As both a pioneer for investigative journalism and a record-breaking world traveler, the life of Nellie Bly was nothing short of extraordinary. From writing hard-hitting stories on the terror of New York’s insane asylums to racing around the globe against a fictional record, Nellie Bly broke barriers for women in more ways than one.
Born Elizabeth Cochrane in 1864, Nellie’s father died while she was young and her family frequently struggled financially. She attended Indiana Teacher’s College, but due to her family’s financial hardships, she never finished school and left to help her mother run a boarding house.
One day, upon reading a piece in the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled “What Girls Are Good For” she was so angered by the negative representation of women that she wrote an open letter to the editor. Impressed, the editor not only published the letter but also offered her as a job as a columnist. She took up the pen name “Nellie Bly” and began writing pieces targeted towards the female audience. Her articles covered the life of working girls in Pittsburgh and the conditions of poor neighborhoods, but her work was confined to the “women’s pages.”
Craving stories for both men and women, she ended up traveling for several months through Mexico, reporting on the corruption and poor living conditions. Her exposé angered Mexican officials so much so that they deported her from the country. Upon returning, she left Pittsburgh for New York City and got a job writing at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.
One of her first assignments, which would become one of her most famous, involved faking a mental illness so she could be admitted into the insane asylum on New York’s Blackwell Island (now Roosevelt Island). There she documented the horrific conditions and treatment of the patients and exposed the facility in a six-part series in New York World titled “Ten Days in a Mad House.” The shocking series quickly made her one of the most famous journalists in the U.S. and prompted a grand jury investigation into the practices of the asylum. This hands-on approach to journalism contributed to the developing investigative journalism style. She later reported on sweatshops, jails, and bribery in the lobbyist system.
However, her true breakthrough into international fame and history came when she set off on a journey around the world. After reading Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, she set a goal of circling the globe in under 80 days. Originally, her editor at New York World refused to let her go, stating that “no one but a man can do this.” Bly replied saying, “Very well. Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” Eventually, her editor conceded, and she was off.
Beginning in New York, she traveled by ship, train, rickshaw, horse, and burro. In France, she met Jules Verne himself who wished her luck on the voyage. Her newspaper printed her accounts from the road and held a contest for readers to guess how long it would take her, down to the minute, with nearly early one million entries into the contest. Her final leg of the journey which involved traveling by train from San Francisco to New York was done so with great fanfare. With each stop, she was met with brass bands, fireworks, fans, and cheery celebrations. Finally, after 72 days, she reached New York and set the world record for the fastest time traveled around the world.
In 1895, she married a millionaire named Robert Seamen, and after his death in 1903, she took control of his manufacturing company and went on to patent several inventions for the oil business. Later in life, she used her journalistic skills to cover the women’s suffrage movement and World War I. In 1922, she died of pneumonia having truly lived a history-making and record-breaking life.