International Women’s Day and Nellie Bly

A publicity photograph taken by the New York World newspaper to promote Bly’s around-the-world voyage; by Historical and Public Figures Collection – New York Public Library Archives,, Public Domain,

My laptop has been fixed (problem with the charging port) and I though I’d post what I’d planned for last week, in celebration of the many great women throughout history – and in this case, a writer.

In the late 1800s, at a time when the majority of women had few options other than marriage while they were still young enough to be considered ‘marketable’, a gal named Nellie Bly made a name for herself as an intrepid journalist.

Along the way she not only arranged to have herself committed to an insane asylum for ten days to expose the appalling way that the poor patients were treated, but travelled by herself around the world in 72 days – not by the comforts of airplane, but by boat, horse, burro, rickshaw and an assortment of other methods few of us today will ever combine into a single journey.

(Just fyi, I myself have been on all of the above, but on very separate occasions. The burro is a long story.)

Elizabeth Cochran was born in 1864 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She studied to become a teacher, but had to drop out because of her family’s financial difficulties. She and her mother ran a boarding house together, until at the age of 18 she wrote a fiery anonymous rebuttal to a newspaper article she saw in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, wherein the writer asserted that women were only good for domestic duties and that working women were ‘monstrosities’. It’s sadly ironic that more than 150 years later the same opinion still exists in parts of the world.

The Dispatch’s publisher was impressed by what Elizabeth had written, and hired her to write for the paper.  The tradition of the time was to write under a pen name, and she chose ‘Nellie Bly’, after a character in a popular 1850 song by Stephen Foster. She went on to make history under that name.

As a reporter for the Dispatch, Bly earned $5/week. She worked on exposing the poor treatment of women in society, and even posed as a sweatshop worker at one point. The factory owners began to complain about her articles, and the paper reassigned her to the ‘women’s pages’. But Nellie was determined “to do something no girl has done before”.

She went to Mexico to as a foreign correspondent, reporting on the lives of the people there, but once again her pioneering work brought her trouble. After protesting the imprisonment of a local journalist for criticizing the Mexican government, the Mexican authorities threatened her with arrest. She fled the country and published a book called Six Months in Mexico.

In 1887, looking for meatier assignments, she relocated to New York City and began working for the New York World.

One of her earliest assignments was to write an article about the experiences that inmates endured at an infamous mental institution on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) in New York. Bly pretended to be a mental patient in order to be committed to the facility. In the 10 days she stayed there, she discovered the horrors of the treatment of patients who, just by not fitting the accepted mold, were conveniently relegated to the asylum.

Blackwell’s was overcrowded, and so understaffed that there were only 16 doctors to see to over 1,600 patients. The doctors and other staff had little training and even less compassion, brutally taking their own character flaws out on their patients – ‘treatments’ that included forcing them to sit shivering in ice baths, or immobile for hours on a bench. Their food and living conditions were appalling, and any complaints were met with beatings and sexual abuse.

Asylums in general at the time were treated like entertainment venues, where the curious could go to observe the ‘mad’. Even worse, a lot of the inmates weren’t insane at all, just poor people with no family to turn to, or immigrants who couldn’t speak English. They suffered intense trauma from the ghastly things they went through at the hands of the staff.

Bly’s exposé became a sensation and had speedy results. Within a month, a grand-jury panel visited the asylum to investigate, and even though the hospital had been tipped off in advance and cleaned things up, the jury sided with Nellie and implemented important changes. Some of those changes included improvements to the assessment system so that people who didn’t have mental illness were no longer committed, the hiring of translators for different languages, and more funding for proper staffing.

In 1888 the newspaper gave Nellie the green light to attempt to recreate the scenario in Jules Verne’s famous novel, Around the World in 80 Days. She turned her experiences into another book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days (1890).

Chapter One, titled “A Proposal to Girdle the Earth”, described how the idea for her adventure was generated:

WHAT gave me the idea?

It is sometimes difficult to tell exactly what gives birth to an idea. Ideas are the chief stock in trade of newspaper writers and generally they are the scarcest stock in market, but they do come occasionally,

This idea came to me one Sunday. I had spent a greater part of the day and half the night vainly trying to fasten on some idea for a newspaper article. It was my custom to think up ideas on Sunday and lay them before my editor for his approval or disapproval on Monday. But ideas did not come that day and three o’clock in the morning found me weary and with an aching head tossing about in my bed. At last tired and provoked at my slowness in finding a subject, something for the week’s work, I thought fretfully:

“I wish I was at the other end of the earth!”

“And why not?” the thought came: “I need a vacation; why not take a trip around the world?”

It is easy to see how one thought followed another. The idea of a trip around the world pleased me and I added: “If I could do it as quickly as Phileas Fogg did, I should go.”

On November 14, 1889, she boarded the Augusta Victoria, a steamer of the Hamburg America Line, and began a 40,070 kilometer journey that took her through England, France, Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan.

To sustain interest in the story, the paper organized a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match”, inviting readers to estimate Bly’s arrival time to the second. The Grand Prize was a trip to Europe with spending money.

If you have the time to read her resulting book, you’ll discover that Bly, although courageous enough for the undertaking, was as nervous as any other human in her shoes.

But when the whistle blew and they were on the pier, and I was on the Augusta Victoria, which was slowly but surely moving away from all I knew, taking me to strange lands and strange people, I felt lost. My head felt dizzy and my heart felt as if it would burst. Only seventy-five days! Yes, but it seemed an age and the world lost its roundness and seemed a long distance with no end, and–well, I never turn back.

Nellie also had a wry and deprecating sense of humour, especially when describing some of her preparations for the journey. Her recountings provide a fascinating insight into travel in the Victorian era.

One never knows the capacity of an ordinary hand-satchel until dire necessity compels the exercise of all one’s ingenuity to reduce every thing to the smallest possible compass. In mine I was able to pack two traveling caps, three veils, a pair of slippers, a complete outfit of toilet articles, ink-stand, pens, pencils, and copy-paper, pins, needles and thread, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, a small flask and a drinking cup, several complete changes of underwear, a liberal supply of handkerchiefs and fresh ruchings and most bulky and uncompromising of all, a jar of cold cream to keep my face from chapping in the varied climates I should encounter…That jar of cold cream was the bane of my existence. It seemed to take up more room than everything else in the bag and was always getting into just the place that would keep me from closing the satchel.

Her description of intense sea-sickness on her first boat ride is delightful, and one many of us can empathize with:

I felt cold, I felt warm; I felt that I should not get hungry if I did not see food for seven days; in fact, I had a great, longing desire not to see it, nor to smell it, nor to eat of it, until I could reach land or a better understanding with myself.

Fish was served, and Captain Albers was in the midst of a good story when I felt I had more than I could endure.

“Excuse me,” I whispered faintly, and then rushed, madly, blindly out.

…After some fresh air she returned to the dining table twice, but eventually gave up and crashed in bed for the night, where:

I had a dim recollection afterwards of waking up enough to drink some tea, but beyond this and the remembrance of some dreadful dreams, I knew nothing until I heard an honest, jolly voice at the door calling to me.

Opening my eyes I found the stewardess and a lady passenger in my cabin and saw the Captain standing at the door.

“We were afraid that you were dead,” the Captain said when he saw that I was awake.

While some of her writing may not thoroughly conform to our modern ideas of political correctness, bear in mind that she was writing under the attitudes at the time, and she was pretty open-minded on the whole.

Bly completed her journey with days to spare, and even met Verne and his wife in France along the way. After the publicity of her trip around the world, she quit reporting and took a lucrative job writing serial novels for the weekly New York Family Story Paper. She wrote eleven of them, which were thought lost until 2021.

In 1893, though still writing novels, she returned to reporting for the World, and two years later married millionaire manufacturer Robert Seaman, who was 73 years old. With her husband’s failing health, she left journalism and took over as head of his company, Iron Clad Manufacturing, which made steel containers such as milk cans and boilers. She wasn’t a great businesswoman, and the company unfortunately went bankrupt, but Bly was also an inventor and received a patent for an improved milk can as well as a stacking garbage can.

Returning to her first, and best, career – reporting – she covered the Woman Suffrage Procession of 1913 for the New York Evening Journal. When World War I began, she was the first woman and one of the first foreigners to visit the war zone between Serbia and Austria, writing stories on Europe’s Eastern Front. She was arrested at one point when she was mistaken for a British spy.

In 1922, after a life that would be considered remarkable even by today’s standards, Nellie Bly died of pneumonia at St. Mark’s Hospital, New York City, aged 57. She was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.

But although she isn’t mentioned as much in the media today, her exploits have left a lasting legacy. A board game, Round the World with Nellie Bly, was created in 1890.

Round the World with Nellie Bly game board; by Unknown author –, Public Domain,

A fire boat named Nellie Bly operated in Toronto in the early 1900s, and the Pennsylvania Railroad ran an express train named the Nellie Bly between New York and Atlantic City until 1961.

Bly became the subject of several plays, films and television shows, as well as a number of novels. In 1998, she was inducted into the U.S. National Women’s Hall of Fame, and in 2002 she was one of four journalists honoured with a U.S. postage stamp regarding “Women in Journalism”. The New York Press Club confers an annual Nellie Bly Cub Reporter journalism award. Just last year arachnologists even named a species of tarantula from Ecuador Pamphobeteus nellieblyae in her honour.

Her book Around the World in 72 Days is featured on Goodreads, and you can read a free version in the digital library of the University of Pennsylvania.

Screenshot of the book posting on Goodreads

As a journalist and writer ahead of her time, and an amazing adventurer, Nellie Bly continues to be an inspiration to all writers, travellers and people who passionately support human rights.

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