By Mary Davis
“I always have a comfortable feeling that nothing is impossible if one applies a certain amount of energy in the right direction. … If you want to do it, you can do it. The question is, do you want to do it?” Nellie Bly
Elizabeth Jane Cochran—journalist, social reform activist, and inventor—was known by many names. Her most notable and long-running one was Nellie Bly. As a teen, she added an “e” to her surname, Cochrane. She is most known for her trip around the world to beat the time of the fictional character in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days. However, this remarkable lady did so much more.
On May 5, 1864, she was born to her father’s second wife. Her father, a landowner, mill operator, postmaster, and associate justice, died when Elizabeth was six. Because he had no will, her mother got very little from the estate and remarried. Elizabeth’s step-father was a mean drunk, so her mother eventually divorced him. This experience left Elizabeth with the idea that not all women had to marry.
She helped her mother run a boarding house in Pittsburgh. In 1885, she responded to a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled “What Girls Are Good For”, which stated that girls were good for birthing children and keeping house, and to work outside the home was a monstrosity. She signed her critical response “Lonely Orphan Girl”. Editor George Madden was impressed by her passion and ran an ad, asking her to introduce herself—she did, which secured her a job. Females who wrote for papers did so under a pseudonym. Nellie Bly was chosen after a popular Stephen Foster song.
Going undercover in various places and jobs, she wrote many exposés for them, including better jobs for women, reform of divorce laws, slum life, women working in factories, and other similar topics. When advertisers complained about her controversial articles and threatened to pull their ads, she was relegated to the “women’s pages”, that is fashion, society, and gardening. Dissatisfied with this, she became a foreign correspondent in Mexico for half a year in 1886-1887 at the age of twenty-one. The Mexican government didn’t appreciate her exposing them and ran her out of the country with threat of jail.
|Nellie in Mexico|
So, she took lodging in a women's boarding house under the name Nellie Brown, stayed up all night, and accused the other ladies of being insane. This disturbed her fellow boarders so much that the police were called to take her away. She was examined by the police, a judge, and a doctor who deemed her insane and eventually sent her to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island (now Roosevelt Island).
Her firsthand experience of the deplorable conditions of neglect and physical abuse gave her much fodder to write about.
If she ever got out. Once a woman was committed, she was usually there for life, insane or not.
|Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island|
Nellie said that within a month under the horrible conditions even a sane person would go insane. Fortunately, the newspaper secured her release after ten days. She felt bad for the women she was leaving behind, knowing some of them weren’t insane at all. Her many scathing articles about the asylum helped laws to be changed and the conditions to be improved on Blackwell Island.
She went on to write first-hand exposés on poor treatment of inmates in New York jails and factories, corruption in the state legislature, and other social injustices.
What she is best known for is her trip around the world in 1889. Her boss said no woman could do this without a man to protect her, and he refused her the opportunity, saying only a man could make the trip. She told him fine, send a man around the world and have him leave the same day she would…for a rival paper. The New York World caved and gave her the assignment. She set off with a small bag and only one dress, the one she was wearing. Her goal—seventy-five days. She made it in seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes, and fourteen seconds, and even stopped off to visit her inspiration author Jules Verne. She later wrote a book about her adventure, and there was even a board game created about her trip.
In 1895, Nellie, age thirty-one, married millionaire industrialist Robert Seaman, over forty years her senior. When his health became poor, she gave up being a journalist and took over as president of his Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. He died in 1904. It is said they had a good marriage.
Under Nellie’s leadership, the company patented the 55-gallon oil drum that evolved into the ones used today. Though that patent wasn’t under her name, she did design and receive patents for a better milk can and stacking trash cans.
Between her not having a head for numbers and embezzlement by employees, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company went bankrupt.
So, Nellie went back to journalism. She wrote on the suffrage movement and became the first female war correspondent on the European Eastern front.
|Nellie talking to an Austrian officer in Poland|
Though best known for traveling alone around the world, that was only one small part of who she was.
“I said I could and I would. And I did.” Nellie Bly
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Who Knew?: Women in History, by Sarah Herman