American journalist Elizabeth Cochran Seaman – or Nellie Bly as she’s more commonly known – is one of the most important women in journalism, yet her entire professional legacy was almost forgotten.
Cochran’s career began in a small town in Pennsylvania after she got particularly angry after reading a piece entitled ‘What are Girls Good for?’ in The Pittsburg Dispatch. She wrote a seething anonymous letter to the editor which was so considered that the editor published a notice for the writer to come forward.
When she did, she was hired.
If girls were boys quickly would it be said: start them where they will, they can, if ambitious, win a name and fortune. How many wealthy and great men could be pointed out who started in the depths; but where are the many women?
Nellie Bly – in a letter to The Pittsburg Dispatch
But she was ‘too impatient’ for the Dispatch and she refused to work on the sections usually assigned to women in newspapers – gardening, cooking, the society pages. Her resignation to her editor ended delightfully with ‘I’m off to New York, look out for me.’
In 1887, Bly was assigned by Joseph Pulitzer of The New York World to report undercover on an assignment. She feigned insanity and infiltrated Blackwell Island – a lunatic asylum for women – to report on the conditions. And despite the assurance from Pulitzer that they’d get her out, after Bly was committed, she soon realised it may not be that simple.
“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.”
Nellie Bly – Ten Days in a Mad House
Bly’s report talked about the hundreds of women brutally treated, but in her time there she couldn’t grasp the cavernous space. They all moved from one hall to another, there was no way for those there to know where anyone had moved to. She was particularly concerned with how the patients might get out if there was a fire, convinced that the nurses wouldn’t wait to open the doors for every single patient (she may well have been correct).
Huge questions were raised about the way in which mental incapacity was judged. If one women could be wrongly committed (admittedly by her own volition), then surely other women had been as well? Bly mentions some women in her book who had simply ended up on Blackwell’s Island because they were too poor. In 1887, there was no room for women who were a nuisance to society.
Bly’s committal and subsequent report was later turned into the book Ten Days in a Mad House, but it also launched a new kind of investigative journalism, led by Pulitzer at The New York Times. Nellie was to become a ‘stunt girl’, exposing wrong-doings and underhand behaviour, often in dangerous or difficult situations.
I have one consolation for my work – on the strength of my story the committee of appropriation provides $1,000,000 more than was ever before given, for the benefit of the insane.
Nellie Bly, Ten Days in a Mad House
Two years later, Bly was inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the world in 80 Days and she decided to go on her own global adventure, aiming to be faster than Phileas Fogg. Her journey took just 72 days, a little longer than she hoped but she successfully beat a rival journalist and still found time to buy a monkey while she was in China.
Bly’s legacy extends further than journalism. Her interest in industry came after she married 70-year-old millionaire Robert Seaman (finding herself the subject of several of the society pages she had so desperately avoided in her work). Seaman owned Iron Clad Manufacturing, a company that made milk cartons and steel products. Bly took great interest in the business and even patented her own milk carton design. She became one of the leading women industrialists in America when Seaman died, leaving the company in her name. Her steel barrel design is still used today. Unfortunately bad management and fraud within the company bankrupted Nellie by 1914.
It was later that year that Bly took a trip to Austria, just before the First World War broke out. Bly was 50 when she became America’s first female war correspondent. She reported on the front line for five years.
Brooke Kroger’s book Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist addresses the fact that Bly’s career and legacy all but disappeared after she died of pneumonia in 1922. Despite the impact that Bly had in her field, the 1940s edition of History of Journalism in the United States doesn’t even mention her. Not only was Nellie Bly’s legacy almost forgotten, but history was rewritten without the woman who did everything she could to put her own stamp on the world.