Nellie Bly, investigative journalist

Nellie Bly famously said that she wanted to ‘do something no girl has done before’, a wish that came true through her ground-breaking investigative journalism.

Her real name was Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, something she changed when she began writing.

Bly first caught the attention of the Pittsburgh Dispatch when she wrote a response to the column ‘What Girls are Good For.’ The column claimed that a woman’s role was to look after children and keep house. Outraged, Bly’s response was written under the pseudonym ‘Lonely Orphan Girl’. The editor of the dispatch was so impressed he put a call out for the writer to reveal themselves.

With that, Nellie Bly was born.

Ten Days in a Mad-house

Working at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, she was often resigned to the women's pages, focusing on gardening and fashion. Finding this frustrating, she talked her way into the office of The New York World, and took on an undercover assignment on the women’s lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

Bly pretended to be insane in order to be committed. To do this, she checked into a boarding house called 'Temporary Homes for Females'. Once here, she stayed awake all night to give herself a wide eyed look, and claimed that the people around her were crazy. She refused to go to bed, and scared people so much that she was arrested and eventually taken to Blackwell’s Island.

Bly remained at the asylum for ten days before The New York World asked for her release. Her report on the terrible conditions inside became a book, and made her famous. The conditions she wrote about caused such a scandal that the asylum put reforms into place.

Around the World in Eighty Days

A year to the day after pitching the idea to her editor, Bly set off on an around the world trip.

It was designed to emulate the journey of Phileas Fogg, the main character in Around the World in Eighty Days. All Bly took with her was the dress that she was wearing, changes of underwear, and toiletries.

Bly travelled using steamships and rail, and visited places including England, France, the Suez Canal, Hong Kong and the Straits Settlements of Penang. She sent reports whilst she was away but many got lost in the post. 

Whilst she was away The New York World organised a "Nellie Bly guessing match", with competitors guessing her time of arrival back home to the second. The prize was, rather fittingly, an around the world trip. 

Nellie Bly facts

  • During her travels around the world she purchased a monkey in Singapore.
  • The character of Lois Lane from the Superman comics is based on Nellie Bly.
  • Bly married Robert Seaman, a millionaire manufacturer who was 42 years older than her. Because of his ill health she retired from journalism in order to head up the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co in his place. 
  • Her journey around the world was 40,070 km long.

When did Nellie Bly die?

Nellie Bly passed away of pneumonia at the age of 57 in 1922. She is buried in The Bronx, New York City.