I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of Nellie Bly, whose real name was Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, before I read Dazed‘s article on the upcoming film about her undercover work exposing the abuse of psychiatric patients at a New York. However, now that I have read up on her, I have become obsessed.
News broke this week that Christina Ricci will star as Nellie Bly in a biopic of the famed journalist, whose undercover investigation in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, Blackwell Island, New York in the late 1800s exposed serious abuse of patients and led to mental healthcare reform in the USA. She also circumnavigated the globe in seventy-two days, buying a monkey in Singapore, and then married an ageing millionaire when she was thirty-one. I am in love with this woman.
Image Via The Gazette Review
Elizabeth Jane Cochran was born in Pennsylvania in 1864. In 1880, after the death of her father, her mother moved the family to Pittsburgh. Elizabeth, who had been known as Pinkie as a child due to her affinity for the color, ceased wearing it and added an ‘e’ to her last name, in order to be perceived as more grown up. Around this time, she came upon a newspaper article ‘What Girls Are Good For’ in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, which posited that women’s main use was giving birth and called a working woman ‘a monstrosity.’ Angered by this, Elizabeth penned a response which she signed Lonely Orphan Girl. The editor was so impressed that he advertised for the author to identify themselves. Elizabeth did so, and was offered an opportunity to write for the paper, after which she was offered a full time position there. The pen name Nellie Bly was selected for her by the editor, inspired by the song Nelly Bly by Stephen Foster.
While at the paper, she was assigned mainly ‘women’s interest’ topics to write on, with which she was not satisfied. She then traveled to Mexico to report on the lives of the Mexican people for six months. Her writing was published in a book Six Months in Mexico. While in Mexico, she fell foul of the Mexican government for claiming that the imprisonment of a local journalist was unjust. They threatened her with arrest and so she fled back to the States, where she accused the dictator Diaz of being ‘a tyrannical czar suppressing the Mexican people and controlling the press.’ She was, at this point, only twenty-one.
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Upon her return in 1887, she left the Pittsburgh Dispatch, moving to New York City. She was hired at The New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, where she undertook the assignment that would make her name. She agreed to go undercover and investigate alleged abuses at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, Blackwell Island. This next bit is so good.
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She checked herself into a boarding house and began calling other boarders crazy, refusing to go to bed and generally causing a ruckus; so much so that they called the police. She claimed to have amnesia and was declared by several experts ‘positively demented…a hopeless case.’ The case of the ‘pretty, crazy girl’ attracted the press and the mysterious ‘waif’ with the ‘wild, haunted look in her eye,’ was written about in several major news outlets, including the New York Times. Imagine.
Bly was committed to the institution, where she witnessed and experienced firsthand the abuses inflicted upon the inmates, many of whom appeared perfectly sane to her. Inmates were tied together with ropes, left to sit on hard benches the entire day, beaten if they moved or spoke, had buckets of ice water thrown over them while already freezing and fed inedible, rotting food and dirty water. The asylum itself was rat infested and the nurses incredibly cruel.
Image Via The Witching Hour
She remained in the asylum for ten days, before The New York World requested her release. Staff and experts were questioned on how she had managed to deceive so many people, while a grand jury launched an investigation into conditions at the asylum, with Bly’s assistance. Their recommendations were taken on board and the budget for the care of the mentally ill was increased and assessment of patients was more thorough. She published her findings in a book entitled Ten Days in a Mad-House. What a cool lady.
You might think this would be enough achievement for one lifetime, but not for Nellie. Her next mission was to embark on a solo trip around the world a la Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days for The New York World. She set off on November 14th, 1889, bringing hardly anything with her, traveling on steamships and trains. On her travels, she passed through meeting Jules Verne himself in France, and on to Asia, going through Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan.
The unreliable transport of the time meant she had several layovers, which allowed her to engage in such activities as visiting a leper colony in China and purchasing a monkey in Singapore. She encountered inclement weather on the last leg of her journey meaning she arrived in San Francisco two days behind schedule on January 21st. Joseph Pulitzer then hired a private train to bring her back to New Jersey, where she arrived on January 25, 1890, at 3:51 pm, setting a world record. Unfortunately her record only lasted seven months but STILL.
In 1895, thirty-one-year-old Bly married seventy-five-year-old millionaire Robert Seaman. Get it, girl. She then retired from journalism as her husband was ill, and took over for him as head of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. Robert kicked the bucket in 1904.
Bly invented a novel milk can and stacking garbage can for which she received patents under her full name of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman; U.S. patent #697,553 for the novel milk can and U.S. patent #703,711 for the stacking garbage can!
She returned to reporting after a time and covered the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913, publishing a story entitled ‘Suffragists Are Men’s Superiors.’ A woman after my own heart.
She died of pneumonia at aged fifty-seven and is buried in the Bronx, and if you think I’m already on my way there to have a chat with her, you’re absolutely right. If you think I’ll be neglecting to tell her who’s in the White House right now, you’re also right.
Featured Image Via YouTube and Hot Celebz