Nellie Bly’s birth name was Elizabeth Jane Cochran. She was born in Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania on May 5, 1864. Her father was Judge Michael Cochran and her mother was Mary Jane Cochran. Her family was rather well off, but unfortunately, her father died when she was only six years old. The judge did not leave a will and so his wife and child were given none of his property. The entire estate was sold at auction. Faced with financial instability, Mary Jane remarried shortly after her husband’s death so that she and her daughter would be provided for.
Mary Jane’s new husband was an abusive drunk. After being married to him for several years, she decided to seek a divorce from him. Her daughter Elizabeth testified in court on her mother’s behalf, and the two were eventually free of him. However, this terrible situation left them in the same position of financial instability that they were in years before. Young Elizabeth sought an education at the Indiana Normal school when she was fifteen. Unfortunately she was only able to afford one semester and was forced to return home. Roughly three years later, she got the big break that she needed. She would be able to support herself and, oftentimes, her mother for most of the rest of her life.
When Elizabeth was eighteen years old, she read an editorial by Erasmus Wilson that she found to be offensively sexist. She decided to write an anonymous letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch under the pseudonym, “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, George Madden, enjoyed the letter and decided to run an ad in the Sunday edition, asking the “Lonely Orphan Girl” to reveal herself. The Monday after the ad ran, Elizabeth went to the paper’s offices and was given a job writing for them. Her first assignment was a formal reply to the sexist editorial that had angered her. She was soon given a full time position, but she needed a professional pen name. She chose Nellie Bly.
Nellie mainly worked on women’s and human rights pieces. She often went undercover in unsavory environments to get her stories. She reported on the mistreatment of women and children in professional situations, among other things. Eventually her work caught the attention of the people that she was writing about, who also happened to advertise in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. In an effort to smooth things over with their advertisers, the Dispatch decided to put her on some less inflammatory assignments, but Nellie Bly would have none of it.
Instead of taking her new assignments, Nellie Bly traveled to Mexico for about six months between 1886 and 1887. While there, she took notice of the poverty that was rampant in the country and the corrupt government that was exacerbating the already troubled situation. She decided to write about it and send those articles to the U.S. to be published. The daring woman was kicked out of the country for her efforts.
When Nellie came back from Mexico, she decided to go to New York City and try her luck there. She was there for about six months before she finally got her big break. She interviewed with the managing editor at the New York World, who was impressed with her. The man gave her $25 for her promise to remain available for the New York World until he could speak with the paper’s owner, Joseph Pulitzer, about employing her full time. Nellie Bly was put on staff at the New York World in September of 1887. She did dangerous undercover work for the paper, including having herself admitted to an insane asylum so she could reveal the atrocities occurring there.
In 1888 the executives of the paper came up with the idea to send a man around the world in eighty days, like the Jules Verne character, Phileas Fogg. When Nellie heard of this, she fought so that she could be the reporter who got that assignment. She even stated that she would do it in less time for another publication if they didn’t give the job to her. She began her trip on November 14, 1889. She wrote about her trip daily and her journal of the events was published in the New York World during her absence. She made the trip in 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds.
Nellie believed that she should have been given a bonus for increasing the paper’s sales, but she received nothing. So, she resigned from the New York World for a time, but she eventually returned in 1893 and picked up her habit of writing about women’s rights again. However, she abandoned her life as a reporter to marry Robert Livingstone Seaman on April 15, 1895. Robert was ten years older than Bly and a millionaire business owner. The couple was married for ten years before Robert died.
Nellie took over her husband’s businesses upon his death and instigated many changes within them. She began offering health care, physical fitness programs and libraries to her employees. Unfortunately, she wasn’t very business savvy and so the businesses eventually went bankrupt in her care. She went to Europe in 1914 to get away from her failure and while she was there, WWI began. Bly immediately went back to her old ways and began reporting what she saw there. She did this for five years until she received news that her mother was ill. She returned home in the year 1919.
After returning home, Bly began working for the New York World again. Three years later, the world lost this talented reporter forever. On January 27, 1922, Elizabeth Jane Cochran, a.k.a Nellie Bly died of pneumonia at 8:35 a.m. She was fifty-seven years old.
Reuben, Paul, PAL: Perspectives in American Literature A Research and Reference Guide - An Ongoing Project, Chapter 6: Nellie Bly, retrieved 11/12/09
Women of the Hall, Nelly Bly, retrieved 11/12/09, https://www.womenofthehall.org/inductee/elizabeth-jane-cochran/