Nellie Bly, Ten Days in a Mad-House

Changemaker Spotlight: Meet Nellie Bly, The Best Reporter in America

Are you familiar with the name Nellie Bly? I’ve mentioned before that Nellie Bly is pretty important to Ruth in her third installment. Today I want to explain why. So, who was Nellie Bly?

Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochron on May 5th, 1864. Her father was quite wealthy and owned a mill in Pennsylvania. However, when Bly was six, her father died suddenly without a will. Unable to maintain their estate, they left the area and Bly’s mother remarried. She unfortunately divorced in 1878 due to abuse.

By the time Bly was 15, the family’s struggles had increased. Bly had been in and out of schools as the family moved around. They finally settled in Pittsburgh and Bly began to look for work to help support the family. Unfortunately due to her lack of regular education and her gender, work was hard to find. 

Around that time, The Pittsburgh Dispatch published an article criticizing women in the workforce. Fed up, Bly penned a letter to the editor in response. She called for more opportunities for women, especially those responsible for the well-being of their families. The editor saw potential in her piece and invited her to work at the Dispatch as a reporter. She used the pen name Nellie Bly which she took from a well-known song at the time. 

Bly quickly became a popular columnist, but was limited to only writing pieces that addressed women and soon quit in frustration. Wanting to write about more serious topics, Bly began searching for a newspaper that wouldn’t pigeon-hole her. 

Nellie Bly

“While I live, I hope” – Nellie Bly

She moved to New York City in 1886 and soon famously stormed the office of the New York World demanding to speak to Joseph Pulitzer. She offered him a story about the immigrant experience. Pulitzer declined that story, but challenged her to investigate one of New York’s worst mental asylums, Blackwell’s Island. Bly not only accepted the assignment, she decided to pretend to have a mental illness to get herself admitted and experience firsthand how the patients were treated. With this assignment Bly became one of the most famous reporters in history.

Bly’s Ten Days in the Madhouse shocked the public and led to massive overhauls of the institution. In addition, her hands-on approach to reporting led to a new practice called investigative journalism. She continued to expose problems in New York society like mistreatment of domestic workers, a black market for buying infants, and corruption in state legislature. She captivated the public.

Her career hit a new high in 1889 when she decided to travel the world after reading Jules Verne’s popular novel, Around the World in 80 Days. The New York World published daily updates of her journey and she completed her travels in 72 days, a world record at the time.

Bly continued to publish influential pieces and interviewed some of the top labor rights activists, politicians and writers of her time. She then married at the age of thirty and retired from journalism. 

A New Chapter in the Nellie Bly Story

Her husband died in 1903, leaving her in charge of his massive manufacturing companies. She became an inventor, patenting a number of products to enhance worker productivity in the oil industry, many of which are still used today. She also prioritized worker’s welfare, offering benefits and insurance. Unfortunately, Bly was not great with handling the financial side of the businesses and eventually had to declare bankruptcy.

She returned to journalism during WWI, again reporting on a number of impactful issues. Bly’s story ends soon after the war when she died from pneumonia in 1922. She was remembered in tributes by many as the “best reporter in America.”

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