Most people know the story of Phileas Fogg, the hero of the Jules Verne book “Around the World in Eighty Days”, but this fictional character was beaten in real life by an American woman who was to establish a standard of investigative journalism which forced many changes in the US during the late 19th century.
Born in 1864, Elizabeth Jane Cochran was soon nicknamed Pinky because her mother had dressed her in that colour (pink was not as common for baby girls as it became a century later). Her father died while she was still quite young, and her mother remarried to a man who turned out to be violent and abusive. Elizabeth would later testify when her mother filed for divorce that her step father was very cross when drunk, and cross when sober.
She was helping her mother run their home when, at the age of 18, she read an article in a Pittsburgh newspaper denouncing working women as a “monstrosity” and demanding women concentrated on domestic tasks and raising children. Incensed, Elizabeth wrote a letter to the paper as “Lonely Orphan Girl” which impressed the editor so much he wrote for the man who wrote the letter to come forward so he can offer him a job. When Elizabeth turned up he initially refused to give her a job as female reporters were still not universally acceptable, but she talked him round and agreed to take a pen name.
The editor chose the name Nellie Bly, after a song by Stephen Foster (famous for writing songs such as “Oh Susanna”, “Camptown Races” and a number of American classics).
Nellie wrote a number of articles about the working conditions of poor women and issues such as divorce laws, and she started a new style of investigative journalism where she would go undercover as a sweatshop worker and other roles in order to report on the cruelty these women suffered. The attention she brought to the practices of local businesses meant they threatened to stop advertising in the paper so she was sent to Mexico to write a travelogue until things quietened down.
What started as a feature about the customs and everyday lives of ordinary Mexicans became a scathing report on the corruption, repression and lack of freedoms under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Nellie was soon run out of the country and she returned to Pittsburgh, where the editor was unable to give her investigative work and she was relegated to reporting on theatre and arts.
It didn’t take long for Nellie to look for greater challenges, and she moved to New York. Finding New York publishers unwilling to take on female reporters, she spent four months looking for work before turning up in the office of Colonel Cockerill and Joseph Pulitzer with ideas for undercover work.
Nellie’s first expose was of the conditions in a women’s lunatic asylum. She practiced pulling deranged expressions in front of a mirror before moving into a boarding house and starting to act in such an odd manner that the police were called and she was brought in front of a number of doctors, all of them declaring her insane. The plight of this unknown girl was reported in a number of papers such as the New York Times (link to article).
Nellie spent ten days in a lunatic asylum before her employers came forward to have her released. Her story of conditions became a sensation, and as a direct result a grand jury conducted an investigation, inviting Bly to assist, and implementing most of her proposed changes. Bly wrote about her experiences in a book called “Ten Days in the Mad House”.
Over the next few years Bly became famous for a number of investigations into the plight of women, corruption of lobbyists, medical care given to the poor, and was the only reporter to report from the perspective of the strikers during the Pullman Railroad strike of 1894.
In 1888 Bly got the idea to travel around the world to try and beat the legendary record set by Phileas Fogg. When she approached her editor she was told they would rather send a man, to which she challenged her editor that if they sent a man, she would travel on the same day for a rival paper. Other projects soon distracted Nellie, but in November 1889 she was called into the editor’s office and asked if she could begin her adventure within two days, to which she replied “I can start this minute”.
With only the dress she was wearing, an overcoat, several changes of underwear and a small bag of toiletries, she boarded a steamer bound for Europe. A rival paper sponsored another female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, to travel in the opposite direction, creating a race for the public to enjoy.
During her travels Nellie met up with Jules Verne in France, visited a leper colony in China and bought a monkey in Singapore. It was not until she reached Hong Kong and was trying to secure a voyage to Japan that Nellie discovered she was in a race, and that her competitor was carrying letters to steamship officials in every port to do everything they could to let her on, thus speeding her journey.
Ultimately, Bisland received the wrong information about the steamer she was due to take from England back the to the US, and was forced to board a much slower ship. In the meantime, Bly had arrived in San Francisco and boarded a train chartered by her newspaper to bring her to New York directly.
Nellie completed her journey in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds. She finished more than 4 days ahead of Bisland, and nearly 8 days ahead of Fogg’s target.
Despite her achievement, and the increase in the newspaper’s circulation, her employers did not offer her any bonus and she resigned. Nellie was not short of opportunities and went on lecture tours, wrote a successful book about her adventures, and her image was used for various products. Within 3 years The World begged her to return, and when she agreed they ran a front page headline which read “Nellie Bly Again”.
Nellie went on to marry a wealthy steel manufacturer, and when he died several years later she became president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. The company prospered under Nellie and among other products, they created the 55 gallon oil drum which became a standard design still used today. She became one of the leading female industrialists in the US, but would later be made bankrupt because of embezzlement by employees.
On a trip to see a friend in Austria in 1914 she found herself in the middle of the outbreak of the first World War. Nellie contacted her former editor, who now worked for The New York Evening Journal and spent the next five years reporting about the war from the front. She became the first American female war correspondent.
One her return to New York in 1919 Nellie continued to write a popular column and became involved with various charities for poor families, widows and orphans. She continued to write until her death in 1922, from pneumonia. She was 57.