More than a half-century before "gonzo journalism" was a figment in Hunter S. Thompson's imagination, newspaper writer Nellie Bly was living it. Today is Nellie Bly's 151st birthday, so it's a fittingly unique day to celebrate her. She reformed an insane asylum by getting committed for 10 days, she described the world on a whirlwind trip, and she reported alongside chorus girls and factory girls with equal vigor.
She was a Victorian superstar who created media sensations week after week. She was groundbreaking, too — she traveled the world alone 31 years before women were allowed to vote. But more than just making hits, she usually had a purpose: her work advanced the cause of people few others were willing to defend.
How a woman from coal country became a star New York City columnist
Nellie Bly's career started when the incorrigible young woman named Elizabeth Cochran turned an angry letter into a job.
It began when she read an 1885 column titled "What Girls Are Good For," which argued that working women were immoral. Eighteen-year-old Bly wrote an anonymous letter to the paper, passionately arguing that women could help support a family in need. (She herself had grown up near Pittsburgh caring for her family of three brothers and her widowed mother.)
Instead of being upset, the paper's editor put out an ad for the "Lonely Orphan Girl" who'd signed the letter (Bly called herself an orphan because her father had died). "She went to the office," says Brooke Kroeger, author of Bly's biography, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. "And the legend is that the editor says, 'She's got no grammar, she's got no spelling, let's bring her in.'"
In that unlikely way, Bly's newspaper career began in Pittsburgh, and she quickly caught up to everyone else (after taking the pseudonym Nellie Bly, after a Stephen Foster song).
It was at a time when women journalists were incredibly rare, but that didn't stop Bly. There were still a lot of obstacles — Kroeger says that though Nellie tried to find big news, she lacked the access to break stories. As a foreign correspondent in Mexico, she was largely relegated to reporting local color (though some of her commentary was ahead of its time: "American food is insipid in comparison," she wrote).
Her difficulties reporting hard news drove her from Pittsburgh to New York City, where she had another uphill battle. "The way she tells it," Kroeger says, "she shows up at the offices of the World, talks her way past the guards, and proposes the insane asylum assignment."
Suddenly, Nellie Bly was one of very few women reporters in New York City — and her first assignment was to get committed.
Nellie Bly fakes insanity to investigate an asylum
"Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell's Island? I said I could and I would. And I did."
That's part of the opening paragraph of Nellie Bly's investigative report into insane asylums, which was initially published in the New York World and later collected in the 1887 book Ten Days in a Mad-House.
She began her investigative reporting experience as "Nellie Brown, the insane girl." She walked down the street with a "far-away" expression and practiced seeming crazy. After staying in a group home for a night, she got herself taken to Bellevue hospital and then committed to the insane asylum on Blackwell's Island (called Roosevelt Island today).
While there for 10 days, she reported on poor conditions and questionable treatment of both patients who were mentally ill and women who were effectively imprisoned there for no good reason. Her book prompted an investigation, more oversight, and increase in funds for the improved asylum.
She emerged from the "mad-house" a hero
It also made her a journalistic superstar. After that, she became a jack of all trades, writing about numerous "day-in-the-life topics" like being a chorus girl, learning ballet, working on an assembly line, and doing other fantastically interesting things (there's a great collection of her writing here). Her name was attached to all her articles — a rarity at the time — and she eventually showed up in the headlines, as well.
But she wasn't just writing hits. "There were a million imitators," Kroeger says. "What was interesting about her work was that it always had a social justice angle." In addition to the stories Bly broke, implicit in her success was the proof that a woman journalist could do as much, if not a lot more, than her more numerous male competitors.
And all that set the stage for her biggest story of all — a trip around the world, in less than 80 days.
Nellie Bly races around the world — to prove a woman could do it
"No female reporter had ever been so audacious, so determined, so willing to sacrifice her own safety in pursuit of a story," says Matthew Goodman. He wrote about Bly's incredible trip in Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World. A trip around the world wasn't just considered difficult; it was considered unsafe for a woman. But for Bly, that was the point.
"The idea of sending a woman unchaperoned without a man was just unthinkable," Goodman says. "On top of that, they believed a woman would never be able to do it because she'd have to bring so many clothes."
Bly didn't care about those arguments. As she wrote when her editor told her nobody but a man could make the trip:
"Very well," I said angrily, "Start the man, and I'll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him."
After some back and forth (and some poor circulation numbers for the New York World, which was in need of a fresh publicity stunt), Bly got her choice assignment. She carried a single handbag with her and was off on November 14, 1889. She made it around the world in 72 days, beating the 80 days from the famous Jules Verne book that inspired her. The front page of the New York World was a triumphant boast — and had amazing sales.
"She was already well-established," Goodman says. "The trip around the world catapulted her to being an American celebrity."
Though there were imitators of Nellie Bly's style — Goodman's book tells the story of a race against the equally fascinating Elizabeth Bisland, another woman tasked with traveling around the world at the same time — there was nobody as big as Bly. While some shirked fame, she embraced it.
Bly buys a baby, runs a company, and campaigns for the vote
After her race around the world, Bly went on to write more pieces exploring social issues. Just before her around-the-world trip she wrote "Nellie Bly Buys a Baby" (an exposé of the orphan market in New York), and she followed that up with articles about zoo cruelty and the homeless.
She temporarily retired from journalism at age 31, when she married a manufacturer named Robert Seaman (who was 42 years her senior), but she didn't stop being active. She became president of her husband's company, got a patent for a new type of milk can, and tried to run her company ethically after her husband's death. (Kroeger says Bly's tenure as sole owner, though admirable, was marked more by enthusiasm than acumen.)
When the company went broke, she got right back into journalism, writing for William Randolph Hearst, among others. She reported from Vienna during World War I and agitated for women's suffrage (sample headline: "Suffragists Are Men's Superiors"). She kept going nearly until her death. When she died of pneumonia in 1922, she was only 57.
Why Nellie Bly's legacy lives on today
Bly was an obvious trailblazer, but her legacy in death has lasted surprisingly long.
"This reputation survives and thrives off basically two and a half years," Kroeger notes, when Bly had her most active period busting into insane asylums and traveling the world. So what turned Nellie Bly into a legend?
Part of her appeal is obvious: she had a relentless talent and a knack for a great story that never went away. "She knew how to pick the story that would thrust to the front," Kroeger says.
But Bly's trailblazing attitude and focus on others probably helped her stories endure long after the newspaper pages disintegrated. Goodman believes she always had a focus on the greater impact of her work: "Even in her trip around the world, which was kind of a stunt, she was also proving that a woman could do anything a man could do."
"Whatever her circumstance," Kroeger says, "she was trying to do the same thing. She was trying to make a difference. Was it off of self-interest? Sure. But at bottom, it really did have to do with doing right by someone."
And ultimately, with many of the stunts forgotten, that's the reason Nellie Bly remains fascinating today.