On Thursday morning, November 14th, 1889, a 26-year-old woman was getting ready to board a steamship to London. She had gotten little sleep the night before, instead tossing and turning before rising with the sun to go to the docks. Her suitcase, carefully packed and full to bursting, only measured 16×7 inches. The woman’s name was Elizabeth Cochrane, and she was hours away from starting an attempt to travel some 28,000 miles in seventy-five days. Elizabeth, better known by her moniker Nellie Bly, was born on May 5th, 1864, two years before Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was born in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, a town named for her father, a prominent landowner, judge, and businessman. Her early life was charmed with wealth and status, but it all came to a crashing halt when Nellie was six, and her father passed away without leaving a will. Nellie and her family were suddenly forced to leave their home and move to Pittsburgh, where Nellie’s mother remarried. Nellie’s stepfather was an alcoholic and he abused her mother; at their divorce trial, Nellie testified that her stepfather had “been generally drunk since he married [her] mother. When drunk he is very cross and cross when sober.”
Even at an early age, Nellie desired to be a fierce advocate for justice, especially for women. At the age of eighteen, she read a letter in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, claiming that women joining the workforce was a “monstrosity”. Nellie, who had grown up witnessing the lives of working women in industrial Pittsburgh, including herself and her mother, took offense to this letter and penned a fiery response to the paper. Her letter impressed those working at the Dispatch; she was offered a job as a writer in 1885. Nellie wrote pieces on the lives of working women, the unfairness of Pennsylvania divorce laws, and political corruption in Mexico, but she continued to be relegated to writing about “feminine” topics like fashion and flower shows. Frustrated with the lack of opportunity for her at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Nellie quit and moved to New York.
In 1887, Nellie landed a job with the New York World, under editor Joseph Pulitzer. Her first assignment, to report on conditions at New York’s Blackwell’s Island mental institution, would be the one to secure her countrywide fame. In order to give the most accurate report possible, Nellie came up with a plan to have herself admitted as a patient. As a 23-year-old woman, she put on a show of “delusions and undoubtable insanity” and got herself committed to Blackwell Island, alone and without backup. She emerged after ten days with a series of damning accusations about the treatment she witnessed and experienced, including neglect, beatings, ice cold baths, and forced feedings. The report was a sensation, helping to craft new laws against mistreatment of mentally ill individuals in the state of New York. Nellie had launched a new frontier in investigative journalism, and she followed up this massive success with reports on lobbyists, inadequate medical care given to the poor, and posed as a prisoner in order to expose the treatment of female inmates by police.
Three years later, Nellie was boarding a steamship to London. She had proposed to her editor at the New York World that she could beat the record set by Phileas Fogg in the popular Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days. At first her editor resisted, claiming that a woman would require a chaperone, and that the “dozen trunks” she would likely pack would slow her down. Nellie replied in the feisty way she was known for. “Very well. Start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” Her editor acquiesced. Later that week she set off, armed with one suitcase and a lot of determination. She had her itinerary memorized: New York to London, followed by stops in Calais, Brindisi, Port Said, Ismailia, Aden, Colombo, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Yokohama, and finally San Francisco, ending with a hopefully triumphant return to New York by train. Her trip was a nail-biting puzzle; any misstep or delay could cost her the record. In the end, Bly managed her trip in 72 days, six hours, and 11 minutes, completely smashing the fictional Fogg’s record. She arrived in Jersey City, the official finish line, to massive crowds of people cheering her on. For the duration of her trip, Nellie Bly was the most famous person in America.
After a long career in journalism and business, Nellie Bly would eventually pass away in 1922 at the age of 58 from pneumonia. Her legacy, however, continues to live on in the rich American tradition of trailblazing female reporters. Her work brought attention to places that people rarely ventured too, from the slums of New York to women’s prisons to mental asylums. Her whirlwind journey across the globe exemplified her free spirit and restless intelligence, but her heart remained in New York, where her work was. Arriving at the train station in Jersey City to ecstatic crowds, Nellie wrote “I took off my cap and wanted to yell with the crowd, not because I had gone around the world in seventy-two days, but because I was home again.”