Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Nellie Bly, a Groundbreaking Investigative Journalist

Elizabeth Jane Cochran ("Nellie Bly"), investigative reporter (died 27 January 1922)

Over the course of my long teaching career, I had many women students in my classes who were preparing themselves for a career in journalism. Few of them knew about any of their predecessors--not Nancy Dickerson or Nancy Maynard, much less Ida B. Wells or Margaret Fuller. Even fewer had ever heard the name of Nellie Bly.

Nellie Bly,
c. 1890
Born in 1864, Elizabeth Jane Cochrane first wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Her series of articles on the plight of female factory workers led her to New York--and an undercover investigative assignment in a "woman's lunatic asylum" for the New York World. She published a book recounting this harrowing experience, Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887).

Bly's next and most famous exploit was also undertaken for the tabloid, her seventy-two-day around-the-world trip inspired by Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. She left New York on 14 November 1889 and landed in San Francisco on 21 January 1890. She published Around the World in Seventy-Two Days (1890) shortly after her return.

She retired from journalism when she married in 1895. After the death of her husband, in 1904, Bly returned to reporting, covering the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913 and covering World War I while on the Eastern Front.

For a brief essay on Bly from the National Women's History Museum, click here. There are many biographies, but you might start with Sue Macy's Bylines: A Photobiography of Nellie Bly (with a foreward by Linda Ellerbee, herself a noteworthy model of journalistic accomplishment).

There is also a PBS documentary, Around the World in 72 Days, filmed as part of the American Experience series. This used to be freely available for viewing at the PBS website, but now you seem to need a subscription to view it--the video is posted on YouTube, however (probably illegally), although you should be able to find it there  if you are persistent).