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Unsung Heroes: Nellie Bly

This ambitious female journalist pioneered a new form of journalist and broke world records for circumnavigation.

Published March 17, 2015; updated July 6, 2017

Nellie Bly

New York World reporter Nellie Bly. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864, was a pioneer for women in journalism and an influential investigative journalist. She grew up in a large family in Cochrans Mills, Pa. After her father’s death when she was only 6 years old, Bly’s mother remarried and entered into an abusive relationship. The marriage ended in divorce and soon after, Bly looked for independence and a way to support her family.

She attended Indiana Normal School and began training as a teacher, one of the few careers available to women at that time, but had to return home after money ran out after one semester. In Pittsburgh, with her mother, Bly struggled to find full-time work and dreamed of becoming a writer. Her big break came after she responded to an article written by Erasmus Wilson in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Wilson wrote that women belonged in the home, not in the workforce. Bly, like many other women in Pittsburgh, was in the workforce trying to survive in the city. The letter she wrote against Wilson’s editorial impressed those working at the Dispatch; she was given a job and the pen name Nellie Bly.

Bly’s first article highlighted the struggles of young women in Pittsburgh; her second was on the state’s divorce laws. Even with the success of her previous stories, she was moved to covering women’s issues, like fashion. Unfulfilled by these assignments, Bly convinced her editors to send her to Mexico as a foreign correspondent.

After returning from Mexico, she was once again assigned topics that would appeal to women. In response, she gave her notice and moved to New York City. In 1887, after searching for journalist positions for almost six months, Bly finally landed one at the New York World. Her first assignment was a piece on the mentally ill. To write the story, Bly impersonated a mentally ill woman and entered the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island for 10 days. She reported on the harsh conditions on the island. At just 23 years old, her article, “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” stirred politicians and public opinion, which led to reforms and ushered in the age of investigative journalism.

After her groundbreaking article, Bly continued to report on social issues including poverty and medical care of the poor. She went on to interview many notable Americans, including suffragist Susan B. Anthony.

In 1889, Bly attempted to travel around the world in 80 days, based on the adventures in the famous Jules Verne’s novel. By taking various forms of transportation, she returned home in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes to a large cheering crowd. The World noted: “Her grit has been more than masculine. … She is coming home to dear old America with the scalps of the carpers and critics strung on her slender girdle, and about her head a monster wreath of laurel and forget-me-nots, as a tribute to American pluck, American womanhood and American perseverance.” Read news coverage of her trip here. Bly’s popularity spawned books, a board game and trading cards about her trip. The satchel Bly carried during her around-the-world trek is on display in the Newseum’s News Corporation News History Gallery.

In 1922, Nellie Bly died at the age of 57 in New York City, still employed as a reporter for the New York World.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

  1. In order to get her story, Nellie Bly misrepresented herself as a mentally ill woman. Is this ethical journalism? Why or why not?
  2. While Nellie Bly wasn’t actively involved in the suffrage fight, how was she part of the bigger women’s rights movement?

This article was originally published in March 2015 in honor of Women’s History Month. You can find more stories of well-known and not-so-well-known women  in our EDCollection “Women, Their Rights and Nothing Less,” endorsed by NCSS. To access these resources, you must be signed into our website; registration is free. 

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