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Bly, Nellie (1864-1922)

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“Nellie Bly” was the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane Seaman, a pioneer of “stunt” journalism (an early form of investigative reporting). Bly’s most important investigative pieces included detailing the miserable conditions of a mental asylum, exposing corruption in New York state government, and publicizing the plight of the families of workers during the Pullman Palace Car Company strike of 1894. She is perhaps most famous for her dash around the world in seventy-two days, a feat that boosted the circulation of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and made “Nellie Bly” a household name. She was the first woman to report from the Eastern Front in World War I, and she wrote an advice column chronicling her charitable efforts.

In 1885, The Pittsburgh Dispatch ran a series of columns by Erasmus Wilson decrying “restless dissatisfied females” and longing for women who make “home a little paradise.” Among women across the city chastising Wilson, one signed herself “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The Dispatch advertised for the writer to present herself, and the next day Nellie Bly’s career was launched. During the next year, Bly wrote pieces on divorce, working girls, and factory conditions—before being moved to cover fashion, society, gardening, and arts. Bly disliked these softer stories and, when she failed to break out of women’s news, quit the Dispatch in December 1885.

On February 24, 1886, she reappeared in the Dispatch under the headline “Nellie in Mexico.” This article was the first installment in a series of more than thirty articles chronicling her adventures south of the border. Bly later turned these pieces into her first book, Six Months in Mexico, but when she returned to Pittsburgh, the editors at the Dispatch again assigned her to cover the arts. She chaffed under these assignments, the last of which appeared March 20, 1887. Soon after, she left the staff this note: “I am off for New York. Look out for me.”

Four months and her life savings later, she was desperate. After borrowing cab fare from her landlady, Bly talked her way into the private office of the managing editor of Pulitzer’s New York World and into an assignment to get herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. The resulting story ran as the lead Sunday features on October 9 and 16, 1887. Bly’s byline appeared at the end of the first story, an honor rarely accorded veteran writers, and her name made the headline of the second installment, indicating that Bly had catapulted to journalistic stardom. Two months later, her book, Ten Days in a Mad-House , was published.

For the next two years, Bly became the leading “stunt girl” for the World , posing as a sinner needing reform to investigate the Magdalen Home for Unfortunate Women, pretending to be a patent medicine manufacturer’s wife to uncover corruption in state government, and getting herself arrested to spend the night in a co-ed jail. While many of her stunts were titillating and sensational, she often took the role of reformer, pointing out the needs of the downtrodden, unmasking con artists, and exposing legal and political biases. She was not a polished writer, but she had good instincts for framing questions to elicit powerful quotes and for telling compelling stories. Bly also usually managed to inject herself into her stories, frequently including quotes (provided by those people whom she interviewed) about her own winsome smile, pluck, and bravery.

On November 14, 1889, Bly set out to beat the fictional record of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg by circling the world in less than eighty days. Along the way, she charmed the French novelist—and the rest of the world—with accounts of danger, frustration, and exotic adventures. She completed her trip on January 25, 1890, in seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes, and fourteen seconds, arriving back in New York City amid cheers from thousands of well-wishers. On the Saturday that she returned, the World sold ten thousand more papers than it had on the previous Saturday. However, Bly thought that the newspaper failed to acknowledge her contribution to its popularity. She signed a three-year contract with Norman L. Munro to write serial fiction for his weekly New York Family Story Paper. No known record exists of Bly’s stories or their reception, but Bly’s letters to Erasmus Wilson indicate that she battled depression over the next three years.

On May 10, 1893, the World celebrated its tenth anniversary with synopses of its most memorable stories. The accounts mention only one reporter by name, Nellie Bly. Perhaps this retrospective caused the editors of the World to seek out Bly. On September 17, 1893, under the frontpage headline “Nellie Bly Again,” she returned to the stable of stunt reporters for the World . Among her best reporting was her coverage of the Pullman Palace Car Company strike of 1894, in which she sympathetically outlined the plight of workers who were living in company towns and at the mercy of company salaries and prices.

By 1895, still battling depression, Bly left the World for a five-week stint at the Chicago Times-Herald , and on April 5, 1895, Bly secretly wed Robert Livingston Seaman, a seventy-year-old New York industrialist. She was thirty-one. The couple’s first year together was stormy. His relatives opposed the match and caused enough trouble over money that Bly decided to reenter journalism, interviewing political figures about their views on marriage, covering the National Woman Suffrage Convention in Washington, D.C., and, in March 1896, proposing to recruit a regiment to fight for Cuba against Spain. The last story may have shaken Seaman enough to save her marriage. Her plan faded into oblivion, and by August, the Seamans had sailed for Europe, where they remained for the next three years, with Bly nursing her husband through deteriorating eyesight and Seaman changing his will to make her sole beneficiary. They returned to the United States in 1899 and lived quietly until Seaman died in 1904. By that time, Bly was immersed in running Seaman’s Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. By 1905, she held twenty-five patents in her own name. She designed, manufactured, and marketed the first successful steel barrel produced in the United States in a factory she strove to make a model of social welfare for her fifteen hundred employees. But she failed as a financial overseer. The Iron Clad Manufacturing Company fell prey to employees who embezzled perhaps as much as $1.6 million. In 1911, Bly faced a bankruptcy fight that would last for three years. To make ends meet, she worked intermittently for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

In 1914, four days after Austria declared war on Serbia, Bly set out for Vienna, seeking financing for her Iron Clad offshoot, American Steel Barrel Company, from wealthy Austrian friend Oscar Bondy. While her mission began as business, she recognized her journalistic opportunity and covered the early part of the war for the Journal. She became an Austrian supporter and stayed in Vienna until the end of the war, working for the welfare of widows and orphans.

In 1919, she returned to New York, where she wrote, for the Journal , an advice column that publicized her efforts to help unwed mothers and their children. By 1921, she told readers she had placed thousands of children in happy homes and provided thousands of unwed mothers with new chances. Bly died January 27, 1922.

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