Friday, May 5, 2017

Birthday: Nellie Bly, America's most popular fast woman


Elizabeth Seaman Cochran (1864-1922)
Journalist, inventor, feminist

Hers is one of those improbable 19th-century American stories, the kind that made Horatio Alger and his contemporaries so popular. With pluck and determination, even the occasional woman could be famous and wealthy after modest beginnings.

Elizabeth Cochran’s certainly were. She was born outside Pittsburgh in a little mill village, to an Irish family. Her father achieved some prosperity, acquiring the local mill and some land. At sixteen, she read a misogynistic editorial in The Pittsburgh Dispatch titled "What Girls are Good For." (The paper's answer was "not much," at least, not outside the home, The Writer’s Almanac says) and penned an indignant response under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl.”

The paper’s editor, impressed, advertised for the author to contact him. Cochran did, and he offered her another placement as the orphan. More impressed, he offered her a job, and she started writing articles on working conditions for women and girls in the city’s factories.

While sensational, they were not women’s work, even under the pseudonym she chose, Nellie Bly (respectable women weren’t journalists in those days, at least not so as you could know who they were). Pushed more and more into the pigeonhole of the women’s page, she went to Mexico as a foreign correspondent, sending home shocking articles on life under the dictator, Diaz. Six months was about as much as the government could bear, and Bly, tipped off, left the country just ahead of being arrested.

Back in Pittsburgh, and with her first book, Six Months in Mexico, selling well, Bly got sent back to the women’s page. She quit the paper and moved to New York, where she was sure a seasoned foreign correspondent would be welcome, even if barely 21.

There were lots of newspapers in New York and none wanted to hire a woman. Pressed for funds, Bly talked her way into the office of Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of The New York World, with an idea. Having heard stories of awful conditions in the city’s mental hospital, she proposed to get herself committed to it and, once spring by the paper, write a series of expose’ articles.

Pulitzer liked the idea. Bly checked into a boarding house and start acting out; the police were called; they thought she was on drugs.

She was hauled before a judge, examined, and found insane by several doctors. Bly spent nearly two weeks in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island before Pulitzer intervened to obtain her release.

The subsequent series of articles caused a scandal. The courts, doctors and asylum officials all scrambled to explain how they had been so thoroughly scammed. Public outrage over conditions in the Asylum led to a grand jury investigation, reforms, and a big increase in the state budget for mental health.

It also led to another book, Ten Days in A Mad-House. There followed the usual pressure to get her back into softer topics, like theater and music. Bored, she concocted a new scheme: to recreate the around journey of Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel, Around the World in Eighty Days- and to beat his time.

After much discussion and planning, Bly set out, alone, for Europe at 9.51 a.m.,  November 14, 1889, on two days notice. She packed a small travel bag, 200 pounds in English money in a pouch she wore around her neck and was away.

Not to be outdone, the Cosmopolitan newspaper hired one Elizabeth Bisland to beat Bly and Fogg. She left by land for San Francisco, aiming to circumnavigate the globe in the other direction.

Bly landed in England, crossed to- and across- France (stopping in Amiens for a cheeky, but mutually admiring, visit with Verne), then to Brindisi and Sri Lanka, , Hong Kong, and Japan. On a side trip to she visited a leper colony, and in Singapore she bought a pet monkey.

Along the way, she used the developing international telegraph and undersea cable networks to send home brief updates, longer dispatches still had to travel by mail. The World, feeding home interest, sponsored a contest; the winner who picked the closest return time for Bly won a trip to Europe.

As Fogg experienced fifteen years earlier, travel through Asia was at times problematic, and when Bly left for San Francisco she was already several days behind schedule. Bad weather delayed her ship further, causing some paper-selling anxiety, but Pulitzer chartered a special train to spirit her across America for the final dash.

Bly arrived in New York at 3.51 p.m. January 25, 1890, to enormous acclaim. Her 24,899-mile trip took 72 days and six hours.


Elizabeth Bisland limped in four days later having missed her passage on a fast Cunard steamer and getting stuck a slower vessel out of London.

Bly set a new world’s record, though within months an eccentric railroad man, the aptly-named George Francis Train, snatched it after a 67-day journey. By 1913 the travel time had been cut to an astonishing thirteen days.

Bly left journalism in 1895 to marry Robert Seaman, an industrialist 42 years her senior. She became president of his company, the Iron Clad Steel Manufacturing Co., which pioneered the construction of the 55-gallon drum we know today for transporting oil and, when hammered, producing Caribbean music. Bly ran the company with considerable success, filing several patents of her own, until employee embezzlements after her husband's death in 1904 brought its downfall.

Bklyn returned to journalism, covered the women’s suffrage movement (she predicted it would take until 1920 for women to get the vote) and at the outbreak of The Great War sailed back to the Continent as a war correspondent. After five years she returned to America and died of pneumonia in 1922.

Her 1889 rival, Elizabeth Bisland, died of pneumonia in 1929. Both are buried in The Bronx's Woodlawn Cemetery.


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