Happy Women’s History Month! This is the 11th blog of a series of blogs called “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known American women who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).
The focus of today’s blog is Nellie Bly, an infamous investigative journalist in the 1880’s.
This is her story.
Growing Up in Financial Hardship
Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864, Nellie Bly grew up on her family’s mill in Pennsylvania. After her father died when she was 6 years old, the family fell into financial hardship and was forced to move. Bly began an education at Indiana Teacher’s College but never finished because of a lack of funds. Instead, she helped her mother run a boarding house.
Becoming Nellie Bly
Her first big break as a journalist came from a critical letter she wrote to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch newspaper. Bly expressed she was upset with how negatively women were portrayed in the newspaper and did not think it was fair. The editor not only responded, but printed her rebuttal, and offered her a job as a columnist. Her pen name became Nellie Bly.
A Move to New York City
In Pittsburgh, Bly’s editor kept asking her to target her writing towards women only. But Bly did not feel satisfied with that. After working for the Dispatch for a short while, Bly set off to find better work in New York City at the age of 24. Although she initially struggled to find work as a woman, Bly ultimately found work at the New York World. Here, she would become greatly renowned for introducing the technique now known as investigative journalism.
Ten Days in a Mad-House
Bly’s hands-on approach led her to feign having a mental illness so she would be accepted to live in the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She lived in the asylum for 10 days and wrote about her experiences, exposing the institution for its poor treatment practices. The New York World would publish her writings in a six-part series called Ten Days in a Mad-House. This series made her one of the most famous journalists of the time in the U.S.
World Traveler, Inventor, Journalist
Her career then brought Bly to travel around the whole world in a record of 72 days, a record which would be broken not long after that. She married a millionaire who died eight years into their marriage, which left Bly with an entire manufacturing company. She would go on to patent several inventions, which are still used today. Before her passing of pneumonia in 1922, Bly spent her last years back in journalism, covering events like the Women’s Suffrage Movement and World War I. Read more about Nellie Bly here.
Read another post from the blog series “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know” here.