My VIP for this week is Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, but she is better known by her pen name Nellie Bly. She was an investigative journalist and “a pioneer in her field.” She is most famous for her “record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days, in emulation of Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg, and for doing undercover work in a mental institution and exposing the conditions in it.” She “was also a writer, industrialist, inventor, and a charity worker.”
Bly was born on May 5, 1864, in “Cochran’s Mills,” now a suburb in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Cochran’s Mills was named for her father, Michael Cochran (1810). He started as a laborer and mill worker, but he purchased “the local mill and most of the land surrounding his family farmhouse” and became “a merchant, postmaster, and associate justice at Cochran’s Mills.” Cochran was married twice. His first wife was Catherine Murphy with whom he had ten children. His second wife and Bly’s mother was Mary Jane Kennedy with whom he had five more children. Cochran’s father emigrated from Ireland in the 1790s.
In her girlhood Bly wore pink so often that she received the nickname of “Pinky.” As a teenager she dropped the nickname and changed her surname to “Cochrane.” After attending boarding school for one term, Bly dropped out of school following her father’s death in 1870 or 1871 “due to lack of funds.”
In 1880 Cochrane’s mother moved her family to Pittsburgh. A newspaper column entitled “What Girls Are Good For” in the Pittsburgh Dispatch that reported that girls were principally for birthing children and keeping house prompted Elizabeth to write a response under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl”. The editor, George Madden, was impressed with her passion and ran an advertisement asking the author to identify herself. When Cochrane introduced herself to the editor, he offered her the opportunity to write a piece for the newspaper, again under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl”. Her first article for the Dispatch, entitled “The Girl Puzzle”, was about how divorce affected women. In it, she argued for reform of divorce laws. Madden was impressed again and offered her a full-time job. It was customary for women who were newspaper writers at that time to use pen names. The editor chose “Nellie Bly”, adopted from the title character in the popular song “Nelly Bly” by Stephen Foster. Cochrane originally intended that her pseudonym be “Nelly Bly”, but her editor wrote “Nellie” by mistake and the error stuck.
Apparently Bly is better known for her trip around the world, but I discovered her when I heard about her experience in a mental institution. She worked at the Pittsburgh Dispatch writing articles “on the lives of working women, writing a series of investigative articles on women factory workers.” The factory owners complained to her editor, and she was “reassigned to women’s pages to cover fashion, society, and gardening.” She was dissatisfied and “traveled to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent.” She was only 21 years old and lived for six months in Mexico “reporting [on] the lives and customs of the Mexican people.” “In one report, she protested the imprisonment of a local journalist for criticizing the Mexican government” and had to flee the country to avoid imprisonment.
Bly left the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1887 because she was tired of writing about theater and arts. She went to New York City and lived there for four months without money.” Then “she talked her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper The New York World, and took an undercover assignment for which she agreed to feign insanity to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.”
Committed to the asylum, Bly experienced the deplorable conditions firsthand. After ten days, the asylum released Bly at The World’s behest. Her report, later published in book form as Ten Days in a Mad-House, caused a sensation, prompted the asylum to implement reforms, and brought her lasting fame.
Bly married Robert Seaman, a millionaire manufacturer, in 1895. She was 31 years old, and he was 73 years old when they married. Because her husband had failing health, she “retired from journalism and succeeded her husband as head of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. This company “made steel containers such as milk cans and boilers.” Her husband died in 1904.
Bly died of pneumonia at age 57 on January 27, 1922, in New York City’s St. Mark’s Hospital. “She was interred in a modest grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.”
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