On a dreary winter night in Pittsburgh, 1885, a dispirited father wrote the Pittsburgh Dispatch asking what to do with his five unmarried daughters. The paper responded with an editorial explaining that women were only good for housework, and that America must have sunk pretty low if a father didn’t have time to find suitable husbands for his daughters. On January 25, a 2000-word letter to the editor came in from “Orphan Girl.” The letter, titled “The Girl Puzzle,” had a pretty simple suggestion: give girls the same opportunity as boys.
“If girls were boys, quickly would it be said: start them where they will. They can, if ambitious, win a name and fortune…Let a youth start as an errand boy and he will work his way up until he is one of the firm. Girls are just as smart, a great deal quicker to learn, can they not do the same?”
The astonished editors at the Pittsburgh Dispatch demanded that the author identify herself. They were soon introduced to the 20 year-old Elizabeth Jane Cochrane. But the world would soon know the Dispatch‘s newest journalist by a different name: Nellie Bly.
Bly may have been a trailblazing feminist in the cigar-chomping era of male journalism and an early muckraker of the Gilded Age, but most impressive about her is how spellbindingly her stories hold up well over a century later. She was a New Journalist many decades ahead of her time – inserting herself into ludicrous situations, handled with humor, frankness, and highly sensible internal monologues. She became the protagonist of her stories, so that readers could feel closer to society’s larger ails on which she reported. During her race around the globe her own journey became the stuff of international legend. If Nellie Bly were here today, she would annihilate the competition at The Moth’s Story SLAMs.
Take her first masterpiece, “Behind Asylum Bars,” written in 1887. Like so many young aspirants, Nellie showed up in the big city with dreams that were immediately kicked to the curb. After four months in New York she had no job, having gotten only a few freelance assignments, and was fast running out of cash. She smooth-talked her way into the offices of the New York World, then the biggest paper in town, offering to write about whatever they wanted. An editor suggested that she sneak into Blackwell’s Island, a frightening collection of insane asylums and prisons on today’s Roosevelt Island.
From the outset of her descent into fake madness, Bly is confronted with the conundrum of how to appear insane enough to be committed to an asylum, but not so insane that one of the many gatekeepers between her and Blackwell’s Island will see through her ruse. Her first act was to convince a women’s boarding house owner to call the cops on her, for which she relied on exaggerated paranoia”
“They all look crazy,” I asserted again, “and I am afraid of them. There are so many crazy people about, and one can never tell what they will do. Then there are so many murders committed, and the police will never catch the murderers,” and I finished with a sob that would have broken up an audience of blasé critics. She gave a sudden and convulsive start, and I knew my first stroke had gone home.
Nellie terrifies her roommates at the boarding house, berates police officers for not finding her “lost luggage” and finds herself in court before an overly sympathetic judge, who looked upon the well-dressed young woman and lamented, “I am positive she is somebody’s darling.” (The judge’s dead sister apparently looked just like Bly.) Bly got herself committed to Bellevue, where, having convinced a phalanx of doctors that she was indeed insane, she was put on a boat to Blackwell’s Island. It would be her home for the next ten days.
INSIDE THE MADHOUSE
Nellie Bly’s Experience in the Blackwell’s Island Asylum
CONTINUATION OF THE STORY OF TEN DAYS WITH LUNATICS
How the City’s Unfortunate Wards Are Fed and Treated
THE TERRORS OF COLD BATHS AND CRUEL, UNSYMPATHETIC NURSES
Attendants Who Harass and Abuse Patients and Laugh at Their Miseries
If Nellie Bly were Kobe Bryant, the New York World would be her Phil Jackson, a mad genius operation perfectly designed to harness and nurture her mad genius. The World, helmed by Joseph Pulitzer since 1883, was rewriting the rules for sensationalism, and was rewarded with the country’s biggest circulation, the first newspaper to crack a million copies sold daily. Bly’s story probably would have been a hit anywhere, but the World fed the hype, leaving readers hanging just as her boat heads for Blackwell’s Island. After this story, Bly became one of the World‘s only journalists to consistently receive her own byline, and the paper supported her maverick schemes, letting Nellie be Nellie.
I will resist the urge to summarize Bly’s ten-day incarceration, which is many pages long. Why subject you to a cover version when you can go on the Internet and read the original? Ultimately her story caused such a stir that new funding and reform measures were enacted to reduce the misery at Blackwell’s Island.
Bly’s womanhood took her investigative journalism down different paths than her male peers, like working at all-female box factory, where she hauntingly warns of the cramped, ventilation-free conditions where, “In case of fire there was practically no escape.” (The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was still 24 years away.)
A more amusing tale especially bears telling this week, as New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos has been arrested for corruption, fulfilling his destiny as a New York state political leader. In Bly’s “King of the Lobby,” she puts on a marvelous act as a dumb, rich wife of a medicine manufacturer. Seeking out Edward Phelps, New York’s most legendary lobbyist, she promises him large sums of money to stop a bill that secretly both she and he know has already been stopped.
“I’ll kill that bill,” Phelps promises. “It will take money, you know.” When Bly explains how much money she can budget for the endeavor, Phelps rattles off the Assemblymen under his thumb, “[W]e can buy Gallagher, of Erie; Tallmadge, of Kings; Prime, of Essex; De Witt, of Ulster; Hagan, of New York, and McLaughlin of Kings.” And that was just one committee! Of course, these days, you only have to buy the leader, so business might actually be more affordable. Bly strings the sucker along for days, picking up choice quotes like, “I have control of the House and can pass or kill any bill that so pleases me. Next week I am going to pass some bills and I’ll get $10,000 for it. I often get that and more to pass or kill a bill.” Though a subsequent Grand Jury was unable to find enough hard evidence to indict the legislators mentioned in Bly’s story, it praised Bly’s work, noting, “A professional lobbyist is a plague spot upon the body politic.”
During this era of gender oppression, for a woman to succeed in a man’s profession was itself an act of feminism, whether or not she explicitly advocated for equality. Bly did both. Her subjects ranged from the political, such as her spotlight on Belva Lockwood, the first woman to run for president (Equal Rights Party, 1884), to more whimsical social issues, like whether women should propose to men (Bly “Advances Arguments in the Affirmative.”). Remarkably, 120 years later, Hillary Clinton remains the first and only woman to be seriously considered for the presidency, and women are generally still not expected to propose.
Bly’s entire interview with Susan B. Anthony is a gem:
(The passage below is a truncated excerpt)
“Are you afraid of death?”
“I don’t know anything about Heaven or hell or whether I will ever meet my friends again or not. But as no particle of matter is ever lost, I have a feeling that no particle of mind is ever lost…”
“Then don’t you find life tiresome?”
“Oh, mercy, no! I don’t want to die just as long as I can work. The minute I can’t, I want to go…”
“Do you think women should propose?
“Yes! If she can see a man she can love. She has the right to propose today that she did not some years ago because she has become a breadwinner. Once a proposal from a woman would have meant, ‘Will you please support me, sir?’ I think woman will make better choices than man. She’ll know quicker what man will suit her and whether he loves her and she loves him.”
On the topic of bicycling…
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” Miss Anthony said, leaning forward and laying a slender hand on my arm. “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”
“What do you think the new woman will be?”
“She’ll be free. Then she’ll be whatever her best judgment wants to be. We can no more imagine what the true woman will be than we can what the true man will be.”
“Who is the greatest woman of our time?”
“Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”
“I just want to add one more thing,” she said. “Once men were afraid of women with ideas and a desire to vote. Today our best suffragists are sought in marriage by the best class of men…”
Anthony and Sacagawea may soon be joined in the female currency caucus by Harriet Tubman, who would replace Andrew Jackson, surely the weakest of the regularly used bills, though McKinley ($500) and Cleveland ($1,000) are no hot shakes either.
All of this brings us to Nellie Bly’s finest moment, her epic race around the world against fictional character Phileas Fogg. Unlike the asylum idea, the idea to travel around the world faster than 80 days was entirely a Nellie Bly concoction. She finally won over her editor, who was originally skeptical that a woman could accomplish the journey, given her supposed need for a personal escort and numerous suitcases. Bly returned the next morning with her belongings condensed to a single bag, her description of packing conjuring up fond memories of hostel life. To rely on a single bag for her expected 72 days, she would need a new, durable dress, and she would need it that night. This is how she got the tailor to make it for her right away:
I always have a comfortable feeling that nothing is impossible if one applies a certain amount of energy in the right direction. What I want things done, which is always at the last moment, and I am met with such an answer: “It’s too late. I hardly think it can be done;” I simply say:
“Nonsense! If you want to do it, you can do it. The question is, do you want to do it?”
I have never met the man or woman yet who was not aroused by that answer into doing their very best.
The world was a very different place in 1889. Obviously we all know that intuitively, but how many contemporary accounts have we read? A whip-smart, educated, largely untraveled journalist with a habit of saying what’s on her mind, with all the cultural sensitivity you would expect out of a white American in 1889, Bly is a less sanitized guide than a history book, and she offers a mesmerizing, jarring portrait of an unconnected Earth.
In Italy she has to explain where New York is to a cable operator. In the Gulf of Aden she buys ostrich eggs from Jewish boat merchants and compares Somali boy swimmers to flying fish. She was delayed for five days in Sri Lanka, thought by some at the time to be the inspiration for the Garden of Eden, and in Singapore she buys a monkey, who accompanies her the rest of the way.
I won’t spoil the ending (you can read the whole series here), but by the time she lands on American shores, with an entire railroad line devoted to her quest, she has become an international celebrity, enormous crowds greeting her at every station. In perhaps the most poignant moment of the journey, she meets the French-speaking Jules Verne, and the pair, by candlelight in Verne’s library, silently trace Bly’s route across the world on a map containing Phileas Fogg’s. The World, ever the faithful cheerleaders, ran updates relentlessly on her progress, offered a free trip to Europe to whoever could get guess her exact arrival time to the closest minute, and even created a board game based on her trip.
Were she not dead 93 years, and were I not engaged, it would be easy enough to fall in love with this character. Bly was still in her 20s when she married a much older man, and gave up journalism to help run his manufacturing business. She took over when he died in 1904, and though she had her high points, like inventing a new type of oil drum, she eventually ran into legal trouble, just as World War I broke out across Europe. Part fleeing legal judgments against her, part to get back in the game, Bly found her way to the Austrian/Russian front, reporting from Budapest and nearby battle scenes. Her writing is provocatively anti-war, as every hospital scene and every terrifying mortar attack makes war seem as horrible as it really is. Her last dispatch closed, “Travel the roads from the scene of battlefield; search the trains; wounded, frozen, starved thousands are dying by agonizing torture – not hundreds, but thousands. And as they die, thousands are being rushed into their pest-filled trenches to be slaughtered in the same way. Oh, we Christians!”
Bly’s last cause was using her advice column to find orphans foster homes. She died in 1924. But today we celebrate her birth.
Happy birthday, Nellie Bly! You turn 151 today. Thank you Google, for giving Bly a much deserved shout-out, and thank you, Yeah Yeah Yeahs front-woman Karen O, for the nice ditty.
The professor who penned the foreword to Bly’s collected writings said that every semester students contacted her wanting to learn more about Bly, and that those students were universally female. Hopefully, after today that will no longer be the case. And as far as this little site is concerned, in addition to all of Bly’s other accolades, she is an easy call as a Hall of Fame New Yorker.