Badass Writer of the Week: Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly

By Daniel Ford

“Who is Nellie Bly?”

This question was poised to me by someone after I mentioned her in the latest installment of The Newspapermen.

I figured it was only appropriate to give everyone a refresher on the ground-breaking female journalist by honoring her as this Friday’s Badass Writer of the Week.

Bly was actually born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864 in Cochran’s Mills, Pa (which was named after her father). Unfortunately, her father died when she was 6 years old, and the family was left without an inheritance. Seeking financial security, Bly’s mother re-married. However, the man was an abusive thug and Bly’s mother sued for divorce (which in the mid-1800s was pretty rare, even for abused women). According to PBS, Bly testified at the trial saying, “My stepfather has been generally drunk since he married my mother. When drunk he is very cross and cross when sober."

So, like many of the badasses on our list, it wasn't a great start for our heroine.

Bly didn’t let her tumultuous upbringing get her down. In fact, in 1885, Bly read an editorial in The Pittsburgh Dispatch entitled “What Girls Are Good For.” It was the 19th Century’s version of trolling. Essentially, the article told women to stay in the home. Bly did what badass writers do; she penned a terse and sensational reply that so impressed the paper’s editor that he urged the “Little Orphan Girl” to come forward so he could give her a job. She accepted. According to The New Yorker, the newly christened Nellie Bly spent a year working on stories that fell into “the pink ghetto—pieces on fashion, decorating, entertaining, and gardening.” Unsatisfied, Bly decided to hightail it to Mexico and file dispatches as a freelance writer.

She made her way back to the United States and got a job at The New York World, which was owned at the time by Joseph Pulitzer (there’s a minor writing award named after him). Rather than being cornered into writing about women’s issues, Bly was at the frontlines of the newspaper wars between Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. She convinced doctors and judges she was insane and was committed to Blackwell's Island, a nefarious New York City mental institution, for 10 days. Following her experience, Bly wrote “Behind Asylum Bars,” a series that “showcased her reportorial skills and her wry way with language.” She also caused somewhat of an uproar in New York City and the local government was forced to spend additional funds to improve conditions at the mental institution. This was muckraking journalism at its finest.

Here’s an excerpt:

We were taken into a cold, wet bathroom, and I was ordered to undress. Did I protest? Well, I never grew so earnest in my life as when I tried to beg off. They said if I did not they would use force and that it would not be very gentle. At this I noticed one of the craziest women in the ward standing by the filled bathtub with a large, discolored rag in her hands. She was chattering away to herself and chuckling in a manner which seemed to me fiendish. I knew now what was to be done with me. I shivered. They began to undress me, and one by one they pulled off my clothes. At last everything was gone excepting one garment. "I will not remove it," I said vehemently, but they took it off. I gave one glance at the group of patients gathered at the door watching the scene, and I jumped into the bathtub with more energy than grace.

Bly lost a little steam as a reporter after everyone starting duplicating her style. Determined not to be a forgotten byline, Bly decided to take on Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg and travel around the world in less than 80 days. The newspaper brass took some convincing. According to Mental Floss, Bly had an answer ready when the paper suggested they send a man instead: “Very well. Start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” Bly got her way.

She set out on the journey alone; just one badass writer against the world. Bly returned from her journey in only 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds. Bly wrote that upon her arrival back in the United States, “I took off my cap and wanted to yell with the crowd, not because I had gone around the world in seventy-two days, but because I was home again.”

Needless to say, her account detailing the trip was a sensation. Chapter 1 is entitled, “A Proposal to Girdle the Earth.” Here’s how she recounts coming up with the idea:

What gave me the idea? It is sometimes difficult to tell exactly what gives birth to an idea. Ideas are the chief stock in trade of newspaper writers and generally they are the scarcest stock in market, but they do come occasionally.
This idea came to me one Sunday. I had spent a greater part of the day and half the night vainly trying to fasten on some idea for a newspaper article. It was my custom to think up ideas on Sunday and lay them before my editor for his approval or disapproval on Monday. But ideas did not come that day and three o'clock in the morning found me weary and with an aching head tossing about in my bed. At last tired and provoked at my slowness in finding a subject, something for the week's work, I thought fretfully:
"I wish I was at the other end of the earth!"
"And why not?" the thought came: "I need a vacation; why not take a trip around the world?"
It is easy to see how one thought followed another. The idea of a trip around the world pleased me and I added: "If I could do it as quickly as Phileas Fogg did, I should go.

Following her historic trip, Bly married a millionaire, became a leading female industrialist when her husband died, became the country’s first female war correspondent during World War I, and continued to write a column for The Evening Journal until her death from pneumonia in 1922 at the age of 57.

So now if someone asks you who Nellie Bly is, you can reply, “She was a complete badass and could write circles the size of the globe around you.”