Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Nellie Bly - A High-Spirited Lady Who Crashed Through Journalism's Glass Ceiling in the 1800s!

by Pamela S. Meyers

The heroine in my novel set in a small Wisconsin town during the 1930s, works for a weekly newspaper. Because reporting was considered a man’s job during that time, Meg's goal is to move to the big city where she'll have a better opportunity to report hard news rather than society doings. Little did I know while writing my story that in the previous century, a reporter by the name of Nellie Bly had already managed to break through the so-called glass ceiling.

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Cochran Mills, PA, on May 5, 1864, her first writing job was for the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885. At the time, women customarily used pen names when writing for publication. The editor of the paper chose Nellie Bly for Cochran, a moniker taken from the popular song written by Stephen Foster. Although she desired to be an investigative reporter, she was handed the usual assignments given to women—society, fashion, gardening, etc. That led to her leaving New York for Mexico to be a foreign correspondent. After writing articles critical of the Mexican government, she was threatened with arrest and returned to Pennsylvania. Home meant more women’s pages reporting. Definitely not Nellie's cup of tea. It was time to move on.

Nellie moved to New York City and convinced the editor of The New York World, to hire her. She then went undercover and feigned insanity to get the lowdown on reports of brutality and neglect going on at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). Before entering the facility, she practiced appearing deranged in front of a mirror. Confident she could pull off the ruse, she then checked into a boarding house and began acting strange in the hopes of being seen as “crazy” by the people there and committed to the asylum. It worked! She was committed to the asylum and found the conditions even worse than she expected. The food was horrid and the water undrinkable. Patients were mistreated and rats crawled around as if they owned the place. After ten days, her employer stepped in and arranged for her release. Her report, Ten Days in a Madhouse, brought her fame while embarrassed staff at the asylum had to explain how she fooled them into thinking she was insane. The conditions at the asylum were improved and the art of investigative reporting was elevated by, of all things, a woman!

In 1988,  the book Around the World in 80 Days became a best seller, and that prompted Nellie to use that popularity to her advantage. She suggested to her editor that she attempt to circle the world by herself in less than 80 days. Not in a balloon, like in the story, but by using whatever form of transportation she could find. Carrying nothing more than the dress she was wearing, a few changes of underwear, and toiletries, she set off on her journey. Soon, another women reporter, Elizabeth Bisand, was sent on a similar challenge by her newspaper. And the race was on.

Nellie sent back reports on the countries she traversed, and the country soon became caught up in her adventure. The NY World started a guessing contest, asking entrants to guess the exact time Nellie would arrive back home. The grand prize was a free trip to Europe along with spending money, quite extravagant for that time. A “Round the World” board game was also developed. Nellie finished the trip in 72 days. Bisand came in four days later.
The Round the World Game was first printed in the newspaper and later was produced and sold as a parlor game.

At the age of 30, Bly married wealthy industrialist Robert Seaman, who was 40 years older than she. She retired from journalism, but after his death, resumed her writing career due to dwindling finances.

She died at the age of 57 of pneumonia.

This is just a snippet of Nellie Bly’s achievements as one of the first women investigative reporters. Even with all her successes, it would take World War II to truly break the ice that would enable women to break into the newspaper reporting field as respected journalists.

What women heroes from the past do you esteem as pioneers who paved the way for women of today to be successful in their chosen professions?

More can be found about Nellie Bly at: 

A native of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, author Pamela S. Meyers lives in suburban Chicago with her two rescue cats. She’s an hour's drive away from her Wisconsin hometown, which she visits often. Her novels include Thyme for Love, and Love Will Find a Way, contemporary romantic mysteries, and her 1933 historical romance, Love Finds You in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. When she isn’t at her laptop writing her latest novel, she can often be found nosing around Wisconsin and other Midwestern spots for new story ideas.


  1. Great article, Pamela! I enjoyed it!

  2. What a great story. This lady had chutzpah! Thanks for enlightening me on the life of Nellie Bly.

  3. Pamela, she was quite a woman! I've written extensively about women in American history who rose above their various handicaps and social conditions to do amazing things, including Harriet Tubman.

  4. Nellie Bly's story intrigues me. What courage she had to offer to travel the world by whatever transportation she could find! And bringing only one outfit! What did she wear when that one had to be washed?

  5. She was one determined lady. I don't remember learning about her in school history classes, and that's a shame.

  6. What bravery that must have taken to go into the insane asylum.
    Hey, I'm from WI too. My son lives in the Chicago area.

  7. What a fascinating woman! Much braver than I could ever be.

  8. Thank you for sharing the fascinating history of Nellie Bly. She was certainly an exceptional woman!

    texaggs2000 at gmail dot com

  9. What an interesting story. Thank you for sharing!

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

  10. Florence Nightingale pioneered for nursing. I am a nurse myself and many changes have happened since I started in 1968. Really enjoyed your story and would love to play the game Around the World Game. Sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com.

  11. Thanks, Pamela. I have a lot of respect for Nellie Bly as someone who not only recognized a good story, but went to extremes to give the story maximum exposure - exposure which in the case of the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island brought much needed changes to countless people.

    I've always looked at Lucy Maud Montgomery as the author who showed the world that excellent fiction can be written right here in Canada as opposed to being imported from the UK or the US.

  12. "In 1988, the book Around the World in 80 Days"... did you mean 1888? Great article. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Nice article. Thank you. Wonderful to read about women who break the mold.