Original name Elizabeth Jane Cochran; changed last name to Cochrane in 1879; born May 5, 1864, in Cochran Mills, PA; died of pneumonia, January 27, 1922, in New York, NY; buried in Church of Ascension Cemetery, New York, NY; daughter of Michael (a self-made industrialist, and later a judge) and Mary Jane (Kennedy) Cochran; married Robert Livingston Seaman (a manufacturer), April 5, 1895 (died, 1904). Education: Attended Indiana State Normal School, Indiana, PA. Politics: Reformist.
Journalist, author, lecturer, and reformist. Pittsburgh Dispatch, Pittsburgh, PA, reporter, 1885- 87; New York World, New York City, reporter, 1887- 87, 1893-95; Chicago Times-Herald, Chicago, IL, reporter, 1895; New York Evening Journal, New York City, 1912-22. Owned and operated her husband's two companies after his death, c. 1904-14.
- Ten Days in a Mad-House; or Nellie Bly's Experience on Blackwell's Island. Feigning Insanity in order to Reveal Asylum Horrors, Munro (New York), 1887.
- Six Months in Mexico, Munro, 1888.
- The Mystery in Central Park, G. W. Dillingham (New York), 1889.
- Nellie Bly's Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, Pictorial Weeklies (New York), 1890.
Also author of Outline of Bible Theology! Exacted from a Letter by a Lady to the New York World of 2nd June, 1889.
One of the most famous of America's early investigative reporters, Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, writing under the pen name Nellie Bly, set the standard for investigative reporting in the era of "yellow journalism." Today she is best known for her reportorial stunts. Among her many extraordinary feats of "undercover" reporting, her most famous exploit is the time that she had herself committed to an insane asylum to report first hand on conditions there. Her most popular stunt, however, was her race around the world in seventy-two days. She undertook this trip in order to beat the fictional record of Jules Verne's character, Phileas Fogg (he made the trip in eighty days).
But Bly's contribution to American letters and to social activism were far more profound than these stunts might indicate. Bly's career began by accident: In January of 1885 she wrote a letter in response to a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch that caught the eye of managing editor George Madden, who hired her on as that paper's first woman reporter. Though her first few articles were devoted to the deplorable conditions endured by women of the working class, they earned her the enmity of leaders in the local business and political communities. Lea Ann Brown, writing for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, noted that "[f]actory owners and civic leaders exerted pressure on [publisher] Madden to stop Bly." She was soon assigned to more traditional "women's" stories about society and fashion.
Disgruntled, Bly left the staff of the Dispatch in November of 1885 to pursue a freelance career. Soon she was submitting a series of pieces about conditions in Mexico, recounting her adventures on a trip she took to that country (the articles ran in the Dispatch and were later collected in her first book, Six Months in Mexico, 1888). Once again, however, she ran afoul of powerful interests--in this case, the Mexican government, about which she had written critically--and was forced to leave. Upon her return to the United States in October of 1886, Bly briefly resumed her position on the Dispatch, but soon moved on to New York City, where she hoped to be taken on at the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer's publication.
Ultimately, she succeeded, finally meeting a publisher who could appreciate her taste for expose-writing. Pulitzer's stated objective was to make the World into a "journal dedicated to the cause of the people . . . that will expose all fraud and sham, fight all public evils and abuses," as stated by Brown. Upon joining the World, Bly finally established her place in the world of journalism. Bly's first real assignment was one that she herself had chosen. She proposed going undercover to report on the treatment of the indigent insane. Taking the name of Nellie Brown, she succeeded in having herself committed to Blackwell's Island, where she remained for ten days, at considerable risk to herself, until her newspaper secured her release. Her reports on the appalling conditions she found there were initially published in installments and later collected into a book (Ten Days in a Mad-House, 1887). The articles, which inspired major reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill, were picked up by all the major papers of the nation, making her name a household word across America.
By followed up on this success with further stunts, including passing herself off as a servant (to explore the working conditions endured by domestic laborers), an expose of white slavery, and an inquiry into political corruption in Albany, New York. Not all of her contributions to journalism were focused on the seamy side of life, however. She wrote about the Oneida Community, a utopian religious sect, and published interviews with notables of her day, including Belva Lockwood (who was the Woman Suffrage Party's candidate for president). But exposing corruption and social wrongs were the mainstay of her career, as she reported on everything from con artists to baby-selling rings.
In November of 1889 she embarked on the greatest stunt of her career--her famous race around the world, inspired by the Jules Verne tale Around the World in Eight Days. Upon her return in January, 1990, she left reporting for a time to hit the lecture circuit, but by 1893 she was back on the staff of the World. Her published interviews with Emma Goldman, a prominent anarchist, and Eugene Debs, the Socialist leader of the railroad union, added to her renown. Bly's career left her little time for a personal life, although there are some mentions made in the biographical literature to two gentlemen: Erasmus Wilson, with whom Bly worked in Pittsburgh, and James Metcalf, a New York editor who worked on Life magazine. The demands of her career and her success in landing plum assignments that her male colleagues desired both worked against the possibility of her having anything resembling a conventional romantic life.
In 1895, all that changed. Bly left the World to (briefly) join the staff of the Chicago Times-Herald, but left that position to marry millionaire industrialist Robert Livingston Seaman. Married life could not keep her out of journalism for long, however; she was back in New York in January of 1896. By this point, her investigative focus was firmly fixed on women's issues. Laurie Delaney noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that she "used her column to criticize [her husband] by discussing what a good husband should be like. She covered the National Woman Suffrage Convention in Washington. . . . By March [of 1896] she was proposing to form an army of women to fight in . . . the Spanish-American War." That would be her last published piece for sixteen years.
After her long hiatus, she joined the New York Evening Journal in 1912. Two years later, however, facing legal problems arising out of interests she had inherited from her husband (he died in 1904), Bly fled to Vienna--just in time to witness the outbreak of World War I. Her reportage from the front lines was carried by the Evening Journal. After the war her career wound down, and her pieces for the Evening Journal were mostly advice columns, but her social activism remained vibrant as she devoted her time to helping the poor and finding adoptive homes for orphans. When she died in 1922 her lifetime of achievement was rewarded with the acclaim of her peers.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
- Brooke Kroeger, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist, Times Books, 1994.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 25: American Newspaper Journalists, 1901-1925, Gale, 1984.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 189: American Travel Writers, 1850-1915, Gale, 1998.
- Encyclopedia of World Biography, Gale, 1998.
- Erlich, Elizabeth, Nellie Bly, Chelsea House, 1989.
- Ross, Isabel, Ladies of the Press, Arno Press, 1974.*