When Elizabeth Cochran was 16 years old, she lived with her family in Pittsburgh. The year was 1880, and Elizabeth was intelligent and precocious. The Pittsburgh Dispatch ran an article titled “What Girls are Good For,” and the author concluded the girls were good for having babies and keeping house.
It was not an unpopular opinion at the time, but Elizabeth was offended. She wrote a response, which she signed as “Lonely Orphan Girl,” and sent it to the paper. The editor, George Madden, was so impressed that he ran an advertisement asking the author of the article to identify herself.
Elizabeth did so, at Madden ask her to write another article. Elizabeth wrote about how divorce affected women at that time, and she argued for the reform of divorce laws. Because pseudonyms were more common than real bylines during that era, the editors of the Dispatch decided that Elizabeth needed a pen name. Cochran wanted it to be Nelly Bly, but the editor in charge misspelled it.
Thus, she became Nellie Bly, America’s first great modern female news reporter.
It didn’t take her long to show the readers of the Dispatch what kind of reporter she would be. One of her main subjects was the lives of working women, and she wrote an investigative series on women factory workers. The factory owners complained, and she was transferred from the news department to the women’s pages to cover things like fashion, society, and gardening.
Such assignments, as you can imagine, were less than satisfying for this ambitious, driven young woman.
Cochran was always out to do things that had never been done before, and when she was 21, she persuaded her editors to send her to Mexico where she spent six months reporting on how Mexicans live their lives. In one of her reports, she protested the jailing of a fellow journalist who had criticized the Mexican government. When government officials found out what she had written, they threatened to arrest her, too. She quickly fled the country, and the articles she had written were gathered together in a book titled Six Months in Mexico.
Back in Pittsburgh, Cochran was exiled again to the women’s pages and given many of her old assignments. She knew there was something better in the world of journalism for her, so she quit the paper. She then traveled to New York City, and after four months of surviving on nearly no money, she talked her way into Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newsroom. She convinced the editors that she could do the unusual assignments and produce the sensational stories that they were looking for.
The year was 1887, and many people were concerned about how the state was treating people who were mentally ill and who were residents of state institutions. Cochran got herself admitted as a patient to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). It was no easy task to get in, and it was even more difficult to stay there. Cochran did both, and during her 10-day stay, she witnessed the appalling conditions that the patients had to endure.
Cochran’s observations and conclusions were published in a two-part series in the New York World, and they were later expanded to a book title Ten Days in a Madhouse. The lunatic asylum story made Cochran famous as Nellie Bly and launched an era of participatory journalism that came to be known as stunt journalism. That name, “stunt journalism,” has never been satisfactory because it denigrates the courage and cleverness that women journalists, in particular, faced and doing it.
The name also dismisses the effects of some of this journalism. Not only did they increase circulation for the newspapers, but they also had lasting social consequences. Cochran’s series on asylum conditions launched an investigation that resulted in reforms in the way the mentally ill were treated.
Cochran followed up her asylum expose two years later with a trip around the world in response to the title of Jules Verne’s popular book Around the World in 80 Days, published in 1873. After she had set out on her journey, another female reporter for another New York newspaper did the same thing, but she went in the opposite direction. The newspapers made a contest out of their journeys to see who would arrive back in New York City in the shortest time.
Cochran did not know she was participating in a race and only heard about it when she reached Hong Kong. She dismissed the competition as inconsequential, but she made it back to New York first after traveling for 72 days. She wrote numerous stories during her journey about what she was seeing and the people that she met.
One of the significant elements of her journey was that she traveled alone for most of the time. In an age when it was thought that women should be accompanied, even if they were just walking down the street, this was a radical act.
In 1895, Cochran married Robert Seaman, an industrialist who was more than 40 years her senior. Seaman died in 1904, and Cochran took over his manufacturing business. During that time she became a certified inventor, registering a patent for a new type of stackable milk cans. She did not do well as a businesswoman, however, and the company went bankrupt.
After that, Cochran returned to reporting and traveled to Europe’s Eastern Front during World War I. She was the first woman reporter to visit the war zone between Serbia and Austria and was actually arrested when she was mistaken for a British spy.
Back in the United States, she died in 1922 of pneumonia.
Cochran’s life and story went far beyond to journalism that she produced. She gave girls by the thousands a chance to dream of doing something large and significant with their lives.
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