Nellie Bly

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Many women are known for things that shocked the women’s world in history. One woman specifically has left a lasting impression on the media world, and to people everywhere. She was Elizabeth Cochrane, or as many know her, Nellie Bly.

        Elizabeth was born in Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania on May 5, 1867 to Mary Jane and Judge Michael Cochran. Her father died six years later, leaving her mother with fifteen children to raise. Judge Cochran, an upstanding member of the community, died without a will, which left the family without claim to their property and sending the family from wealth to near-poverty. Nevertheless, all of the children were sent to school and the family soon moved to a modest home in Pittsburgh. Elizabeth took on the responsibility of helping to raise her siblings. Elizabeth’s mother remarried, in an attempt to better the lives of her children. However, her husband was very abusive to the family so a divorce was soon carried out.

Elizabeth wanted to help her family financially, and so at the vulnerable age of eighteen, she decided to go out and look for work. She soon discovered that only very low-paid occupations were available to women. This discouraged her greatly, although with her great imagination, it would not be long before she was making her mark on the world.

        In 1885, she read an article in the town newspaper, the Pittsburgh Dispatch entitled “What girls are good for.” The article (which was written by a male) labeled women as only being good for housework and taking care of children. Elizabeth was furious at this, she could not believe how sexist the article was. She took it upon herself to write a letter of protest to the editor of the newspaper. George Madden, the managing editor of the “Dispatch”, was so impressed by Elizabeth’s unique writing skills in her letter (which she signed “Lonely Orphan Girl”) that he took out an ad in the Sunday Dispatch, pleading that Elizabeth come to introduce herself to him. Elizabeth saw the ad, and the very next day found herself at the office of the Pittsburgh Dispatch. On the interview, Mr. Madden asked her what type of articles she would write if she were to be a journalist. She replied that she felt newspapers should tell stories about the lives of ordinary people. Madden decided to hire her. The first piece she ever wrote for the paper was a rebuttal of the sexist piece she read!         When Madden decided he wanted to make Elizabeth a permanent member of his staff, he wanted to make up a pen name for her. After getting several suggestions from workers at the paper, he chose Nellie Bly; the character in the song “Nellie Bly” which was written by a man named Stephen Foster.

        Bly’s journalistic style was marked by her “stunt reporting.” For example, she employed herself at a Pittsburgh factory so that she could investigate low wages and unsafe working conditions. She wasn’t only interested in the actually reporting of the story, as today’s reporters tend to do. She was interested in finding a resolution to such issues. After three years at the Dispatch, she went to New York City where she acquired a journalist position at the “New York World”, which was published by Joseph Puiltzer.

        Over the next few years, she got more and more into investigative journalism by writing articles about poverty, housing and labor conditions in New York. She also concentrated her efforts on women's rights. Bly paved the way to great journalism as the first to go “behind the scenes” to expose society’s ills.

        On a dare from the editor of the “World”, Nellie went masquerading as a madwoman, committed herself, and spent ten days in the notorious women's mental asylum, on New York City’s “Blackwell's Island.” Her expose was of cruel, inhumane and life-threatening conditions she and the other patients endured in the asylum. She described her stay as a “rat-trap”, stating that “It is easy to get in but once you are there, it is impossible to get out.” Bly discovered that patients were fed “vermin-infested food” and were physically abused by the staff. She also found out that some patients were not even psychologically disturbed, but were suffering form a physical illness! Some patients were sent there by their families would felt they didn’t want to care for them. The mistreatment of patients was shown in the front pages of the New York World and her daring stunt propelled Bly into the limelight of New York journalism, and she became a very famous writer throughout New York. Her expose resulted in a much needed reform, such as increased funds to improve the conditions at the asylum, which was eventually shut down permanently.                 Nellie was revered for her hard-hitting style, and earned the respect and admiration of her newspaper colleagues. Never before had a journalist gone to such lengths to pursue a story. In fact, other papers started copy-catting her style by hiring their own women for “stunt journalism.” Although she was revered by her bosses because her stories were selling papers, they also were boasting public awareness of terrible social problems. She allowed the plight of unwed mothers and women worldwide to be heard and in doing so, became a spokeswoman for all women even today.

        Bly retired form journalism, after marrying millionaire Robert Seaman in 1895. Sadly, only ten years later, Seaman passed away. Following his death, Nellie focused her efforts into running her late husband’s company “The Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.” She made radical changes within the company, such as adding gymnasiums, libraries and healthcare plans. Unfortunately, her good intentions were not to last, as a few years later, the company went bankrupt.

        In 1914, Nellie went to Europe, just in time for World War I. While there, she went back to journalism, reporting behind the scenes about the war. She then decided to pick up her journalism career, this time for the “New York Evening Journal.”                 On January 27, 1922 Nellie Bly died of pneumonia. All New York newspapers acknowledged her passing with elaborate obituaries. The New York Evening Journal stated that she was the “Best Reporter In America.” Nellie Bly was a reporter, a researcher, an industrialist, and a reformer. She was a model for progress and achievement for women. Women have come a long way since Nellie Bly’s time. They have the right to vote, may own property, they may even run for public office. She gave women the confidence to stand up and fight for their rights. Her ambition, which made her a very famous woman, can be used as a model for all today.