Nellie Bly – Pioneering Investigative Journalist

Nellie Bly Journalist

NELLIE BLY (Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) was a pioneering nineteenth century journalist who was attributed with being instrumental in developing what today is popularly known as the fields of investigative journalism and undercover reporting.

Elizabeth Jane Cochrane (who would later be better known for her writing pseudonym Nellie Bly) began her career in her early 20´s. Originally studying to be a teacher, because of financial reasons she gave up her studies to assist her mother in the running of a boarding house

One day Elizabeth read an article in a local newspaper entitled ‘What Girls Are Good For.’ According to this commentary, girls and women were considered to be good for nothing.

Joseph Pulitzer                                                               Image Joseph Pulitizer. Via Wikipedia

Pittsburgh_Dispatch_BuildingEnraged by what she had read in the article a young Miss Cochrane decided to contact the newspaper. She wrote a letter directly to Erasmus Wilson, author of the post. Her letter caught the attention of managing editor George Madden, who tracked her down and offered her a position which she accepted.

During her time at The Pittsburgh Dispatch she was somewhat stifled by the range of topics that she could cover which was very limited, as she could only write about topics suitable for so-called women´s pages. It was in this period that Elizabeth would acquire the nickname of Nellie Bly which she would be better known for. Writing about fashion, cooking and gardening was not satisfying for Elizabeth so in 1887 she decided to quit her job and move to New York.

“I was too impatient to work at the usual duties assigned women on newspapers,” said Elizabeth of her time.

In the city she contacted Joseph Pulitzer, the Hungarian born publisher who would be responsible for establishing what today is one of the most prestigious awards in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize.


It was Pulitzer who challenged Elizabeth with the peculiar task to feign insanity to get inside the Women’s Lunatic Asylum.

“Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did,” said Elizabeth.

Elizabeth took her task very seriously. In order to prove able to keep up the pretence she started to practise her ’insane woman’ role. Soon enough she ended up where she intended in the Blackwell Island Asylum.

“I always had a desire to know asylum life more thoroughly – a desire to be convinced that the most helpless of God’s creatures, the insane, were cared for kindly and properly,” said Elizabeth.

Declared to be undoubtedly insane, she now had the opportunity to experience conditions of the asylum at first hand. Results were far worse than she could ever had expected. Neglect and physical abuse, dirty undrinkable water, spoiled food, waste with feces all around the place and hundreds of rats were the everyday reality for people who were not able to defend themselves.

“They were being driven to a prison, through no fault of their own, in all probability for life. In comparison, how much easier it would be to walk to the gallows than to this tomb of living horrors!” said Elizabeth.

Integrating with the patients, Elizabeth witnessed daily beatings, patients tied together with ropes and doctors disinterested about patients. Speaking with her fellow patients she noticed that some of them were not more insane then she was. Many women coming from Europe had their inability to speak English mistaken by doctors for insanity.

“I have watched patients stand and gaze longingly toward the city they in all likelihood will never enter again. It means liberty and life; it seems so near, and yet heaven is not further from hell,” said Elizabeth.

Her exposé, published in the New York World was a massive success and public sensation. The piece showed the reality of US healthcare, spurred a big investigation process and series of improvements that lead to major reforms of the New York asylum system, including larger appropriation of funds, more physician appointments for mentally ill patients or stronger supervision by nurses, all which were the results of Elizabeth work. Soon after her post she wrote an entire book with illustrations named Ten Days in a Mad-House, published in 1887.

Nellie_Bly_journalistThe book would bring Nellie Bly lasting fame but success just pushed her to work harder. She followed her exposé to bring out a series of similar investigative pieces including corruption scandals, improper individual treatment in jails or bad workers conditions in factories. In 1888 she went on an epic long journey around the world attempting to replicate Jules Verne´s Around the World in Eighty Days.

“It is impossible for you to do it. In the first place you are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes. Besides you speak nothing but English, so there is no use talking about it; no one but a man can do this.”

“Very well, start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”

The journey resulted in her second, also very successful book ´Around in the World in Seventy-Two Days´ that brought her international fame and recognition.

Bly retired from journalism soon after she married a man 40 years older than her, the noted industrialist and millionaire Robert Seaman. After her husband’s death she inherited his business. However, poor management and employee embezzlement forced her company into bankruptcy. These events and lack of money made her re-enter the newspaper industry again. Two years after she started work for the City Journal Elizabeth Cochran died from pneumonia at the age of 57 on January 27, 1922 at St. Mark’s Hospital in New York City. “The best reporter in America,” wrote the New York Evening Standard a day after her death.

“Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything,”  (Nellie Bly)

The Complete Works of Nellie Bly

Ten Days in a Mad-House

The Daring Nellie Bly: America’s Star Reporter

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