Nellie Bly 1864 - 1922

The Best Reporter in America


It may be said that from the very beginning, Nellie Bly's mother taught her how to attract attention to herself by christening her in a bright pink gown. The act earned the child, born the soberly-named Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864, the nickname "Pink." Pink was born to the comfortable home of Mary Jane and Judge Michael Cochran in Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania, but shortly after her sixth birthday her father died, changing dramatically the course of her and her family's life. The Judge, although a prominent and upstanding member of the community, died without a will, leaving his wife without claim to the property and forcing the auction of his estate. The family moved to a modest home and Pink took on the responsibility of helping raise her siblings. Her mother, in the hope of securing the well-being of her children, married shortly after the Judge's death. Unfortunately, Pink's step-father was abusive. I believe that Pink's passion for women's rights stemmed from the helplessness she and her family experienced following her father's death. Biographers also believe this to be the reason she married relatively late in life. But Pink showed a remarkable ability to overcome the sadness of her childhood. She had a vivid imagination that was evidenced by her storytelling, and it was only a matter of time before she would reach out to the world.

When Pink was 18 years old she wrote an anonymous letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch in response to a sexist editorial by the "Quiet Observer," Erasmus Wilson. George Madden, managing editor of the Dispatch was so impressed by the letter, signed "Lonely Orphan Girl," that he placed an ad in the Sunday paper asking that she introduce herself. The following day, Pink climbed the four stories to the offices of the Pittsburgh Dispatch and landed her first job as a journalist. Pink's first article was a rebuttlal to Wilson's sexist piece on the "women's sphere." Although Madden thought her grammar less than perfect, he asked for a second piece. When Madden decided to make Pink a permanent member of his staff, he needed to come up with a pen name for her, as it was quite improper for a woman to write for a newspaper and make her identity known to the public. After several suggestions from the newsroom workers, Madden chose Nellie Bly, the title character in the song "Nelly Bly" written 35 years earlier by Stephen Collins Foster, one of Pittsburgh's own.

Nellie focused her attention on women's rights issues. She was the inventor of investigative reporting and an expert at under-cover work. She posed as a poor sweatshop worker to expose the cruelty and dire conditions under which women toiled. When shop owners threatened to pull their advertising from the Dispatch, Nellie was put on the fashion beat. She responded to her new assignment by taking a six-month working vacation in Mexico. She continued to write articles for the paper which focused on poverty and political corruption in Mexico. Eventually the articles got her ejected from the country by its government.

Returning to the United States, she by-passed Pittsburgh for New York City where she aspired to work for one of the city's top newspapers. Although Joseph Pulitzer's The New York World was her ideal place of employment, she would have accepted any opportunity.

Four months after arriving in New York, Nellie found herself still jobless and now penniless. Rejecting a retreat to Pittsburgh, she "turned her predicament into the propulsion to finally land a job." ( Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist, written by Brooke Kroeger, pg. 84). With a lot of fast-talking, she persuaded the guards that barred her way to the office of Colonel John Cockerill, managing editor of the New York World, to grant her an audience. Once inside the inner sanctum, Bly wasted little time in presenting her ideas. Colonel Cockerill, wanting to hire her on the spot, paid her $25 to retain her services while he discussed the issue with Joseph Pulitzer.

In September 1887, Nellie succeeded in joining the staff of the New York World where her first assignment was to be committed to the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island. This adventurous and daring stunt propelled Bly into the limelight of New York journalism. It also launched the "stunt age" where women risked their reputation alongside their lives to break into the men's world of the press. Nellie continued her undercover "stunt" reporting for the New York World until the fall of 1888, when it was suggested at a round table meeting amoung the World's executives to send a man around the world in less than 80 days. Nellie, infuriated, threatened to do it in less time for another newspaper if they did not agree to send her instead.

On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly began her world-wide journey on the Hamburg-American Company liner Augusta Victoria from the Hoboken Pier at exactly 9:40:30 a.m. No special considerations were given to Bly as she hopped from train to boat to rickshaw in order to make the necessary connections. Bly's travel experiences were published daily in the World and eagerly read by all. Seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after her Hoboken departure, Nellie arrived home. She was greeted with fireworks, parades and brass bands and was catapulted into the world's spotlight.

Dismayed and disgruntled by the lack of appreciation from her editors, Nellie tendered her resignation. Her stories from around the world had increased the papers circulation so much that she believed a bonus of some sort was due her, yet she received nothing.

In 1893, Nellie made her comeback at the World. Her pieces focused mostly on women's rights issues and fighting injustice. She was revered by her bosses because her stories sold papers, but they also boosted public awareness of social problems. She exposed corruption in the public and private sectors which had the public crying for social reform. She allowed the plight of unwed mothers and women citywide to be heard, and in so doing became a spokesperson for all women.

On April 5, 1895, Nellie married a man 40 years her senior and retired from journalism. Robert Livingston Seaman was a millionaire industrialist from Catskill, New York. Although Seaman's heirs opposed the marriage and Bly's reasons for this union were somewhat speculative, they remained married until Seaman's death 10 years later. Their marriage has been noted to have been less than happy. After Seaman's death, Nellie focused her efforts into running her late husbands company, The Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. She made radical changes which included the elimination of piecework for all employees, the building of a recreation center, the establishment of hunting and fishing clubs, and an employee library, to name a few. Unfortunately, her good intentions and radical reform were overshadowed by her lack of banking methods and commercial accounting knowledge and the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company went bankrupt.

In 1914, Nellie sailed for England to escape her financial problems for a few weeks. What she wasn't expecting was the outbreak of World War I. While in war-torn Europe, she seized the opportunity to report the war from behind the scenes. She remained in Europe until 1919 when word of her mother's failing health arrived. She returned home, and again picked up her journalism career, this time, for the New York Evening Journal.

On January 27, 1922 at 8:35 a.m., Nellie Bly died. All New York newspapers acknowledged her passing with elaborate obituaries.

Nellie Bly's life was so remarkable that I was only able to touch upon a few important events. For a more in-depth look at ther amazing life, I suggest reading Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist, written by Brooke Kroeger, Times Books Randomhouse.

Further Resources for Studying Nellie Bly:

The National Women's Hall of Fame


Return to the New York City Women's Biography Hub
Return to the Course Homepage for HST/WMS 386


Prepared by Rosemary Gazzillo, a student in Professor Catherine Lavender's History/Women's Studies 386 (Women in New York City, 1890-1940) course, The Department of History and The Program in Women's Studies, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York.

Send email care of Professor Lavender at lavender@postbox.csi.cuny.edu.
Fall Semester 1998. Last modified: December 10, 1998