Reporter Nellie Bly could be described as a force of nature. She invented investigative reporting and turned undercover reporting into an art form. A champion of women’s rights and tireless in her efforts to expose corruption, this remarkable woman had a powerful effect on her world and her generation.
Elizabeth Jane Cochrane was born on May 5, 1864, to Judge Michael Cochrane and his wife Mary Jane at Cochrane’s Mills, Pennsylvania. The judge and his family were prominent members of their community, but everything changed when Judge Cochrane passed away on Elizabeth’s sixth birthday. The judge had neglected to leave a will, leaving his wife with no claim to their property. The Cochrane estate was auctioned off and the family moved to a modest home.
Elizabeth’s mother remarried shortly after her husband’s death in an effort to provide for Elizabeth and her siblings, but her new husband proved abusive. Elizabeth’s vivid imagination and story-telling ability probably helped her to overcome the emotional turmoil of her childhood, and likely led to her later preoccupation with women’s rights.
The Birth of Nellie Bly
In 1882, incensed by a sexist editorial published in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Elizabeth wrote an anonymous letter to the editor. The newspaper’s managing editor, George Madden, was so impressed by what he read that he placed an ad in his newspaper asking the author to introduce herself. The next day, Elizabeth went to meet with Madden, who hired her as a reporter for $5.00 a week. Since it was considered improper at that time for a woman to write for a newspaper, Madden decided to call her Nellie Bly after the title character in a song by Stephen Foster. Though neither Madden nor Nellie knew it at the time, they had just launched what would become a phenomenal career for the teenaged reporter.
Nellie took advantage of every opportunity she could find to publicize the plight of women. She went undercover in a sweat shop to describe the inhumane working conditions experienced by the women working there. Beleaguered shop owners threatened to pull their advertisements from the Dispatch, and Nellie was reassigned to cover the fashion beat. Instead, with the almost reckless courage that would characterize the rest of her career, Nellie went on a six month vacation in Mexico. There she wrote a series of articles for the Dispatch detailing Mexican political corruption and the poverty of many Mexican citizens. The Mexican government retaliated by throwing her out of the country.
Nellie did not return to Pittsburgh, deciding instead to try her luck in New York City. In September 1887, jobless and broke, she talked her way into an interview with John Cockerill, managing editor of Joseph Pulitzer’s famed newspaper, the New York World. She presented her ideas to Cockerill, who was so impressed he paid her a $25.00 retainer while he persuaded Pulitzer to put her on the staff.
Nellie immediately turned her undercover investigating skills to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Her report on what she saw and experienced as an inmate there launched her into the limelight in New York and prompted reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill. Her courageous escapades prompted other women to risk life and limb in imitating her adventures.
In 1888, the New York World decided to sponsor a trip in imitation of the popular book, Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Nellie wanted the assignment so desperately that she threatened to complete the journey in less time, but for another newspaper, if she was refused the assignment. Wisely, the New York World’s editors decided to go along with her.
Around the World
On November 14, 1889, Nellie set out on her world-wide journey, departing from the Hoboken Pier at 9:40:30 a.m. She did not ask for special consideration from any of the train or boat crews and made use of whatever local form of transportation was available. Her daily reports of her journey were eagerly devoured by her readers and the New York World experienced a huge increase in circulation. She arrived back in New York only 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes after her departure. New York City celebrated her achievement with brass bands, parades and fireworks. Her fame now spread around the world. Unfortunately, the newspaper did not seem to share the public’s enthusiasm for their reporter, and Nellie resigned from the newspaper in 1890.
In 1893, Nellie returned to the New York World, writing powerful stories focused on injustice and her favorite issue, women’s rights. Her stories caused public outcries for social reform as she became a spokesman for women, including unwed mothers and victims of social or financial injustices.
Marriage and Retirement
In April of 1895, Nellie surprised nearly everyone, possibly including herself, by marrying a millionaire industrialist from Catskill, New York. Robert Livingston Seaman was forty years older than his thirty-one year old bride. She retired from journalism and, though the marriage may not have been a particularly happy one, she remained at his side until his death ten years later.
Nellie made a gallant attempt to manage her husband’s Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. Ever the social reformer, she built a recreation center and employee library, established hunting and fishing clubs and a health care system for the factory’s employees. But her concern for her employees was not enough to overcome her lack of experience in banking and accounting, and she and the company eventually went bankrupt.
Nellie sailed to England on an extended vacation in 1914. She soon found herself trapped in Europe as war broke out. Always resourceful, Nellie reported on the war, becoming one of the world’s first female war correspondents. She remained in Europe until 1919, when word reached her of her mother’s failing health. She returned home and resumed her career with the New York Evening Journal, where she remained until her death from pneumonia on January 27, 1922.
Nellie was only fifty-seven years old when she passed away, but her list of achievements was stunning. She had lived adventures others only dreamed about. Her articles literally changed the world as she pointed the way to social reforms which over time changed the lives of countless women. At times she enjoyed wealth, and suffered through bouts of poverty at others, but her spirit and courage, and her concern for the less fortunate never wavered. We can all learn from the legacy of this remarkable and resourceful woman who made such an impact on her generation.