What an amazing 58 years Nellie Bly spent on this earth. Born in Pennsylvania in 1864, she pioneered investigative journalism, made one of the fastest around the world trips, owned factories which produced her own designs of steel barrels and was the first woman to report from the Eastern Front in World War 1. It’s amazing she has not been the subject of popular attention and to this day remains relatively unknown.
At 18 years of age, Nellie read a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled ”What Girls Are Good For”. The article criticised women who wanted an education or career and it so incensed Nellie that she wrote a scathing letter to the editor under the name ‘lonely orphan girl”. The editor liked her letter so much he invited her for a job interview. After convincing him she could “write with the spirit of any man” Nellie was offered her first job.
She began writing about her passion – the plight of working class mothers. Her articles were always written in the first person and were lively and engaging. But soon she was placed on “women’s pages” writing about subjects such as fashion and gardening. This didn’t hold her interest for long and so at only 21 Nellie went to Mexico to work as a foreign correspondent for the Pittsburgh Dispatch . She wrote a book titled Six Months in Mexico but was threatened with arrest as her writing uncovered many injustices inflicted by the ruling dictatorship. So she returned to New York.
Ten Days in a Mad House
Her most famous book is titled Ten Days in a Mad House. On leaving Mexico she decided to investigate the plight of women in mental asylums, and for the sake of the story had herself committed to New York City’s worst mental institution located on an island in the harbour. The book tells of the horrific conditions and cruel treatment suffered by these women, many of whom were completely sane. On release from the asylum, she accompanied a Grand Jury to tour the facilities, which prompted lasting changes and increased funding to ensure these women were treated with dignity.
Around the world in less than 80 days
The following year Nellie made her famous journey around the world inspired by the Jules Verne novel Around The World in 80 Days. She said “the idea of a trip around the world pleased me and I added: If I could do it as quickly as Phileas Fogg did, I should go.” She used steamships and railway systems to complete her journey. She travelled to many exotic locations reporting on her experience along the way. She even met Jules Verne in France. Seventy-two days, six hours and eleven minutes after her departure, Nellie arrived back in New York.
Marriage and Business
At age 30 she married Robert Searman who was 40 years her senior and a mutli-millionaire. Reports of the marriage are odd. They met on a train only two weeks prior to being wed, and the first year was a rollercoaster with Searman spying on Bly and reneging on prenuptial agreements. However a move to Europe seemed to calm the marriage and they spent three happy years there.
Bly and Searman then headed back to the US and Bly took over the management of one of the family businesses, Iron Clad Manufacturing Company that made steel containers such as milk cans. She built the business and managed its 1500 employees and was known as a pioneer in worker’s rights. Nellie instituted weekly wages and better conditions and equipment for workers. By the time Robert Searman died in 1899 she had many industrial patents for new products and had quadrupled the business. However she trusted the company finances to her advisors and accountants and paid little attention to these details. The company went bankrupt and Nelly went back to reporting.
Bly reported on the women’s suffrage movement and also became America’s first female war correspondent. While on a trip to Austria to visit a friend, she was contacted by a newspaper and asked to report about life at the front. Her quick holiday soon became a five year tour of duty.
Up until her passing away in New York in 1922 of pneumonia, Nellie continued to write her columns about the plight of unfortunate women and children. The Evening Journal carried a report celebrating her as “The Best Reporter in America”.
Read: Nellie Bly – Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist by Brooke Kroeger and Ten Days in a Mad House by Nellie Bly.
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