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Nellie Bly Pioneer Female Investigative Reporter

Linda enjoys reading, learning, and writing about different things. She enjoys sharing her love of writing, history, and crafts with others.

Elizabeth Cochran Better Know as Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly at twenty one years old while working as a foreign journalist in Mexico

Nellie Bly at twenty one years old while working as a foreign journalist in Mexico

Nellie Bly Early Years

Nellie Bly was born in 1864 in Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania at a time when women were expected to stay at home, have babies, take care of their men and be happy doing that. Women had very few rights at that time, little education and they rarely had good career choices. Nellie was born into a large family of fifteen. Her father had ten children before he married Nellie’s mother, who then gave birth to another five children. Nellie was named Elizabeth Jane but was also nicknamed “Pink or Pinky”. Later when she began her career as a newspaper woman, she changed her name to Nellie Bly as her pen name. Nellie’s father died when she was six years old and the family fell into hard times. Her mother remarried but it is said that her new husband was abusive. Sometime later her mother divorced the stepfather leaving Nellie and her mother to support the family by operating a boarding house just outside of Pittsburgh.

Nellie had wanted to become a teacher and briefly attended the Indiana Normal School, now know as Indiana University of Pennsylvania. However, the family’s finances forced her to give up her teaching dream. It was at this time that Nellie left school to help her mother run the boarding house but she still had dreams of what she wanted to do with her own life.

Nellie Begins Her Career as a Reporter

Nellie began her career as a writer and reporter in 1885 at the Pittsburgh Dispatch newspaper. She had written an angry letter to the paper’s editor in response to an article that she felt disrespected young girls and women. After reading Nellie’s letter, the editor offered her a job working for the paper. Very few women were ever offered opportunities like this and Nellie quickly accepted the offer. She was generally given assignments that were considered of interest to women. Here Nellie could give a voice to issues that concerned women such as poor women who had to support themselves as well as the working conditions these women found themselves in. Of course some of her articles didn’t sit well with the business class and this was the reason she was reassigned to writing just for the women’s page such as society news. Nellie soon grew tired of these boring assignments and wanted more of a challenge. She found her challenge by going to Mexico as a foreign correspondent for the paper. Here she spent several months writing about the lives and conditions she found in Mexico. After a few months however, she drew the displeasure of the Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz when she wrote articles critical of his leadership and government. Nellie was forced to leave the country but later she published her book “Six Months in Mexico”. It seems Nellie’s honesty as a reporter was not always appreciated and tended to get her into trouble.

Blackwell Island Mad House

In 1887 Nellie decided it was time to move to New York where she took a job at The New York World paper as a reporter. Her first real assignment with the New York World paper was to go undercover as an insane girl to the Blackwell Island mental institute. How many of us would willing have ourselves committed to an insane asylum? Not very many of us I am sure. Here she spent ten days living locked up with insane women. She saw and experienced everything that a truly insane person would experience. As a result, she wrote a series of articles exposing the mental health facility and she was able to bring about awareness for the mentally insane and instigate an investigation into Blackwell Island. This brought about much needed reforms for mental health institutions. Her story of her time in the mad house later became the movie, “Ten Days in a Mad House”. It was an awesome movie but I believe it was rather dramatized as they tend to do with movies.

Some of the reforms that were brought about by Nellie's daring venture into Blackwell Island institute for the mentally insane included:

  • Better food for the patients
  • Better health care
  • Warmer clothing and more blankets
  • More oversight into the doctors and nurses treatment of the patients
  • Warm baths instead of icy cold baths
  • Cleaner clothing, towels and personal care items

Blackwell Island for the Mentally Insane Asylum

The Blackwell Mental Institute for the insane where Nellie Byl  spent confined for ten days

The Blackwell Mental Institute for the insane where Nellie Byl spent confined for ten days

Nellie Travels the World in Seventy Two Days

Nellie also had the opportunity to travel around the world to beat the previous fictional world record of eighty days. When Nellie brought up the idea of beating the old record her editor told her it wasn’t a job for a female so Nellie challenged him to send both her and a man at the same time. Her editor gave her the assignment. She left Hoboken, New Jersey on Nov 14th, 1889 by ship, traveling to London. From London she took trains to Paris and throughout Europe. From there she traveled to Egypt then on to the Suez Canal then headed towards Middle Eastern countries. From there she next journeyed through Asian countries and into Japan. From Japan she headed home to San Francisco, Ca. Her journey consisted mostly of travel by trains and ocean liners but there are also reports of various other means of transportation such as horses and Asia rickshaws. Nellie completed her journey in record time with a total of twenty one seven hundred and 40 miles in seventy days, six hours and eleven minutes. I am not sure Nellie was aware at the time she began her journey that the Cosmopolitan magazine was also sending another female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, on the same mission.

During those seventy two days as Nellie traveled the world, the editor of The New York World used her trip to drive up circulation of the newspaper. Nellie would send dispatches to the paper on where she was every day. The newspaper sponsored a contest offering a prize of a trip to the person who made the most accurate guess as to how long her trip would take.

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Upon her return arrival in San Francisco on Jan 25th 1890 Nellie was greeted with crowds of admirers and was given a special train to make her trip back to New York. When she arrived in New York she was honored with parades, brass bands and fireworks to celebrate her victory and safe return. She later wrote her book titled “Around the World in Seventy Two Days”.

Nellie Bly Returns After Completing Her Seventy Two Day Trip Around the World

Nellie Bly  at a reception celebrating her safe return after traveling around the world in seventy two days

Nellie Bly at a reception celebrating her safe return after traveling around the world in seventy two days

Nellie's Many Accomplishments

Nellie Bly was certainly a woman ahead of her time. In a time when women were looked on as nothing more than a wife, mother, housekeeper and laundress, she blazed a path of her own. In 1895 Nellie married Robert Livingston a man quite a bit older than her. After his death, Nellie wrote numerous articles covering the women’s suffrage movement. Her words and her stories were a powerful tool for women everywhere. Nellie also covered the First World War reporting from the Eastern front lines. Nellie received numerous awards for her work throughout her lifetime and she certainly left her mark on the journalist world. In 1998 Nellie Bly was indicted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

The Insane Asylum: Nellie's Story

  • Behind Asylum Bars | The Archive
    Nellie Bly The New York World/October 9, 1887 The Mystery of the Unknown Insane Girl Remarkable Story of the Successful Impersonation of Insanity How Nellie Brown Deceived Judges, Reporters and Medical Experts She Tells Her Story of How She Passed at

Nellie Bly Story

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 L.M. Hosler


L.M. Hosler (author) on January 23, 2019:

Thank you Mary. You are exactly right. I myself often wonder what I could have accomplished in my own life if I had possessed the courage. How much of the world I could have seen. As you said, courage is the key.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on January 23, 2019:

Many accomplish things in life most of us only dream about. Looking back at our lives as a class of 50 years ago, we saw how much some of our classmates have accomplished because they had the courage to do so. Courage is a key element.

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