WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
MAJOR POSITIONS HELD
- Reporter, Pittsburgh Dispatch (1885-1887), New York World (1887-1895), New York Journal (1919-1922).
- Ten Days in a Mad-house; or, Nellie Bly's Experience on Blackwell's Island (New York: Munro, 1887).
- Six Months in Mexico (New York: Lovell, 1888).
- Nellie Bly's Book: Around the World in Seventy-two Days (New York: Pictorial Weeklies, 1890).
Nellie Bly is a part of American folklore--a larger-than-life figure who beat Jules Verne 's fictional character Phileas Fogg around the world. But traveling the circumference of the globe in seventy-two days is not the only reason she is noteworthy: she was a woman reporter in the male-dominated 1880s; her first-person writing style was uncommon in the newspapers of the period; her investigative methods were also atypical, but her experiences in factories, with the insane, and on the stage enabled her to write stories that caught the interest of the average person. Her articles not only increased circulation for her newspapers but also enlightened an ignorant public and helped initiate reforms.
Entering the world as Elizabeth Cochran, she was the third child of Michael Cochran's marriage to Mary Jane Kennedy. She was born and raised in Cochran's Mill, Pennsylvania, a town her father had founded. She learned to take care of herself in a male-dominated world by competing with six older brothers (three of them half-brothers). Her father, a judge, was an important influence even though he died during her childhood. Except for one year of boarding school, Cochran was self-educated, drawing her knowledge from his personal library and his own writings. The young girl also had a strong feminine role model in her mother; Mrs. Cochran's instruction in proper social conduct is the most likely explanation for later descriptions of her daughter that always noted her femininity, her manners, and the correctness of her dress. She may have been a reporter, but she was also a lady.
Cochran took her first step toward a writing career when she persuaded her mother to move from Apollo, Pennsylvania, their home since shortly before her father's death, to Pittsburgh in the mid-1880s. But writing was a man's job, and Cochran encountered continual rejection as she attempted to find work. These obstacles forced them to find cheaper lodging; in a matter of months, mother and daughter went from renting in the city's fashionable districts to sharing lodging with women from the shops and factories. Although she could have become as workworn as the women with whom she was living, luck intervened to keep Cochran out of the schoolroom and out of the clutches of wealthy old ladies who needed companions. As she was considering these positions, the Pittsburgh Dispatch ran an editorial, "What Girls Are Good For," denouncing the practice of hiring women in shops and offices.
The piece brought Cochran's anger forward in a caustic reply directed to the managing editor, George A. Madden. This reply has been lost, but it must have been well written because Madden ran a classified ad asking the author to write to him. Madden assumed the writer was a man. Knowing this, Cochran signed her first response "E. Cochrane," adding a final e to her surname which she retained thereafter. Madden requested a second article: "Girls and Their Spheres in Life." Knowing the attitude of most of his readers, Madden had not printed Cochrane's angry retort to the editorial, but he ran this second article as presenting the other side of the issue. He directed a second letter to the writer about the possibility of "E. Cochrane" working for the Dispatch. He got an answer he never expected: Cochrane showed up at his desk to accept his offer. Surprise at discovering that Cochrane was a woman did not keep Madden from giving her another assignment. Her second article for the Dispatch was on a topic she chose herself: divorce. Her skillful handling of what in 1885 was a sensitive issue secured her official employment by the newspaper--the first woman on the Dispatch.
There are two versions of how Elizabeth Cochrane adopted her famous pen name. The first gives Cochrane credit for quick thinking as she was persuading Madden to accept her piece on divorce: the editor wanted her to use a pen name; Erasmus Wilson, his assistant, was humming the popular Stephen Foster song "Nellie Bly," and Cochrane seized upon it. The second gives all the credit to Madden: he had made inquiries, learned of Cochrane's old family name, and decided it would be improper to link the family with commentary on divorce; this time an unidentified office boy was the whistler who gave Madden the idea. The choice proved to be symbolic: the girl in the song uses a broom to "sweep de kitchen clean"; Nellie Bly the reporter used her writing to clean up abuse and corruption.
Cochrane's first crusade was a series of articles describing the slums of Pittsburgh, with special emphasis on the conditions of working-class women--the very women among whom she and her mother were living. Her writing brought the stories of these faceless factory laborers into the homes of the middle and upper classes, fanning a spark that led to a public outcry to end the starvation, filth, and despair she reported. Even as she was channeling interest into finding solutions for the problems of the poor, the public's fascination with the identity of Nellie Bly was gaining momentum; the question of her gender was a popular topic for speculation. The preservation of her anonymity by the Dispatch had a twofold purpose: the curiosity of the reading public to find out who Nellie Bly really was boosted circulation, and she would be more successful as an investigator if she was not easily recognized.
Not all readers were cheering Nellie on, however. Factory owners and civic leaders exerted pressure on Madden to stop Bly, and he finally gave in. During the early part of 1886, Bly went to the opera, the theater, and any society affair that came along. Cochrane resented being restricted to such innocuous events and demanded to be allowed to do more feature stories. She finally got two assignments she wanted: she interviewed the warden of Western Penitentiary, a modern facility for its time, and she returned to the factories. Again the city leaders forced Madden to reassign her to "safer" stories.
Even as the business community attempted to have her silenced, her peers acknowledged her work: she was the first woman invited to join the fledgling Pittsburgh Press Club. But even with that honor, she was becoming discouraged by the restrictions being placed on her. She convinced Madden to send her to Mexico: reports in the Mexican press did not always correspond with the stories done by American writers living there, and Cochrane took this inconsistency as an invitation to do some digging of her own; besides, the trip would get her out of Pittsburgh. She traveled to Mexico with her mother accompanying her as chaperone. Mrs. Cochran endured the trip until they reached Mexico City. Frightened by the strange surroundings and ill from the food, Mrs. Cochran allowed her daughter to send her home--defying conventions of the period that frowned on unescorted women. Cochrane was left to begin an investigative series that lasted for six months, drawing the sharp contrast between the rich enjoying their Parisian luxuries and the masses who slept, hungry, in the streets. She learned both Spanish and the common people's Mexican dialect. She met and traveled with Hoosier poet Joaquin Miller , who was doing investigations of his own. Miller dubbed her "Little Nell, the second Columbus."
Cochrane was allowed to travel freely throughout Mexico. She explored small villages and documented the extent of marijuana use among the males. She also reported the executions of Americans. Although she was aware of the Mexican government's power to censure her for negative commentaries, she wrote an exposé denouncing President Porfirio Díaz and his immediate predecessor, Manuel Gonzáles, for improperly receiving money from the national lottery. She also raised the possibility of an impending revolution and admonished the powerful elite for its denial of freedom of expression. When this article made it back to Mexico, she was criticized in the press, and she received a threatening note. Recognizing that her freedom to work was finished, she formulated a plan that would get both her and her notes out of the country. Secret police were her constant companions as she put on a grand show of buying souvenirs, lingerie, and a traveling costume from the latest Parisian fashions. Back in her hotel room she hid her notes under the gaudy mementos in her suitcase. On the day of her departure, she dressed herself in the alluring outfit and marched out into the street to summon a hansom cab to take her to the station. Her acting ability came to her rescue that day as it would time and time again: the secret police surrounded her before she could board the cab; appealing directly to their leader, she prattled out a story about buying "ladies' things" for friends back home. He personally escorted her to the train, delivering her luggage to the conductor with instructions that it not be searched. It was not until the train arrived in El Paso that she was sure her ruse had worked. Her material wound up on the pages of the Dispatch and not in the hands of the Mexican government.
Cochrane's return to Pittsburgh was shortlived. She was convinced that she was ready for a new challenge--New York. With less than $100, her personal clipping file, and her belief in herself, Cochrane left Pittsburgh in the summer of 1887 to confront the New York press. She wanted to be a reporter on Park Row, home of the New York Times, the Herald, the Tribune, the Sun, and Joseph Pulitzer's World. The World and Pulitzer had been together less than five years when Cochrane darkened the newspaper's office lobby that summer. Since his first edition on 10 May 1883, Pulitzer had built a newspaper strong in both reputation and subscriber support. His objective for the World he had printed in that first issue: it was to be a "journal dedicated to the cause of the people rather than that of the purse potentates ... that will expose all fraud and sham, fight all public evils and abuses--that will serve and battle for the people with earnest simplicity." Cochrane's stories fit into this philosophy perfectly, although Pulitzer would not know that until she told him; but despite repeated attempts to meet Pulitzer or managing editor John A. Cockerill , for the first few months she talked to no one but a copy boy.
She was pushed into achieving victory or admitting defeat and returning home when she was mugged and robbed of all her savings in Central Park. Her last attempt was a three-hour siege--she waited until the men in the city room were all arguing about what to do with her and then walked past them into Pulitzer's office. Her first meeting with the publisher and managing editor of the World was uncomfortable for all three, but something appealed to the two men as it had appealed to Madden when she barged into his office. There was always determination in her voice and purpose in her words. When she suggested an investigative piece about the treatment of patients in the asylum on Blackwell's Island, she aroused their reluctant interest. After more persuading, she obtained their support for the story and a $25 advance on her salary. The one stipulation of their unwritten agreement was that once she started the assignment she must conclude the job; the World would not be party to any stunt that could backfire in humiliation.
Cochrane became "Nellie Brown" as the first step in her penetration of Blackwell's Island. She haphazardly chose a shabby lodging house, "The Temporary Home for Females," from which to launch her assignment. She had left home with seventy-three cents; the room cost thirty cents. She fabricated a story for the matron of the rooming house about being from Cuba, using the Spanish she had learned in Mexico to give credibility to her story. The hours she had spent practicing facial expressions in the mirror she put to use from the moment she entered the house: she wore a dreamy expression during her interview with the matron; for her first meal with her new peers, she projected a frightened look into her eyes. Never one to procrastinate about getting a job started, Cochrane staged her first episode of illogical behavior during supper that first night. She began by shaking, contorting her face, and running from the table to a corner of the sitting room; she responded to questions in broken Spanish. The matron attempted to control the situation by excusing her behavior as travel fatigue. When the woman attempted to lead her back to her room, Cochrane reacted violently, demanding that they let her go home. Then she began ranting about a pistol. As the hours of the night passed, the other lodgers took turns watching the performance Cochrane was giving. The next day her acting convinced a judge, newsmen, and a panel of doctors that Nellie Brown was insane and gained her access to the Bellevue insane pavilion, the first stop for patients bound for Blackwell's Island. Once inside the pavilion, she found several of the victims she had come to write about: there was Anne Neville, sick in body but not in mind; and Mrs. Shanz, old and displaced but hardly insane. Cochrane documented that the structure was a dangerous firetrap, that the routine contributed to physical and mental discomfort. She was locked up in the pavilion on a Tuesday; it was Sunday before she was reexamined. Again she feigned the symptoms of insanity, and again she was successful. On Sunday, 25 September 1887, she was committed to Blackwell's Island Madhouse with the diagnosis of "dementia with delusions of persecution."
She was transferred by ambulance, manned by a drunken attendant, to the Blackwell's Island barge docked at the East River, and finally delivered into the confines of the madhouse itself. She witnessed the inadequate provisions of food and clothing for the patients; she found herself subjected to ice-cold baths; she encountered filth everywhere as people were forced to use the same bath water, linens, and hair combs. From the moment she had set foot in the madhouse, she had discarded her charade; but despite her "normal" behavior, she was never reexamined. She continually protested the rough treatment given to other inmates, but she never pushed the nurses to the point that they would have her sent to the "Retreat" or to the "Lodge," the sections reserved for violent patients. She relied on second-hand accounts of the abuse that the patients in these wards received from the attendants. She was convinced that beatings and ice-cold baths were not warranted under any circumstances. Although she was learning more about the horrors of institutional life every day, Cochrane began to worry about the preservation of her own sanity. Ten days after her commitment to Blackwell's Island, the World obtained her release. Following her return to freedom, she wrote a narrative that initiated a formal inquiry and a grand jury investigation. Blackwell's Island, "the human rat-trap, easy to get into, impossible to get out of," was given $3,000,000 to implement changes, and Cochrane was given a regular reporting job on the World.
Employment bureaus' fees and tactics for matching domestic servants and employers were the focus of her next crusade. Cochrane argued for regulation to protect both the employer and the employee from the unscrupulous agencies; her articles were the basis of one of the first public outcries for fair labor practices. Mistreatment of female prisoners, poor working conditions in New York factories, and the false promises of expensive "educational" programs directed at simple factory girls were other targets for her untiring pen.
Cochrane's life seems to have been totally taken up by her work as a reporter. No biographical accounts mention even one close female friend. Her chances for romance, too, seem to have occurred very infrequently: Erasmus Wilson, Madden's assistant in Pittsburgh, and James Metcalf, the editor of Life in New York, are the only two men given any space in the major biographies. During her years in New York, she did enjoy a brief period of parties and attention from colleagues in the press, but her fun was abruptly ended when she was assigned to a big political story--an assignment the men on the staff wanted.
Cochrane was assigned to investigate the activities of "the Fox," Edward R. Phelps, the "king of the lobbyists." Phelps was suspected of being involved in every dishonest project throughout the state, but no one had been able to prove the allegations. Cochrane, masquerading as the wife of a patent medicine manufacturer, called on Phelps and asked him to kill a legislative bill that would eliminate the sale of quack remedies in the state; she indicated she was willing to pay $2,000 for his help. Acting the part of the innocent, ignorant female, she arranged to meet Phelps in his New York office to give him a check for helping her--a check he instructed her to make payable to a relative of his. Cochrane persuaded Phelps to give her a receipt, and only then "discovered" that she had left her checkbook in her hotel room. Phelps agreed to meet her at the hotel; but Cochrane went straight to the newsroom, where she began writing her exposé even while the corrupt lobbyist was waiting for her in the lobby of the Hotel St. James. Her article on Phelps's involvement in graft resulted in a public outcry for honesty in government. The same piece ended the camaraderie between Cochrane and the male reporters: she had overstepped her bounds by getting involved in lobby politics. Hurt by their rejection, she poured her heart into more stories about slums, tenements, and public health.
She exposed herself to malaria, yellow fever, tuberculosis, and cholera to get stories; her articles invited the wrath and retribution of factory owners, shop proprietors, and shady public officials. But occasionally, the lighter side of life would find its way into her writing: she took readers with her as she made unsuccessful attempts to perform in a ballet and a stage show; she helped to rid New York of a clever beggar who would scatter bread crusts and, when a likely handout walked by, would pretend to eat the crusts; she ended the career of a Central Park "masher" by describing the way he approached girls.
Her position and reputation gained her entrance to the homes of President Harrison's cabinet members to interview their wives. She also talked with widows of former presidents and with Belva Lockwood, the presidential candidate on the Woman Suffrage ticket. Cochrane had never associated herself with the suffragettes, even though every battle she had fought and won had been applauded by the members of the movement. Just as people were always surprised at Cochrane's femininity, she was surprised by Mrs. Lockwood's: "Mrs. Lockwood does not look like the cuts newspapers have published of her ... She is a womanly woman; what greater praise can one give her?" When Mrs. Lockwood learned of Cochrane's addiction to work without the benefits of leisure, she advised her to look for friends and to learn to need people. This advice might have had a more immediate effect, but work once again was given the center ring in Cochrane's life. Her request to go around the world faster than Jules Verne 's Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) was approved by Pulitzer.
For the stunt to be a success, it had to be kept an absolute secret until it was underway. When the word finally came that she was scheduled to leave for England on the Augusta Victoria, she had only two days to prepare for the trip, but not much preparation was required. If she attempted to travel with trunks, she would be continually delayed. Her entire traveling wardrobe consisted of two dresses, a coat, and three ghillie caps; everything else, from needles and thread to pencils, paper, and a nightgown, were folded into one carry-on bag. At exactly six seconds past 9:40 on the morning of 14 November 1889, Cochrane left American soil. She promised to be back in seventy-five days. After she was at sea, the World broke the story. Nellie Bly once again caught the imagination of the American people, and circulation climbed as people clamored to know of her progress. The crossing was extremely rough, but after docking at Southampton and taking a tugboat to London, she had some exciting news from the World correspondent who met her: Jules Verne had heard about her trip and wanted to meet her. She immediately rearranged her plans to include a side trip to Amiens, France.
Her route from London took her across the English Channel to Calais, France, and then 179 1/2 miles on her excursion between Amiens and Calais. Verne was delighted with Cochrane even if he had doubts about her achieving the task she had set for herself. Back in Calais, she caught the mail train to Brindisi, Italy, where she purchased passage to cross the Mediterranean Sea. During this part of her journey, the nation's fascination with her grew: there was a national contest to guess how long it would actually take her, and all types of speculation about "who is Nellie Bly?" found its way into print. The World gave readers stories on these related topics when they did not know where Cochrane was; cables at that time were not efficient enough to keep the editors informed of her precise location.
From Brindisi, she made her way to Port Said, Egypt, on the Pacific and Oriental steamer Victoria, arriving on the afternoon of 27 November. The Suez Canal, she wrote, "is an enormous ditch enclosed on either side with high sandbanks." The trip through the man-made waterway took twenty-four hours. The Victoria dropped anchor in the Bay of Suez where, Cochrane was told, the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. The next morning the Victoria made her way onto the Red Sea, paused at Aden, and continued to Colombo, Ceylon, where Cochrane was to take the steamer Oriental to China; she was forced to wait, however, for the arrival of the steamer Nepal before they could leave. After all the connections were resolved, the Oriental departed, introducing Cochrane first to Penang or Prince of Wales Island and two days later to Singapore, where she bought a monkey. They sailed out of Singapore into a monsoon but arrived in Hong Kong safely. Cochrane's impressions of the East were not favorable: she reported that she found poverty and despair everywhere. While touring the East she learned that another female reporter had left the day after she sailed from New Jersey, going the other way, and was ahead. Devastated but determined, Cochrane decided to finish her trip, win or lose. After spending Christmas in China, the Oriental took her to Yokohama, Japan. She wrote that the Japanese had taken the best of European culture and combined it with their own with brilliant success. She sailed for home on 7 January.
Storms continued to plague the voyage. The sailors blamed the bad weather on Cochrane's pet monkey, calling it a jinx, but she refused to throw the animal overboard. The ship finally docked in San Francisco--sixty-eight days after Cochrane had left New Jersey. Another obstacle was averted when she was given a special medical clearance while health officials tried to determine how long the ship should be quarantined because of rumors of smallpox. Her trip across the continent took four days, and at exactly 3:51 P.M. on 25 January 1890 she was back in Hoboken, New Jersey: she had traveled around the world in seventy-two days, six hours, ten minutes, and eleven seconds. And she had done it first: the other reporter, Elizabeth Brisland of Cosmopolitan magazine, required seventy-six days to make her trip.
Cochrane's trip made her a star, and life became a routine of parties, concerts, and evenings with the wealthy. Cochrane was now wealthy in her own right, earning over $20,000 per year; she no longer went to the slums to get stories, but she did continue to write about rights for working people and similar themes in a Sunday column that she pioneered. Her interview subjects included the socialists Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman .
But still she was looking for more: she was in need of the human companionship Mrs. Lockwood had advised her to look for. Cochrane found that need fulfilled by seventy-two-year-old millionaire bachelor Robert Seaman, president and owner of the Ironclad Manufacturing Company, a prosperous hardware firm. They were married 5 April 1895, and Cochrane took on the roles of wife and hostess until Seaman's death in 1904. She then tried to manage his business, but eventually lost her entire fortune. She spent World War I in Austria, where she had gone to escape her financial problems. In 1919 she returned home penniless.
A friend from the World, Arthur Brisbane , had moved to the Evening Journal and gave her a job. But it was not the same: women were becoming more and more accepted in the field; the public was no longer responsive to her type of crusading stories. She had spent most of her life alone, and she died alone, of pneumonia, on 22 January 1922 in St. Mark's Hospital. She was buried in the Church of the Ascension cemetery in New York. There were no headlines to salute her passing and only modest obituaries, but the Journal paid her a compliment she would have been proud of: "She was considered the best reporter in America."
Cochrane's entire reporting career lasted only a little over ten years, but she earned more fame for herself than many other journalists who work at their typewriters for four and five times as long. If she had not been connected with Joseph Pulitzer, who supported her ideas, she probably would not have been as successful; but her ability to convince the man who could most effectively help her in her career that she was capable of carrying out her plans was another facet of her talent. A champion of the downtrodden and abused, Cochrane was so preoccupied with her work that she had little time left to develop relationships with her own peers. She may in fact have chosen work as an escape from having to deal with people on a personal level: Cochrane could handle people as long as they were sources for stories from whom she could remain detached. So she lived her life alone except for her nine-year marriage to Seaman. She made strides for women in journalism but refused to align herself with the suffragettes. She returned to the newspaper world because she was broke, only to find herself outdated. Her success as a reporter gave her neither personal happiness nor security, but it did leave history with a colorful character.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- Nina Brown Baker, Nellie Bly (New York: Holt, 1956).
- Mignon Rittenhouse, The Amazing Nellie Bly (New York: Dutton, 1956).
- Iris Noble, Nellie Bly, First Woman Reporter (New York: Messner, 1957).
- Mignon Rittenhouse, "They Called her the Amazing Nellie Bly," Good Housekeeping (February 1955): 48-51.
- Ishbel Ross, Ladies of the Press (New York: Harper, 1936).