Born as Elizabeth Cochran in Pennsylvania in 1864, Nellie Bly was the original “muckraking” journalist. When she was sixteen, a misogynist column in The Pittsburgh Dispatch newspaper caught her eye, prompting her to write an impassioned letter to the editor — with the unexpected consequence that she was hired to write for the paper. She was given the pseudonym “Nellie Bly” after a popular song of the same name, as it was unusual for female newspaper writers to be allowed to use their own names.
Her journalism career started when she wrote a series of articles on the deplorable working conditions of female factory workers, but she immediately faced editorial pressure to focus on issues that were more “ladylike.” Forced to write about fashion and society parties, Bly instead offered to travel to Mexico as a foreign correspondent — making her one of the very few American women to work in that capacity at the time. Only twenty-one years old, Bly wrote a series of dispatches from Mexico, including one on a journalist imprisoned for criticizing dictator Porfirio Diaz; that report was enough to have Bly threatened with arrest by the Mexican government and force her return to America. Despite her excellent work in Mexico, the Dispatch again forced Bly into writing for “women’s interests.” Fed up, Bly moved to New York in 1887 and managed to get a job at The New York World, run by Joseph Pulitzer.
Bly became a key component in the newspaper’s success when Pulitzer allowed her to pursue the kind of undercover investigative journalism that was rare at the time. She agreed to feign insanity so that she would be committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum at Blackwell’s Island and experience the conditions there firsthand. At the time there were no firm guidelines dealing with the treatment of mental illnesses, which gave asylums leeway to treat its patients as prisoners. During her time at Blackwell’s Island, Bly was underfed and witnessed the beatings of her fellow residents. Her report attracted national acclaim and was one of the few pieces of nineteenth-century journalism to focus on the rights of the mentally ill.
Her influence grew when she was asked to serve on a grand jury probe of the asylum and her recommendations for improving the treatment of asylum residents were codified into the city’s health regulations. Eager for another pioneering assignment, she suggested to Pulitzer that she mimic the fictional journey undertaken in the recently published Around the World in Eighty Days. Bly circumnavigated the globe from Hoboken, New Jersey back to New York City in seventy-two days, later writing about her travels through England, France, Colombo, Hong Kong, and the Suez Canal. The speed of her journey was a record, and only served to enhance her celebrity.
Bly retired from journalism for a time after marrying industrialist Robert Seaman, but kept working when she became president of one of his companies, Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. She threw herself into learning about manufacturing, eventually inventing and patenting a type of steel barrel. After her company was forced into bankruptcy, Bly returned to her journalism career. She wrote a series of articles on the push for women’s suffrage, and reported from Europe during World War I. She was still writing assorted articles at the time of her death in 1922 at the age of 57. Later honored with everything from a 1940s Broadway musical to a postage stamp, Bly is still regarded as a pioneer for women in American journalism.