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Sunday, August 19, 2012


Elizabeth Jane Cochran was born near Pittsburgh in 1864. She always wanted to be different, to stand out from the crowd. She used the nickname “Pink” and changed her last name to Cochrane (adding the “e” to make it more sophisticated). A typical teenager? Maybe. But the rest of her life was as different as it could possibly be for an American woman in the 19th Century.

When the family moved to Pittsburgh in 1880, young Elizabeth became exposed to the city’s newspapers and loved reading them. She dreamed of finding work as a newspaper writer. One day, see read an editorial critical of the new women’s movement. It proclaimed that women belonged in the home doing domestic tasks like cooking, cleaning, and raising children. The editorial stated that working women were a “monstrosity.” Elizabeth fired off a letter to the editor refuting the articles conclusions. The paper’s editor was so impressed with her arguments that he hired her to write for it.

At that time, no female reporter ever used her real name in the newspapers. They always had a pen name, many men did the same. That suited Elizabeth just fine, she liked the idea. The name that stuck was NELLIE BLY. It was taken from the popular song “Nelly Bly” written by a fellow Pittsburgher, the composer Stephen Foster. Foster died the same year that Elizabeth was born.

Her early articles were about the hardships of working women, calling for reform of the state’s divorce laws, and the life of a factory girl in Pittsburgh. She once posed as a poor sweatshop worker to expose the cruelty under which women worked. When the shop owners threatened to pull their newspaper advertising, the paper took Nellie off her assignments and put her on the flower show circuit. Nellie hated it. She decided to accept the paper’s six month assignment in Mexico to write about life there. Of course, Nellie decided to focus on the poverty and political corruption in the country. Soon the articles got her ejected from Mexico.

Upon returning to the U.S. in 1887, Nellie decided to skip Pittsburgh and try her journalistic hand in New York City. She was able to talk her way into a reporter’s job with “The York World” paper (owned by Joseph Pulitzer).

Her first assignment was to go undercover by feigning insanity and getting herself admitted at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at that institution. After impersonating a “mad” person, she returned 10 days later with stories of cruel beatings, ice cold baths, and forced meals. Her expose’ prompted a grand jury to launch its own investigation which led to many changes in the system.

At that time, such stories were called “stunt reporting’ where women reporters risked their reputations to enter into the man’s world of journalism. In fact, Nellie Bly at the age of 23 was the inventor of our modern investigative journalism. Nellie’s personality was always part of her articles. She didn’t hide her feelings and reactions to whatever story she covered.

Nellie Bly reached the peak of her fame in 1889. The “New York World” thought it would be a good idea, and sell papers, to stage a race with another paper to send a man around the world to break the fictional record in Jules Verne’s book “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Nellie threatened to do it in even less time for another newspaper if they didn’t agree to send her instead of a man. They relented. She competed against another women reporter from Cosmopolitan, going in the opposite direction.

On November 14th, Nellie began her journey in New Jersey with only about $300 (in a bag tied around her neck) and a few clothes in a small suitcase. The newspaper conducted a contest with readers to see who could predict her total time. They sold a lot of papers. She traveled by ship, train, rickshaw, burro, or anything to make the necessary connections.

Nellie arrived back on January 25, 1890. It took her 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds to circumnavigate the globe. She was greeted by crowds, bands, fireworks, and a parade. Nellie Bly was thrust into the world’s spotlight.

Her lasting contribution, however, was to publicize women’s rights issues. She also exposed injustice and corruption in public and private sectors, and prompted many social reforms. Nellie also became a trailblazer for women in a male dominated profession, and was the originator of investigative journalism.

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