The Story of Nellie Bly, the Woman Who Revolutionized Journalism


| LAST UPDATE 07/09/2023

By Riley Hammond

Nellie Bly was no ordinary woman. She had a knack for making headlines and challenging what people thought was possible. Who was Nellie Bly, and how did she make such a big mark on history? Let's find out.

Who Was Nellie Bly?

In a time when women were expected to be quiet and follow the rules, there was one woman who refused to fit in. Her name was Nellie Bly, and she would become a famous journalist whose work still inspires people today.

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Nellie Bly was a woman full of secrets. As a young journalist, she managed to sneak into a mental hospital, reveal jaw-dropping truths about what she witnessed, and traveled around the entire world faster than anyone else before her, breaking records as she went.

Early Life

Born as Elizabeth Cochran in the gritty industrial town of Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania, her early years of life were far from easy. When she was just six, her father passed away, leaving the family to struggle with money. But instead of breaking her, these tough times seemed to make her stronger.

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She grew up with a burning determination not just to survive, but to shake things up and make a real difference. But the question remains: how did this simple small-town girl evolve into Nellie Bly, the renowned, fearless reporter? The answer lies tucked away in her series of intriguing adventures...

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Getting Into Journalism

Nellie Bly's entry into the world of journalism wasn't just a career choice; it was a daring leap into uncharted territories. Remember how we mentioned society had different expectations of women back then? Well, in an era where women were rarely seen in newsrooms, Bly was not one to be deterred.

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One day, she stumbled upon an article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, which suggested that women were best suited for domestic chores. Infuriated, Bly penned a fiery rebuttal under the pseudonym "Lonely Orphan Girl." Her words were so compelling and full of conviction that the editor was intrigued, seeking out this mysterious writer.

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Adopting a Pen Name

People loved Elizabeth Jane Cochran's articles. Her words stirred thoughts and sparked conversations, making her quite popular among readers. As she began to write more frequently, Elizabeth felt the need for a permanent pen name – a signature that readers could associate with her work.

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Nellie Bly, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hence, "Nellie Bly" was born. But this new name was more than just a cool alias. It stood for Elizabeth's gutsy journalism style, and her commitment to telling stories that mattered. And so, with a pen in her hand and a new name to sign off her pieces, Nellie Bly was ready to change the world of journalism.

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Moving to New York City

In 1887, Nellie Bly moved to New York City, a decision driven by her ambition to make it big in the world of journalism. As a young woman in a male-dominated industry, she faced numerous challenges. Not only was the city overwhelming, but finding work was also difficult.

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Despite several rejections, her determination didn't waver. She talked her way into the office of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, and took on an undercover assignment at a mental institution, a daring move that established her as a pioneer in investigative journalism.

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Women in the 19th Century

Back then, society had its own set rules, and women were expected to just follow along. Most couldn't vote, let alone have a career. But Nellie Bly? She wasn't about to let these societal norms dictate her life. Her articles often highlighted the struggles of ordinary women, giving a voice to those who were unheard.

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Through her work, she painted a vivid picture of the challenges women faced during that time - from poor working conditions to limited rights. By doing so, she not only informed people about these issues but also sparked conversations around them, making her readers think twice about what was considered "normal."

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Decision to Investigate Asylums

She had a knack for seeing stories where others didn't. But her decision to investigate asylums? That was a whole new level of brave. You see, back in the 1800s, mental institutions were dark and mysterious places. People knew little about what happened behind those closed doors, and frankly, most were too scared to find out.

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But not Nellie. She saw an opportunity to shed light on the mistreatment happening in these institutions. She believed that the public deserved to know the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. So, she took a deep breath, put on a disguise, and walked straight into an asylum, risking her life to tell a story that needed to be told.

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Going Undercover

Nellie Bly knew that going undercover in an asylum wasn't going to be a walk in the park. It required both mental and physical preparation. She trained herself to withstand the lack of food, sleep, and comfort that she'd have to face. She also had to practice her acting skills, as she'd need to convincingly portray a mentally ill patient to avoid detection.

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But more than anything else, Nellie prepared herself for the emotional toll this assignment could take. She knew she might see things that could haunt her, hear stories that could break her heart. But she was ready to bear it all. Because she knew that her work could bring about change, could make life better for those trapped in such institutions.

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The Journey Begins

In 1877, with a pounding heart and a firm resolve, she walked through the daunting doors of the asylum. The sights and sounds that greeted her were far from welcoming. The eerie silence was punctuated by the distant cries of inmates, and the air was heavy with a mix of despair and neglect.

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But Nellie didn't falter. As she delved deeper into the labyrinth of the asylum, she bore witness to the horrors hidden from public view. It was worse than she'd anticipated, but this only fueled her determination. She was here to expose the truth, no matter how unsettling it might be.

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A Harsh Reality

Living in Blackwell's Island Asylum wasn't just tough; it was a daily battle for survival. Each day was a monotonous cycle of misery. The inmates were subjected to inhumane conditions, their basic needs often ignored. They were given meager meals, the sanitary conditions were appalling, and many inmates suffered from untreated illnesses.

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Then there was the mental and emotional torment. The asylum staff treated the inmates not as individuals in need of care, but as burdens to be managed. There was little empathy or understanding shown towards the inmates, and any form of protest or resistance was met with brutal punishment.

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Maltreatment of Patients

Yet amidst all this, Nellie Bly persevered. She bore witness to these grim realities, documenting each detail with a journalist's keen eye. Her experiences in the asylum were harrowing, but she knew they were necessary. This was her mission, and she was prepared to endure whatever it took to see it through.

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Nellie Bly's observations were eye-opening. They revealed the true nature of the institution, a place where corruption and cruelty were the order of the day. By living through these harsh conditions, she was able to uncover the truth about life in asylums, a truth that would eventually lead to much-needed reforms.

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Encounters with Asylum Staff

In addition to all of this, interactions with the asylum staff were far from comforting; they were a stark reflection of the deep-rooted corruption within Blackwell's Island Asylum. Nellie Bly's encounters with these individuals painted a disturbing picture of the institution's inner workings.

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The staff, rather than being caregivers, were more like prison wardens. They ruled with an iron fist, using fear and intimidation as their primary tools of control. Their treatment of the patients was marked by a shocking lack of empathy and understanding.

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Risk of Exposure

Throughout her investigation there were numerous instances when Nellie teetered on the edge of exposure, moments that threatened to shatter her carefully constructed façade and reveal her true identity. A slip of the tongue, a suspicious glance, or an unguarded reaction could have spelled disaster for her mission.

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One such instance was when a fellow patient, who claimed to be a former newspaper reporter, grew suspicious of Bly's curious nature and keen observational skills. Another time, a staff member questioned the authenticity of her feigned madness, forcing Bly to convincingly play the part of a mentally ill patient.

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Escaping the Asylum

After days of unimaginable torment, the moment for Bly's release finally arrived - but the process was far from straightforward. Every step towards freedom was fraught with uncertainty and potential danger. Would she be discovered at the last moment? Would her exit be blocked by those who wished to keep the asylum's secrets buried?

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Despite these fears, Bly remained undeterred. When she finally stepped beyond the asylum's imposing gates, it was more than just a physical release. It marked the end of her ordeal, but more importantly, it signaled the beginning of a much-needed conversation about mental health care and patient rights.

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Public Reaction to her Exposé

The public reaction to Nellie Bly's exposé was nothing short of explosive. People were appalled by the conditions she described in the asylum. The tales of abuse, neglect, and inhumane treatment were a stark contrast to the image of care and support that such institutions were supposed to provide.

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Her exposé sparked widespread discussions about mental health and the treatment of those suffering from mental illnesses. It highlighted the urgent need for reforms, and calls for change echoed throughout society. People were demanding better oversight, stricter regulations, and more humane treatment of patients.

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Reforms Initiated

In the aftermath of her report, local authorities were compelled to act. They launched investigations into the practices at Blackwell's Island Asylum and other similar institutions. These probes further corroborated Bly's findings, adding weight to her claims and intensifying the demand for change.

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The reforms initiated were both immediate and far-reaching. Funding for mental health care was significantly increased, enabling improvements in living conditions, food quality, and overall patient care within asylums. Staffing changes were also implemented, with a greater emphasis placed on hiring compassionate, competent caregivers.

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Protests Continue

Moreover, the revelations led to stricter regulations and oversight regarding the treatment of patients in such facilities. Policies were established to ensure regular inspections, and mechanisms were put in place to address complaints of abuse or neglect.

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But most importantly, her work led to a shift in societal attitudes towards mental illness. It brought this issue into the public discourse, fostering greater understanding and empathy for those affected. And just like that, Nellie Bly, once an anonymous figure behind the words, emerged as a beacon of courage and determination.

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Shifting Her Focus

Fresh off the success of her asylum exposé, Nellie Bly was far from content to rest on her laurels. Her daring spirit and insatiable curiosity propelled her towards her next venture – a global adventure that would further cement her status as one of the most influential journalists of her time.

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Inspired by Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, Bly proposed a real-life adaptation of the fictional journey. She aimed to travel around the globe faster than Phileas Fogg, the hero of Verne's novel, and in doing so, she hoped to demonstrate the possibilities of rapid global travel in the modern age.

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Preparing for the Journey

To prepare for her journey, she studied various travel routes, meticulously planning her itinerary to ensure she could traverse the globe as quickly as possible. She familiarized herself with the cultures and customs of the countries she would visit, learning key phrases in different languages to aid her communication along the way.

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Bly also had to consider her luggage carefully. Given the fast-paced nature of her journey, she opted for a single small bag, packed with only the essentials. Securing the necessary travel documents was another crucial step. She left no stone unturned, ensuring that she was fully equipped to embark on this epic voyage around the world.

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The Start of Her Voyage

On a brisk November morning in 1889, Nellie Bly embarked on her journey. With her compact travel bag and an unyielding spirit, she stepped aboard the Augusta Victoria, a steamer ship set to sail from New York to London. As she bid farewell to the New York skyline, Bly was acutely conscious of the daunting task that lay ahead.

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Upon reaching London, Bly received a warm reception. Her bold venture had caught the public's attention, and she was met with a mixture of admiration and curiosity. In a fortuitous twist, she even secured an audience with Jules Verne himself, an encounter that further stoked her determination to successfully complete her global expedition.

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Challenges Encountered

As Nellie Bly journeyed across the globe, she encountered a myriad of challenges. Language barriers were a common obstacle. While Bly had learned key phrases in several languages, communication was often difficult. She found innovative ways to make herself understood, often relying on gestures and expressions to convey her thoughts.

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Travel conditions also varied greatly from country to country, and Bly had to adapt to different modes of transportation. From rickety trains to unreliable steamships, she faced numerous logistical challenges. Delays and cancellations were frequent, threatening to derail her goal of circumnavigating the globe in less than eighty days.

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Cultural Experiences

As Nellie Bly journeyed across continents, she was not just clocking miles, but also immersing herself in a rich tapestry of cultures. Each destination offered unique experiences and insights, shaping her understanding of the world and broadening her perspectives.

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Each cultural encounter enriched Bly's journey, providing her with fascinating insights into the customs, traditions, and lifestyles of the people she met along the way. She embraced these experiences with an open mind, eager to learn and absorb as much as possible.

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Keeping Up with the Deadline

Nellie's goal to circumnavigate the globe in less than eighty days meant that every minute counted, and keeping up with her ambitious deadline became a significant challenge. Transportation delays, which added precious hours to her schedule, were among the most persistent issues.

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Time zone changes added another layer of complexity to her journey. As she crossed different longitudes, Bly had to constantly adjust her internal clock, a task that proved both physically and mentally taxing. Yet, Bly tackled each obstacle with resilience and determination, never losing sight of her goal.

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Return Home

After 72 days of an exhilarating journey filled with adventures, Nellie Bly returned home in January 1890. Her triumphant return was met with a wave of public celebration and admiration, marking the successful conclusion of her audacious global expedition.

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As Bly's ship approached the New York harbor, crowds gathered to welcome their intrepid heroine. The city buzzed with excitement, and people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the woman who had circumnavigated the globe faster than anyone before.

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Public Celebration

The public response was overwhelmingly positive. Bly was hailed as a pioneer, breaking not just travel records but also societal norms of what a woman could achieve. Her courage, tenacity, and spirit of adventure resonated with many, inspiring countless others to push the boundaries of their own potential.

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In the following weeks, Bly was celebrated across the nation. Banquets were thrown in her honor, songs were written about her journey, and her story was recounted in newspapers and magazines. She became an icon of determination and resilience, her name synonymous with bold ambition and fearless exploration.

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Societal Impact

At a time when women's roles were largely confined to the domestic sphere, Bly's intrepid expedition demonstrated that women were equally capable of undertaking daring adventures. Her journey served as a potent symbol of female empowerment, challenging conventional beliefs about women's abilities and potential.

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Her journey also highlighted the significance of independent travel as a means of education and personal growth. Bly returned from her trip with a wealth of knowledge and experiences, showing that travel could be a valuable learning tool, broadening one's horizons and deepening understanding of diverse cultures.

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A Record-Breaking Journey

Following her groundbreaking world tour, Nellie Bly's life remained as dynamic and impactful as her record-breaking journey. Her return did not signal a retreat into obscurity; instead, it marked the start of new chapters filled with continued advocacy, journalistic pursuits, and entrepreneurial ventures.

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Bly resumed her career in journalism, leveraging her newfound fame to shed light on critical issues. She continued to be a voice for the voiceless, writing about social injustices and championing for reform. Her articles became platforms for change, influencing public opinion and inspiring action.

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Other Adventures

In addition to her investigative work, Bly also ventured into war correspondence. During World War I, she reported from the Eastern Front, providing firsthand accounts of the conflict. Her coverage was marked by her signature courage and candor, offering readers an unvarnished glimpse into the harsh realities of war.

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Bly also leveraged her fame to interview prominent figures of her time, adding another dimension to her journalistic repertoire. These interviews offered insightful perspectives, further solidifying Bly's reputation as a versatile and influential journalist.

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Nellie Bly's Advocacy

Bly's advocacy was deeply rooted in her own experiences. But beyond her personal achievements, Bly was also vocal about women's rights in her writings. She highlighted issues such as women's suffrage, labor rights, and education, calling for equal opportunities and fair treatment.

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Her articles served as a rallying cry for reform, influencing public opinion and contributing to the burgeoning women's rights movement. Moreover Bly helped implement progressive workplace policies, advocating for better working conditions and fair wages for her female employees.

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Nellie Bly’s Legacy

Bly is often credited as a pioneer of investigative journalism. Her exposé on the harsh conditions at the Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum not only led to significant reforms but also set a precedent for future investigative reporters. Bly's approach—immersing herself in the story—became a model for investigative journalism.

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In essence, Nellie Bly didn't just report stories; she lived them. Her influence on journalism is still felt today, reminding us of the power of truth, bravery, and giving a voice to those who are often unheard. And that, we can all agree, is a legacy we can all learn from.

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