Great woman of history
SHE SPOKE TRUTH TO POWER, CONNED HER WAY INTO AN INSANE ASYLUM AND CIRCLED THE GLOBE JUST TO PROVE SHE COULD. MEET NELLIE BLY, THE MOST TENACIOUS
INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER IN HISTORY.
BORN: May 5, 1864, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. DIED: January 27, 1922, New York, U.S.A.
GEORGE MADDEN SIGHED WHEN HE SAW THE LETTER. IT WAS JANUARY 1885, ONE WEEK AFTER HIS NEWSPAPER, THE PITTSBURGH DISPATCH, HAD PUBLISHED A FIERY CRITIQUE OF MODERN WORKING WOMEN TITLED
‘WHAT GIRLS ARE GOOD FOR.’
The women of Pittsburgh hadn’t enjoyed reading that their proper place was in the kitchen, and the angry letters had been landing on his desk all week. This one looked different, though: a plain paper envelope signed simply ‘Lonely Orphan Girl’. Madden rolled his eyes as he opened it. The next day he published an ad in the Pittsburgh Dispatch asking ‘Lonely Orphan Girl’ to come forward and identify herself. “She’s got no grammar,” Madden reportedly told one colleague. “She’s got no spelling. Let’s bring her in.” This was the beginning of the legend of Nellie Bly: a feminist, lobbyist, adventurer, industrialist and pioneering investigative reporter whose by-line – by the age of 25 – would grace the tea-stained breakfast tables of nearly every home in America.
Bly’s story starts among the green pastures of western Pennsylvania, where she was born Elizabeth Cochrane in 1864. The 13th of 15 children, Cochrane harboured dreams of being a writer from a young age. But after her father died suddenly, the family ran out of money before she could finish school. Destitute, the clan packed up and headed for Pittsburgh to run a boarding house.
And that might have been Cochrane’s life, cleaning bedrooms and cooking food for travellers, if she hadn’t stumbled on ‘What Girls Are Good For’ in The Pittsburgh Dispatch, felt a slug of cortisol surge through her veins, and reached for a pen.
Cochrane’s anonymous response was a white-hot polemic that smacked the publisher between the eyes. The author was a mystery, but Madden knew good writing when he read it. When a nervous Cochrane showed up the next day, he offered her a job on the spot. Her first column, a scathing rebuttal titled ‘The Girl Puzzle’, was published under the pen name ‘Nellie Bly’. She was just 20 years old. “Let a youth start as errand boy and he will work his way up until he is one of the firm,” Bly wrote. “Girls are just as smart, a great deal quicker to learn; why, then, can they not do the same?” The question was addressed to society in general, though Madden must have realised how well it applied to his own industry. The news industry in the 1800s was basically a boys’ club full of cigars, suspenders and bristling moustaches. The few women writing at the time were consigned to what they called the ‘Pink Ghetto’ – gardening, fashion, society pages, maybe a little knitting. Bly was having none of that.
From the very beginning she wrote about the things that mattered to her: namely, the poor and oppressed. When anxious companies threatened to pull their ads from the newly progressive Dispatch, Bly found herself relegated to the gardening beat. She handed in her article and her resignation on the same day. Before she left, she penned a quick note and left it on the editor’s desk: “I’m off to New York. Look out for me.”
For four months Bly stomped the city’s streets, attending interviews and sending off samples of her work. Eventually she elbowed her way into the office of John Cockerill, New York World’s managing editor. When Cockerill asked her what she wanted to write about, she told him plainly: she wanted to go insane. Bly’s plan was to con her way inside Blackwell’s Island, a lunatic asylum staffed by inmates of a nearby penitentiary and described by its own wardens as “a miserable refuge… undeserving of the name Asylum.” (You know an institution is dubious when it gives asylums a bad name.)
SHE STOPPED BATHING
AND PRACTISED “FARAWAY EXPRESSIONS”. DOCTORS HAD HER COMMITTED AT ONCE.
To get inside, Bly needed to convince a judge and several doctors she was certifiably crazy. She stopped bathing and brushing her teeth, dressed in tattered rags, and practised “faraway expressions” in front of the mirror – a pretty reliable barometer of sanity by 19th-century medical standards. Remarkably, the ruse worked. Doctors declared Bly “positively demented”, and had her committed at once. “From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity,” she later wrote. “I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be.”
After 10 days, Cockerill sent an attorney to retrieve their ‘patient’. Shortly after,
New York World published ‘Behind
Asylum Bars’, the most groundbreaking exposé a newspaper had ever attempted. Bly’s gonzo-style report revealed shocking abuses. Inmates (some of whom were merely down-and-out migrants whose strong accents were mistaken for gibberish) were routinely beaten, choked and bullied, made to take ice baths and fed rancid butter. “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”
Bly wrote. The public clearly agreed. A grand jury was established, and recommended a million-dollar increase in the state budget for the care of “poor unfortunates”, and the release of improperly committed foreign patients.
Almost overnight Bly went from being a junior reporter to a national super-sleuth. She spent the next few years busting crooked bureaucrats, exposing animal cruelty, posing as an unemployed maid, and a mother trying to sell her own child. The scoops kept coming, and newspaper circulation soared – as did Bly’s ambitions.
In 1889, Bly pitched something audacious even by her standards: a solo circumnavigation of the globe. She wanted to beat Phileas Fogg’s fictional record in Around the World in 80 Days. Her editors liked the idea, but felt more comfortable sending a man. “Very well,” she shot back, “Start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” As usual, she got her way. On November 14, 1889, Bly set sail for the Atlantic.
She filed dispatches whenever she could, writing about everything from Italian cuisine to Egyptian alligator hunting. She met
Jules Verne in France, bought a monkey in Singapore, and visited leper colonies in China. Her writing was sharp, witty and intelligent, though modern readers will no doubt recoil at Bly’s of-the-time racism – a trait rendered all the more surprising given her previously demonstrated capacity for empathy.
Seventy-two days, six hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds after she began her trip, Bly arrived back in New York. She’d travelled 40,000 kilometres, beaten Phileas Fogg and established herself as an international celebrity. The marketers were quick to pounce: soon there were Nellie Bly postage stamps, Nellie Bly playing cards, even a Nellie Bly board game. Her book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, was an international bestseller.
Over the next 20 years, Bly’s career slalomed from one unlikely adventure to another. At 31 she married millionaire steel tycoon Robert Seaman, 42 years her senior. Seaman made his fortune building milk crates and boilers, and Bly helped run the company as his health deteriorated, even patenting her own stackable milk can in 1901. When Seaman died in 1904, the company passed to Bly, and she became the world’s leading female industrialist. Unfortunately it didn’t last – a manager’s embezzlement bankrupted the company.
By now it was 1914 and, newly unemployed, Bly found herself in Austria at the outbreak of WWI. She spent the next four years as America’s first female war correspondent, filing from the muddy trenches of the Eastern Front. Three years before America joined the War, U.S. families could sit at the dinner table and read lean, Hemingway-esque prose, straight from the front lines: “The day is done. We enter our wagons for our return. I glance sadly at the dark, cold trenches. I say farewell to those I know. And the terrible booming and slaughter keep on ceaselessly.” Her writing became the template for 20th-century conflict reporting.
In fact, Bly continued to write columns and file stories right up till 1922, when she caught pneumonia and passed away in her bed. She was 57 years old.
Although she lived such a well-documented life, the source of Bly’s unshakeable selfassurance remains something of a mystery. With society’s deck stacked so firmly against her, she never doubted the house would lose: that with enough determination, brilliance, grit and wit, she could prove them all wrong. “I’ve always had the feeling that nothing is impossible if one applies a certain amount of energy in the right direction,” she once wrote. “If you want to do it, you can do it. The question is, ‘Do you want to do it?’”