Elizabeth Cochran Seaman (Nellie Bly / Brown) 1864 – 1922
For context, the late 19th and early 20th century were a time when: the safety pin and gas mask had just found a market, Darwin had beaten Alfred Russel Wallace to the post in publishing The Origin Of The Species, slavery was finally abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment, Alice in Wonderland was made manifest, Cro-Magnon man was identified, War and Peace actually found a reader-base, Queen Victoria became the ‘Liz’ard Empress of India, the lightbulb hit the scene, Moulin Rouge found fame, the Federal Reserve System was created, and amidst the advent of WW1, and the rise and decline of economic empires (alongside the invention of Volleyball and Special Relativity), the aptly named Women’s suffrage movement was gaining momentum. A choice selection of events.
Storming into the offices of one of the leading newspapers in the country, the New York World, Nellie Bly (Elizabeth’s pen name) expressed an interest in departing from ‘click-bait’ commissions on gardening and fashion, to write a story on the immigrant experience in the United States.
Sensing her instability, the editor declined and challenged her to investigate one of NYC’s most notorious mental hospitals instead. Using the tertiary alias ‘Nellie Brown’, she decided to feign mental illness and uncover the truths of treatment by going undercover. A lawyer hired by newspaper officials would bail her out after 10 days penance.
Admitting herself to a temporary home for women, she stopped washing, cried, screamed and stayed awake all night until law enforcement were called and she was examined by doctors. After being admitted to a local mental institution, she found that conditions were little better – covered in waste, infested with insects, inadequately clothed, bathed in cold water and fed stale food – she anticipated permanent decline under the veil of temporary rehabilitation.
Getting to know some of the silenced voices within the walls of the institution, Brown also discovered women who’s families had admitted them because they had been too sick to work, or who had appeared insane while sick with fever, and now claimed to be well but unable to get out. Upon her release, the inhabitants were given a voice, and her shared experience led to investigations and protests that outed and transformed conditions at the hospital.
Bly By Background
The child who would grow up to pen the name of Nellie Bly was born during the Civil War in Pennsylvania. Nicknamed ‘Pink’ because of her love of the feminine colour, her mother remarried after her father’s death at age 6; Leading to teenage years filled with emotional and physical abuse at the hands of an alcoholic stepfather, before an eventual divorce.
When the family became unable to continue to pay for her education, she focused on helping her mother run a boardinghouse. During this time, she came across an article called ‘What Girls Are Good For’ in the Pitssburgh Dispatch that mocked career-driven women and suggested they reclaim their domestic duties. Signing her response ‘Lonely Orphan Girl’, she penned a passionate rebuttal that earned her a permanent position as a controversial columnist.
Her first piece named ‘The Girl Puzzle’ was about the effects of divorce on women, and argued for a reform of divorce laws. The editor supposedly chose the name ‘Nellie Bly’ after the African-American title character in the popular song ‘Nelly Bly’ by Stephen Foster.
As a writer, Nellie focused her early work on the lives of working women, until a series of complaints from associated company directors led to her being reassigned to the safer realms of fashion, society, and gardening.
Nellie was also insidiously dissatisfied with only being allowed to write articles solely targeted at women. Understanding that feminism represented gender equality and addressed both men and women alike, she eventually took her talents elsewhere and broke into worldwide journalism by riding on the coattails of mental illness.
Ten Days In A Madhouse quickly made Bly one of the most current journalists in the United States, and her methodist approach bore the roots of investigative journalism. Other exploits included covering the city’s illegal activities by pretending to be a mother looking to sell her baby, and six months in Mexico protesting the imprisonment of local journalists for criticising the local government.
At 25 years old, Bly’s career reached new lands when she decided to create fact from fiction and travel around the world, having been inspired by Jules Verne’s Around The World In 80 Days. Learning of a competitor, Elizabeth Bisland, who had been launched by Cosmo Magazine to travel the world the opposite way around and beat the times of both Bly and Phileas Fogg, Bly proclaimed “I would not race. If someone else wants to do the trip in less time, that is their concern”.
On the Asian leg of the ‘race’ she stopped to visit leper colonies in China, and even picked up a primate companion in Singapore. Bly’s trip still took just 72 days, and became a world record – a title that was held for a few months before coming full circle to be reclaimed by George Francis Train (67 days), whose first circumnavigation in 1870 might have been the inspiration for Verne’s novel in the first place.
Elizabeth Cochrane died in New York in 1922 at the age of 58. She had eventually channelled her free-spirted passions into business and innovation, securing more than one patent, while helping poor and homeless children, and continuing to write for newspapers and magazines under the pseudonym Nellie Bly.
Her obituary read: “Nellie Bly was the best reporter in America. More important is the work of which the world knew nothing. She died leaving little money. What she had was promise to take care of children without homes, for whom she wished to provide. Her life was useful. She takes with her from this Earth all that she cared about – an honourable name, the respect and affection of her fellow workers, the memory of good fights well fought and many good deeds never to be forgotten. Happy the man or woman that can leave as good a record.”
Not so notorious after all.