One hundred and fifty-three years ago today, Nellie Bly was born. We explore this remarkable woman who — through her bravery, compassion, and tenacious spirit — championed the underdog.
Born on May 5, 1864 in Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Jane Cochran would become the world famous reporter Nellie Bly. How did she get her moniker? It all started with her scathing letter to The Pittsburgh Dispatch, in which she expressed her ire over an opinion piece that asserted that a woman’s place was in the home.
Impressed by her letter, the editor of the Dispatch hired her and gave her the name Nellie Bly. And from there, Bly took off like a lightning bolt. While at the paper, Bly wrote pieces focusing on social justice issues like labor law protections for women and reforming state divorce laws. She even took off to Mexico as a foreign correspondent, reporting on government corruption and the gross poverty pervading the country, which she turned into a book.
But all of her courageous work and newfound fame did not come with controversy. She made her fair share of enemies (mostly men who were uneasy with her ambition), which caused the Dispatch to pull in the reigns and confine her to soft stories. Bly responded by quitting.
She took off to New York and soon after began working on her most famous assignment for The New York World. Pretending to be insane, she admitted herself into a mental institution for 10 days, where she reported on the rampant abuse — from forced meals to ice cold baths — that the patients were subjected to everyday. Reaction was swift, and reform for such institutions followed.
But Bly was ready for more. In fact, a whirlwind trip was her next big endeavor. Inspired by Jules Verne‘s fictional book Around the World in Eighty Days, Bly wanted to see if she could travel around the world . . .in less than 80 days, of course. By now she was writing for The World, and although it was taboo for a woman to travel alone, Bly did just that in 1889. After 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, Bly returned to her starting point. She achieved her goal and became an instant international celebrity.
But despite the fanfare, Bly would never leave her first love — fighting for the underdog. She would continue reporting on issues like police corruption, labor strikes, and interviewing notable influencers like Susan B. Anthony. Even after surprising the public by marrying industrialist Robert Seaman in 1895 and taking a sabbatical on journalism, she would eventually find her way back — this time to the front lines when World War I broke out in 1914. Becoming the first female war correspondent, Bly would return to the U.S. five years later and continue using her celebrity to fight for the poor and needy. She was a columnist for The Evening Journal up until her death at age 57.