologies and emphasized the importance of women's rights issues. She often exposed the poor working conditions faced by women. The investigative nature of her articles and her cry for women’s rights issues did not go too well with the editors of the newspaper who pushed her into the so-called ‘women's pages’ to cover fashion, society, and gardening.
Aspiring for a more meaningful career, she travelled to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent. She regularly sent articles reporting about the lives and customs of Mexican people which were later published as a book titled, ‘Six Months in Mexico.
Nellie Bly was ousted from Mexico after she ran a series of articles criticizing the Mexican dictator and ruler, Porfirio Diaz. Returning to Pittsburgh, she temporarily continued working for ‘The Pittsburgh Dispatch’ before leaving for New York City in 1887.
At New York, she soon found herself a job at Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, ‘New York World.’ One of her early assignments was to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island. For the same, she feigned insanity to get into the asylum and have a first-hand experience of the treatment meted out to patients.
After a ten-day stay at the asylum, it was at the behest of the newspaper that Bly was freed. Her report of the horrifyingly appalling conditions prevailing inside the asylum was an eye-opener for the general public and authorities alike. It shed light on the disturbing living condition of patients, the neglect on part of the authorities and the physical abuse meted out to patients.
Her work, which was later reprinted as a book titled ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’ spurred a large-scale investigation of the institution as well as the much-needed improvements in health care.
Ten Days in a Mad-House’ was a raging success and brought Nellie Bly immense fame and recognition as a writer and civil rights activist. She was inducted as a part of the expert team launched to better the conditions prevailing at the asylum. A number of positive changes were made after the release of the book.
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Following her superlative success with the Blackwell expose, she continued with her investigative series of work, exposing improper treatment in New York jails and factories, corruption in state legislature and so on.
In 1888, inspired by Jules Verne’s 1873 novel ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’, Bly aimed to turn the fictional tale into reality. The ‘New York World’ completely supported her ambitious feat. With an attempt to break the faux record of the character of Phileas Fogg, Bly began her 24, 899 mile journey on November 14, 1889, boarding the Augusta Victoria.
Nellie Bly embarked on her journey from Hoboken, New Jersey, travelling first by ship but later by other vehicles. During her travels around the world, she went through England, France, Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo, the Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan.
She completed the trip in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, setting a new world record. Interestingly, rival newspaper ‘New York Cosmopolitan’ had sent their reporter Elizabeth Bisland on a similar journey but she arrived four days later.
Nellie Bly gained international stardom for her world tour stunt that multiplied her fame. Though ‘New York World’ continuously covered her travel diaries, it was later in 1890 that Bly published a book about the experience, titling it ‘Around the World in 72 Days.
She left the newspaper industry after her marriage to serve as the president of her husband’s company, Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. As a social reformer she gave over-the-top perks to her employees but the scheme cost the company so dearly that it went bankrupt. Bly switched back to reporting, later on writing stories on Europe's Eastern Front during World War I and the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913.
Personal Life & Legacy
Nellie Bly tied the nuptial knot in 1895 with the millionaire manufacturer Robert Seaman. Following her marriage, she retired from journalism and became the president of her husband’s Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.
In 1904, when her husband died, Bly took over the reign of the company. She became one the leading women industrialists in the US and was the inventor of a novel milk can and a stacking garbage can, holding the patents for both.
She breathed her last on January 27, 1922 at St. Mark's Hospital in New York City due to pneumonia. She was 57 years of age. She was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.