Nellie Bly – America’s First Undercover Journalist

Day 191 of Colourisation Project – November 14

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

On this day, November 14, 1889, a 25 year old female journalist, Nellie Bly on assignment for the New York World, set out to beat the efforts of Jules Verne’s fictional hero, Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days.

Bly circumnavigated the globe by ship, train, rickshaw and burro in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes, even fitting in afternoon tea with Jules Verne and his wife in Amiens, France. Along the way Bly’s international celebrity status was mounting. By the time she landed back in New York, she was a household name, guaranteeing newspaper sales as readers followed her progress.  Her adventure culminated in her book, Around in the World in Seventy-Two Days. Against all odds, Bly had beaten the record for the fastest person ever to circumnavigate the globe.

Photographer: H. J. Myers – Nellie Bly c 1890 – Coloured By Loredana Crupi

Born in 1864, Nellie Bly was the pseudonym of American journalist, Elizabeth Jane Cochrane. Recognised as a pioneer in investigative and undercover journalism, she wrote for several newspapers on many social issues, usually surrounding the plight of the poor and the vulnerable in particular, the working classes, women and immigrants in America. 

Bly began by writing for The Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885. How she secured her cadetship at a time when it was considered improper for women to seek employment in a man’s domain and when women still did not have the vote, is every journalist’s dream.

When she was 18, she wrote a letter-to-the-editor of the Pittsburg Dispatch denouncing a sexist article, ‘What Girls Are Good For‘ by Erasmus Wilson, in which he had called the working woman a ‘monstrosity.’ Wilson further stated, “There is no greater abnormality than a woman in breeches, unless it is a man in petticoats.”  Bly signed an excoriating rebuttal to Wilson mysoginistic piece, ‘Lonely Orphan Girl‘.

Impressed by the zeal of the anonymous writer, the paper’s editor ran an ad asking her to identify herself. Bly presented herself at the newspaper’s office and was hired almost immediately, taking on the pen name Nellie Bly, after the song with the same name (different spelling) by Stephen Foster.  It was a common practice for female writers at the time to use pen names. In the 1880s, the newspaper business was all but closed to women.

Bly was doing a ‘man’s job’ better than a lot of her male colleagues. Her writing went beyond the scope of the ‘women’s pages’. Her investigative stories made her an inspiration to other women of the time. Her early articles for the Dispatch had a clear feminist and working class bent and she would go to great lengths for a good story, whether as her obituary noted, “it was down into the sea in a diving bell or up in the air in a balloon.”

Bly became prominent for her modus operandi which launched a new kind of investigative journalism. For her series of articles on working women, Bly posed as a sweatshop worker in order to investigate the dire working conditions endured by female factory workers.

On a six month assignment in Mexico, what was meant to be a travelogue quickly turned into a stinging review of the Mexican government, exposing the corruption and the miserable conditions of the poor. Bly soon found herself in hot water and under threat of incarceration for reporting on the arrest of another journalist who criticized the government.  She was duly asked to leave the country. Safely home, she denounced Mexico’s president, as a tyrannical czar suppressing the Mexican people and controlling the press. Her dispatches were later collected and published into the book, Six Months In Mexico (1885).

Two years later, Bly moved to New York City, where Joseph Pulitzer hired her for his newspaper, the New York World. For her first assignment at the World, Bly feigned mental illness for an exposé of the notorious Bellevue Mental Asylum on Blackwell Island, (now Roosevelt Island)

She had herself admitted as an inmate at the asylum for 10 days, during which she observed cruelty in physical beatings, ice cold baths, forced meals of stale food including rancid butter, rat infestations, and general neglect and abuse by the nurses. Her series on Bellevue highlighting these horrendous conditions was later compiled into a book, Ten Days in a Madhouse (1887), immediately causing a sensation and bringing Bly lasting fame but more importantly her report of what was happening behind the walls of Bellevue prompted public and political action, which ultimately led to reform of the institution and in health-care generally.  

As a young reporter pioneering a new style of journalism she attracted much unwanted professional jealously from her male counterparts who labelled her work ‘stunt reporting.’ Bly was only 23 years of age. Always on the side of the poor and the disenfranchised, Bly exposed corruption and injustice in high places as well as the rough treatment of women prisoners by the police and the inadequate medical care given to the poor.

At the age of 30, Bly married a very wealthy 70-year-old industrialist named Robert Seaman and retired from reporting. Why someone 40 years her senior? I haven’t been able to ascertain but that’s a story for another blog. Needless to say, she lived a relatively happy life as a New York City matron until her husband died ten years later. She ran her husband’s business and for a time she was one of the leading female industrialists in the United States, however embezzlement by employees led her into bankruptcy. At this point Bly made a return to journalism at the age of 50.

In 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, Bly risked her own life as a war correspondent at the front-lines, reporting on the human cost of war, thus becoming America’s first female reporter to ever do so.

Nellie Bly died of pneumonia at St. Mark’s Hospital in New York City in 1922, at age 57, having continued writing her column for The New York Evening Journal right up until her death.

The following day, The Evening Journal carried a tribute, declaring Nellie Bly ‘The Best Reporter In America.’

Her trailblazing life-story has been made into musicals, films and books. In 1998, Nellie Bly was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and each year the New York Press Club confers a ‘Nellie Bly Cub Reporter’ award to acknowledge the best journalistic effort by an individual with three years or less professional experience.


 An exchange between Nellie Bly and her editor after she presented her idea to circumnavigate the globe:

“It is impossible for you to do it. In the first place you are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes. Besides you speak nothing but English, so there is no use talking about it; no one but a man can do this.”

“Very well. Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”   –                                                                                    

                         Nellie Bly  –  Around in the World in Seventy-Two Days

This entry was posted in Colorization, Colourisation, Photography, Women, Women in Literature, Women writers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Nellie Bly – America’s First Undercover Journalist

  1. Pingback: Jules Verne – Patron Saint of Science Fiction | Random Phoughts

  2. Allison Davis says:

    Nellie Bly is and was a very fascination person, she broke all records and will be know especially for the fact that she was a girl!

    Liked by 1 person

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