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Nellie Bly: Complete Life in 10 Facts

Born as Elizabeth Jane Cochran, Nellie Bly, as a teenager, changed her name to Elizabeth Cochrane. She was born in Pennsylvania in 1864 on the 5th of May. Her writings chiefly revolved around the plight of women. Here are ten facts that describes her life and work:

1. Birth and a Tragic Loss

in 1864, Bly’s childhood was happy and peaceful on until she lost her father at the age of six. Although he was the owner of a farm and estate, he left behind no will and thus, there was no legal claim to the large estate and farm.

2. Move to Pittsburgh

enrolled at a small college in Pennsylvania for a course to become a teacher. However she had to leave the course midway owing to lack of money. She and her mother then moved to Pittsburgh wherein they earned their livelihood by running a boarding house.

3. First writing

Shortly after moving to Pittsburgh, Nellie read a column titled ‘What Girls are Good For’ in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. She lashed back at the editor with rebut under the pseudonym ‘Lonely Orphan Girl’. George Madden, the editor was impressed by her writing and the fiery passion. He published an advertisement requesting the writer to introduce herself. Nellie introduced herself and she was given an opportunity to write for the newspaper under the same pseudonym. This was her first venture into the world of writing. She was later offered a job there as a journalist.

4. Early Writings

When she was offered the writing job with Pittsburgh Dispatch, her writings were focused on the plight of women in the society. She ran a series of investigative writings on the plight of women working in factories. However, the editorial wanted her to stick to the world of fashion and glamour.

5. Foreign Correspondent in Mexico

Dissatisfied with the world of glamour, she took up an assignment as a foreign correspondent and moved to Mexico. She travelled widely learning the customs and life of people and later published a book ‘Six Months in Mexico’. She criticized the Mexican Government and protested the arrest of a local journalist there. The Govenrment, on learning this, threatened to arrest her. This prompted her to leave the country and come back. Once back, she called the then Mexican dictator Porforio Diaz as a tyrannical czar.

6. New York World and Asylum Undercover

In 1887, Nellie left Pittsburgh for New York. There she joined New York World and agreed to take up an undercover assignment wherein she feigned insanity. After considerable practice, she checked into a boarding house and refused to go to sleep there. She said everybody there appeared crazy to her. The police were called in and the in the court proceedings the judge confirmed that she was a drug addict! She was then examined by several doctors all of whom described her as ‘hopeless, insane and crazy’. The New York Times even wrote about her as a ‘mysterious waif with wild, hunted look in her eyes.’

She spent ten days in an asylum wherein she found the conditions to be non-liveable. While the food was stale, the ‘dangerous’ patients were all tied together with ropes. The nurses were rude and abusive; the bath water was frigid and cold; half the inmates were forced to sit in the open for most part of the day with no clothing on them- out in the cold. In addition, she found some inmates as normal as she was!

Ten days later, when she released the report of the asylum, the doctors fumbled for explanations, the nurses wondered whether or not to apologize. Her report brought about a remarkable change. A special panel was formed to check into the conditions of asylum and suggest changes, funds were earmarked for the improvement and better functioning of asylum. A law was passed stating only those extremely deranged must be admitted to the mental asylum.

Her report was later published in the form of book titled ‘Ten Days in the Madhouse’.

7. Investigative Reporting

Post her work with the asylum, she published similar investigative reports on the conditions in prisons, factories, corruption in the legislature, etc.

8. Around the World in 72 Days

An 1873 novel by Jules Verne titled ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ had the protagonist, Phileas Fogg travel all over the world and complete the journey in 80 days. In a bid to prove the record false, Nellie Bly took the journey herself and in November, 1889, she took a streamer. She traveled through France, England, Suez Canal, Colombo, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan. Owing to cable communications, she was able to send short report. However, details had to be sent through post and they often took a long time delaying the reports by weeks. Her arrival in San Fransisco was delayed by two days. However, Pultizer, owner of the World, chartered a private train and brought her home on January, 25th, 1890. Thus, she completed the journey in 72 days. The records were bettered later by others.

9. Industrialist

Post her marriage to Robert Seaman, she retired from journalism and became the President of Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. She invented a novel milk can and a stacking garbage can both of which were patented under her name. She was a leading woman industrialist at one point although a while later she was driven to bankruptcy.

10. Return to Journalism and Death

Following her bankruptcy at the manufacturing company, Bly returned to journalism and she reported on Europe’s Eastern Front during the World War. She died of pneumonia o 27th January, 1922 and coincidentally, Elizabeth Bisland who was reporter at Cosmopolitan during Bly’s time as a journalist also died of pneumonia in 1927 and was buried in the same cemetery.

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