Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Four Years at the Mount

Sophomore year

"If you want to do it, you can do it."

Sarah Muir
MSM Class of 2018

(3/2016) The woman that today is known by the rest of the world as the famous investigative journalist, Nellie Bly, was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864. Her birthplace, Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania, was founded by her father, Michael Cochran who died tragically in 1870, leaving no will and his family practically penniless. To help her now widowed mother, Bly attended Indiana Normal School, a small college in Pennsylvania, to study to become a teacher. However, the financial state of her family caused her to hold off on her hopes for higher education. She and her mother moved to Pittsburg(h), where they ran a boarding house.

In 1882, at age 18, Bly jumpstarted her career in journalism. Erasmus Wilson, a writer for The Pittsburg Dispatch had published a piece that essentially portrayed the ideal woman as a homemaker and nothing else, calling the idea of the working woman a "monstrosity." Miss Bly strongly disagreed and fashioned a fierce response. Her letter caught the attention of George Madden, the managing editor of the newspaper who offered her a job, which she accepted. Thus, Nellie Bly came into being.

In 1885, Bly worked as a reporter, earning $5 a week. Many of her articles focused on the suffrage movement and flaws of sexist principles. She became most well known for her undercover and investigative work. Throughout her life, she called for changes to labor laws so that they would protect working "girls" and sought to reform divorce laws which, at the time, favored men. She worked for some time as a foreign correspondent in Mexico until she exposed the political corruption there and was expelled from the country. In 1888, she would write a book detailing her experiences there entitled, Six Months in Mexico. She left the paper when her editors began to place her on tedious assignments and moved her work to the women’s section. By 1887, at age 23, she moved to New York City and joined the newspaper, New York World.

While working for the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer sent her on assignment to write her famous exposé on the ill-reputed asylum for the insane on Blackwell Island, which has since become Roosevelt Island. In order to expose the truth of the institution, she convinced others of her mental illness and was committed into the institution as a patient. She stayed there for ten days and the series of events that would befall her would later be published under the title, Ten Days in a Mad House.

This publication would bring to light the neglect and physical abuse suffered by the patients at the hands of their caretakers. It would bring about an investigation into not only Blackwell’s Asylum, but other institutions as well as cause enhancements in health care. Her investigative journalism did not end there! She went on to write articles featuring the treatment individuals faced in New York sweatshops, jails, and factories along with exposing corruption in the state legislature.

In 1889, the spotlight was back on Bly, when she set out to break the world record set by the fictional character Phileas Fogg, of Jules Vern’s Around the World in 80 Days. She would beat the fictitious record, completing her global trip in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds. This trip bolstered Bly’s fame and she published her travels in 1890 in a book entitled Around the World in 72 Days.

In 1895 when she was 30 years old, Bly married Robert Seaman, a millionaire industrialist who was 40 years her senior. He died in 1905 and she ran his business, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, where she showed more of her ingenuity by inventing the steel barrel that has since become the model for the 55-gallon drum, still in use today. She turned the business she inherited into a multi-million dollar company and treated her workers extremely well, providing them with gymnasiums, staffed libraries, and health care. These luxuries, however, chipped away at her fortune, leaving her in a precarious financial situation. She lived in Australia during World War I and eventually made it back to America in 1919 and returned to work at the New York Journal in 1920, reviving her writing career. Unfortunately, two years later she died of phenomena at age 57.

Though she was not the first, Nellie Bly was a pioneer for women in journalism. She placed herself in dangerous situations to expose the injustice doled out to the disenfranchised. She sought to give a voice to those on the outer margins of society by uncovering the suffering of the poor and in doing what she loved, she brought about change.

Nellie Bly, along with so many other brave women, helped to lead the way for not only women’s rights, but also human rights as a whole. Without them, our society would not be where it is today. I firmly believe we need more people like Nellie Bly, people who search for the truth in the most unlikely places and seek to bring about change, no matter how impossible it seems. People that believe, "energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything."

Read other articles by Sarah Muir