The Pioneering Life of Nellie Bly Born on this day 153 years ago, Avaunt remembers the audacious American journalist and traveller who braved Mexican dictatorships and mental asylums

Elizabeth Cochran Seaman – known by her pen name Nellie Bly – was a pioneering American journalist and feminist. Among her many achievements she became one of the earliest proponents of investigative journalism, faking insanity to be admitted to a mental institution, as well as completing an around-the-world trip – in emulation of Jules Verne’s iconic fictional journey, Around the World in 80 Days – in a record breaking 72.

Nellie Bly’s career as a journalist started at the age of eighteen in 1885, when she wrote to the Pittsburgh Dispatch to complain about a misogynistic column. Entitled ‘What Girls are Good for,’ it stated, among other things, that “a working woman is a monstrosity”. Impressed by her opinionated nature and passion, the paper’s editor-in-chief, George Madden, offered her a full-time job. As was common for female journalists at the time, she chose to write under a pseudonym and, inspired by a popular song of the time, settled on ‘Nellie Bly’.

Throughout her life, Bly was deeply moved by human suffering, and at the Dispatch she initially focused her stories on the plight of factory women. But, despite the success of her reports among the public, investors threatened to pull advertising and the paper forced her to concentrate on the women’s pages, where she was expected to cover topics such as fashion or gardening.

But Bly, who was nothing but daring, convinced the editor to let her travel to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent for six months. Once there, she discovered a country suffering under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, and reported widely on his crimes before – having received threats from the Mexican government – she returned to the safety of Pittsburgh.

Reassigned to the women’s pages, Bly decided to leave the Dispatch in 1887 and seek her luck in New York. After four fruitless months of knocking on newspapers’ doors, she made a breakthrough, talking her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer’s paper The New York World.

It was while at The New York World that Pulitzer gave Bly her most unconventional assignment – to fake insanity to investigate how women were treated at the Woman Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Having successfully convinced several doctors of her insanity, Bly was admitted to the Asylum and, ten days later, was discharged with several shocking reports of conditions there – gruel broth and dried bread to eat, supposedly dangerous patients tied together with rope and rat infested bedrooms.

Her piece for The New York World – ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’ – asked: “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?” It caused such a sensation that a grand jury launched its own investigation and subsequently ordered a complete reform of the asylum system.

Nellie Bly, circa 1890

Although Bly continued writing several investigative pieces for The New York World, she was yet to engage in her most daring adventure. Two years after her asylum exposé, she proposed to the paper’s editor an around-the-world trip, in an attempt to follow the footsteps of Phileas Fogg – Jules Verne’s fictional character from Around the World in 80 Days. After heated discussions and having to convince the board that she didn’t need a male chaperone, her request was approved and on the 14th November 1889 she set off from New York.  

With only one piece of hand luggage – a 40×17 cm bag that contained the absolute minimum – Bly crossed the Atlantic to arrive in Southampton. Once in the United Kingdom, she travelled to France, Italy, Egypt, Asia and returned to American soil in a record-breaking 72 days. Although her mission was almost thwarted by a storm during her crossing of the Pacific, delaying her arrival in San Francisco by two days, she was saved by Pulitzer, who chartered a private train – The Miss Nellie Bly Special to bring her back to New Jersey in time. She was welcomed by admiring crowds, and even Jules Verne publicly congratulated her.

During her trip, she sent dispatches from all over the globe, describing her most surprising encounters: rubies in Ceylon “like pure drops of blood”, orang-utans in Singapore who “seem to be very clever but have a way of gazing off in the distance with wide, unseeing eyes,” as well as her inability to “sympathise with a seasick man”. Although sales had gone through the roof, Bly was refused a bonus when she came back, and she immediately resigned. Instead she set to lecturing, licensing board games and writing her account of the journey, Around The World In 72 Days.

Yet she would return to journalism when she found herself in Austria, at the outbreak of world war one. Bly – who by this point had been married and widowed by the industrialist Robert Seaman – reached out to her old editor and became the first American female war correspondent. Later, back in New York, Bly kept writing a column for The Evening Journal, dispensing advice and advocating for the causes she most believed in – labour strikes and the suffragette movement – until her death from pneumonia in 1922. 

Lauded by the Journal as “The Best Reporter In America,” Bly’s legacy lives on today. Remembered not only as one of the first female reporters – a woman who was in constant pursuit of the boldest stories and who informed major civic changes, long before women got vote in America – Bly was a pioneer of investigative journalism. The tradition and practice that she helped shape is evident in journalism today, and her grit and desire to follow a story at any cost will continue to inspire budding journalists for years to come.

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