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Happy International Women’s History Day! I’ve been so busy with a couple Lazy Historian-related projects that I haven’t been updating as much as I’d like to. I’ll have more news on those projects very soon. Make sure to subscribe to the newsletter to get updates right to your inbox.
Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman) is famous for being the first woman investigative journalist. She was one of very few female reporters in the late 1800s but managed to get a gig working at the New York World in 1887. She heard about the horrible living conditions for the patients at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island (now Roosevelt Island). She went undercover and spent several days there, later publishing an account of her time there. Ten Days in a Mad-House was published the same year and made Nellie Bly a household name. It also forced authorities to improve conditions within these types of facilities.
Bly is also famous for doing a hasty world tour in 1889-1890. Traveling in separate directions, Bly (still working for the New York World) and Elizabeth Bisland (Cosmopolitan) raced both one another and Phileas Fogg, the hero of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. Bly completed the trip in 72 days (a new record that was surpassed months later) and published another book about her adventure. Bisland finished in 76.5 days.
But there are a few more interesting tidbits about Bly you might not know.
1. It was easy to get into the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Like, way, way too easy.
Turns out, it didn’t take much effort on Bly’s part to persuade “medical professionals” that she was mentally ill. She practiced making faces in a mirror, checked into a boarding house and refused to go to bed because she was afraid of the owners of the establishment. A doctor was called in and then several “experts” all gave her a once-over, quickly deciding she was “positively demented and “a hopeless case.”
2. Her awesomeness pre-dates her time in the asylum.
Previous to landing her gig at the New York World, Bly wrote several investigative articles for the Pittsburgh Dispatch about the rough working conditions for female factory workers. The factory owners were, naturally, pissed about the article and complained to the paper and Nellie was soon relocated to the society reporting department.
Frustrated with the uninteresting news she had to report on, Bly relocated to Mexico and became a correspondent. (Six Months in Mexico was published in 1885.) One of her articles got her into some hot water with the Mexican government and she had to make a quick exit but continued to write critically about Porfirio Díaz and his tyrannical regime and control of the press.
3. Nellie was also an inventor.
Nellie retired from journalism at 31 after marrying the 73-year-old millionaire, Robert Seaman, in 1895. Seaman was the founder of the Ironclad Manufacturing Company, producers of milk shipping containers. Bly became involved with the business and held two patents, one for a milk container and one for a stacking garbage can.
4. Nellie Bly’s editor at New York World was Joseph Pulitzer.
Yes, that Pulitzer. Pulitzer introduced “yellow journalism” (sensational exaggeration) to the world in his tabloid newspaper and now his name is synonymous with great writing. Go figure.
5. Bly and Bisland were buried in the same cemetery and died of the same illness.
Both traveling lady journalists died of pneumonia and laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Nellie Bly died in 1922 at 57 and Elizabeth Bisland died in 1929 at 67.
6. A Nellie Bly biopic is in the works.
I’ve been watching The Knick—it’s a crime there were only two seasons—and one of the characters is obviously based on Nellie Bly. There have been a few small on-screen adaptations of the intrepid reporter’s life but the newest motion picture has me really excited. Actress Kate Mara is set to star in and produce the new biopic based on a script by Sarah Thorp.
If you want more 19th-century lady journalist goodness, check out my historical fiction novel, The Spirited Mrs. Pringle now available on paperback and at all major ebook retailers. (Audiobook coming soon.)