“She’s positively demented,” declared the doctor. “She needs to be put where someone will take care of her.”
So it was that the “mysterious waif with the wild, haunted look in her eyes” found herself thrown into the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.
What she experienced in her ten days in the mad-house would irrevocably change the way the United States would treat its mentally ill.
Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864, as one of 15 children in the family of Mary Jane and Michael Cochran. The family was raised in Cochran’s Mills; a town named for Michael, who had risen from the ranks of a labourer to become the owner of the local mill and the surrounding land. His hard work and determination was a source of inspiration for his family and other locals.
Tragically, Michael died when Bly was only 6. He left no will, and as such, his family could not claim the property he left behind.
Facing destitution, Mary Jane was forced to remarry to bring some stability to the 16 children she was now solely responsible for. Bly’s new stepfather was an abusive alcoholic, and the couple were soon divorced.
Bly was known as the most rebellious member of the family. As a teen, she added an ‘e’ to her surname, becoming Cochrane in an attempt to seem more sophisticated.
As her mother continued to struggle financially, Bly fought to find a way to ease her burden. She enrolled at the Indiana Normal School with the intention to become a teacher, but with no means of income, she could not pay tuition, and was forced to drop out.
Afterwards, the pair moved to Pittsburgh, where Elizabeth helped run a boarding school.
In 1885, Bly was reading the Pittsburgh Dispatch when she read a column entitled What Girls Are Good For. The foul, misogynistic piece, written by Erasmus Wilson, declared the working woman “a monstrosity” who belonged back home in the kitchen.
Her fiery retort, published under the name ‘Lonely Orphan Girl’, was so well crafted that editor George Madden ran an ad asking for the writer to identify themselves. When Bly arrived at the office, Madden immediately offered her a writing position. She accepted.
Madden asked her to come up with a pen name – “something nice and catchy” – to protect Bly from the ill reputation of ‘proper’ ladies who work. She chose Nellie Bly (it was meant to be Nelly, but Madden miswrote it) in reference to a popular country song.
Earning $5 a week, Bly used this platform to raise awareness of social justice issues in America. She argued in favour of labour laws that would protect the rights of working women, and supported reform to divorce law that heavily favoured men.
After a year, Bly was pressured to cover more traditional subjects for women such as fashion and society. Instead, she convinced the company to send her to Mexico, where at the age of 21 she revealed the political corruption that left so many of the country’s citizens poor. After her exposé was published, authorities forced her to return to the US. When she arrived, Bly publicly denounced Mexican leader Porfirio Diaz as a dictator.
However, it wasn’t long before she was forced back into writing about topics she cared little about.
At age 23, she resigned, and relocated to New York. She struggled to find work, and was left penniless after only four months. Some time later, she talked her way into the office of publishing mogul Joseph Pulitzer’s the New York World, and talked editors into giving her an assignment reporting on the conditions at Blackwell Island’s insane asylum.
After practicing facial expressions in front of a mirror, Bly checked into a nearby boardinghouse for the deprived. When operators asked her to go to bed, she refused, telling them she was frightened and could not remember who she was. The police were called the next day. Bly was examined by a range of doctors who proclaimed her “undoubtedly insane” before a judge concluded that she should be committed to the asylum.
Word of the “pretty crazy girl” spread throughout the media as they attempted to uncover her identity at the request of the judge, who had declared “I would stake everything on her being a good girl. I am positive she is somebody’s darling”.
Meanwhile, Bly suffered at the hands of asylum staff. “I took upon myself to enact the part of a poor, unfortunate crazy girl, and felt it my duty not to shirk any of the disagreeable results that should follow.”
She was fed broth and rancid meat, and forced to drink dirty water in eating areas smeared with the filth of other inmates. Buckets of ice cold water were poured over their heads as a means of showering, and the more dangerous patients were often tied together with ropes.
Nurses were abusive, but when Bly talked to other patients, she got the impression that many were just as sane as she was. Bly recalls one particular instance:
“As the doctor was about to leave the pavilion Miss Tillie Mayard discovered that she was in an insane ward. She went to Dr. Field and asked him why she had been sent there.
‘Have you just found out you are in an insane asylum?’ asked the doctor.
‘Yes; my friends said they were sending me to a convalescent ward to be treated for nervous debility, from which I am suffering since my illness. I want to get out of this place immediately.’
‘Well, you won’t get out in a hurry,’ he said, with a quick laugh.
‘If you know anything at all,’ she responded, ‘you should be able to tell that I am perfectly sane. Why don’t you test me?’
‘We know all we want to on that score,’ said the doctor, and he left the poor girl condemned to an insane asylum, probably for life, without giving her one feeble chance to prove her sanity.”
After 10 days, the World called for Bly’s release. Her report, Ten Days in a Mad-House (which can be read here), made her a national icon. It resulted in a grand jury investigation into the asylum, which Bly assisted in. Her findings set the precedent for a decision to increase the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections by $1 million annually (about $26 million USD by today’s standards), and a call to improve efforts in ensuring only the most seriously ill patients were sent to the asylum.
Bly followed this up with an undercover piece detailing the lives and working conditions of sweatshop workers, and other stories of corruption within the establishment.
On a broader scale, Bly’s work was revolutionary. It set the standards for modern day investigative journalism, though at the time it was dubbed exploitative by the World‘s competitors.
If they thought that report was a stunt, they hadn’t seen anything yet.
In 1889, Bly propelled to international stardom when she declared that she would travel around the world with the intention of beating the fictional record set by Phileas Fogg, the protagonist in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. She commenced her travel by boat, and would later take to railway, balloon, rickshaw, horse, and several other forms of transport as she moves through Europe and into Asia.
Meanwhile Cosmopolitan had sent their own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, around the world in the opposite direction to beat both Fogg and Bly.
Bly arrived back in Hoboken, New Jersey on January 25, 1890. Her trip had taken 72 days, 6ix hours, and 11 minutes, eight days less than Fogg’s. Bisland returned four and a half days later. The record only stood for a few months before it was beaten by George Francis Train (who many speculate to be the inspiration for Verne’s novel) when he completed the journey in 67 days.
Nevertheless, Bly’s accomplishments were well celebrated not just at home, but across the world. At the time, she was only 25.
At the peak of her career, Bly was making $25,000 a year.
Bly retired from reporting in 1895 to marry industrialist Robert Seaman, who was 40 years her senior. After his death, she came to run his company, Iron Clad Manufacturing Co., where she proved herself a brave and resourceful leader. She invented a steel barrel which would later become the model for the widely used 55-gallon drum. The company boomed, and in such a position of power, Bly demonstrated the social reforms that she had constantly championed during her days as a journalist. She paid her workers – both men and women – well, and built gymnasiums, a health clinic, and a library in proximity to the plant.
For all her good endeavours, Bly was not immune to the greed of others. Fraudulent employees embezzled from the company, causing the company to go bankrupt, and for Bly to fall from her position as one of the leading women industrialists in the history of the United States.
Bly travelled to Austria, but with the outbreak of World War I was unable to return home until 1919. There, she returned to journalism, chronicling the rise of women’s suffrage movements for the New York Journal.
Three years later, Nellie Bly contracted pneumonia, and died on January 27, 1922, at the age of 58.
She was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery where, coincidentally, Elizabeth Bisland would be interred seven years later after also dying from pneumonia.
By the time of her death, many of Bly’s accomplishments had become forgotten, but today her legacy remains strong. Investigative journalism has played a crucial part in leading social justice in the nearly 100+ years since Bly first entered Blackwell Island’s Women’s Lunatic Asylum, and it is because of her that this is the case.
Google Doodle celebrated this fact last year, when they marked her 151st birthday with a special video praising her courage.