29 September 2010

Women Did It Better: Nellie Bly

By Elizabeth Lane

The crusading journalist known as Nellie Bly was a real-life heroine in every sense of the word. Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864, she was the third child of a wealthy Pennsylvania judge and his second wife. She was raised in comfort until the age of six, when her father died. Unfortunately he left no will providing for his second family. Elizabeth's mother and her five children were thrown into poverty.

In desperation, her mother married an alcoholic who abused her. When she later filed for divorce, Elizabeth testified at the trial. At fifteen, Elizabeth entered normal school, hoping to become a teacher and support her mother. But with her family so poor, she was only able to attend one semester. She then moved to Pittsburgh with her mother. For seven years she helped run a boarding house, taking other work when she could find it. She dreamed of becoming a writer.

That dream came true when she read a series of columns in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, from a popular writer who wrote that women belonged at home doing domestic tasks and called the working woman "a monstrosity." Elizabeth's spirited rebuttal about the plight of women and girls who had to work so impressed the paper that they hired her and gave her the pen name "Nellie Bly" after the Stephen Foster song. Her first story was about poor working girls. Her second called for a reform of the state's divorce laws. The paper, however, wanted to confine her to the women's page, writing about social events and fashion. Bly convinced the editors to let her be a foreign correspondent in Mexico, where she sent back stories about the lives of the Mexican people. On her return, however, she was again confined to the women's page. That was too much. Nellie quit and struck out for New York.

After knocking on doors for six months, she talked her way into the office of the New York World. The editor, possibly to brush her off, challenged her to write a story about the patients housed in a New York mental institution. Impersonating a mad person, Nellie came back from Blackwell's island ten days later with stories of beatings, ice cold baths and forced meals that included rancid butter. Her story stirred the public and politicians and brought money and needed reforms to the institution. At the age of 23, Nellie Bly had begun to pioneer a new kind of investigative journalism.

In the years that followed, she exposed corruption and injustice, always taking the side of the downtrodden. Her fame also opened the doors of the rich and famous, and she profiled many celebrities of her time. The peak of her fame came when she took a whirlwind trip around the world in 1889 to beat Phileas Fogg, the fictional hero of Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days." Traveling by ship, train and Burro, she made it back to New York in a little over 72 days, cheered by huge crowds.

At the age of 30 Nellie Bly married a 70-year-old industrialist named Robert Seaman. After his death ten years later she ran his business until it went bankrupt. Then she turned back to reporting. Picking up where she left off, she championed worthy causes, including finding homes for abandoned children. She died from pneumonia in 1922, at the age of 57, after a life that would rival any work of fiction.