Who was Nellie Bly? (Part 1 of 3)
In her lifetime Nellie Bly would wear many hats—investigative journalist, wife and widow, patent inventor, progressive industrialist, war correspondent, crusading activist.
But how was it a woman of little education, few connections, no position or wealth found her way so indelibly into the history books? And how did she accomplish such extraordinary things only considered fitting for men to do at a time when women didn’t even have the power to vote?
You only have to look at her formative years to understand the external circumstances at play that would mold her into the bold, sometimes irascible, woman she became.
Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania. The town’s name is no coincidence; it was named after her father, Michael Cochran. He suddenly died when Bly was six. To the great detriment of his family, he left no will, plunging the family—Bly’s mother Mary Jane and her four siblings, into financial despair.
Two more events would conspire to make Bly’s adolescent years even more tumultuous. The man Mary Jane married two years later turned out to be a cruel and abusive alcoholic. For six long years, the couple would stay together, but his drunken bouts, physical abuse, and disappearances were too much to overcome.
Bly herself, at the tender age of fourteen, would testify in court on her mother’s behalf to offer proof of her stepfather’s viciousness. Divorce soon followed.
By this time, Bly wanted out of little Apollo, Pennsylvania, where the Cochrans had come to reside just before her biological father passed. She chose “normal school,” a training school fifteen miles away, which would provide her the three years’ education she needed to become a teacher.
The town banker appointed to look after the Cochran children’s small inheritance until they came of age led Bly to believe she had enough funds to complete her schooling. However, by the end of the first term in 1879, it became clear she didn’t have enough money to return for the second term. Bly had to drop out.
These three pivotal events: her father’s lack of provision, her stepfather’s volatility, and her guardian’s mismanagement, were catalysts for re-invention.
Bly had learned that to depend on anyone was ruinous.
Hardened self-reliance took shape, and with it the conviction that she alone must provide for her financial and emotional security.
A New Beginning
Fed up with their troubled past in Apollo, Mary Jane moved her family to Pittsburgh for a fresh start. Very little is known about Bly the first few years she spent there. Mary Jane, with the help of her children, would eventually own and run a boarding house to keep the family afloat.
It was when Bly turned twenty that the next event that would bring change to her life unfolded. It happened when she was reading the Pittsburg Dispatch, one of the larger daily newspapers of the city.
She stumbled on a story entitled “Woman’s Sphere” by columnist Erasmus Wilson in which he wrote there was but one place for a woman: home.
The column so angered her, she wrote a letter to the editor disagreeing with Wilson, signing it Lonely Orphan Girl. The managing editor of the Dispatch, George Madden, was so impressed, he invited her to appear at the paper’s office.
Madden was looking to add something fresh to the Sunday edition. With training, maybe this young slip of a girl would be just the thing. He asked Bly to craft replies to the male reader who had prompted Wilson’s piece, and she did so with enough skill to convince Madden to hire her.
Because women were not permitted to use their real name in print (female reporting was considered gauche), Madden assigned her the pseudonym that would one day be famous: Nellie Bly.
She would use it for nearly four decades.
Madden promptly assigned Bly to the women’s pages, the section where little more than the latest fashions and city gossip were shared. Bly hated it from the start. It was when Madden granted her permission to write about themes of her own choosing that she really shone.
Her readers, by way of her ever-increasing fan mail, agreed.
What were the stories she pursued? The plight of young women forced to work at low-paying or health-imperiling jobs, divorce reform to prevent “drunkards and ne’er-do-wells” from marrying unless they disclosed their past, sketches of the female working poor.
She never balked at difficult interviews. She simply took charge in her direct, audacious way and learned what she could, and then spilled it all out in print.
She would work a year at the Dispatch and another six months as the paper’s correspondent in Mexico. When she returned to Pittsburgh, she could no longer stomach writing for the women’s pages.
It was time to move on.
The New York World
Bly took off for New York City in early 1887, working as a correspondent for the Dispatch to support her and her mother, who accompanied her as “chaperon.” For eight months, she was told by editors at the big papers on Newspaper Row that women weren’t fit for journalism. When she left her purse on an elevated train that carried the last of her savings, she became desperate.
She walked into the New York World and presented the managing editor, John Cockerill, with a list of stories she was willing to pursue. All her ideas required subterfuge that would make for vivid storytelling. They all required her to pretend to be someone she was not. Some of them were even dangerous.
If she wanted a job, she needed to get Cockerill’s attention.
He told her to come back two weeks later, ostensibly to talk to Joseph Pulitzer, the venerated publisher of the paper, about her ideas.
When she returned, Cockerill posed she feign insanity in order to get committed to the women’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island (off the coast of Manhattan). She could take the assignment or leave it, Cockerill said.
Bly accepted. She was twenty-three.
She would stay ten days at the asylum, dropping her show of insanity as soon as she crossed the threshold. “The more I endeavored to assure [the doctors] of my sanity, the more they doubted it,” she would later write.
The World sent an attorney to fetch her as promised, never breathing a word who Bly really was. The write-up she produced was published with her byline—a first for a female journalist on staff—in two Sunday installments in the World. For the chilling story of what Bly experienced at the Blackwell's Asylum, see my book.
Due in part to her story, a million dollars was appropriated for the improvement of asylums in the city, something they had needed for far too long.
The asylum exposé introduced Nellie Bly as the city’s spunky upstart female journalist.
She was just getting started.
Around the World
The investigative stories Bly would tackle for the next few years would raise her popularity, but it was the-girdling-the-earth stunt that brought her international fame.
In late 1889, Bly set out east from New York to prove she could circumnavigate the globe in less time than the fictional Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s well-known book Around the World in Eighty Days. It wasn’t until she arrived in Hong Kong that she learned Cosmopolitan Magazine had sent a rival female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, around the world in the opposite direction to beat her.
The world was watching. The paper’s circulation soared. Everyone wanted to know where in the world Nellie Bly was on any given day.
To keep up the excitement between her reports, the paper launched a contest. A free trip to Europe and $250 dollars (about $7,000 today) would be awarded to the reader who could guess Bly’s arrival down to the second. More than half a million readers around the world submitted ballots.
Nellie Bly arrived home with great fanfare on January 25, 1890. She had circled the globe in 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds, beating the fictional Phileas Fogg's record.
Elizabeth Bisland would not arrive until four and a half days later.
A Change of Course
While the public had received her with open arms, the treatment from the World was not at all what Bly expected. In a letter to a colleague, she confided that her editors never so much as thanked her. Nor did they extend to her any bonus or salary increase.
She was exhausted and not in the mood to quibble. She left the World.
For six months, she busied herself on a lecture tour and the publication of her book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days. But, as had happened in her childhood, events transpired that would put a damper on her happiness.
Her favorite older brother Charles, just twenty-eight, died suddenly of inflammation of the bowel. Perhaps due to this, at least in part, she became ill and was confined to bed rest. She never named the illness, but it intensified when she fell into a bout of depression that lasted months.
By this time, she was six months into a three-year contract she had signed with N.L. Munro of the New York Family Story Paper. She was hired to write fiction in serialized installments. Her reported salary was an astonishing $10,000 ($284,000 in today’s money). However, no copies of the paper while Bly was under contract have survived. It is not known how many, if any, of her stories were published.
In fact, she seemed to have completely disappeared from all the papers. More than one newspaper would ask in print during her absence: “Where is Nellie Bly now?”
She wouldn’t reemerge until 1893, three years later. She was back at the World.
By this time, the World had undergone managerial changes. Cockerill was gone and the new managing editor was after anything to raise circulation. Bly was just the ticket.
Since her absence from the World, Bly had built up an intolerance for stunt reporting. The young female reporters who were trying to emulate her had much to do with this. She wanted to stand out again in a different way.
She did it, once again, by choosing her own topics. For the next two years, she examined people or situations in an attempt to right wrongs, explain the unfamiliar, or satisfy curiosity about the intriguing. More often than not, the World gave her the front-page spotlight with her byline.
Bly objected to the idea of getting married for years, though there was no shortage of proposals (she received enough to fill a box before she departed on her trip around the world). Though she often revealed her coquettish side in her stories and had remarked she preferred the company of men over women, she made in plain she wanted to stay single.
It was shock then, in April 1895, when the New York papers carried the story of her elopement with Robert Livingston Seaman, an industrialist worth a reported $3 million who was nearly 40 years her senior.
She’d known him just two weeks.
Perhaps she had grown tired of reporting and wanted to live a simpler life. Perhaps she saw something in Seaman of her father. There were even reports of a mysterious (unnamed) suitor who had given up on waiting for her and married, instigating Bly’s own exchanging of vows.
It was anyone’s guess.
The first year of the Seamans’ marriage was horrendous. Her husband’s fine mansion in the Murray Hill district of New York City wasn’t what Bly expected. The interior of dusty, neglected rooms appalled her. She nicknamed it Bleak House.
She didn’t get along with the staff and fired the housekeeper. Seaman, for his part, failed to honor the prenuptial agreement to provide for Bly’s mother and sister Kate (who was now divorced and under Bly’s care). She soon took her evening meals at restaurants, unable to even dine with Seaman.
Perhaps worst of all was that Seaman was, in Bly’s own words, “unaccountably jealous.” She’d had the feeling over the summer that her carriage was being followed every time she left the house. One evening, she got the authorities involved and had the man arrested. Her pursuer turned out to be the long-time caretaker of Seaman’s Catskill summer home, Henry Hanson. Seaman paid his employee’s bond and had him released less than an hour later.
More squabbles followed. Bly eventually resumed work at the World again, ostensibly to avoid as much of life at home as she could.
By August 1896, things looked brighter. The Seaman’s were getting along. Bly stopped reporting for the World yet again and the couple, along with Bly’s mother, left for Europe. They would remain for three years, staying in Paris, Vienna, Rome, Wiesbaden, and London.
Seaman’s health, particularly his eyesight, began to deteriorate. He transferred the deed to their New York home into Bly’s name. It is telling how close the two had become when he did so on Christmas Eve with a note that read, “in consideration of natural love and affection.”
Bly took on the role of nurse in Europe, looking after her husband with great care. They consulted specialists and cures for his failing eyesight. When Seaman decided to alter his will, he named Bly his sole executrix. Other than a few small payouts to his brother and other relatives, Bly would receive the entirety of Seaman’s estate.
By the time they returned from abroad, Bly was also president of his company, The Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.
She could not have known how harrowing that position would one day be.
Return to New York
Back in New York, Bly had the outdated interior of their home refurbished. She loved her family around and there was plenty of room in the Seaman’s four-story brownstone to accommodate them; her brothers, Albert and Harry, along with their families, moved in, as did Mary Jane.
For the next four years, it would be a happy gathering place for Bly’s family and friends.
In 1899, Bly’s only sister Kate, who happened to be summering at the Seaman’s Catskill home, passed away from tuberculosis. Bly was inconsolable. She was so consumed by grief, she fled to the country home and refused to allow neighbors access to pay their respects. One paper reported she even built a funeral pyre composed of her sister’s belongings and set them aflame.
In the spring of 1904, after nine years of marriage, Robert Seaman collapsed in his home while reading the newspaper. The doctors Bly called to attend him could not revive him. He died shortly thereafter at the age of eighty.
Bly was on the cusp of turning forty. There would be no long grieving period; the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, Seaman’s company she was now presiding over, was having problems that required her attention.
But that wasn’t the only thing brewing. The Seaman relatives her husband had essentially disinherited in Europe were contesting the will.
Bly wasn’t going down without a fight.
For Part 2 of Who was Nellie Bly click here.
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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.