05 May 2012

5 May - Nellie Bly

Born today in 1864 in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, to Michael and Mary Jane Cochran, a daughter, Elizabeth Jane, better known as “Nellie Bly”, intrepid investigative (read: sensationalist) reporter in the last part of the nineteenth century, whose most famous feat – bettering the travel time of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days” with her own time of 72 days – is for what she is most often remembered.  Much continues to be written about her, so I have culled some contemporary statements about the brave and plucky journalist.  As with most 19th century writing, there are a lot of words – 19th century writers didn’t do ‘sound bytes’ or even ‘word bytes’.

Her first report upon being hired by the New York newspaper The World, was the exposé of the shocking treatment of the insane at Bellevue, New York’s hospital for the mentally ill, which led to reforms both in examinations and determinations of insanity, and in the subsequent medical and physical treatment of the condemned person.   The Review of Reviews praised her report as “a striking account of the manner in which the great State lunatic asylum on Blackwell Island was being managed, or rather mismanaged, by those in authority…. Probably nothing that has appeared in any American newspaper ever attracted so much attention as did these revelations.”
W. T. Stead, The Review of Reviews, Vol VI, July-December 1892, p. 168

“Miss "Pink" Elizabeth Cochrane, who has gained a national reputation over her nom de plume of "Nellie Bly," is a Pittsburg girl, and it was in this city she made her entrance into journalism. Her writing, colloquial in style, is simple and pointed. Her letters from Mexico to the Pittsburg Dispatch, and her investigation, in the character of an insane pauper patient, into the inside workings and abuses at Ward's Island, New York, the account of which appeared in the New York World, securing for her a permanent position on that great newspaper—are her greatest journalistic feats. In person "Nellie Bly" is slender, quick in her movements, a brunette with a bright, coquettish face. Animated in conversation and quick in repartee, she is quite a favorite among the gentlemen.”
Adelaide M. Nevin, The Social Mirror: A Character Sketch of the Women of Pittsburg and Vicinity, (1888). p. 29

The World, in its self-laudatory “Almanac and Encyclopedia”, made special mention of Nellie’s exposure of “the wickedness of Saratoga” (as they called it), in which righteous indignation was levied at the gambling hells and the “wild reign of extravagance” by the fast set at “The Wickedest Summer Resort”!  It went on to enumerate more of their star female reporter’s exploits: “Nellie Bly performed a number of remarkable feats, many of which were of distinct service to the public. She interviewed at length young John Jacob Astor and learned his views on the obligations of wealth and the duty of millionaires as citizens; she visited the Delaware jail and described the whipping-post as she saw it there in operation; she took the Keeley cure at White Plains and explained the treatment in The Sunday ‘World”, and then she visited Athlete Muldoon at his sanitarium in the country. Nellie Bly likewise tried a bout with Pugilist Corbett and exposed the humbug of an alleged mind-reader and a magnetic girl who were astonishing New York.”
The (New York) World Almanac and Encyclopedia, Vol II, No. 16 (1895), pp 27-29. 

Her entry in American Women: Fifteen Hundred Biographies was equally admiring: “COCHRANE, Miss Elizabeth, author, journalist and traveler, known the world over by her pen-name, "Nellie Bly,"… She originated a new field in journalism, which has since been copied all over the world by her many imitators.  Her achievements since her asylum exposé have been many and brilliant.  Scarcely a week passed that she had not some novel feature in the "World."  Her fame grew and her tasks enlarged, until they culminated in the wonderful tour of the world in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds. … Since Miss Cochrane "girdled the globe," others have repeated the feat in less time.  Her newspaper work resulted in many reforms.  Her exposé of asylum abuses procured an appropriation of $3,000,000 for the benefit of the poor insane, in addition to beneficial changes in care and management.  Her exposé of the "King of the Lobby" rid Albany of its greatest disgrace; her stationhouse exposé procured matrons for New York police-stations; her exposé of a noted "electric" doctor's secret rid Brooklyn of a notorious swindler.  Miss Cochrane left journalism to do literary work for a weekly publication.  She is now a resident of New York.”
Frances E. Willard, ed., American Women: Fifteen Hundred Biographies (1897), p. 186-187

After her renowned trip around the world, the St. Louis-based Annan Burg & Co., celebrated by putting on the market a flour brand named “Nellie Bly.”

Not everyone thought that she was the greatest thing since sliced bread, however.  In Steps into Journalism: Helps and Hints for Young Writers, the author smirked: “A few examples will serve to show that as a rule something more than mere facility with the pen is required to attain the spectacular sort of fame that comes to the successful special writer. Nellie Bly has won her reputation by going to the bottom of New York harbor in a diver's suit, circling the globe alone in seventy-odd days, and performing similar daring tricks in the interest of the New York World and her own pocketbook.”
 Edwin L. Shuman, Steps into Journalism: Helps and Hints for Young Writers, (1894) p. 154

The Portland, Oregon High School graduating class of 1890 heard this advice: “By the greed of the press for mere sensation, the whole world has been convulsed—an innocent convulsion perhaps—because a young woman went around the world in seventy-five days!  The press sent her.  Was there a blessing to humanity in that?  Think of the unutterable joy to posterity to read that Nellie Bly went round the world in seventy-five days.  It is about as useful as standing on your head, and about as instructive as studying the time tables, not half so amusing as reading Jules Verne's novel.  He from the time tables made out the whole thing long ago, and gave his hero the interest of several thrilling delays.  Now young ladies, don't go home, pack your Saratogas and report to the nearest newspaper office. It won't do; that little sensation has served its turn. You must hunt up something novel, it makes no difference to the newspaper man what it is. You may go to Washington and slap President Harrison on the cheek, and be welcomed and achieve as much notoriety, perhaps, as Nellie Bly, and with just as much credit to yourself in my humble opinion.” 
C. E. S. Wood, "Address to the [High School] Graduating Class", in Seventeenth Annual Report of the City Superintendent of Public Schools, Portland Oregon, (1890), p. 57

The Literary Digest moaned “Have Women Degraded Journalism? “: “It is the sensational female reporter who signs her productions who has been disagreeably noticeable in recent years--the imitators of ‘Nellie Bly' of the New York World—the female who is sent to do startling things that would not be startling were they done by a man. The interest in such work is obviously not clean. A woman whose triumph in journalism is that she escapes alive with her item, her virtue, and her pencil, is scarcely a Martineau, and not, we should say, a heroine over whom even a New Woman, if at all thoughtful, can rejoice. … The newspaper office instead of being brought under woman's refining power by her admission to it seems to deprive her not only of that power, but to rob her of the wish to possess it.  If the tribe of ‘Kitty Keeneye’, ‘Nellie Bly', and ‘Giddy Gladys’… are what the New Woman has to offer us in journalism, we prefer to pause before welcoming what she is likely to give us in politics."
Wilfred J. Funk, ed., "Have Women Degraded Journalism?"  in The Literary Digest, Vol 13 (October 1896), p. 27

Some of her  exposés, while not failures, were not unmitigated successes either.  Attempting to show her readers how they were being swindled by highly-paid doctors, she visited seven of the brotherhood, asking for an examination then and there.  The report of the differing diagnoses, including tuberculosis, Bright’s Disease, extreme liver problems, and muscular atrophy, was duly printed in The World, and gleefully acknowledged as a sock in the eye of the medical establishment by the practitioners of homeopathic medicine, who had long been the target of the medical professionals as quacks to be legislated out of business.  An editorial in The Press (Philadelphia) begged to differ: “The real ignorance that Miss Bly's explorations expose is the superstition of the public that a doctor, by a few questions addressed to some one he never saw before, can determine the condition and care of that intricate organism, the human body,” and followed with, “it is well to remember that the practice of choosing a doctor, as Miss Bly did, by accident will lead to prescriptions given haphazard, and the impression that good advice can be had for the asking will lead to little advice worth taking. Yet we fear Miss Bly represents the average patient…”
College and Clinical Record, November 1889, p. 275

Her laudable attempt to expose the corruption of lobbyists in the state government, by entrapping one of the most successful of the lobbyists into admitting that he could have a bill defeated by payments to six state legislators (whom he supposedly named) led to an inquiry by the state judiciary committee, but its opinion was that the investigative reporter who went in, as she said, “telling a story to catch a story”, might have been fooled by an equally duplicitous person! “The stock in trade of a lobbyist consists in making a person believe that he can influence legislation by buying up legislators. He trades upon the wickedness of the few and the gullibility of the many.” 
Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York, Volume 10, No. 90 “Report of the Judicial Committee on the Investigation… in Reference to Charges Made in the New York World…”, (May 1, 1888) pp. 1-98 

Her most famous exploit, as mentioned, was the travel around the world in less than 80 days.  This was supposed to be done in emulation of Phileas Fogg, using only those conveyances available to the ordinary traveler.  She embarked from New York and headed east across the Atlantic.  Nine hours later, Miss Elizabeth Bisland of the monthly magazine “Cosmopolitan” headed west on the same journey.  The race was on!  Miss Bisland had bad luck in that she lost a day by going west, and also in missing her boat for her final ocean crossing.  However, there was just a chance that she might still arrive in New York before Miss Bly – Nellie was in San Francisco, but heavy winter storms had blocked portions of the train tracks, and there was no way to get to New York until they were cleared.

Joseph Pulitzer, the powerful owner and publisher of The World (and Nellie’s boss) refused to consider that he might lose to an unknown rag like the ‘Cosmopolitan’.  A special fast train was ordered so that Nellie could take the longer southern route and skirt the storm area – it was against the rules, but Pulitzer made the rules, and he could break them when he chose.  He was quoted as saying, “No man is so great that his place cannot be filled,” and that went for women as well.  A woman who made a living by impersonation and lying to get a story might not have caviled at a spot of cheating, especially when her paycheck was involved.  She got aboard the special fast train – definitely not available to ordinary travelers, who were left stranded in San Francisco – and triumphantly entered New York 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes after she had left.

The Warren Gazette noted that unlike Miss Bly, Miss Bisland did indeed play by the rules, and would have come in ahead, had both adhered to them.  “The employment of special trains is a confession of defeat.” 
Warren (Rhode Island) Gazette, 1 February 1890.  

Morally, perhaps.  But it isn’t how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose.

If you are interested in Miss Bly’s work, Nellie Bly Online has downloadable pdf pages of her articles in The World, along with “Around the World in 72 Days” and “Ten Days in a Madhouse”.