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Nelly Bly, or Nellie Bly, was a journalist, inventor, industrialist, charity worker, and women’s rights advocate from the United States. She famously traveled around the world in 72 days from 1889 to 1870, breaking the international record. Nellie Bly also pioneered the field of investigative journalism with her piece, "Ten Days in a Madhouse", where she pretended to be mad and committed herself into New York City’s Blackwell’s Island to expose the horrors occurring inside.

Young Life and Education

Nelly Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864, in the town of Cochran’s Mills, now a part of Burrell Township, outside Pittsburg, Pennsylvania to Michael and Mary Jane Cochran.[1] Her father was a wealthy businessman, landowner, and judge, and the township was named after him. His first wife bore 10 children and he remarried after she died. His second wife bore five children and Nellie Bly was the third and most rebellious.[2] Her family called her “Pinky” growing up, but she dropped it and changed her surname to “Cochrane” when she became a teenager.[3]

Bly’s father died when she was six and left no will to protect his second family. Her family faced serious financial troubles and auctioned off their mansion. Her mother married an abusive man to find some financial security, but the abuse forced her to divorce him. Bly enrolled in Indiana Normal School at 15 to become a teacher and help her family. She only stayed one semester when she had no money to continue. She returned to Pittsburg with her mother and helped run a boarding house.[4]

Early Career

Elizabeth Cochran used her love of writing to author a rebuttal to a sexist article title, “What Are Girls Good For,” by Erasmus Wilson in the Pittsburg Dispatch. She defended the working woman and signed the letter-to-the-editor as “Lonely Orphan Girl.” George Madden, the paper’s editor, found the letter impressive and asked the writer to reveal herself and hired her immediately under the pen name Nellie Bly. She wrote articles addressing women’s and labor rights and divorce law reform. She convinced her editors to send her to Mexico and the government kicked her out when she exposed the political corruption keeping the citizens impoverish.[5]

Ten Days in a Madhouse

Joseph Pulitzer’s request for Nellie Bly to write what became "10 Days in a Madhouse" could have been taken as either a challenge or rejection, but she chose to take it as a challenge.

Nelly Bly’s Mexican trip firmly confined her to writing a women’s page for the Dispatch. She promptly decided she wanted to write in New York City and moved there immediately. After inquiring at many newspaper offices, she found her way into the office of the managing editor of the New York Word, Joseph Pulitzer. He requested she write a piece on the mentally ill housed in New York City’s largest institution, Blackwell’s Island.

Bly returned to him 10 days later with evidence of rotten meals being force-fed, ice baths, and harsh beatings. Pulitzer published Nelly Bly’s "Ten Days in a Madhouse" with illustrations and it was met with outrage by the public. It encouraged the money to fund the needed reforms to the institution.[6]

Around the World in 72 Days

Nellie Bly spent the next few years writing exposes on governmental corruption, poverty, the treatment of women prisoners by male police officers, the right to health care, and many more controversial issues. She covered the 1894 Pullman Railroad strike in Chicago and was the only one to report the striker’s perspectives. She always included her personal feelings, observations, and reactions in her stories and her fame helped spark the careers of many she profiled, including anarchist Emma Goldman and suffragette Susan B. Anthony.

In 1889, Nelly Bly’s editor suggested she participate in a trip around the world to conquer the character Phileas Fogg’s trip in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. She traveled by ship, train, and burro, to arrive back after 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.[7] She sent messages along the way by telegraph, traveled alone for almost the entire trips, and arrived at 3:41pm on January 25, 1890, in New Jersey. [8]

The 55-Gallon Oil Drum

Nelly Bly married Robert Seaman, a millionaire manufacturer, in 1895. At the time Seaman was 73 and Bly was only 31. She left journalism to become the president of his Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. Iron Clad specialized in making steel containers for use as boilers, milk cans, and other objects. Robert Seaman died in 1904, the same year the company introduced a steel barrel used as the model for the 55-gallon oil drum still used in modern manufacturing in the U.S.

The steel drum patent is listed under her employee, Henry Wehrhahn, as his two patents from 1905 led to the creation of the 55-gallon steel barrel. Wehrhahn assigned many of his inventions to Bly, but she held two in her own right for a stacking garbage and a milk can. Iron Clad produced 1,000 steel barrels made by 1,500 employees at their peak. In 1911, however, fraud charges led the company into financial troubles and, by 1912, Iron Clad went completely bankrupt.[9]

Later Life and Death

Nelly Bly always sided with the disenfranchised and the poor when writing and openly stated her feelings about the different situations she encountered.

Nellie Bly returned to journalism and worked for the New York Journal until her death, but never wrote anything as big as Ten Days in a Mad House again.[10] She did cover the Woman’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 and predicted it would be at least until 1920 before the legalization of women’s suffrage.[11]

Nelly Bly died of pneumonia in 1922.[12] The Nellie Bly Amusement Park in New York City is named after her.[13]

References

Bibliography

Kroeger, B., & Bly, N. (1995). Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (Reissue ed.). New York: Three Rivers Press.


PBS. (2006, April 4). People & Events: Nellie Bly. Retrieved November 13, 2016, from American Experience: Around the World in 72 days.[4]

The City of New York. Nellie Bly Park. NYC Parks.[5]

Footnotes

  1. Kroeger & Bly, 1995
  2. PBS, 2006
  3. Kroeger & Bly, 1995
  4. PBS, 2006
  5. Girls Learn International, Inc. (2008). Nellie Bly (1864-1922). National Women’s History Museum.[1]
  6. PBS, 2006
  7. PBS, 2006
  8. Ruddick, N. (1999). Nellie Bly, Jules Verne, and the World on the Threshold of the American Age. Canadian Review of American Studies, 29(1), 1–12. doi:10.3138/cras-029-01-01
  9. American Oil & Gas Historical Society. (2015, May 12). Nellie Bly Oil Drum. Petroleum Transportation.[2]
  10. NYC Journal, n.d.
  11. Harvey, S. (2001). Marching for the Vote: Remembering the Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913. American Women: Library of Congress.[3]
  12. PBS, 2006
  13. NYC Journal, n.d.

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