Elizabeth Cochrane, aka Nellie Bly, was a pioneer of investigative journalism in the late 19th Century, experiencing challenging situations first hand so as to be able to write about them with authority. She is best known for having circumnavigated the globe in 72 days - a journey inspired by the novel Around the World in 80 Days. She also helped to advance rights for women, using her fame to raise awareness of issues such as divorce, unwanted children, and women's limited opportunities to earn money.
Elizabeth Cochran was born on 5 May, 1864, in Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania, USA. The town had been named after her father, Michael, as he had served as Justice of the Peace for several years and owned mills in the area. Michael was a widower with nine children. His second wife Mary Jane was a widow and they had five children together, including Elizabeth.
Elizabeth's writing was first published in 1885 - she wrote a letter to The Pittsburg Dispatch newspaper complaining about an article by a man mocking women who worked for a living and was commissioned to write an article in response. She highlighted the difficulties faced by poor women who could not (or would not) find a husband and who had few options available to them if they were not able to be teachers or writers.
It is shameful to state, yet the fact remains, that in this enlightened age there are many who think all labor, except housework, belittles a woman.
The alias she chose for her essay was 'Orphan Girl'. Elizabeth was not an orphan, but her father had died when she was six. Mary Jane remarried, but her new husband was an alcoholic so she divorced him in 1878. Elizabeth changed her surname to Cochrane when she was 15 and went to school in Indiana, Pennsylvania, to train as a teacher. However, she was unable to afford the fees so she returned to live with her mother in Allegheny City.
After her first article was published, Elizabeth was commissioned to write an article on divorce for The Dispatch. She then proposed a series of articles on women who worked in factories in Pittsburgh and was hired on a salary of $5 a week. The new alias she was assigned to conceal her identity was 'Nellie Bly', after the character Nelly Bly in a Minstrel Song by Stephen Collins Foster1. After completing her series on working women, she was then asked to write on topics that were considered more suitable for a female writer, such as fashion and domesticity.
Elizabeth resigned from her salaried role in 1886 to become a freelance writer. She continued submitting articles to The Dispatch, but was able to choose the topics she wrote about - she travelled to Mexico with her mother and wrote several articles that were later compiled into the book Six Months in Mexico2. In 1887 Elizabeth went to New York to seek more new opportunities. She wrote more articles in The Dispatch about her experiences as a woman looking for journalism jobs in New York, but her ideas for articles in New York newspapers (such as a proposal for her to be sent up in a hot air balloon so she could report on what it was like) were rejected.
Elizabeth visited the office of The World newspaper to pitch for work, and was commissioned to undertake an undercover investigation into the treatment of patients in an 'insane asylum'. She made herself look ill by not sleeping, then pretended to be paranoid and was committed to Blackwell's Island. There she was given bread with rancid butter (which other hungry patients stole from her) and an ice-cold bath. Pests and disease were rampant, even though the patients worked hard at cleaning the rooms. The cold rooms and lack of warm clothing made many patients ill. The most violent inmates3 were tied together with ropes to be taken for a walk. Elizabeth spent ten days there, and wrote two articles4. As a result of her exposé, the facility was inspected, more funding was provided for food and clothing, and some of the patients were able to be discharged.
Following this, Elizabeth carried out further investigative missions for The World, often focusing on the lives of working women but also on the fate of babies that were given away (or even sold) by their parents.
In the Footsteps of Phileas Fogg
In 1888 Elizabeth pitched an idea for a series based on the novel Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. She wanted to see if she could go around the world faster than the fictional character Phileas Fogg had. The editor of The World thought she wouldn't be able to do it, because he believed women travellers required chaperones and substantial amounts of luggage. However, when she threatened to take the idea to a rival newspaper, he agreed to let her try.
Elizabeth set off on her mission on 14 November, 1889. She travelled light, taking only one bag with her:
One never knows the capacity of an ordinary hand-satchel until dire necessity compels the exercise of all one's ingenuity to reduce every thing to the smallest possible compass. In mine I was able to pack two traveling caps, three veils, a pair of slippers, a complete outfit of toilet articles, ink-stand, pens, pencils, and copy-paper, pins, needles and thread, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, a small flask and a drinking cup, several complete changes of underwear, a liberal supply of handkerchiefs and fresh ruchings5 and most bulky and uncompromising of all, a jar of cold cream to keep my face from chapping in the varied climates I should encounter.
She also travelled without a chaperone for much of the time - she crossed the Atlantic Ocean alone, but was accompanied by The World's London correspondent on the leg of her journey from England to France6 and was escorted by trusted gentlemen at various other times. She made a diversion to meet Jules Verne himself, and his wife Honorine. However, she did not follow the exact route of Phileas Fogg, which passed through Bombay (Mumbai), as she found a quicker route via Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
Elizabeth returned to New York on 25 January, 1890. She achieved her goal of beating Phileas Fogg, and also beat a rival traveller (Elizabeth Bisland) who was travelling around the world from west to east on behalf of a rival publication. She wrote about her experiences in the book Around the World in 72 Days and a board game 'Around the World with Nellie Bly' was created in her honour.
For three years after her return to New York, Elizabeth was unable to continue with her career - she experienced a period of depression after one of her brothers died. In 1893 she resumed her investigative journalism. She spent ten days with the Salvation Army. She interviewed a doctor who was trying to reform 'women of the streets'. She even visited Eugene V Debs in jail in 1895 after he had been convicted of contempt of court.
There was another break in her journalism career after 1895, as she married 73-year-old millionaire Robert Livingston Seaman. Elizabeth became involved with the workings of his business, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company - at the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 she was listed as 'Nellie Bly, the only woman in the world personally managing industries of such magnitude'. Robert died in 1904, and she took over as president of the Company, including taking out patents for new metal containers. However, she discovered that some of the employees had been embezzling funds from the company. The legal processes around her attempts to get justice were expensive and forced her into bankruptcy.
She was commissioned to write more newspaper articles from 1912, becoming a political reporter and covering the campaigns for women's suffrage. She travelled to Austria and Hungary in 1915 and reported on the horrors of war. She then became an advice columnist, or 'agony aunt', for the New York Journal, responding to readers' letters with information and suggestions for how to solve their problems. Her last column was published just a couple of weeks before she died of pneumonia and heart disease on 27 January, 1922, at the age of 57.
As well as her rich legacy of articles documenting key issues of her time, Elizabeth also turned her hand to fiction. In 1889 she had published a novel, The Mystery of Central Park, featuring murder and suicide. She also published 11 novel-length stories serialised in the New York Family Journal newspaper over a period of six years, with plots inspired by her journalism.
Modern readers should be aware that her writing often reflects the problems of the time - for example, several of her works contain offensive language and judgement of people by the colour of their skin. However, her legacy stretches into the 21st Century, with the work of people such as Stacey Dooley7 and Anne Garrels8 having its roots in her brand of immersive journalism.