Written by Lizzie Lohrer
Read last edition’s Forgotten Women here.
Elizabeth Cochran, who would later take on the name Nellie Bly, was born on May 5, 1864, in Pennsylvania. While she would eventually become the leading woman in stunt journalism, she began at a small publication called the Pittsburgh Dispatch. However, it was when she relocated to the New York World that she began to bring change through her writing.
Cochran first started at the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885 after her provocative letter to the publication in response to a sexist article landed her a job on the staff. She stayed at the newspaper for two years, making five dollars a week, until she was moved to the women’s page. Finding herself severely limited in terms of creative freedom due to the change, she packed up and headed north to New York to find a job there.
In New York, she was hired at the New York World and sent undercover at the mental asylum on Blackwell Island. This was also when she adopted her pen name, Nellie Bly. She was undercover for a total of ten days in order to be able to confirm the rumors swirling around the institute at the time – most of which were not favorable. When she was rescued from the institute, she wrote an exposé detailing all the ways the asylum mistreated its patients. The piece was largely acclaimed and sparked a movement to change how mental institutions, like the one on Blackwell Island, were run.
After the huge success of her Blackwell Island piece, she continued to write similar articles, though on relatively smaller scales, and became known for her stunning undercover work that delved into the seedy underbelly of New York.
Her popularity continued to rise, especially in 1889 when the New York World sent her on a journey around the globe in 72 days; a world record. Her already steadily growing readership, combined with the World shamelessly promoting her during the trip sent her popularity to an entirely new level by the time she got back.
In 1865, she retired from journalism and married a millionaire and businessman, Robert Seaman. When he died in 1904, she took control of his company and was an advocate for employee rights that were unheard of at the time, such as health care and employee gyms. However, when this started to affect the inheritance she’d received from her late husband, she returned to journalism for a short two years before her death in January of 1922.
Nellie Bly’s story is one of encouragement and strength. Bly looked at the options available to her as a woman of her time, decided she didn’t like them, and made her own way. She fought for a path in a world of mostly men and inspired change along the way, proving that, no matter who you are, you really can accomplish most anything with hard work, dedication, and determination.