Nellie Bly (#2 painting of 13) “Influential Women”

Nellie Bly 1864-1922

Nellie Bly

1864 -1922

“Lonely Orphan Girl”

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, the moniker “Nellie Bly” was assigned Cochran by George Madden, editor of the Pittsburg Dispatch, as her pen name based on the Stephen Foster’s popular song Nelly Bly.

Due to a fierce retort to a misogynist newspaper column What Girls Are Good For, Nellie, at age 18, was hired by Madden to pen her own column Lonely Orphan Girl, which focused on the plight of working women, especially female factory laborers. Her investigating reporting (she was a pioneer of personally researching facts for articles) raised hackles and the ire of conservatives opposed to women voting or giving voice in any public forums. The pressures exerted on Madden soon had Nellie relegated to the gardening, society and fashion desk – the traditional subjects ordained suitable for a female journalist.

Undeterred, Nellie at 21 years of age, initiated a trip to Mexico as a foreign correspondent. Her outspoken reports almost landed her in prison there for criticizing dictator Porfirio Diaz and she returned stateside after only six months.

Returning to the Pittsburgh Dispatch meant theatre and arts reporting for Nellie; rather than suffer that indignity, she headed east to New York City. She managed to secure a job on Joseph Pulitzer‘s newspaper the New York World. An undercover assignment for the paper saw her feigning insanity to report on alleged brutality and neglect at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. This was the same institution where “Typhoid Mary” was committed for spreading that deadly disease.

In order to establish herself as a mental case, Nellie took a room in a working class boarding house and would not go to bed, claiming she was afraid of the other borders. The police were summoned and she was taken to court pretending to have amnesia. Several prominent doctors examined her and concluded she was: “a hopeless case”, “positively demented” and needed to be institutionalized “where someone will take care of her.” The New York Times and New York Sun wrote articles asking who is the “mysterious waif with a wild, hunted look in her eyes, desperately crying, ‘I can’t remember, I can’t remember’.” After ten days of being exposed to the abject conditions of the asylum, Nellie was rescued by her paper the New York World. She created a huge scandal for the NY Department of Public Charities and Correction with exposés about the institution’s: inedible food, unclean water, rat infested kitchens, squalid conditions, verbal and physical abuse by workers and patients being shackled to wooden benches 14 hours a day and not being permitted to talk or move. She related her own torture by being doused with ice cold water during the winter and having buckets of filthy waste water splashed in her eyes, mouth and nose. Nellie’s articles shamed the medical establishment that allowed such conditions to exist and forced the convening of a grand jury by the attorney general, with Nellie’s help, to add substantial funding for the state’s mental institutions budget.

In 1888, Nellie suggested a concept to her editor at the New York World. Her idea was to trump Jules Verne‘s fictional book, Around the World in Eighty Days, beating in real time the transversal in fewer days than the fictional eighty. A year later her assignment was approved and with two days notice, the dress she was wearing, an overcoat and changes of underwear, she set sail alone on the Agusta Victoria steaming eastward to Europe. From there she continued to the middle and far east. Seventy-two days after departure she returned to Hoboken NJ having not only beaten the eighty day Jules Verne fictional record, but also Elizabeth Bisland who challenged Nellie for the newspaper Cosmopolitan by circumnavigating the globe traveling westward.

In 1895, Nellie married an industrial millionaire 40 years her senior, and retired from her journalist career. She became president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, which made steel containers. She received three US patents for her innovation of the 55 gallon oil drum (still in use today) and an improved “stacking” garbage can, in addition to these she is credited for the ubiquitous metal milk can that farmers relied on for years to get their product to market. Her husband died after nine years of marriage and left Nellie one of the leading female industrialist in the US. Embezzlement by employees led to bankruptcy and Nellie returned to her journalistic roots covering the Eastern front during World War I and was instrumental in reporting on the 1913 Woman Suffrage Parade.

In her last years Nellie oversaw the care of several orphaned children in Church For All Nations home in Manhattan.

She died of pneumonia in 1922, at the age of 57, and is buried in a simple grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

(Painting photo: Mark Serman)

© Laurence Revene, 2014.


~ by Larry Revene on July 1, 2014.

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