Awesome Person in History: Nellie Bly

These days it’s not so unusual for half or so of all the news reporters at a TV station to be women. The smartly-dressed, professional woman with a microphone has become THE picture of today’s mass media in the minds of many. In my experiences as a journalism student, my male classmates were usually roughly even with, and sometimes far outnumbered by, my female classmates.

Ah, the memories….

As you have probably guessed, this was not always the case. At one time, news reporting, like many jobs, was seen as “a man’s work”, and women were only supposed to cover “women’s page” stuff like fashion, cooking, and child-rearing. Today’s media women have come a long way, and a large part of that comes from one particular woman and the craziest dare ever taken.

The woman: Nellie Bly.

The dare: Go undercover at an insane asylum.

That place doesn’t look foreboding or anything.

Let’s start at the beginning. “Nellie Bly” was the pen name used by Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who was born in 1864 to a wealthy farmer and his second wife. When she was six years old, her father died, and his will left her mother destitute. The young girl grew up in poverty, looking for work in Pittsburgh when she read a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch that  criticized women who took up factory jobs. In anger, Bly wrote a letter to the editor detailing how working-class families could not survive on a single income and women often had to work to keep their children from starving.

The Dispatch hired her.

The new job didn’t last, though, because the Dispatch‘s editors wanted Bly to write stories for the women’s pages, and Bly wanted to cover the social injustices facing industrial workers. Before long, Bly left to find work in New York, home to some of the nation’s most successful newspapers. But even in New York, it seemed nobody was interested in having a woman cover “men’s news”.

This is where the dare comes in. There were rumors running around that the insane asylum at Blackwell’s Island was mistreating its patients. When government inspectors showed up, though, everything seemed fine. Were these rumors unfounded, or was Blackwell’s just really good at hiding its mistreatment from outside inspectors?

John Cockerill, managing editor of the New York World, gave Nellie Bly a deal: he would hire her as a regular reporter, if she would be willing to commit herself as a patient at Blackwell’s and report on what she saw. Bly took the dare, and started acting incoherent and crazy in public in order to get sent to Blackwell’s for treatment.

She was only at the asylum for ten days, when the World sent for her release. But what ten days they were. Bly reported that she had been tortured, chained naked to a bed with ice-cold water poured over her. She had been fed rancid food, and locked alone in a room for hours. She watched patients beaten by the “doctors”. She found that many in the asylum were really just there because they spoke no English, not because they were actually insane. After her release, she testified before a grand jury about her experiences, and her story made headlines across the nation as insane asylums everywhere were radically reformed.

Now a full-time reporter for the World, Bly’s next famous assignment was to do a publicity stunt for the paper by trying to travel around the world in less than the fictional “80 Days” of the hit novel by Jules Verne. For the record, she made the journey in sixty-seven days, and had time along the way to try out hot-air ballooning, diving, and going undercover as a chorus girl.

Then, in 1914, Bly happened to be on vacation in Europe when World War I broke out. She would spend the rest of the war as a correspondent in the field, writing first-hand accounts of, well, this:

When she finally died of pneumonia in 1922, Bly’s obituary called her “the best reporter in America”. So much for the women’s pages.

Information from American Media History by Anthony R. Fellow.

2 Responses to Awesome Person in History: Nellie Bly

  1. Pingback: Awesome People In History: Fred Rogers | Cat Flag

  2. Pingback: Beyond the Slums: Dispelling Misrepresentations – Assignment 4b | metapologetic

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