Nellie Bly was a remarkable woman.
Bly was not only an incredible and dedicated reporter, but she also traveled around the world in a record-breaking time of 72 days in the late 19th century. Her real name was Elizabeth Jane Cochrane; Nellie Bly was her pen name, taken from a song by Stephen Foster.
Bly started her journalism career after reading an article titled “What Girls Are Good For” in the Pittsburgh Dispatch – a very misogynistic article. Bly wrote in a passionate rebuttal to the article under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl”. The editor of the newspaper found her passion impressive and offered her a job at the newspaper. (You can find excerpts of her first article, “The Girl Puzzle”, here.)
Bly wrote a groundbreaking journalism piece after feigning insanity to get herself into an insane asylum. Asylums at the time did not have strict regulations and often treated patients as inconvenient objects.
After practicing her faked insanity, Bly checked into a boardinghouse and showed telltale signs of paranoia and amnesia. Doctors examined her and declared her “Positively demented,” as one doctor said.
This story alone caused newspaper frenzy, with media headlines like “Who Is This Insane Girl?”
When Bly came to the asylum, she saw firsthand how horrible its conditions were. The dirty water and spoiled food alone was enough for an outcry. The asylum had poor hygiene and the nurses abused the patients.
Of her experiences, Bly wrote:
“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?…I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading…give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane.”
The World freed her from the asylum after ten days. Bly published an account of her time in the asylum under a report called Ten Days in a Mad-House, which received acclaim and brought awareness to the awful conditions of asylums at the time. Doctors and other professionals who had examined her tried and failed to excuse why they found a perfectly healthy woman to be completely insane.
Bly assisted in an investigation of the asylum launched by a grand jury and recommended increased funds for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. The Department got an $850,000 increase and the orders to make sure that only the very sick got sent to the asylum.
This exposé gave Bly plenty of positive attention, but it was only the start of her incredible career.
Check out Part II of Nellie Bly’s story here, where she attempts to make record time traveling around the world!