Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran (she later added an “e” to the end of her name) on May 5, 1864, in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, she was a Famed investigative journalist. The town that she was born in was founded by her father, Michael Cochran, who amply provided for his family by working as a judge and landowner. Her grandfather had immigrated to America from Ireland in the 1790s. Bly’s mother was Michael Cochran’s second wife, Mary Jane Cochran; their marriage produced five children, the third of which was Bly. (Prior to their union, Michael and Mary Jane were both widowed. Michael had 10 children by his first wife; Mary Jane had no children from her first marriage.)
Bly suffered a tragic loss in 1870, at the age of 6, when her father died suddenly. Amidst their grief, Michael Cochran’s death presented a grave financial detriment to his family, as he left them without a will, and, thus, no legal claim to his estate.
In an effort to support her now-single mother, Bly enrolled at the Indiana Normal School, a small college in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where she studied to become a teacher. However, not long after beginning her courses there, financial constraints forced Bly to table her hopes for a higher education. After leaving the school, she moved with her mother to the nearby city of Pittsburgh, where, together, they ran a boarding house.
Bly’s future finally began to look brighter in the early 1880s, when, at the age of 18, she submitted a racy response to an editorial piece that had been published in The Pittsburgh Dispatch. In the piece, writer Erasmus Wilson (known to Dispatch readers as the “Quiet Observer,” or Q.O.) claimed that women were best served in the home, conducting domestic duties such as raising children, cooking and cleaning, and called the working woman “a monstrosity.” Aghast by Wilson’s sexist statements, it didn’t take long for Bly to craft her fiery rebuttal. Bly’s letter grabbed the attention of the paper’s managing editor, George Madden, who, in turn, offered her a position.
Working as a reporter (beginning in 1885) for The Pittsburgh Dispatch at a rate of $5 per week—and taking on the pen name by which she’s best known, after the Stephen Foster song “Nelly Bly” [sic]—Bly expanded upon the negative consequences of sexist ideologies and emphasized the importance of women’s rights issues. She also became renowned for her investigative and undercover reporting, including posing as a sweatshop worker to expose poor working conditions faced by women. However, Bly became increasingly limited in her work at The Pittsburgh Dispatch after her editors moved her to the paper’s women’s page, and aspired to find a more meaningful career.
In 1887, Bly relocated to New York City, where she began working for the newspaper New York World, the publication that would later become famously known for spearheading “yellow journalism.”
Asylum Exposé: One of Bly’s earliest assignments at the paper was to author a piece detailing the experiences endured by patients of the infamous mental institution on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) in New York City. In an effort to most accurately expose the conditions at the asylum, she pretended to be a mental patient in order to be committed to the facility, where she lived for 10 days.
Bly’s exposé, published in the World soon after her return to reality, was a massive success. The piece shed light on a number of disturbing conditions at the facility, including neglect and physical abuse, and ultimately spurred a large-scale investigation of the institution as well as much-needed improvements in health care. Later in 1887, Bly’s series was later reprinted as a book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, published in New York City by Ian L. Munro.
Led by New York Assistant District Attorney Vernon M. Davis, with Bly assisting, the asylum investigation resulted in a number of changes in New York City’s Department of Public Charities and Corrections (later split into separate agencies, the Department of Correction and the Department of Public Charities), which oversees the city’s hospitals; these changes (per the recommendations of jury members in 1888) included a larger appropriation of funds for the care of mentally ill patients, additional physician appointments for stronger supervision of nurses and other health-care workers.
In 1895, at the age of 30, Bly married millionaire industrialist Robert Seaman, who was 40 years her senior, and subsequently became legally known as Elizabeth Jane Cochrane Seaman (in full). Also around this time, she retired from journalism, and by all accounts the couple enjoyed a happy marriage. Upon her husband’s death, she took the helm of his Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. During her time there, she obtained a patent for a 55-gallon oil drum, which evolved into the standard used today. While in charge of the company, Bly put her social reforms into action and Iron Clad employees enjoyed several perks unheard of at the time: fitness gyms, libraries and healthcare. Ultimately, the costs of these benefits began to mount and drain her inheritance. Faced with such dwindling finances, Bly consequently reentered the newspaper industry. She began working for the New York Journal in 1920 and reported on numerous stories, including ones about the growing women’s suffrage movement.
Just two years after reviving her writing career, on January 27, 1922, Nellie Bly died from pneumonia in New York City. She was 57 years old.