WHAT A GIRL IS GOOD FOR
Nellie Bly kicked off her writing career at the age of 20 when she wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburg Dispatch. Her response to a column about how women were only capable of doing housework earned Bly her first writing job. After that she went on to write about poverty in the Pittsburgh area and to publish 3 books based on her investigative journalism work before the age of 30. Bly is especially well remembered for exposing the horrors of mental health institutions with her piece Ten Days in a Mad House and for recreating the voyage from the novel Around the World in 80 Days in 72 days. After retiring, she managed a business and briefly did war correspondence. She was even memorialized as the tough newspaperwoman Ella Kaye in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Though she passed away at the age of just 57, Nellie Bly is still revered for her adventurous spirit, widely offered compassion, and her contributions to journalism during a time when the field was still seen as almost exclusively for men.
Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran to Michael Cochran and Mary Jane Kennedy in 1864 in the town of Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania. Her father was the founder of the town and supported his fifteen children (ten from a first marriage and five with Mary Jane) through income from a lucrative mill and by working as a judge. The family’s luck changed when Nellie was six and her father died suddenly. Mary Jane initially remarried but the marriage was abusive and they soon divorced. The Cochrans fell on financial hard times and they sold the family home, moving to Pittsburgh.
Elizabeth initially had plans to become a teacher, but was forced to drop out of school due to a lack of funds. She had a sense she’d like to become a writer, but struggled to find work in Pittsburgh. The only work she could find was extremely low paying. In 1885, the Pittsburg Dispatch published an article entitled “What Women Are Good For” disparaging the ability of female workers and admonishing women for pursuing careers or education. The author, who himself had daughters, expressed that women were capable solely of having children and performing housework and even praised the then-practice in China of killing female babies, asserting that it saved women from a lifetime of drudgery.
Elizabeth, well acquainted with the necessity of women being able to find work, thought “Someone should stand up and tell them what a girl is good for,” and wrote an angry but anonymous letter-to-the-editor. The editor George Madden was impressed by her letter and put out an ad to find the writer, asking to write a longer rebuttal piece. Women writers at the time typically used pen names, and for her second piece “The Girl Puzzle,” Elizabeth adopted the name Nellie Bly from the character in a popular song. Once again impressed, George Madden hired her on as a full-time writer, and commissioned her to write about the lives of working-class women in Pittsburgh.
Six Months in Mexico
Nellie was an intrepid reporter who did not shy away from placing herself in harm’s way. She frequently went undercover and was known for being outspoken in her write-ups. Her stories however caused the Dispatch’s advertisers to threaten to pull their advertisements and so she was reassigned to the social and fashion beat. Never one to be constrained, Nellie decided to travel to Mexico with her mother and write about the Porfirio Díaz regime. For several months, she did correspondence reporting for Dispatch about corruption and poverty under the dictator’s rule.
Her mother soon returned to the United States, leaving Nellie unchaperoned in Mexico, which was considered somewhat scandalous at the time. Eventually the Mexican government expelled her and she returned home to Pittsburgh, publishing a collection of her writings in the book Six Months in Mexico in 1888. Having returned to her lighter work at the Dispatch, she soon found herself bored again. She left a note for her editor, quitting: “I’m off for New York. Look out for me. Bly.”
Nellie found it difficult to find work as a female newspaper reporter in New York and so she freelanced until she got a job writing the New York World owned by Joseph Pulitzer. The work she did there was sometimes derisively described as “stunt journalism,” but she went undercover to expose government corruption and cover stories about the impoverished. When railroad workers in Chicago staged a strike to protest the lowering of wages at the same time the rent was raised for the required company housing, Nellie was the only reporter telling the strikers’ perspective.
Ten Days in a Madhouse
Determined to make her mark as one of just a handful of female reporters in New York City, she undertook a particularly dangerous assignment. There had been rumors for years about the conditions in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Roosevelt Island (formerly known as Blackwell’s Island) and Bly was keen to investigate it. To go undercover in the asylum, Nellie set to work posing as a mad woman. Checking into a boardinghouse under an assumed name, she began wandering the halls and nearby streets while ranting and yelling. When the police came around, Bly gave the impression that she was a Cuban immigrant suffering from amnesia. She was sent to to Bellevue Hospital, where the patients were surviving in squalid conditions and forced to eat spoiled food, once she was diagnosed as having psychological problems, she was sent on to the mental hospital.
The mental health hospital crammed 1,600 people into a facility meant to hold 1,000 people, many of whom were not even mentally ill, but rather recent immigrants who were unable to communicate with the law enforcement officials who had taken them in. Other women were victims of horrific abuse or were struggling to survive in poverty and were funneled out of sight and into the hospital. Regardless of whether they were mentally ill before they entered, the treatment they experienced there left them in worse psychological shape.
Bly learned of rampant abuse from speaking with the other women. Just 16 doctors were responsible for numerous patients and the doctors and staff showed little compassion towards them. They were forced to take freezing baths and to stay in wet clothes for hours, not allowed to even speak. If anyone complained, they were beaten. People seeking a thrill would pay visits just to gawk at the mentally ill. When she was just 23, she published the book Ten Days in a Madhouse based on her time in the asylum. The book made her a household name and raised the alarm that led to mental health care reforms in the 19th century.
On the heels of this massive success, Bly managed to pitch her editor an attempt to circumnavigate the world inspired by the Jules Verne novel Around the World in 80 Days, except she planned to complete her trip in 72 days instead of the character’s 80. She succeeded, bringing loads of acclaim for both herself and the newspaper.
Nellie the Industrialist
Bly unfortunately retired from journalism when she got married at 31, but she never gave up writing. After the death of her husband, she took over her husband’s manufacturing company and provided gyms, libraries and healthcare for employees, policies that were unheard of at the time. The business went under but her management leaves behind the first 55-gallon steel oil drum, which is now the industry standard today.
She returned to journalism briefly, when a vacation in Europe found her witness to the start of World War I and she became the first American woman to report as a war correspondent. She also reported on the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement in America. Only two years after her return to journalism, Nellie Bly (legally known at the time as Elizabeth Jane Cochrane Seaman) died at age 57 after developing pneumonia. She leaves behind a legacy for all women writers and for investigative journalists in particular, as well as words that inspire a relentless pursuit of the truth: "I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall."