On May 5, 1864, in the western town of Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, the thirteenth child of Judge Michael Cochran was born. Her given name was Elizabeth Jane.
All the other mothers in Cochran’s Mills had the habit of dressing their daughters in muted brown and gray fabrics…but not Mary Jane Cochran. She dressed her daughter in starched pink and white frilly dresses with white stockings (not the usual black). People called the girl Pink for the way she stood out from the crowd of other children.
This little girl would stand out from the crowd for the rest of her life. She began using the name Nellie Bly in 1885 after earning herself a position as a reporter for the Pittsburg Dispatch. She was hired there as a result of a feisty letter and a couple of columns she wrote arguing for women’s rights.
In 1887, Nellie Bly wanted more. The note she left behind in Pittsburgh said this: “I am off for New York. Look out for me. Bly.”
She had her sights set on The World, which had earned a reputation for being the most successful paper in the country under the leadership of Joseph Pulitzer, who had purchased it four years earlier.
Her first bit of investigative reporting for The World took her inside Blackwell’s Island as a patient of a women’s insane asylum. Her stories from the time spent there as an inmate revealed the abuses inflicted on the patients and resulted in further investigation and changes in hospital staff and policy.
Nellie Bly’s reporting also promoted the idea that women could do more than write for the society pages at newspapers – women could produce hard-hitting, daring investigative pieces just like men.
The story Nellie Bly is perhaps most famous for, and one of the few that did not unveil some sort of social injustice, was her trip around the world. Her idea was to match the fictional trip by Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. The trip was eventful (and deserving of another blog post soon!) and successful! She arrived back in New York City on the 73rd day to cheering crowds. Nellie Bly was a hero in 1890…everyone wanted to read about her and her trip. There was even a board game inspired by her adventure.
Nellie’s newfound fame did not deter her fight for the rights of the poor, the abused, and the disadvantaged in New York and elsewhere. She would continue to report on social issues, writing more than 600 newspaper and magazine articles during her lifetime.
We are proud to call Nellie Bly a true New York hero.
Here at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum we display the game of Round the World, stock some Nellie Bly children’s books in our library and even created a Nellie Bly birthday party!
Stay tuned for Part II of the Nellie Bly series when Nellie meets an odd, new friend in Singapore…
Bibliography: Kroeger, Brooke, Nellie Bly, 1994, Random House, Inc., New York.