Women’s History Month: March
Aviators, Educators, Inventors, Journalists, Nurses, Physicians, Scientists, and Soldiers
“History is herstory, too.” ~Anonymous
Nellie Bly/Elizabeth Jane Cochran Seaman (1864-1922) was born in Cochrans Mill, Pennsylvania, to Judge Michael Cochran and his wife, Mary Jane; attended Indiana Normal boarding school briefly; and at age sixteen moved to Pittsburgh, where she was challenged by a put-down of women in the local newspaper. She fired off a steamy letter to the editor, who was so impressed by her verbal skill that he hired her and gave her the pseudonym Nellie Bly. She turned out to be a good investigative reporter. She wrote about the plight of female factory workers in America, then traveled to Mexico as a correspondent, and spent a half-year reporting on Mexican people and culture. Her dispatches were later compiled into a book Six Months in Mexico (1885). When Mexican authorities learned of Bly’s nonbiased reporting, they threatened her with arrest, which prompted her to leave the country.
Unable to get the assignments she wanted, Nellie left Pittsburgh (1887) for New York City, where she talked her way into Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and took an undercover assignment inside the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, Blackwell’s Island. She experienced conditions firsthand. The food was retching. Patients were restrained with ropes or made to sit on cold, hard benches. Not all were insane. The place was filthy; the bathwater, frigid. Nurses were verbally and physically abusive. After ten days, Nellie was released and wrote her report, later published as Ten Days in a Mad-House, a sensational read that brought her lasting fame. Afterward a grand jury launched its own investigation, recommending changes and increasing funds by almost a million dollars.
Nellie’s next creative idea (1888) was an around-the-world trip to test Jules Verne’s fictional Around the World in Eighty Days. A year later (14 November 1889) she boarded the Augusta Victoria, a steamer of the Hamburg America Line, and began her 25,000-mile journey. With her was an overnight bag, an overcoat, and a money pouch containing £200, some gold, and some American currency. A competing periodical, the Cosmopolitan sponsored its own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, headed in the opposing direction, to beat the time of both Phileas Fogg and Nellie Bly. The New York World organized a contest so readers could estimate Nellie’s arrival time, the grand prize being a free trip to Europe. On her travels Nellie passed through England, France (where she met Jules Verne), the Suez Canal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, and Japan. Submarine cables and electric telegraphs allowed her to report on her daily progress. Steamships and railroads were not so efficient; when she sailed into San Francisco two days late, the World’s owner, Joseph Pulitzer, chartered a private train to get her back East. She arrived 25 January 1890; it had been 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds since she’d left Hoboken unchaperoned. The Cosmopolitan’s Bisland was still circumnavigating. Though it was beat months later by George Francis Train (67 days), at the time Nellie’s trip was a world record. Around the World in Seventy-Two Days tells of her experience.
There is no doubt that Nellie had personality, which must have attracted admirers. She married (1895) millionaire manufacturer Robert Livingston Seaman, forty years her senior, retired from journalism, and became the president of a manufacturing company that made steel milk cans. In less than a decade (1904), the year her husband died, her company began manufacturing the 55-gallon oil drum still used today, which, possibly, she invented. She did register some patents under her married name: Seaman. For a time she was a leading industrialist, but she was not the financial wizard her husband had been. Experiencing setbacks, she returned to journalism, covering such stories as the women’s suffrage movement (1913) and the beginning of World War I (1914). She was the first woman to report the war from the Front. After someone gave her an Amerasian baby (1916), which she placed with an orphanage, she became more sensitized to social agencies and their needs, which she sought to address. She died prematurely, at age fifty-seven, of pneumonia. Each year the New York Press Club confers a journalism award in her name. She is featured on a US commemorative stamp (2002).
“I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall.” ~Nellie Bly
Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee