Born Elizabeth Cochran in Pittsburgh in 1864, Nellie Bly was a renowned undercover journalist who focused her work on women, vulnerable people and oppressed societies. She is perhaps best known for her work exposing conditions in US asylums, which saw her being voluntarily committed to an institution for ten days. Bly also broke a world record by making it around the world in 72 days, and she was also an inventor, industrialist and charity worker.
Life and family
Elizabeth Cochran was the daughter of mill owner Michael Cochran and his second wife Mary Jane Kennedy, born May 5, 1864 in Cochran’s Mills, close to Pittsburgh. Elizabeth had fourteen siblings and half-siblings, and her sisters and friends used to call her ‘Pinky’ – a nickname she was keen to shed. She opted to use ‘Cochrane’ as her family name, and retained the spelling all of her life. Elizabeth was said to be fiercely independent from a very young age.
As a teen, Elizabeth started boarding school – but her father died just one term into her school career, leaving the family unable to continue paying the fees – or afford their large suburban property. Instead, she was sent to a city day school to train as a teacher. When the family moved to Pittsburgh in 1880, she found work as a journalist using the pen name Nellie Bly. Bly wrote as a fashion and lifestyle writer before demanding tougher assignments, later being assigned as a foreign correspondent and undercover reporter.
‘Nellie Bly’ spent fifteen years in the reporting business. Cochrane married Robert Seaman – the head of a manufacturing company – in 1895, and retired from journalism to support her husband’s business. The older man died after just 9 years of marriage, leaving Elizabeth to manage the company. During her reign as company head she filed patents for inventions, worked hands-on within the operations sector, and also gave her time to charity work.
After the company went bankrupt following massive losses from an employee’s embezzlement scam, she returned to journalism and reported on WWI and the women’s suffrage movement. In 1922, 18 years after her husband’s death, Cochrane herself passed away in hospital following a bout of pneumonia. She was 57 years old.
Nellie Bly was an innovator in the press world, rejecting typical ‘women’s lifestyle’ journalism in favor of hard-hitting exposés. She is described by some as a ‘female supremacist’ due to her controversial 1913 article ‘Suffragists Are Men’s Superiors’, which (accurately) foretold that women would not get the vote in the US until 1920. More accurately, she was a passionate campaigner for female rights and a champion for anyone oppressed or vulnerable.
in 1880 after arriving in Pittsburgh, Cochrane picked up a copy of the Pittsburgh Dispatch and read an article entitled , which argued that women should stick to their place in the home. Outraged, Cochrane responded with her own piece rebuffing the editorial’ arguments, and it impressed the editor so much, she was offered a job at the paper. She was assigned various lifestyle, fashion and entertainment pieces initially, but this did not sit well with the young woman. Elizabeth told her editor she wanted to write about ‘ordinary people’, and she set out to make women the focus of her stories wherever she could.
From the rodeo girls and ranchers of the Wild West to political decisions that shaped women’s lives, Nellie sought to share news stories of real people living extraordinary lives. She often threw herself into investigative journalism, and spent a night alone in a haunted house armed with two pistols and a notebook for her spook tale ‘Nellie Bly and The Ghost’. While her pieces were often lighthearted, some took a more serious slant. She was able to push for women’s rights in the workplace by reporting from factory floors, and force local political reform.
Reassignment and foreign correspondent role
Bly’s bolshy reporting was not a hit with powerful businessmen, who started to pull advertising from the Dispatch in protest at her articles. She was promptly pulled back onto the society and entertainment stories she had previously rejected, and though she approached the role with her usual sharp tongue and good wit, pieces such as ‘Mrs Grannis in Tights’ did not sit well the passionate social justice campaigner.
Instead, she opted to move to Mexico, aged just 21, and report back as a foreign correspondent. The Dispatch approved the assignment, and Bly spent six months over the border. She reported back on local customs and provided political and historical pieces as well, in a collection later known as ‘ Six Months in Mexico’. However, Bly was able to upset authorities in Mexico as well through her work, after they read her piece in the dispatch which outlined how a journalist had been locked up for criticizing the government. Officials threatened to place Bly herself under arrest, so she fled back home and continued with her lifestyle reports.
New York World and undercover reporting
Though her Mexico trip ended a little hastily, the writer known as Nelly Bly had picked up the travel bug – and felt confined by her bland role at the Dispatch. She took a gamble and made off for New York City, broke and alone but determined, and used her charm to secure a freelance assignment for the New York World. The resulting piece on asylum conditions would become one of Cochrane’s most notable works, and it led to significant improvements in mental health care. It was also during her tenure at the New York World that Cochrane embarked on her round the world trip, setting a record for the journey of just 72 days.
‘Ten Days In A Mad House’
In 1887, Cochrane deliberately got herself arrested for erratic behaviour in a New York boarding house, and was summoned before the court. There, she feigned amnesia and wailed ‘I can’t remember!’ to questions from the judge, who concluded that she may have been drugged. Doctors examined the young journalist – including Belle Vue Hospital’s psychiatric consultant – and unanimously declared that she was “positively demented… a hopeless case.” They all recommended that she be confined to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) for an indefinite period.
Once inside the facility, Cochrane could see the appalling conditions patients were faced with with her own eyes. She herself was ill treated, suffering hours of sitting in silence on cold, hard benches and being regularly doused with ice cold water. She spoke to other women in the asylum who were “perfectly sane and healthy”, and later wrote that conditions in the hospital were “producing insanity quicker than torture would.”
Ten Days in a Mad-House outlined how patients classed as dangerous were tied to each other and tethered to the wall, and how the walls and floor were covered with human waste, blood and rats. The meals were inedible, often rotten or stale, and the water was dirty – contributing to outbreaks of illness and infection among the patients. Nurses were said to be cruel and abusive, inflicting punishments on residents such as the cold water treatment – or simply beating them horribly. Cochrane said she and the other patients were forced to sit straight upright from morning until night, forbidden from talking or even moving.
After ten days at the facility, the New York World decided enough was enough and requested that Cochrane be released immediately. The discharge was swiftly completed and Nelly Bly’s article was published on the front page of the next edition. The report evoked outrage across the nation, prompting a jury to order a full investigation, which Cochrane played a key role in. Her evidence secured $850,000 for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections, reform of the facility in which she had been confined, and major changes to the admission process.
‘Around The World In 72 Days’
Already no stranger to risky assignments, Nelly Bly had a new proposal for her New York World editors in 1888 – a world record attempt at a fictional journey. Inspired by the previous decade’s hit novel ‘Around The World In Eighty Days’ by Jules Verne, Cochrane stated that she would travel around the world for real, using trains and ships, on a solo mission. She planned to visit as many places as possible along the way, and report on her journey as she travelled.
Cochrane would be the first person to set a record for the fictional expedition, but more notably she would be travelling alone – something almost unheard of for a woman. Not to be outdone, another Elizabeth set out at the same time with the intention of beating Cochrane’s time. Sponsored by the Cosmopolitan, Elizabeth Bisland would travel in the opposite direction as her rival – however, she was ultimately beaten by Cochrane by just over four days. While delays and a missed connection kept Bisland behind schedule, the New York World’s Joseph Pulitzer sent a private charter train to collect Cochrane and secure her record.
During her 72-day journey, Elizabeth Cochrane had all manner of adventures. She sent short updates at telegraph exchanges along the way – enabling her paper to run a betting contest on the exact moment of her return. The winner was awarded an all expenses paid European trip. Cochrane met ‘Around The World…’ author Jules Verne during her journey, who wished her well, and she visited charitable projects as she travelled – including a Chinese leper colony. Though she carried on much of her journey alone, Cochrane did pick up a travelling companion in Singapore: a domesticated monkey.
The Nellie Bly record was broken just a few months later by George Francis Train, the previous record holder who inspired the novel. Since then, modern transport has reduced the record to just over one month (or a few days if aviation is permitted!).
Industrialist and inventor
With two major articles and a respectable portfolio under her belt, Elizabeth Cochrane started to look at other areas of her life and in 1895, she married the millionaire businessman Robert Seaman, owner of Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. While Bly was only 31 at this point, her new husband was 73 – and in poor health. Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman was named as the successor to her husband, and under her guidance the company made a notable advancement in oil storage container manufacture. She also filed patents in her own name for her inventions – a milk can and a garbage can, both designed to stack and store conveniently.
After her husband died in 1904, Cochrane grew negligent in her management of the company – unwittingly allowing an employee to embezzle funds, resulting in unrecoverable losses that ultimately caused the company to go bankrupt. This pushed Cochrane to pursue her journalism once more, writing on women’s rights and the female war effort until her death in 1922.
Born Elizabeth Cochran, the young woman who would come to be known as Nellie Bly made a notable impact on the world during her 57 years. As a journalist, she championed women’s rights and took significant risks as a foreign correspondent, exposing corrupt overseas governments. Her exposure of conditions in US asylums brought significant reform to the care of the mentally ill, while her solo round-the-world journey inspired female travellers to embrace the freedom to explore. In the later part of her life, Bly was a businesswoman and entrepreneur who registered inventions in her own right, and she was one of America’s most notable industrialists in the early 20th century.
Lead image: H. J. Myers portrait of Elizabeth Seaman (US Library of Congress) via Wikipedia.org
Nelly Bly world travel promo image: New York Public Library Archives via Wikipedia.org