Elizabeth Cochrane isn’t a household name – but it should be. Elizabeth Cochrane was one of the first trailblazers for women reporters in the United States. She was an inventor. She was a charity worker. She oversaw a major business corporation. She was an adventurer who traveled around the world by ship, train and burro in 72 days, six hours and 11 minutes to defeat the record set by Jules Verne’s fictional character, Phileas Fogg, in Verne’s popular science fiction novel, “Around the World in 80 Days.” She was a feminist.
Elizabeth Cochrane is better known as Nellie Bly.
Bly launched her journalism career by penning an anonymous – and scathing – letter to the editor of the Pittsburg Dispatch after reading an article titled “What Girls Are Good For,” chastising women for wanting an education or aspiring for any other role besides that of wife, mother and caregiver. Bly signed her letter Little Orphan Girl. At the time, the George Madden was the Dispatch’s editor and so impressed was he by Bly’s letter, he ran an article in his paper requesting the Little Orphan Girl reveal herself and come to his office. Bly obliged and was offered an opportunity to write a rebuttal piece, which she did. Soon after, Bly was offered a full-time writing position with the Dispatch – which is when Elizabeth Cochrane became Nellie Bly.
At the age of 23, she moved to New York and talked her way into an assignment for the prestigious newspaper, The New York World, owned by newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer. Bly took that assignment and with it, she pioneered a new form of investigative journalism by going deep undercover in Blackwell Island’s Insane Asylum in New York. Bly feigned mental illness to get committed and posed as a patient within the facility for 10 days, during which she documented the atrocities committed by the doctors and nurses under the guise of “treating” their patients. Cochrane suffered many of these “treatments” herself after being committed. Her expose was published by Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World in 1887 and resulted in a grand jury investigation and a budget increase of $1,000,000.00 for the care of the mentally ill in New York state.
Her two-part series of articles on Blackwell (“Behind Asylum Bars” and “Inside the Madhouse”) received such public interest, they eventually led her to write the book “Ten Days in a Mad-House.” The first paragraph of the first chapter of Bly’s book chronicles the determined, fearless woman she was, even at so young an age: “Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did.”
Bly continued to write on many important issues of the day, for society at large and for women in particular. She also allowed her readers to form deeper connections with several prominent figures of New York at the time as she profiled multiple “bigwigs,” from boxer John L. Sullivan, suffragette Susan B. Anthony and anarchist Emma Goldman.
When the first World War broke out in Europe, Bly had retired from journalism and was living in Austria. She became a special correspondent for the New York Evening Journal as the only American female war reporter. As a war correspondent, she brought the terrifying reality of war to life for Journal readers safe back home. In an article published on Dec. 10, 1914 by the Journal, Bly wrote:
Everywhere are the grave-shaped trenches where men lived, fought and died. On this ground the Russians were three weeks ago. Now they are only behind the next hill, 2,000 feet away. The many double crosses made of branches shows where hundreds fell as they retreated before the victorious Austrians.
Bly returned to America in 1919 and continued to write for the Journal as a columnist, up until pneumonia claimed her life in January 1922. She was 57 years old.