Nellie Bly, Journalist

The crusading journalist known as Nellie Bly was a real-life heroine in every sense of the word.  Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864, she was the third child of a wealthy Pennsylvania judge and his second wife.  She was raised in comfort until the age of six, when her father died.  Unfortunately he left no will providing for his second family.  Elizabeth’s mother and her five children were thrown into poverty.

In desperation, her mother married an alcoholic who abused her. When she later filed for divorce, Elizabeth testified at the trial.  At fifteen, Elizabeth entered normal school, hoping to become a teacher and support her mother.  But with her family so poor, she was only able to attend one semester.  She then moved to Pittsburgh with her mother.  For seven years she helped run a boarding house, taking other work when she could find it.  She dreamed of becoming a writer.

That dream came true when she read a series of columns in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, from a popular writer who wrote that women belonged at home doing domestic tasks and called the working woman “a monstrosity.”  Elizabeth’s spirited rebuttal about the plight of women and girls who had to work so impressed the paper that they hired her and gave her the pen name “Nellie Bly” after the Stephen Foster song.  Her first story was about poor working girls.   Her second called for a reform of the state’s divorce laws.  The paper, however, wanted to confine her to the women’s page, writing about social events and fashion.  Bly convinced the editors to let her be a foreign correspondent in Mexico, where she sent back stories about the lives of the Mexican people.  On her return, however, she was again confined to the women’s page.  That was too much.  Nellie quit and struck out for New York.

After knocking on doors for six months, she talked her way into the office of the New York World.  The editor, possibly to brush her off, challenged her to write a story about the patients housed in a New York mental institution.  Impersonating a mad person, Nellie came back from Blackwell’s island ten days later with stories of beatings, ice cold baths and forced meals that included rancid butter.  Her story stirred the public and politicians and brought money and needed reforms to the institution.  At the age of 23, Nellie Bly had begun to pioneer a new kind of investigative journalism.

In the years that followed, she exposed corruption and injustice, always taking the side of the downtrodden.  Her fame also opened the doors of the rich and famous, and she profiled many celebrities of her time.  The peak of her fame came when she took a whirlwind trip around the world in 1889 to beat Phileas Fogg, the fictional hero of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days.”  Traveling by ship, train and Burro, she made it back to New York in a little over 72 days, cheered by huge crowds.

At the age of 30 Nellie Bly married a 70-year-old industrialist named Robert Seaman.  After his death ten years later she ran his business until it went bankrupt.  Then she turned back to reporting.  Picking up where she left off, she championed worthy causes, including finding homes for abandoned children.  She died from pneumonia in 1922, at the age of 57, after a life that would rival any work of fiction.

Nellie is one of my favorite real-life heroines.  Do you have your own favorites?

Elizabeth Lane
I'm an internationally published romance author, coming up on 40 novels and novellas. Most of my stories have been Westerns for Harlequin Historicals, but I set stories in other times and places as well. I'll also be writing contemporary stories for Harlequin Desire, with the first release in January 2013. You can learn more on my web site.
Updated: May 9, 2011 — 11:19 am

18 Comments

  1. Good morning everybody. Today my thoughts are with the real life heroes and heroines braving the hardships of floods and tornadoes around the country. Sending hopes for your health and safety.
    Elizabeth

  2. Good morning, Elizabeth. I’ve always known the name Nellie Bly but had never dug up her story. Thanks for a wonderful blog.

    My real life heroes are the families who “keep the home fires burning” while their loved ones are off defending our freedoms. Those are some amazing men and women…and children.

  3. I am so with you, Tracy. I’m amazed at how these families bear up under the strain and worry. Our government owes these people all the help it can give them.
    I have dim memories of my father going off with the Navy in WWII, and the beautiful letters he wrote to my mom. Both gone now, they are my real heroes.

  4. Good Morning. I, too, had always known the name of Nellie Bly, but didn’t really know the story.

    My heroes are the women who went to work outside the home for the ‘war effort’ during World War II. My Mom didn’t go outside to work, because I was still young, but we collected scrap iron and had our Victory garden and did other things. My Dad was a Air Raid Warden for our neighborhood. It was an exciting time for me, as a kid. (And scary, too.)The women of our country did amazing things while our men were away.

    My two brothers were my heroes at that time. They were both fresh out of high school and in the Navy.

  5. I’m glad somebody besides me remembers WWII, Mary J. We were too young to understand a lot of things, but it was an amazing time. Anybody who goes off to war or keeps things together on the home front is a hero to me.

  6. I enjoyed reading this post today. I also had heard of the name Nellie Bly, but didn’t know the story.

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Becky. Nellie was quite a girl. I’d love to know the story of her marriage to that much older man.

  8. Hi Elizabeth, terrific post.As soon as I saw the title, the song ran through my head. I didn’t realize they named her for the song! I thought it was reverse. What an exciting life she had, what a determined woman! What an example for weenies like me LOL. Thanks for such wonderful information.

  9. Elizabeth, I’d always heard of Nellie Bly (in fact I think there’s a song named for her) but I never knew her story. Very interesting. Thank you for blogging about her. I think poor people have the most intriguing stories, more so than the wealthy ones. I really think men and women who have to struggle touch people’s hearts. I know they do me. That’s why the overwhelming majority of the stories I write feature heroes and heroines who have little.

  10. LOL, Tanya. I’ve had that song running through my head since I posted the blog.
    Nellie was an amazing person, especially for her time, when women had few rights. And you are not a weenie! No woman who writes beautiful stories and puts them out there for all the world to read could be called timid.
    🙂

  11. If you’ve read the above, Linda, you’ll know that Nellie was actually named after the song. I agree that her struggle to rise from poverty makes her story even more inspiring.
    Ironic that she married a wealthy, much older man. Maybe after all she’d been through she needed the security. Thanks for stopping by.

  12. Elizabeth, what an amazing woman – true heroine material. Thanks so much for sharing her story with us.

  13. Thanks for visiting, Winnie. If the right plot could be found it would be fun to do a fictional heroine based on Nellie, wouldn’t it? What a great character she was.

  14. Hi Elizabeth, I’m chiming in late but wanted to tell you how much I enjoy reading about Nellie Bly. I used to jump rope to a Nellie Bly ditty, but never really knew much about her.

    Take care.

  15. I never knew of this story. Thank you for sharing. Very interesting

    Have a great day

    Walk in harmony,
    Melinda

  16. Other than hearing the name Nellie Bly, I knew nothing about her. What a fascinating person she was. It wasn’t easy for her, but she was able to live the life she wanted and make a difference.

    My favorite real life heroine – Mother Teresa. Not very glamorous, but this little woman devoted her life to people who had nothing, giving them what comfort she could. Everything she had was dedicated to those who needed a hand of friendship and someone who cared.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  17. Love the post. I had read about Nellie Bly somewhere. Loved what I read which sent me searching for more.
    I, too, feel that those who ‘keep the homefires burning’ while their family members are searving our country are real heroes.
    I do have one person that I love reading about, whether fiction or fact is Molly Brown. I hope to tour her home when visiting Denver this fall!

  18. Margaret, I knew the song but never as a jump rope ditty. What fun.

    And thanks for visiting, Melinda. Nellie’s story is definitely remembering.

    Patricia, Mother Teresa is one of my heroines, too. What a self-sacrificing life she lived, in one of the most wretched parts of the world. My daughter is named Teresa. Not really named after her, but I like it that it’s the same.

    And Molly Brown is a wonderful character, Connie. I’ve read about her, too. She didn’t look much like Debbie Reynolds but aside from that a lot of things in the movie really happened to her. I’ve seen photos of her home. Wow, it would be so great to see it for real. Hope you get to do the tour.

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