Journalism’s First Original Gonzo-Immersionist
Best known for her record-breaking globe-trotting journey and ten undercover days spent in a madhouse, Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Cochrane, lived with a tenaciousness most could only dream of possessing.
Her life should serve as one vivid example on how to take control of life and spend our days exactly as we’d like.
Learn more about the queen of investigative journalism and lifelong badass, Nellie Bly, below.
1. Operated on a No-Bullshit Policy
It’s staggering the amount of people waiting for someone else to take control of their lives. For anyone struggling with personal empowerment, Bly is the poster child of motivation.
She first received attention as a teenager after writing a passionate response to the editor of the “Pittsburgh Gazette” due to a column it ran titled, “What Girls Are Good For,” which based its central thesis arguing that girls are strictly good for birthing and housekeeping. Bly’s heated prose resonated so well that the Gazette’s editor published an ad calling on the writer to identify themselves. When Bly did, she was offered an assignment with the paper.
Later at the Gazette, when she was confined to women-centric topics commonly known in journalism as “pink topics,” she didn’t bite her lip and play it professional. Instead, she quit and went to Mexico, spending half a year as a foreign correspondent reporting on the lives and customs of Mexicans. Her Mexico experiences were chronicled in a collection called “Six Months in Mexico.” Bly was only 21 years old at the time.
While in Mexico, Bly protested the imprisonment of a local Mexican journalist, ultimately landing her on the radar of Mexican officials. Under threat of arrest, Bly fled to the U.S., but didn’t stop criticizing then-dictator Porfririo Diaz about suppressing the Mexican people and controlling the press.
Bly would end up leaving the Gazette a second time after Mexico due to more soft assignments and because, as we know by now, she operated on a no-bullshit policy.
When the male senior staff at the “New York World” first learned of her around-the-world proposal, they wanted to send a man. Bly said she’d work for another paper and beat whatever man they’d send. Bly got her way with the senior staff, and a year later she stood at Hoboken Pier in New Jersey waiting to depart.
2. An Unprecedented Investigative Journalist
Bly’s first assignment at the Dispatch was titled “The Girl Puzzle,” a piece advocating for divorce reform. It impressed the editor enough for him to offer Bly a full-time job. She got started with an investigative series covering the conditions of women working in factories.
She later found herself in Joseph Pulitzer’s “New York World” offices, ultimately taking an assignment to act insane as part of an expose into the neglect and harsh treatment at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Bly was reportedly so convincing in feigning insanity that a roommate of hers at a boarding house (prior to the asylum) refused to sleep in the same room as her. Bly passed the demented test with flying colors and transferred to Blackwell Island and its 1,600 women patients.
While at Blackwell, Bly experienced cruel treatment in the form of ice cold baths, minimally supplied clothing, and sparse meals. Her investigative work, aptly titled, “10 Days in a Madhouse,” led to massive system reform, including cleaner facilities, more funding, and better treatment of patients. It also paved the way for a new kind of journalism that others would (less successfully) mirror.
Eventually, she decided to follow in the fictional footsteps of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg and go around the world in 80 days. By herself. She ended up only taking a record-breaking 72 days to do it. Afterwards, and as a bona fide celebrity drawing high acclaim for all over, Bly would continue covering social justice pieces, including the orphan market in New York, a look into zoo cruelty, and a piece on the homeless. At the end of her career, Bly covered WWI and women’s suffrage.
3. Fashion Sense
Not much is spoke of regarding Bly’s fashion sense, but she displayed it on her jaunt around the world. Bly traveled by herself, and with her main concern being speed, didn’t bring much. In fact, Bly’s luggage would make today’s backpackers look like hoarders. Photos of her from the trip show her holding a bag only sixteen inches wide by seven inches high packed with only the essentials:
- spare underwear
- writing instruments
- tennis blazer
- dressing gown
- a cup
- two caps
- three veils
- pair of slippers
- needles and thread
Oh, and the most important items, one jar of cold cream and a flask.
As if these life accomplishments weren’t enough, Bly held many patents, including for a 55-gallon oil drum, stackable garbage pail, and an improved version of the milk jar. She also briefly owned a company after her late husband past away and gave her control. A woman in 1907 as president of a company was unprecedented. It’s still uncommon these days.
Though Bly would succumb to pneumonia at age 57, she lived a full life full of assertiveness and excitement. Her story should inspire anyone with passion, but particularly those who don’t know how to channel and direct it into greater life gains.
Be like Nellie Bly: don’t take no for an answer and be fucking fearless!
Keep visiting the VK Nagrani blog for more accounts of truly badass people throughout history.