Sunday, April 8, 2012

Elizabeth Cochran, a.k.a. Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly c. 1890
Nellie Bly (1864 - 1922) was the pen name of pioneer female journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who was first noticed and hired by a newspaper editor after she wrote a strong letter to the editor in response to a sexist article. According to Wikipedia, "The editor was so impressed with Cochran's earnestness and spirit that he asked the man who wrote the letter to join the paper. When he learned the man was Cochran he refused to give her the job, but she was a good talker and persuaded him. Female newspaper writers at that time customarily used pen names, and for Cochran the editor chose 'Nellie Bly', adopted from the title character in the popular song 'Nelly Bly' by Stephen Foster."

Bly, who lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the time, was naturally inclined to cover stories of working women and the labor conditions of female factory workers. In rebellion against the pressure from her employer to cover home-and-garden sort of topics, she quit her job and moved to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent to the newspaper. Never one to hold back, she wrote critically of the dictator Porfirio Díaz, and then had to move back to the U.S. after being threatened with arrest. She was once again assigned typical women's stories and in frustration left the newspaper and moved to New York City.

After a few months barely scraping by in New York, Bly found work doing an undercover investigative assignment for the New York World. As a groundbreaker in the field of investigative reporting, she was to feign insanity in order to be committed to the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island). The asylum had a reputation on the street for brutality and neglect, and Bly was to observe conditions first hand in the role of an inmate, and then write an exposé. The year was 1884, and she was now a mere 20 years old. Her work was first published in the World, and then she republished it as a book to satisfy the demand of a public who were asking for copies.

In order to ensure that she would gain entrance to the asylum, Bly practiced the behavior and mannerisms of insane persons. She then, continuing her strategy, checked into a working-class women's boarding house on lower Second Avenue (see footnote). There she conducted herself in such a way that the home's matron called the police, and Bly appeared before a judge and convinced him she was insane.

In her own words:
I took upon myself to enact the part of a poor, unfortunate crazy girl, and felt it my duty not to shirk any of the disagreeable results that should follow. I became one of the city's insane wards for that length of time, experienced much, and saw and heard more of the treatment accorded to this helpless class of our population, and when I had seen and heard enough, my release was promptly secured. I left the insane ward with pleasure and regret–pleasure that I was once more able to enjoy the free breath of heaven; regret that I could not have brought with me some of the unfortunate women who lived and suffered with me, and who, I am convinced, are just as sane as I was and am now myself. 
But here let me say one thing: From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget.
Her first stop was Bellevue Hospital where she was to be evaluated, and then was transported on a boat -- under awful conditions -- to the asylum on Blackwell's Island.  Both hospital and asylum were freezing cold, food for the patients was scant and atrocious, and nurses kept inmates awake all night by talking and clomping around in loud shoes. But most egregious of all was what seemed to be a common practice by doctors of declaring women insane who likely were only down on their luck, based upon only the most cursory verbal examinations. Bly was deemed "hopelessly insane," a diagnosis arrived at after a simple conversation a doctor held with her during which she did nothing in particular to "act insane." She reported that she overheard other patients being asked similar questions, answering as any normal person would, and also being deemed insane. Bly wrote, "After this, I began to have a smaller regard for the ability of doctors than I ever had before, and a greater one for myself."

Bly wrote up many details of the treatment and incidents she witnessed at the asylum, and her work "Ten Days in a Mad-House" can be read at With no special journalistic training, she had taken on a distasteful and even dangerous assignment and aced the tricky job of simultaneously pretending to be a real inmate while also staying aware and observant of others at all times. Her write-up makes an engrossing read and gives us tremendous insight to the status of women, particularly those in the working class, in the latter part of the 19th century.

And her work had tremendous impact. The public soaked it up and politicians were put in the hot seat. When she republished her work in book format she noted in an introduction:
SINCE my experiences in Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum were published in the World I have received hundreds of letters in regard to it. The edition containing my story long since ran out, and I have been prevailed upon to allow it to be published in book form, to satisfy the hundreds who are yet asking for copies.
I am happy to be able to state as a result of my visit to the asylum and the exposures consequent thereon, that the City of New York has appropriated $1,000,000 more per annum than ever before for the care of the insane. So I have at least the satisfaction of knowing that the poor unfortunates will be the better cared for because of my work.

In another major adventure, in 1890, Nellie Bly took on a challenge to compete against another female author to beat, for real, the fictional record set by Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days -- and on the 73rd day after her departure she won the challenge by arriving back at her Hoboken, New Jersey starting-point after making her way around the planet almost completely unchaperoned.

In 1895 she married a man 40 years her senior, a wealthy industrialist, and after his death she became an industrialist and inventor (of the 55-gallon oil drum still in use) in her own right. But after being bankrupted by employee embezzlement, she returned to reporting, covering the women's suffrage movement, and the action on the Eastern front in World War I. She also had a continuing interest in the plight of the downtrodden in society, and adopted or looked after a number of orphaned children.

In 1922, at the age of 57, Nellie Bly died of pneumonia, but her spirit lives on and she set in motion a huge legacy of exposing greed and incompetence in order to better the circumstances of those "at the bottom" of society. In 1998 she was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame, and in 2002 she was one of four female journalists honored with a U.S. postage stamp. A New York Press Club award bears her name, an amusement park is named after her, and a "4-D" film has been shown in the Annenberg Theater in Washington, D.C. dramatizing her experience in the asylum.

FOOTNOTE: The Temporary Home for Females was located at 84 Second Avenue. It was actually a web search for "84 Second Avenue" out of my interest in that building itself that led me to the story of Nellie Bly. The building at that address is only a few doors away from where I live and has been an object of my interest since I moved to my current location in 1977. Several people have written articles or blog posts about the place, and I do have more to add to what folks have thus far recorded, being one of very few people who have actually  been inside the building and talked to its present-day occupant. Another day I will take up that topic (and will try to remember to come back and add a link here).