Nellie Bly was known for her investigative writing, and traveling around the world in 72 days, beating the fictional character in Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days.
Elizabeth Jane Cochran was born on May 5, 1864, in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, to Mary Jane and Judge Michael Cochran. She was given the nickname “Pink” early in life, because her mother always dressed her in pink dresses. Shortly after her sixth birthday, Pink's father died without a will, which forced the family to auction his estate. Her mother remarried a short time later; however, her stepfather was abusive. Some believe that may have been the reason Pink became such an advocate for women’s rights.
At the age of 18, Pink wrote an anonymous letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, a response to a sexist editorial by Erasmus Wilson. The managing editor of the Dispatch, George Madden, was impressed by the letter, signed “Lonely Orphan Girl,” that he put an ad in the paper asking for the girl to identify herself. Pink did so the following day, which resulted in her first job as a journalist. After Madden hired her, he decided she would need a pen name; it was improper at the time for a woman to write for a paper. He chose Nellie Bly, the title character in the song, "Nelly Bly," written by Stephen Foster, 35 years earlier.
A journalism career
Bly focused on women’s rights issues. She was responsible for investigative reporting and became an expert at working undercover. Once she posed as a sweatshop worker to expose the terrible conditions in which the women worked. After the shop owners threatened to remove their advertising from the Dispatch, Bly was put on the fashion beat. That would lead her to Mexico. While there, she wrote articles on political corruption and poverty. Those articles eventually got her thrown out of the country by the Mexican government.
In September 1887, Bly joined the staff of the New York World under Joseph Pulitzer. Her first assignment was to go undercover and be committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. That dangerous and adventurous stunt gained her attention in the New York journalism crowd.
Bly continued to do undercover work for the World until 1888, when it was decided that the paper would send a man around the world in fewer than 80 days, in a bid to increase circulation. That infuriated Bly, who threatened to do the same thing for another paper if the World did not agree to send her.
Around the world
Bly began her worldwide journey on November 14, 1889. She boarded the Hamburg-American Company liner, Augusta Victoria, from the Hoboken Pier at exactly 9:40:30 a.m. She was given no special considerations as she went from train to boat to rickshaw to be sure to make the next connection. Her travels were published daily in the World, and people could not wait for the following day to see where she was next.
Bly made the trip around the world in 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds after she left Hoboken. She was thrown into the spotlight and greeted with parades and fireworks.
Bly was dismayed at the lack of appreciation shown by her editors. Her stories had increased circulation of the paper so much that Bly believed she should have earned a bonus — she received nothing. In response, she tendered her resignation.
However, in 1893, Bly staged a comeback to the World. True to form, she focused mainly on women’s rights issues and fighting injustice. She exposed corruption, which provoked the public into an outcry for social reform. Bly became a spokesperson for all women.
A new life
Nellie Bly married millionaire Robert Seaman in 1894, and retired from journalism for a time. The couple remained married until his death in 1904. Nellie took over management of his firm, The Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. She effected huge changes in the company, beginning with elimination of piecework for all employees. She also built a recreation center, established hunting and fishing clubs, and set up an employee library, to name a few improvements. Unfortunately, her good intentions and radical reform were overshadowed by her lack of money management and accounting skills, and the company went bankrupt.
Bly traveled to England in 1914 for a vacation and found herself in the outbreak of World War I. She took the opportunity to report on the war from behind the scenes. She stayed in Europe until 1919, when she returned to the States to tend to her mother’s failing health.
A final return
Upon her return, Bly picked up her career in journalism for the New York Evening Journal. She held that post until her death of pneumonia on January 27, 1922 at the age of 57.
The Nelly Bly Amusement Park in Brooklyn, New York, is named after her, taking as its theme, Around the World in 80 Days.