Trailblazing American journalist Nellie Bly lived by her own creed that “nothing is impossible if one applies a certain amount of energy in the right direction”.
That resolve led Bly to pioneer investigative journalism in 1887, travel around the world faster than anyone ever had in 1889-1890 and become one of America’s leading female industrialists in the early 20th century.
Here are 10 facts about Nellie Bly.
1. She was one of 15 children
Born in 1864, Bly was the thirteenth of 15 children in a family headed by Michael Cochran, a mill owner and county judge. She was six years old when her beloved father died without warning, and without a will, plunging his once wealthy and respected family into poverty and shame.
The indignity borne by her family forged a determination in Bly to triumph over tragedy and fight for justice, especially for the most vulnerable. With that searing conviction, she thrust open doors usually closed to women, excelled in journalism, gave voices to the voiceless and achieved the impossible.
2. She changed her name three times
She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, but at the age of 15, this aspiring teenager added an e to the end of her last name to make it more distinctive. Her nom de plume, ‘Nellie Bly’ was chosen by her first editor who borrowed it from an American minstrel song.
In Bly’s day, female journalists did not write under their legal names. When Bly married John Livingstone Seaman, she became Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman.
3. Her celebrated journalism career started with a letter to the editor
An outraged Bly, 19, wrote to the Pittsburgh Dispatch lambasting a column claiming that women belonged at home and certainly not in the workplace. The furious letter attracted the editor’s eye and he hired Bly.
At 21, she was a foreign correspondent in Mexico but was forced to return home or risk arrest for her candid reporting. Not long after her return, Nellie Bly set her sights on New York City.
4. She was penniless and desperate when she landed the job that made her famous
Nellie Bly pounded the pavement in New York City for four months in search of employment. Frantic for work, she smuggled herself inside The New York World’s headquarters. Before she left The World that day, Nellie Bly had set the scene for an assignment that would transform her life, and the world of journalism, forever.
5. She endured 10 days inside a psychiatric hospital
In one of her most astonishing achievements, Bly convinced authorities that she was mentally ill so she could go undercover to investigate conditions inside a New York City psychiatric hospital, then known as an ‘insane asylum‘. After 10 excruciating days, The World finally sent a lawyer to get her released.
Her accounts shocked the nation and unleashed sweeping reforms. This was the dawning of investigative journalism and Nellie Bly was its pioneer. Her exposés and book Ten Days in a Mad-house brought much acclaim, but the assignment that made her the most talked-about woman in the world was yet to come.
6. She raced around the world faster than anyone ever had
In what the New York World declared “the most remarkable of all feats of circumnavigation ever performed by a human being”, Nellie Bly travelled around the world in 72 days in 1889-1890 – alone with just a Gladstone bag.
When she approached her editors with a proposal to beat the fictional record set by Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days, they thought it a splendid idea – for a man. Bly secured the assignment after threatening to go to another newspaper.
Along with establishing record time, Bly’s race was proof that the world was connected. Her voyage made the world a smaller place and brought humankind together. Nellie Bly was the “best-known and most widely talked of woman on earth,” the papers said.
7. Nellie Bly became one of America’s leading businesswomen
Nellie married millionaire industrialist Robert Livingstone Seaman, 42 years her senior, in 1895. Before long she took over his Iron Clad Manufacturing Company and continued to run it after his death.
She patented her own inventions and instituted fair pay and well-being benefits for workers. But Bly’s financial skills did not compare with her journalistic talent. Embezzlement by an employee bankrupted the company in 1911.
8. She was the first woman to report from World War One’s Eastern Front
Nellie Bly, then 50, was in Vienna as the fighting of World War One broke out. After convincing Austrian officials to provide her with credentials as a war correspondent, she made her way to the battlefields and trenches. Her accounts were published in the New York Evening Journal under the heading “Nellie Bly on the Firing Line”.
9. Nellie Bly was buried in a pauper’s grave
Back in New York, Bly campaigned for disadvantaged women and found homes for abandoned children as a columnist for the Evening Journal. She was still writing for the Journal when she died of pneumonia on 27 January 1922 at the age of 57.
Spending her time and money to help people out of poverty, she herself became destitute. Her grave in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery remained unmarked until 1978 when the New York Press Club erected a simple headstone.
10. Her memorial stands steps away from the former asylum she visited
Nellie Bly made history on Roosevelt Island in 1887 with her asylum exposés. She did it again on 10 December 2021 when The Girl Puzzle, a 60-foot long memorial honouring her life and legacy, was unveiled near the site of the former hospital. Named for her first published article in which she boldly defied discrimination, the monument – designed and created by artist Amanda Matthews – celebrates Bly’s quest for justice and equality.
Rosemary J Brown is a London-based journalist and author of Following Nellie Bly: Her Record-Breaking Race Around the World where she re-traced Bly’s epic 72-day global journey. She is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society with a quest to get female adventurers ‘back on the map’ and a Churchill Fellow committed to welcoming and supporting refugees.