One child of 15, Elizabeth Cochrane was born in Cochran’s Mills in Pennsylvania in 1864. Known always to her family as the rambunctious and rebellious child, she had a fierce spirit from the very start. She even laid down the law by testifying at her mother’s divorce trial against her abusive stepfather before she was 15. Having to abandon higher education to become a teacher due to financial reasons, she moved to Pittsburgh to help her single mother run a boarding school. In 1885, Elizabeth read a rather infuriating article written in the Pittsburgh Dispatch in which the author, Erasmus Wilson, tried to tell women that they were good for nothing except for cooking, cleaning, and washing, and that working women were “a monstrosity.” Elizabeth was clearly having exactly none of that, so she wrote a very impressive letter to the editor which essentially tore Wilson a new one. In fact, her letter was so impressive that the editor ran an ad in the paper asking Elizabeth to identify herself. And when she came forward, she was offered a job at the Dispatch on the spot.
And here’s where we get to the real badassery.
She adopted a pen name, Nellie Bly, after a popular Stephen Foster song. Immediately she began reporting on issues of social justice and women’s equality. Despite her outstanding journalism, she was still kept confined to the Women’s Section. And that was the last straw. Nellie took her pen and her pride and peaced out of Pittsburgh for the Big Apple, leaving them in the dust. For six months she knocked on doors of newspapers looking for a job, until she finally charmed her way into the New York World – and was hired by Joseph Pulitzer himself.
Nellie Bly was to journalism what Konstantin Stanislavsky andLee Strasberg (founders of ‘The Method’) were to acting. She pioneered a new way of investigative journalism, most infamously by posing as a mental patient in Bellevue Hospital in New York to expose their malpractice. That also happened to be her first assignment in New York. She was committed to the institution for 10 days, and underwent the same poor treatment there as the other patients (Ken Kesey probably later took a few hints). Afterwards, she wrote a shocking piece for the New York World bringing light to the atrocious conditions there. Her article was so persuasive that it sparked change and reform for the hospital.
But this was the only the start of her legacy in undercover investigative journalism. In fact, she did so many operations in the name of social justice, including having herself arrested and working in a sweatshop, that her CV looked a lot like a season of Supernatural. But she certainly did not keep her work confined to New York. On somewhat of a whim, she was sent on a trip emulating Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 days. Traveling by ship, train, balloon, and burro, she circled the globe in a (then) record-breaking 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds. As a woman. By herself. In the 19th century. Women and men alike celebrated her achievements, and again qualified her as nothing short of amazing.
Always an advocate for the disenfranchised, Nellie took her work seriously and to heart. She undoubtedly helped countless people with her kind of journalism, and told stories that were not often heard during her time. She died at the age of 57 from pneumonia in New York. We can’t come close to listing all of her achievements, or describing the enormous impact she had on the people of her time and future generations alike. We can only sing her praises, and hope that excellence such as hers is seen for many years to come.