Today is the birthday of Nellie Bly, who was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran near Pittsburgh in 1864. She was a pioneer in the field of investigative journalism at a time when women did not even have the right to vote.
When Elizabeth was sixteen, an article appeared in her local newspaper, the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled ‘What Girls Are Good For’. Its author felt that women should not even attempt to have an education or a career. She was so incensed that she wrote an angry rebuttal to the editor. Her own mother worked to support herself after her second marriage ended in divorce so she had some pretty strong opinions to share. The Editor was so impressed that he asked her to write an article for the newspaper and then he offered her a full time job. She wrote under the pen name of Nellie Bly. Many of her early pieces highlighted the plight of working women and the poor factory conditions that they had to endure. She spent six months in Mexico, reporting on the lives and customs of the people there and also wrote scathingly about the Mexican government. Mostly though, she found herself relegated to the so-called ‘women’s pages’ writing about fashion and gardening and she left in 1887.
Nellie moved to New York and, after four months of unemployment, managed to land a job at ‘New York World’, a newspaper belonging to Joseph Pulitzer. She was given an undercover assignment which involved feigning insanity in order to have herself admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. There had been reports of neglect and mistreatment of patients and Nellie would be able to find out if they were true. She checked herself into a boardinghouse where she kicked up a massive fuss. She said she was afraid of the other boarders because they looked crazy and she refused to go to bed. By the next morning everyone was afraid that she was crazy and the police were called. Nellie was examined by several doctors who all pronounced her insane and she was taken to Blackwell’s Island. At first she was afraid of being found out as a fraud, but she soon began to think that the doctors were incompetent.
On the island she found out that patients were given terrible food, insufficient clothing and made to sit in silence for long hours. They were given cold baths in filthy water and were often punished by being beaten and strangled by the nurses. Once there, Nellie found that convincing people of her sanity was impossible. Furthermore she doubted the insanity of her fellow inmates. Some women were there because English was not their first language and simply hadn’t been able to make themselves understood. One lady had asked for help from the authorities because she was poor and, when she found herself in the asylum, she had assumed that this was where all poor people went. Nellie was released only with the help of her employers after ten days. The articles she wrote led to an official investigation into the care of patients at Blackwell’s Island and also an $850,000 dollar increase in the budget for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. Nellie’s investigative journalism made her famous and were later reprinted as a book called ‘Ten Days in a Madhouse’. Her experiences inspired the TV series ‘American Horror Story: Asylum’. But that is not all she did.
In 1888 she suggested to her editor that she make a journey around the world in order to see if she could make the fictional story ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ into a reality. A year later, at 9:40 am on November 14, 1889 she set off on a steamer across the Atlantic, All she took were the dress she was wearing, an overcoat, one small case and £200 in a bag tied around her neck. She travelled to England, across to France, where she met Jules Verne (the author of Around the World in Eighty Days) to Egypt, Ceylon and Singapore. When she arrived in Hong Kong she discovered that a rival newspaper, ‘Cosmopolitan’, had sent another journalist, named Elizabeth Bisland, on a similar journey but in the opposite direction. She was now in a competition to see who would arrive home first. Nellie arrived in San Francisco behind schedule due to storms in the Pacific. Her employer, Pulitzer, chartered a special train and she arrived in back in New Jersey at 3.51 pm on January 25 1890. The journey had taken less that 73 days. Her rival had also been delayed, crossing the Atlantic, and arrived four and a half days later. For a little while, Nellie Bly held the record for the fastest journey around the world. Her trip also inspired this board game…