- Tonya Mitchell
Ten Little-Known Facts about Nellie Bly
The young, intrepid reporter who graced the pages of the New York World at the end of the 19th century led a busy life. Nellie Bly was never one to sit idle while the world rushed by. After her ten-days-in-a-madhouse stunt and her circumnavigation of the globe—feats that would make her a household name—she went on to do many other things. Heading up a large, multimillion-dollar ironworks business her husband had left her, and finding good homes for scores of infants were just a few.
Her much-publicized exploits have obscured some of the smaller details of her life, many of which are just as interesting.
Here are ten of them.
1. She came from a wealthy family
Bly’s father, Michael Cochran, died suddenly when Bly was six. He’d made no will, which meant his assets had to be divided equally among his heirs—and there were many. He had produced ten children from a previous marriage, most of whom were adults at the time of his death.
Her father was worth the equivalent of $1.1 million in today’s money, but the nature of his holdings made it impossible to divide evenly. Many of his assets (including real estate and the family’s grand 10,000-square-foot home) were sold at auction under market value. By the time the offspring from his first marriage got their allotments, there wasn’t much to be divided between his second family: Bly, her mother, and Bly’s four siblings.
Even more tragically, the money Bly and her siblings would inherit when they came of age was mismanaged by their court-appointed guardian (the same man, incidentally, who’d bought their home).
As a result, little of Bly’s inheritance came to her. She was unable to finish teacher training school as a result. From then on, she had to fend for herself.
2. Her childhood nickname was “Pink”
Bly’s mother, Mary Jane, enjoyed dressing her infant daughter in fine pink dresses with matching bows and white stockings. This attire was a far cry from the traditional gray calico dresses and black stockings the other girls in Apollo, Pennsylvania wore. Although Bly was christened Elizabeth Jane, “Pink” or “Pinkey” was the name that stuck, even after Bly’s father died and such wardrobe extravagances were no longer affordable. The nickname lasted through her mid-teens but appears to have been used less and less as she neared adulthood.
3. Her stepfather tried to shoot her mother
A little over two years after her father died, Bly’s mother remarried. It was apparent almost immediately that Jack Ford was a disastrous choice. He was a cruel, abusive drunk who had a habit of striking Mary Jane and then leaving on drunken bouts for days, leaving her to fend for her five children.
In 1879, when Bly was fifteen, Ford ranted at dinner, broke furniture, and slammed his fists into the walls. When he brandished a loaded pistol and lunged for Mary Jane, Bly and her eldest brother, Albert, moved between them. Mary Jane fled out the front door, but the resounding shot was heard through the streets of tiny Apollo. Luckily, Ford missed.
It was to be the last confrontation before Mary Jane filed for divorce.
4. She changed the spelling of her last name
That fall, Bly registered for normal (teacher training) school in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Though just six months before she’d signed her name “Pinkey E.J. Cochran” on the transcript of her testimony at her mother’s divorce hearings, she enrolled in school as “Elizabeth J. Cochrane.” She had not only dropped her childhood nickname, but added the final “e” in her surname.
Perhaps it was a bid to distance herself from her tumultuous years in Apollo.
Her family members would follow suit over the next few years. In writing that dates from this period, as well as today, her name is generally recognized as "Cochrane."
5. Bly’s work was featured in the World’s time capsule
While Bly was reporting for the New York World, the newspaper office was undergoing a huge renovation. By the time of its completion, it would be the tallest building on the globe. When the cornerstone was laid with great ceremony on October 9, 1889, the paper’s edition of that day would be included among the items inserted in a metal time capsule lodged behind the cornerstone.
The front page featured Bly’s coverage of a scandal involving a woman named Eva Hamilton. Bly was the only lead story featuring the name of the reporter—a feat at a time when women were rare in journalism, and even rarer on the front page.
6. She lied about her age
During a stopover in London while on her around-the-world trip, she registered for a passport at the American Legation office. She filled in the requisite forms, trimming three years off her age. This made her twenty-two for her girdling-the-earth stunt, not her actual age of twenty-five. She would claim the erroneous birth year for the rest of her life.
7. She was rumored to be engaged to one of the asylum doctors
Readers of Bly’s account of her asylum exposé, Ten Days in a Mad-House, will remember Dr. Frank Ingram as the only doctor at the Blackwell’s Asylum who treated her with kindness. A few years later, during a stop-over in Logansport, Indiana on her return from her famous world trip, rumors flew that she was engaged to thirty-one-year-old Ingram. She told reporters the two had become “good friends” and that she knew the doctor “intimately,” but she declined to confirm or deny the rumors.
8. She returned from her around-the-globe trip with an exotic animal
While in Singapore, Bly reported that all kinds of things were available for purchase in the markets. One thing in particular caught her eye. " When I saw the monkey my willpower melted and I began straightaway to bargain for it.”
She named him McGinty. He accompanied her back to New York City, but not before he suffered an American case of “la grippe contracted at Mojave.” The flu was running rampant at the time in the American southwest which Bly railed through, headed for the East Coast.
9. The World’s lukewarm reception of Bly may have been due to a libel suit
Bly was met with great fanfare by the public upon landing in Jersey City at the end of her two-month, twelve-day, six-hour, eleven-minute, fourteen-second journey. She felt, however, that the paper for whom she had done the stunt behaved less than enthusiastically.
Though no evidence survives, there was an account that the reason for the paper’s dismissive behavior was because of a libel suit that arose from a story Bly had written three weeks before she disembarked. In her story, she’d gone to “seven reputable doctors” with the same ailment: persistent migraines, from which she actually suffered.
She wrote of contradictory diagnoses (dyspepsia, malaria, defective eyes, neuralgia, shattered nerves) and various prescriptions she’d received as a result. She mentioned all the doctors by name.
The World’s publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, was, in the words of Bly’s biographer Brooke Kroeger, “maniacal about accuracy” and “had a deathly allergy to libel suits.”
It is certainly likely that such a suit did exist. But if the World paid off the doctors to settle, there is no longer any record of it. In any case, Bly would leave the paper shortly thereafter.
10. Readers cast as many as 1 million ballots to guess Bly’s globetrotting time to win the grand prize
Bly’s two-month-plus journey was not only well-publicized by the New York World, but by legions of papers all over the world. Any given day, readers wanted to know where in the world the plucky reporter was.
To further the public’s interest, the World offered a grand prize to the individual who could guess her arrival—down to the second. The paper printed ballots which were filled out by hopeful winners and then returned to the World’s headquarters on Newspaper Row in Manhattan.
An estimated half a million to one million ballots were received. The prize? A free trip to Europe and $250 (about $7,000 today) in spending money.
Fourteen “experts” were employed to weed through the entries and determine the winner. No guess received after Bly reached Chicago would be considered, and if more than one person guessed right, the one whose entry was received first would win.
In this, and so many other exploits, Bly had the world in the palm of her hand.
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Tonya Mitchell is the author of A Feigned Madness. For more on her and her book, visit her website. To order her book about Nellie Bly and her 10-day undercover stay in an insane asylum in 1887, click here.
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