Orchid Mae Letter 1 - The Intrepid Nellie Bly

The Intrepid Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly, 1888. Courtesy of Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

Nellie Bly, circa 1890. Courtesy Library of Congress 

Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, was born in 1864 in Burrell Township, PA to Mary Jane Kennedy and Michael Cochran. Michael Cochran was a mill owner and associate justice in Armstrong County, but died in 1870 without a will. This left Elizabeth’s mother without the means to maintain their home and lands, forcing the family to move. They eventually ending up in Pittsburgh. Elizabeth was only 6 years old. 

At the age of 15, Elizabeth enrolled in school, but was forced out after a year and a half due to insufficient funds. 

In 1885, an article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled “What Girls Are Good For” argued that the role of women is to be in the home, to be a helpmate for men, and to bare children. The article caught Elizabeth’s attention because she strongly disagreed with it and wrote a rebuttal by the pseudonym, “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The Editor was impressed with her writing, discovered her identity, and offered her the opportunity to write for the Dispatch. She wrote another article under the “Lonely Orphan Girl” pseudonym but her third article was written under the pseudonym “Nellie Bly.” Her editor chose the name, using the popular song Nelly Bly by Stephen Foster as inspiration. The “y” was misplaced with an “ie”, and Nellie Bly was born. 

Nellie started her career at The Dispatch but eventually moved to New York City in 1887. At first she found it hard to find a position in journalism as many news outlets would not hire a woman. Her spirit and determination, however, eventually brought her into the offices of New York World. There she agreed to her first assignment to work undercover at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum at Blackwell Island (now Roosevelt Island). Bly spent ten days inside, writing about the inhumane treatment of the patients there. Her report was a sensation. It lead to the reform of the asylum and solidified her career at The World. 

In 1889 Nellie embarked on another of her most well-known adventures. She suggested to her editor that she test Jules Vernes’ novel Around the World in Eighty Days and attempt to do just that. On November 14, 1889 she started her nearly 25,000 mile journey, starting in New Jersey. As she made her way east to Europe then down through the Mediterranean Sea and Suez Canal, making her way through southern Asia and up to Japan, the New York World ran daily stories and guessing contests with prizes for whomever came closest to guessing Nellie’s official travel time. Her time ended up being 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes when she reached New York City on January 25, 1890. She achieved her two aims of the trip; first, to finish the trip in under eighty days, and two, to show the world that women are just as capable at travel as men. 

Nellie’s Legacy

Nellie Bly stands as a prominent figure in journalism for her role in the era of yellow journalism and as a precursor to the muckrakers. Yellow journalism, characterized by sensationalism, exaggeration, and often dubious ethics, was in full swing during Bly's time. It was a time of fierce competition between newspapers, particularly in New York City, where sensational headlines and eye-catching stories were the norm.

While Bly's methods may have aligned with the sensationalism of yellow journalism, her intentions were rooted in a genuine desire to expose social injustices and bring about positive change, rather than to sell newspapers. Her investigative prowess and fearless approach to storytelling set her apart from her peers and established her as a trailblazer in the field. 

Bly's work also foreshadowed the rise of the muckrakers, a group of investigative journalists who emerged in the early 20th century. Like Bly, the muckrakers sought to expose corruption, abuse, and inequality in society through their reporting. They took on powerful institutions and individuals, shining a light on the darker corners of American life. Her confident pursuit of the truth and her willingness to confront powerful interests made her a pioneer of the movement. Bly's legacy as an investigative journalist and advocate for social justice paved the way for future generations of reporters who would follow in her footsteps.

Learn the Words, People, and Expressions:  

Death Whistle: Aztec artifacts found in burial sites, whistles carved with skulls that create a banshee like sound. 

Stela: (or stelae) are upright stone or wood carved slabs, used anciently as a monument, sometimes to mark a burial site

Women’s Suffrage: the right of women to vote in national and local elections

Emmeline Pankhurst: A British political activist who organized the British suffragette movement 

Alice Paul: An American women’s rights activist who aided in the passage of the 19th amendment, granting women the right to vote 

Woofits: a bought of melancholy or depression 

Harriet Chalmers Adams: A well-known American travel journalist and photographer. Most well known for her photographs and accounts of her journeys in National Geographic. 

Mr. S.S. McClure: Samuel Sidney McClure, an American publisher who was a pioneering figure in muckraking, or investigative reporting toward the aim to expose corruption and wrongdoing. 

McClure’s Magazine: A publication founded by S.S. McClure and John Sanborn Phillips. The publication was an illustrated monthly periodical and is considered the most prominent muckraking magazine of the Progressive Era.

Mellar: slang for melodramatic.

Ida Tarbell: Prolific American investigative journalist and biographer. She was a well-known muckraker and a leading reformer.  

Friar Gaspar de Carvajal: Spanish Dominican missionary to South America, who joined Francisco de Orellana’s expedition in 1540 as chaplain of the Amazon. His chronicles of his travels provided ethnographic information about the region at the time.  

Diana Watts: One of the first female instructors of the Japanese art of jujitsu in the West, particularly among suffragettes in Britain. 

Francisco de Orellana: Spanish explorer and conquistador, most well-known for being the first European to explore the Amazon River.