Happy Birthday to Nellie Bly, Investigative Journalist and Total BAMF

In Depth

Today would be the 151st birthday of Nellie Bly, the pioneering journalist who lived fast, died too young, and was the foremother of a new and groundbreaking type of investigative reporting.

Bly’s best known for going undercover to investigate a psychiatric institution, faking mental illness to get inside. In her 57 years, she spent six months working in Mexico and traveled 25,000 miles around the world in 80 days for a story, before retiring from journalism, marrying a much-older man and becoming president of her own company. Here are some of the many highlights from her exceedingly ballin’ career.

“Nellie Bly” was the pen-named used by Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, the daughter of mill worker Michael Cochran and his wife Mary Jane. Her father died when she was in her teens, and she went first to Pittsburgh for work, landing at a paper called The Dispatch, where she earned $5 a week writing the genteel news of the time that was considered appropriate for lady journalists, mostly “society” stories and reviews of plays, although she also managed to write stories about working conditions for women

Eventually, Bly managed to land an assignment as the foreign correspondent in Mexico, spending half a year there and writing a book, factually titled Six Months in Mexico. Here’s a picture of Nellie in Mexico, looking regal as fuck:

At 20, after returning to Pittsburgh and once again being unwillingly saddled with fluff stories, Bly moved to New York and landed a job at the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s tabloid. She convinced Pulitzer to hire her by pitching an undercover exposé of the asylum on Blackwell’s Island. The result, “Ten Days in a Mad-house” was an instant sensation, specifically her descriptions of its grim conditions:

Every door is locked separately and the windows are heavily barred, so that escape is impossible. In the one building alone there are, I think Dr. Ingram told me, some three hundred women. They are locked, one to ten to a room. It is impossible to get out unless these doors are unlocked. A fire is not improbable, but one of the most likely occurrences. Should the building burn, the jailers or nurses would never think of releasing their crazy patients. This I can prove to you later when I come to tell of their cruel treatment of the poor things intrusted to their care. As I say, in case of fire, not a dozen women could escape. All would be left to roast to death. Even if the nurses were kind, which they are not, it would require more presence of mind than women of their class possess to risk the flames and their own lives while they unlocked the hundred doors for the insane prisoners. Unless there is a change there will some day be a tale of horror never equaled.

She also collected stories from other patients of shocking brutality and neglect:

I made the acquaintance of Bridget McGuinness, who seems to be sane at the present time. She said she was sent to Retreat 4, and put on the “rope gang.”
“The beating I got there were something dreadful. I was pulled around by the hair, held under the water until I strangled, and I was choked and kicked. The nurses would always keep a quiet patient stationed at the window to tell them when any of the doctors were approaching. It was hopeless to complain to the doctors, for they always said it was the imagination of our diseased brains, and besides we would get another beating for telling. They would hold patients under the water and threaten to leave them to die there if they did not promise not to tell the doctors. We would all promise, because we knew the doctors would not help us, and we would do anything to escape the punishment. After breaking a window I was transferred to the Lodge, the worst place on the island. It is dreadfully dirty in there, and the stench is awful. In the summer the flies swarm the place. The food is worse than we get in other wards and we are given only tin plates. Instead of the bars being on the outside, as in this ward, they are on the inside. There are many quiet patients there who have been there for years, but the nurses keep them to do the work. Among other beating I got there, the nurses jumped on me once and broke two of my ribs.
“While I was there a pretty young girl was brought in. She had been sick, and she fought against being put in that dirty place. One night the nurses took her and, after beating her, they held her naked in a cold bath, then they threw her on her bed. When morning came the girl was dead. The doctors said she died of convulsions, and that was all that was done about it.
“They inject so much morphine and chloral that the patients are made crazy. I have seen the patients wild for water from the effect of the drugs, and the nurses would refuse it to them. I have heard women beg for a whole night for one drop and it was not given them. I myself cried for water until my mouth was so parched and dry that I could not speak.”
I saw the same thing myself in hall 7. The patients would beg for a drink before retiring, but the nurses–Miss Hart and the others–refused to unlock the bathroom that they might quench their thirst.

Bly had been declared “positively demented” by several staff members, and she only managed to leave Blackwell after ten days after the World revealed she was undercover and demanded her release. The story proved highly embarrassing to the asylum, prompting a grand jury investigation and a pledge from the city to pay enough to hire competent doctors and nurses.

At 22, in the time-honored tradition of reporters everywhere, Bly pitched another hugely ambitious and very expensive story to her editor that she probably assumed he’d never go for: allowing her to try to re-create the novel Around the World in 80 Days. From a 1938 story about Bly in the Spokesman-Review, here’s how she remembers that conversation:

My editor said to me, “Have you any ideas today?”
“One,” I answered slowly, fearing he would laugh at me. “I want to go around the world in 80 days or less.”
I was informed that if there was such a trip, I would be the one to go. One stormy evening, I was called to the office. “Can you start around the world day after tomorrow?” I was asked.
“I can start this moment if necessary,” I answered.

Bly said she ordered a heavy dress for the trip “one that would withstand constant wear for three months,” a light gown “for the tropics,” a toothbrush, a raincoat, flannel underwear, and little else. During her journey she sent this gloriously terse telegram back to the office:

For 68 days I have been flying around the world. Most of my journey has been by water and most of that has been rough. I have traveled nearly 16,000 miles on the seas and I am a better sailor by this time.

She managed to make the trip in just 72 days, setting a world record for the time. From the AP, here’s the front-page of the World the day she returned:

Bly completed her trip around the world in 1889. In 1895, when she was 31, she retired from journalism altogether, marrying Robert L. Seaman, who was then 73. She became president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co., which made “durable enameled kitchenware”; she built bowling alleys, libraries and a health clinic for her workers. But the business went bankrupt from embezzlement by her factory manager, according to the L.A. Times:

But her ignorance of accounting and blind affection for her cheating factory manager brought her down. The business went bankrupt, and Bly resorted to hiding her books from the courts, withholding information and warring with her family.
Broke, Bly returned to the New York Evening Journal, ending her days as an advice columnist and activist who found homes for orphans.

Bly died of pneumonia in 1922, when she was just 57 years old. In their obituary, the New York Times kindly noted that “her courage and liveliness remained” even following her misfortunes in business. The World, her old employer, remembered her as “the best reporter in the world.”

Google is honoring Bly today with a doodle; we’ll celebrate her by raising a glass and then maybe sneaking in someplace we don’t belong. Happy birthday, Nellie.

Top photo by H.J. Meyers. Photo of Bly in Mexico by unknown photographer. All images via Wikimedia Commons and Wikipedia.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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