Nellie Bly

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Nellie Bly
Nellie Bly 2.jpg
Elizabeth Cochrane, "Nellie Bly" c. 1890
Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran
(1864-05-05)May 5, 1864
Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died January 27, 1922(1922-01-27) (aged 57)
New York, New York, U.S.
Nationality American
Occupation Journalist, Novelist, Inventor
Spouse(s) Robert Seaman (m. 1895-1904)
Awards National Women's Hall of Fame (1998)
Signature Signature reads: "Nellie Bly"
After her marriage, Nellie used the name "Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman," as seen in the signatures on patents she filed.

Nellie Bly (May 5, 1864[1] – January 27, 1922) was the pen name of American journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochrane.[2] She was a ground-breaking reporter known for a record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days, in emulation of Jules Verne's fictional character Phileas Fogg, and an exposé in which she faked insanity to study a mental institution from within. She was a pioneer in her field, and launched a new kind of investigative journalism.[3] In addition to her writing, she also was an industrialist, inventor, and charity worker.

Early years[edit]

Nellie Bly working in a factory producing boxes

At birth she was named Elizabeth Jane Cochran. She was born in "Cochran Mills", today part of the Pittsburgh suburb of Burrell Township, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania.[4][5][6] Her father, Michael Cochran, was a modest laborer and mill worker who married Mary Jane. Cochran taught his young children a cogent lesson about the virtues of hard work and determination, buying the local mill and most of the land surrounding his family farmhouse. As a young girl Elizabeth often was called "Pinky" because she so frequently wore the color. As she became a teenager she wanted to portray herself as more sophisticated, and so dropped the nickname and changed her surname to Cochrane.[7] She attended boarding school for one term, but was forced to drop out due to lack of funds.

In 1880, Cochrane and her family moved to Pittsburgh. An aggressively misogynistic column entitled "What Girls Are Good For" in the Pittsburgh Dispatch prompted her to write a fiery rebuttal to the editor under the pseudonym "Lonely Orphan Girl".[8][9][10] The editor, George Madden, was impressed with her passion and ran an advertisement asking the author, Brittany Christianson, to identify herself. When Cochrane introduced herself to the editor, he offered her the opportunity to write a piece for the newspaper, again under the pseudonym "Lonely Orphan Girl".[10] After her first article for the Dispatch, entitled "The Girl Puzzle", Madden was impressed again and offered her a full-time job.[9] Women[citation needed] who were newspaper writers at that time customarily used pen names, and for Cochrane the editor chose "Nellie Bly", adopted from the title character in the popular song "Nelly Bly" by Stephen Foster. She originally intended for her pseudonym to be "Nelly Bly," but her editor wrote "Nellie" by mistake, and the error stuck.

As a writer, Bly focused her early work for the Dispatch on the plight of working women, writing a series of investigative articles on women who were factory workers, but editorial pressure pushed her to the so-called "women's pages" to cover fashion, society, and gardening, the usual role for women journalists of the day. Dissatisfied with these duties, she took the initiative and traveled to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent. Still only 21, she spent nearly half a year reporting the lives and customs of the Mexican people; her dispatches later were published in book form as Six Months in Mexico. In one report, she protested the imprisonment of a local journalist for criticizing the Mexican government, then a dictatorship under Porfirio Díaz. When Mexican authorities learned of Bly's report, they threatened her with arrest, prompting her to leave the country. Safely home, she denounced Díaz as a tyrannical czar suppressing the Mexican people and controlling the press.

Asylum exposé[edit]

Bly being examined by a psychiatrist

Burdened again with theater and arts reporting, Bly left the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1887 for New York City. Penniless after four months, she talked her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, the New York World, and took an undercover assignment for which she agreed to feign insanity to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island.

After a night of practicing deranged expressions in front of a mirror, she checked into a boardinghouse. She refused to go to bed, telling the boarders that she was afraid of them and that they looked "crazy". They soon decided that she was "crazy", and the next morning summoned the police. Taken to a courtroom, she pretended to have amnesia. The judge concluded she had been drugged.

She was then examined by several doctors, all of whom declared her to be insane. "Positively demented," said one, "I consider it a hopeless case. She needs to be put where someone will take care of her."[11] The head of the insane pavilion at Bellevue Hospital pronounced her "undoubtedly insane". The case of the "pretty crazy girl" attracted media attention: "Who Is This Insane Girl?" asked the New York Sun. The New York Times wrote of the "mysterious waif" with the "wild, hunted look in her eyes", and her desperate cry: "I can't remember I can't remember."[12]

Committed to the asylum, Bly experienced its conditions firsthand. The food consisted of gruel broth, spoiled beef, bread that was little more than dried dough, and dirty undrinkable water. The dangerous patients were tied together with ropes. The patients were made to sit for much of each day on hard benches with scant protection from the cold. Waste was all around the eating places. Rats crawled all around the hospital. The bathwater was frigid, and buckets of it were poured over their heads. The nurses were obnoxious and abusive, telling the patients to shut up, and beating them if they did not. Speaking with her fellow patients, Bly was convinced that some were as sane as she was. On the effect of her experiences, she wrote:

What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.[11]

…My teeth chattered and my limbs were …numb with cold. Suddenly, I got three buckets of ice-cold water…one in my eyes, nose and mouth.

After ten days, Bly was released from the asylum at The World's behest. Her report, later published in book form as Ten Days in a Mad-House, caused a sensation and brought her lasting fame. While embarrassed physicians and staff fumbled to explain how so many professionals had been fooled, a grand jury launched its own investigation into conditions at the asylum, inviting Bly to assist. The jury's report recommended the changes she had proposed, and its call for increased funds for care of the insane prompted an $850,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. They also made sure that future examinations were more thorough so that only the seriously ill went to the asylum.

Around the world[edit]

A publicity photograph taken by the New York World newspaper to promote Bly's around-the-world voyage

In 1888, Bly suggested to her editor at the New York World that she take a trip around the world, attempting to turn the fictional Around the World in Eighty Days into fact for the first time. A year later, at 9:40 a.m. on November 14, 1889, and with two days' notice,[13] she boarded the Augusta Victoria, a steamer of the Hamburg America Line,[14] and began her 24,899-mile journey.

She brought with her the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear, and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials. She carried most of her money (£200 in English bank notes and gold in total, as well as, some American currency) in a bag tied around her neck.[15][16]

The New York newspaper Cosmopolitan sponsored its own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, to beat the time of both Phileas Fogg and Bly. Bisland would travel the opposite way around the world.[17][18] To sustain interest in the story, the World organized a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match” in which readers were asked to estimate Bly’s arrival time to the second, with the Grand Prize consisting at first of a free trip to Europe and, later on, spending money for the trip.[16][19]

A woodcut image of Nellie Bly's homecoming reception in Jersey City printed in Frank Leslie's Illustrated News on 8 February 1890.

During her travels around the world, Bly went through England, France (where she met Jules Verne in Amiens), Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo (Ceylon), the Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. The development of efficient submarine cable networks and the electric telegraph allowed Bly to send short progress reports,[20] although longer dispatches had to travel by regular post and thus, often were delayed by several weeks.[19]

Bly travelled using steamships and the existing railroad systems,[21] which caused occasional setbacks, particularly on the Asian leg of her race.[22] During these stops, she visited a leper colony in China,[23][24] and in Singapore, she bought a monkey.[23][25]

As a result of rough weather on her Pacific crossing, she arrived in San Francisco on the White Star Line ship Oceanic on January 21, two days behind schedule,[22][26] however, World owner Pulitzer chartered a private train to bring her home, and she arrived back in New Jersey on January 25, 1890, at 3:51 p.m.[20]

Just over seventy-two days after her departure from Hoboken, Bly was back in New York. She had circumnavigated the globe, traveling alone for almost the entire journey.[14] Bisland was, at the time, still crossing the Atlantic, only to arrive in New York four and a half days later. She also had missed a connection and had to board a slow, old ship (the Bothina) in the place of a fast ship (Etruria).[13] Bly's journey was a world record, although it was bettered a few months later by George Francis Train, who completed the journey in 67 days.[27] By 1913, Andre Jaeger-Schmidt, Henry Frederick, and John Henry Mears had improved on the record, the latter completing the journey in fewer than 36 days.[28]

Later years[edit]

Patent for an improved Milk-Can

In 1895 Nellie Bly married millionaire manufacturer Robert Seaman. Bly was 31 and Seaman was 73 when they married.[29] She retired from journalism, and became the president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co., which made steel containers such as milk cans and boilers. In 1904, her husband died. In the same year, Iron Clad began manufacturing the steel barrel that was the model for the 55-gallon oil drum still in widespread use in the United States. Although there have been claims that Nellie Bly invented the barrel,[30] the inventor is believed to have been Henry Wehrhahn, who likely assigned his invention to her. (US Patents 808,327 and 808,413).[31] Nellie Bly was, however, an inventor in her own right, receiving US patent 697,553 for a novel milk can and US patent 703,711 for a stacking garbage can, both under her married name of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman.[32] For a time she was one of the leading women industrialists in the United States, but embezzlement by employees led her into bankruptcy. Back in reporting, she wrote stories on Europe's Eastern Front during World War I[33] and notably covered the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913. Her headline for the Parade story was “Suffragists Are Men's Superiors”, but she also "with uncanny prescience" predicted in the story that it would be 1920 before women would win the vote.[34]

Nellie Bly died of pneumonia at St. Mark's Hospital in New York City in 1922, at age 57.[35] She was interred in a modest grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.[36]



Dramatic representations[edit]

  • Bly was the subject of a 1946 Broadway musical by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen.[37]
  • Nellie Bly is the protagonist of the 2014 historical murder mystery novel The New Colossus by Marshall Goldberg, published by Diversion Books.[38]
  • In 1981 Linda Purl appeared as Bly in a made for television movie entitled The Adventures of Nellie Bly.[39]
  • Julia Duffy appeared as Nellie Bly in the July 10, 1983 Voyagers! episode "Jack's Back".
  • A fictionalized account of her around the world trip was used in the comic book Julie Walker is The Phantom published by Moonstone Books (Story: Elizabeth Massie, art: Paul Daly, colors: Stephen Downer).[40]
  • In the The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the yachtsman (sometimes a slang term for a bootlegger) Dan Cody, who takes the young Jay Gatsby under his wing was said by Fitzgerald to be based on "the mysterious yatchsman [sic] whose mistress was Nellie Bly". (Some Kind of Epic Grandeur, biography of Fitzgerald by Matthew J. Bruccoli)
  • She was represented in Steven Quantick's 2013 stage play Around the World in 80 Days, as a journalist covering the story of Fogg's exploits, who follows him around the world.
  • A fictionalized account of her experience while committed is used as the basis for the horror novel Bedlam Stories. (Story: Pearry Teo, Christine Converse).[41]
  • A Feature film(Pendragon Pictures) titled 10 Days in a Madhouse after Nellie Bly's exposé Ten Days in a Mad-House is scheduled for release in late 2015. The film staring Caroline Barry, Christopher Lambert, Kelly LeBrock & Julia Chantrey depicts Bly's experiences on Blackwells Island. .[42][43][44]

References in popular culture[edit]

  • In season two, episode five of The West Wing, And It's Surely to Their Credit, first lady Abbey Bartlet dedicates a statue to Nellie Bly.[45]
  • In season five, episode seven of Boardwalk Empire the young character Gillian Darmody reads aloud from Around the World in 72 Days during scenes set in 1897, while scenes set in 1931 show her adult counterpart character to suffer and seek escape from an abusive insane asylum.
  • In season two, episode two of Drunk History, Nellie Bly Goes Undercover At Blackwell's Island, Nellie Bly is played by Laura Dern with JD Ryznar describing the story of her undercover investigation of the Blackwell's Island insane asylum.

Named after her[edit]

  • The Nellie Bly Amusement Park in Brooklyn, New York City, (right off of the Belt Parkway) was named after her, taking as its theme Around the World in Eighty Days. The park recently reopened under new management, renamed "Adventurers Amusement Park."
  • From early in the twentieth century until 1961, the Pennsylvania Railroad operated a parlor-car only express train between New York and Atlantic City that bore the name, Nellie Bly.
  • The New York Press Club confers an annual "Nellie Bly Cub Reporter" journalism award to acknowledge the best journalistic effort by an individual with three years or less professional experience.
  • The board game Round the World with Nellie Bly created in 1890 is named in recognition of her trip.
  • Nellie Bly Kaleidoscope Shop in Jerome, AZ is the worlds largest kaleidoscope shop.

Other recognition[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kroeger 1994 reports (p. 529) that although a birth year of 1867 was deduced from the age Bly claimed to be at the height of her popularity, her baptismal record confirms 1864.
  2. ^ Bill DeMain. "Ten Days in a Madhouse: The Woman Who Got Herself Committed". mental floss. Retrieved 2010-05-10. 
  3. ^ "American Experience". 
  4. ^ "Nellie Bly" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-07-20. 
  5. ^ "Nellie Bly Historical Marker". Retrieved 2013-07-20. 
  6. ^ "Cochran's Mill Rd over Licks Run - Bridges and Tunnels of Allegheny County and Pittsburgh, PA". Retrieved 2013-07-20. 
  7. ^ Kroeger 1994, p. 25.
  8. ^ "Young and Brave: Girls Changing History". National Woman's History Museum. Retrieved 7 April 2014. 
  9. ^ a b Arthur Fritz. "Nellie Bly, (1864–1922)". Nellie Bly Online. Retrieved 7 April 2014. 
  10. ^ a b Jone Johnson Lewis. "Nellie Bly". Retrieved 7 April 2014. 
  11. ^ a b Bly 1887.
  12. ^ Kroeger 1994, pp. 91–92.
  13. ^ a b Ruddick, Nicholas. “Nellie Bly, Jules Verne, and the World on the Threshold of the American Age.” Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 29, Number 1, 1999, p. 4
  14. ^ a b Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly – Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Times Books Random House, 1994, p. 146
  15. ^ Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly – Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Times Books Random House, 1994, p. 141
  16. ^ a b Ruddick, Nicholas. “Nellie Bly, Jules Verne, and the World on the Threshold of the American Age.” Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 29, Number 1, 1999, p. 5
  17. ^ Barcousky, Len. "Eyewitness 1890: Pittsburgh welcomes home globe-trotting Nellie Bly", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 23, 2009, accessed January 30, 2011
  18. ^ "Society Topics of the Week.", The New York Times, November 24, 1889, accessed January 30, 2011
  19. ^ a b Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly – Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Times Books Random House, 1994, p. 150
  20. ^ a b Ruddick, Nicholas. “Nellie Bly, Jules Verne, and the World on the Threshold of the American Age.” Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 29, Number 1, 1999, p. 8
  21. ^ Ruddick, Nicholas. “Nellie Bly, Jules Verne, and the World on the Threshold of the American Age.” Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 29, Number 1, 1999, p. 6
  22. ^ a b Bear, David. “Around the World With Nellie Bly.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 26, 2006
  23. ^ a b Ruddick, Nicholas. “Nellie Bly, Jules Verne, and the World on the Threshold of the American Age.” Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 29, Number 1, 1999, p. 7
  24. ^ Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly – Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Times Books Random House, 1994, p. 160
  25. ^ Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly – Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Times Books Random House, 1994, p. 158
  26. ^ "Daily Alta California 22 January 1890 — California Digital Newspaper Collection". Retrieved 2013-07-20. 
  27. ^ "William Lightfoot Visscher, Journal profile, part one". Retrieved 2013-07-20. 
  28. ^ The New York Times, "A Run Around the World", August 8, 1913
  29. ^ "Nellie Bly, Journalist, Dies of Pneumonia". The New York Times. 
  30. ^ "The Remarkable Nellie Bly". AOGHS. 1905-12-26. Retrieved 2013-07-20. 
  31. ^ "Industries - Business History of Oil Drillers, Refiners". Retrieved 2013-07-20. 
  32. ^ "Google". Google. Retrieved 2013-07-20. 
  33. ^ The remarkable Nellie Bly, inventor of the metal oil drum, Petroleum Age, 12/2006, p.5.
  34. ^ Harvey, Sheridan (2001). "Marching for the Vote: Remembering the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913". American Women. Library of Congress. Retrieved 3 March 2013. 
  35. ^ "Nellie Bly, Journalist, Dies of Pneumonia". The New York Times (The New York Times Co.). 28 January 1922. Retrieved 29 November 2011. 
  36. ^ Dunning, Jennifer (23 February 1979). "Woodlawn, Bronx's Other Hall of Fame". The New York Times (The New York Times Co.). Retrieved 29 November 2011. 
  37. ^ "After the poorly received Nellie Bly (1946) ... [stage director Edgar J.] MacGregor retired.",
  38. ^ "The New Colossus". Retrieved 2014-04-29. 
  39. ^ The Adventures of Nellie Bly, IMDb page.
  40. ^ "024. Julie Walker: The Phantom (A)". Retrieved 2013-07-20. 
  41. ^ "Bedlam Stories". Retrieved 2013-09-24. 
  42. ^ 10 Days in a Mad House, IMDb page.
  43. ^ 10 Days in a Mad House, Website.
  44. ^ STUDIES: Women still struggle in male-dominated film industry, Tom Henderson,
  45. '^ Waxman, Sharon (November 2000). "Inside The West Wings New World". In Rollins, Peter C.; O'Conner, John E. The West Wing: the American presidency as television drama (1st ed.). New York: Syracuse University Press (published 2003). p. 211. ISBN 0815630263. 
  46. ^ "Elizabeth Jane Cochran - National Women's Hall of Fame". Retrieved 2013-07-20. 
  47. ^ USPS Press Release (September 14, 2002), Four Accomplished Journalists Honored on U.S. Postage Stamps,


  • Affidavit of Beatrice K. Brown; Surrogates Court, Kings County (1922)
  • Goodman, Matthew (2013). Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World. 
  • Kroeger, Brooke (1994). Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. 

External links[edit]