Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and having altered her name slightly by adding an ‘e’, Cochran’s began her career in journalism when she responded to a newspaper article which contended that girls were really only good for motherhood and housekeeping.
Significantly impressed by her response, which she had written under a pseudonym, the editor of the paper ran an ad asking the author to come forward.
When Cochrane introduced herself to the editor, he offered her the opportunity to write another piece for the newspaper, and when she impressed him again, he offered her a permanent job. At that time, the convention was for women who wrote for newspapers writers to use pen names. Her pen name was taken from a popular song, and when the editor wrote ‘Nellie’ instead of ‘Nelly’, the name stuck.
Nellie wrote a series of articles about issues confronting women factory workers which resulted in complaints from the men who owned and ran the factories. When the editor reassigned her to articles on homemaking and gardening, Nellie soon became frustrated and left for Mexico, where she spent six months reporting on the lives of the people. She had to leave Mexico, however, when her article decrying the imprisonment of a local journalist angered the authorities, then controlled by the dictator Porfinio Diaz.
Unwilling to spend the rest of her life writing about things in which she took little interest, Nellie moved to New York in 1887 where, after living in very poor conditions, she undertook a job for The World newspaper as an undercover reporter in the notorious women’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island. It took considerable effort to actually get committed to the asylum, where Nellie experienced all the horrors of the place firsthand for ten days before her release was secured by her editor.
The conditions and treatment of patients in the asylum became known through Nellie’s articles, which were later published as a book. Cruel staff, poor sanitation, dreadful food and the fact that a number of the women were not insane at all — some simply did not speak English, others were sent there when their affairs with prominent members of society had soured— brought about reforms and made Nellie Bly a household name.
In 1888, Bly suggested to her editor that she undertake a trip around the world inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the Workd In Eighty Days, to see if it could be done int hat time.
She left on November 14, 1889, in the clothes she wore, with some money in a pouch that hung on a cord from her neck, concealed by her clothes, and a small bag containing some basic requirements. She travelled by ship and rail, and actually met Jules Verne in France. Her tip was not without delays or complications, but she arrived back in New York just 72 days after her departure — then a world record time.
Later in life, Cochrane became an industrialist and then a reporter on both the events of World War I and the campaign for women’s suffrage in America.
Nellie died of pneumonia in 1922. She had certainly led an interesting life and demonstrated quite powerfully that women were capable of far more than having babies and running a household.