November 13, 2008

The Friday Record - Nellie Bly

According to one website I looked at, Nellie Bly was "the best reporter in America." Whether this is true or not, one thing can't be denied...she was a pioneer in the world of female reporting. So who was Nellie Bly and why is she famous? It's not just because she was a female reporter in the late 19th century, but also because she talked her editor, Joseph Pulitzer, into letting her try to beat the record of the fictitious Phileas Fogg, of Around The World in 80 Days fame (and have Joseph to pay for it). Not only did he let her, but she did beat the record set by Jules Verne's character.

According to Mike Flanngan in It's About Time: How Long History Took, Nellie's trip took 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds. However, according to Bly, she actually only "spent 56 days, 12 hours and 41 minutes in actual travel." She spent 15 days, 17 hours, 30 minutes in delays.

But, who was Nellie Bly? First, her real name was Elizabeth Jane Cochran, and she was the daughter of Judge Michael and Mary Jane Cochran from Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania, born in 1864. Though her family was well off and comfortable, all that changed when her father died when she was five. The family was forced to sell off their house because her father died without a will. The man her mother remarried was abusive. Some feel that it's these incidents in her life that made Elizabeth a fighter for woman's rights.

Her editor chose her pen name from the song Nelly Bly written by Stephen Foster some 30 odd years before. Read the lyrics here:
http://home.att.net/~gapehenry/Song.html. I can't help but wonder if he was being a bit sexist by choosing the name from such a song, because it seems, Nelly's place was in the home and kitchen.

Elizabeth's first job was with the Pittsburgh Dispatch after she wrote a letter to the editor blasting a sexist piece written by one of their columnists. The editor liked it so much, he asked her to write freelance. After four columns, she was hired at $5 a week. She shied away from the normal women's stories of fashion and housekeeping. Instead, she went after the hard hitting social issues of working women, reform of divorce laws and factory conditions. She was sent to Mexico and did six months worth of columns from there. Returning to America, she headed for New York and its newspapers.

She was hired on with the New York World, where her first assignment was to be committed to the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island. She continued such undercover work until 1888, when the idea of sending a man around the world to duplicate Fogg's journey was discussed by the newspaper. This angered Elizabeth to the point that she threatened to go to another newspaper and beat the World's man's record when she went around the world. So, the World sent her.

The story increased sales of the papers, but she received no special recognition or bonus. Shortly thereafter, she resigned from the paper, only to return a few years later and focus on women's rights.

She resigned again when she married in 1895. After her husband's death, she went to England, getting caught there when WWI broke out. She once again took up reporting, this time behind the scenes of the war. After she returned to America, she continued her reporting career until her death in 1922.

Here are two good websites where I gleaned information on Nellie Bly:

http://home.att.net/~gapehenry/Song.html
http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/386/nellie.html

Which woman in history do you most admire and why?

Anna Kathryn
http://www.aklanier.com/


P.S. I discovered after I posted this that Nellie Bly started her 'trip around the world' today, November 14, 1889. I'm sure I read that, I just didn't connect that today was the 14th....lol. So, quite by accident, I blogged about her on the anniversary of the start of her famous voyage.

10 comments:

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

What a cool story and so well timed for me. I am just starting a story where the heroine inherited a newspaper in 1853. You really have to admire her for stepping into a man's world and not letting them put her down. I take my hat off to a brave woman. Thanks for bringing to life for us. I know I've heard of Nellie Bly before so now will be more appreciative.

Cate Masters said...

Great post, Anna! You always have such interesting information.
I love the story of Nellie Bly, especially her tenacity. I can only imagine what the newsroom experience must have been like for her. She was a true groundbreaker, paving the way for other women.
I've always admired Cleopatra, too. Beautiful and intelligent, she rose to the highest power and wasn't afraid to be feminine while competing in a man's world.

Christine Trent said...

Interesting that Nellie chose to wait until she was nearly 40 to marry, in a time where she was probably considered a spinster by the age of 25.

I'm doing research on Madame Tussaud right now for my next book, and am coming to admire her greatly. She survived a prison during the French Revolution and was forced to make death masks of famous people (including her friends) whose heads had just been separated from their bodies. Yet this extremely talented woman was able to come to England and set up the most fantastic show on earth, one that still thrills people today. She also lived to the ripe old age of 90 in 1850, and was active in sculpting wax figures until shortly before her death.

She was somethin' else!

Christine

Skhye said...

Excellent post. Thanks for sharing. ;)

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Here's a bit of news I overlooked when doing the post....Nellie started her trip today! November 14, 1889. I totally missed that I was blogging about her on the day she started out. Now that is interesting. I'm going to add that to the post, now!

Anna Kathryn

Susan Macatee said...

Great story! I love writing romances featuring strong historical heroines in unusual occupations. The one I'm working through edits on now features a heroine who disguises herself as a man to fight in the Confederate Army. I've done a lot of research on female Civil War soldiers and all their stories are fascinating.

lisekimhorton said...

A nice blog on a very feisty lady. Just the incident in the insane asylum, some of her recitations of what went on, were chilling. And all the while, Bly was not sure anyone would be able to "spring" her!

My favorite heroine? So difficult to pick! As a child I idolized Clara Barton and Florence Nightengale. As a feminist, the suffragettes and Margaret Sanger. But I have to say that I really cannot think of a woman who succeeded, and brilliantly, with so many odds against her: Queen Elizabeth I. She managed to rule her country wisely, overcoming the religious strife that had arisen under her sister Mary. England's supremacy on the seas was at its peak under her rule and she ruled in a court filled with intrigue, and MEN who considered her incapable, and she raised the country to a level of power and success that was unprecedented. So, she's my gal!

Colleen Thompson said...

Nelly Bly rocked. Thanks for sharing and have a wonderful booksigning!

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