Nellie Bly and the changing face of journalism

Words: Meghna Amin

Unfortunately, the stereotypical journalist in 2020 remains a middle-aged white man. That figure persists, despite rising numbers of young female journalists and journalists of Colour, and, too, despite the influence of groundbreaking journalists working well before our time who you may well never have heard of: journalists like Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, better known as Nellie Bly. 

Bly, born in 1864, was an investigative journalist, inventor, and charity worker. She also achieved a record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days. All of this means her story warrants more telling than it generally gets.

Bly’s first journalistic endeavour took the form of a response to a column in a Pittsburgh paper titled ‘What Girls Are Good For?’. Under the pseudonym ‘Lonely Orphan Girl’, Bly wrote her response, off the back of which she was invited to write pieces for the publication. The first was ‘The Girl Puzzle’, an op-ed about how divorce affected women, in which she argued for the reform of divorce laws. The newspaper received complaints, and she was reassigned to fashion, society and gardening. 

Dissatisfied with her beat, Bly went to New York to continue her work advocating for political reform. She managed to talk her way into the offices of New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, where she was tasked with an undercover assignment: it was this investigation that means her name deserves far more recognition than it gets.

The notorious Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island was reportedly riven with brutality and neglect. Since no journalists could gain access, Bly started causing disruption in her boarding house – accusing other boarders of insanity and refusing to sleep – and, following examination by a police officer, a judge and a doctor, got herself admitted as a patient. There, she experienced the horrific conditions first-hand: conditions which included starvation and deprivation and led her to produce a report and publish a book titled Ten Days in a Mad-House. Lawyers from the New York World had to fight for her release.

In her exposé, Bly revealed the institution’s brutalities. “My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head — ice cold water, too — into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth. I think I experienced the sensation of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub.” 

As Bly discovered more about the asylum, she learnt that some of the women had been wrongly admitted and were being tortured under the façade of treatment. Some were immigrants with poor English; others had thought they were entering a poorhouse, and not the asylum. The nurses would abuse them, tormenting them mentally, and physically beating them, driving them to the ‘insanity’ they had been diagnosed with. She continued: “Take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 AM to 8 PM on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours . . . give her bad food and harsh treatment. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

Sensational and shocking, Bly’s report on the brutality inside Blackwell’s Island not only affected reforms for asylum patients, but provided investigative journalism with an entirely new prototype. She assisted in the reformation work, providing extra funding to Blackwell’s Island and facilitating the release of those who had been held there unjustly. The success of her work solidified her reputation as an iconic investigative journalist, as well as as one of the first women known to succeed in what was traditionally a man’s job. She continued her investigative work, exposing prison treatment and corruption in factories as well as interviewing key activists and prominent social figures. 

Bly’s womanhood was what allowed her to enter the asylum and put her in a unique position to reveal hidden injustices, explicitly demonstrating the cruciality of diverse presences in the press. But her ethics as an investigative journalist are what should perhaps be at the forefront of our memories of who she was. She remains an inspiration to journalists like myself – both women and others. 

As if this wasn’t enough, Bly further astonished her social circle with the new challenge she set herself of taking a trip which would make Jules Verne’s fictional novel Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) into fact. Boarding a steamer alone, with only the clothes she wore and the money tied around her neck, the World attracted global readers with a ‘Nellie Bly Guessing Match’ as she hopped from European cities to Singapore (where she purchased a monkey), Hong Kong and Japan. Bly’s journey was a record – but was broken by men in a matter of months.

In her later years, Bly, as an inventor, received US patents for a novel milk can and for a stacking garbage can, before returning to reporting on Europe’s Eastern Front during the First World War. Mistakenly thought to be a British spy, Bly risked arrest while reporting on the war zone between Serbia and Austria – the first woman, and one of the first foreigners, to do so. Around a decade before she died from pneumonia, Bly also covered the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession, correctly predicting that American women would be given the right to vote in 1920.

Today, Bly is honoured for her bravery, dedication and commitment to journalism and activism. She spent her years doing what no woman, and often no man, had done before. Films have been produced based on her life, an amusement park and board game have been named after her, and a monument has been built to commemorate her at Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), but her work remains unfamiliar to most aspiring journalists today. Women like Bly were transformational in an industry which needed transformation – and still does.

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Meghna Amin is an English and Philosophy undergrad at the University of Durham, writing on various topics from feminism to mental health, and working to promote diversity in under-represented areas within the media industry.