Who Was Nellie Bly?
On January 25, 1890, a train rolled into Jersey City, New Jersey. Three timekeepers immediately stopped their watches. A large crowd applauded and cheered. Cannons fired. The crowd, however, was not there to see the train—-but to greet the woman inside it.
“Nellie Bly!” the crowd cheered.
A sunburned woman walked off the train and tipped her hat to the adoring crowd. Her fans cheered louder.
After seventy--two days and twenty--two thousand miles, Nellie Bly had done what most believed was impossible—-especially for a woman. She had traveled around the world. She was in a race against time to beat the “eighty days” in the title of a famous book published less than twenty years earlier: Around the World in Eighty Days. And Nellie had done it!
A ferry took Nellie to New York City. A carriage drove her across Newspaper Row—a street that was actually named Park Row, near city hall. It was called Newspaper Row because it was the home of the most important New York City newspapers. Crowds gathered and cheered and shouted her name as the carriage continued its drive to the New York World ’s headquarters. Even a rival publication, The Cosmopolitan magazine, sent Nellie roses to congratulate her. Nellie was amazed. Just three years earlier, she had no money. No one knew her name. The city’s top papers would never have considered hiring her.
Now, she worked for the New York World, one of the most famous newspapers in the United States. Even newspapers in other countries published stories about Nellie Bly and her big trip around the world.
Just as she had always hoped, Nellie had become the “best--known and most widely talked--of young woman on Earth . . .” Chapter 1: Early Years
Elizabeth Jane Cochran was born on May 5, 1864, in Pennsylvania. Her father, Michael, was a judge and landowner who founded the town of Cochran’s Mills in the western part of the state. Both Michael and Elizabeth’s mother, Mary Jane Kennedy, were widowed when they met. Michael had ten children with his first wife and five with Mary Jane. Elizabeth was their third child together.
Mary Jane wanted Elizabeth to stand out. Other children wore grays and browns. Mary Jane dressed Elizabeth in pink, frilly outfits. And because of this, people started calling Elizabeth, Pink.
When Elizabeth was only six years old, her father became sick and died. Even though Judge Cochran was wealthy, Elizabeth’s mother was left with very little. This was because her father never made a will. A will is a legal document that explains who gets money and property in the case of someone’s death. Without a will, Mary Jane had no rights to Judge Cochran’s land or money. She had to figure out how to raise five children on her own.
Elizabeth quickly realized life was not easy for a single mother in the 1870s. Women usually had to depend on their husbands for money. When it came time to look for a husband herself, Elizabeth had a better plan. She instead looked for a career. She promised herself she would f ind a job to support both herself and her family. When she was fifteen, Elizabeth attended the Indiana Normal School in Indiana, Pennsylvania, to learn to become a teacher. Teaching was one of the few jobs women were allowed to have. But after only one semester, Elizabeth had to leave the school. Her mother didn’t have the money to pay for her education.
Mary Jane decided to move her family to the city of Pittsburgh, where she thought she and her children might have more opportunities. She bought a small house and made extra money by renting out rooms. Even though Elizabeth’s older brothers were less educated than she was, they became clerks and managers at local businesses while she could find work only as a kitchen girl, tutor, housekeeper, or nanny.
None of those jobs involved her passion, though. Elizabeth’s true passion was reading. Her favorite paper to read was the Pittsburg Dispatch.
Little did Elizabeth know that the Dispatch would lead her to the job of her dreams. CHAPTER 2: Just a Normal Working Girl
At twenty years old, Elizabeth had been through many hardships. One morning, as she was reading the Dispatch,
a column caught her eye. A man who called himself the “Quiet Observer” wrote that women should stay home and cook, clean, and take care of their children. He felt that women who worked were not normal. Opinions like these were common in 1885, and they made Elizabeth angry. She had seen her mother struggle to take care of her children. She wanted to prove this “Quiet Observer” was wrong.
Elizabeth took out a sheet of paper and wrote a long letter to the editor. She said women should work if they wanted. They were just as smart and able as men. She signed her letter Lonely Orphan Girl
George Madden, the managing editor of the Pittsburg Dispatch
, was interested in finding out who the “Orphan Girl” was. He believed that the unknown letter writer could add spark to his newspaper, and he wanted to meet her. Unfortunately, Elizabeth had been too nervous to sign her name or include her address. George showed the letter to Erasmus Wilson, the man who secretly wrote as the “Quiet Observer.” Erasmus had an idea. He told George to put an ad in the Letters to the Editor section asking the unknown “Orphan Girl” to send her name and address to the paper.
When Elizabeth saw George’s ad, she got a great surprise. She didn’t feel comfortable, however, replying with her personal information. Instead, the next morning, she marched directly to the Dispatch
Elizabeth’s strong writing skills won over both George and Erasmus. To Elizabeth’s delight, George hired her as a writer for the Dispatch
But in the 1880s, it was considered “unladylike” for female reporters to write under their real names. Elizabeth needed to think of a pen name. George had heard someone in the office whistling “Nelly Bly,” a popular song written by a famous composer named Stephen Foster. George loved that people already knew the name. He quickly wrote it down. Somehow, the name was accidentally spelled Nellie
rather than Nelly.
But from then on, Elizabeth would be known as Nellie Bly.
In 1885, female reporters were expected to write about fashion, shopping, or recipes. But Nellie wanted to write the same serious news stories as male reporters. She even took a job at a factory to experience the working conditions for herself. One of her earliest series of articles was about the daily lives of factory workers. Female readers wrote letters to the Dispatch
praising Nellie for her work. They liked that she was writing about working women who were just like them.
Nellie told George she wanted to be a foreign reporter—someone who traveled and wrote articles for readers back home about their experiences. Nellie saw this as her chance to be taken seriously. She just needed to think of a place to go. Nellie remembered the railroad workers at her mother’s boardinghouse talking about Mexico. They said you could travel there by train. Nellie ran to George with her idea, but he said the trip would be too dangerous. Nellie offered to take her mother so she wouldn’t be alone. Finally, George agreed to pay for six months of travel through Mexico. Nellie and her mother were soon headed to Mexico City by train.
Nellie wrote about Mexico’s wonderful food and polite people. But there were also things Nellie didn’t like. Nellie thought the Mexican government treated its people unfairly. Other newspapers in the United States picked up the Dispatch
’s stories, and word quickly got to Mexico. The Mexican government threatened to put her in jail. Because of this, Nellie and her mother had to cut their trip short and returned home after five months.
Back in Pittsburgh, George assigned Nellie to write for the women’s page once again. For three months, Nellie argued with George about wanting to write more serious news stories. One day Nellie didn’t show up for work. No one at the paper could find her. Finally, they realized that she had left a note for Erasmus Wilson. Over the years, he and Nellie had become friends. And Nellie didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye to him.
The note said simply: “DEAR Q.O.—I am off for New York. Look out for me. BLY.”
After three years at the Dispatch
, Nellie was ready for her next adventure.
Copyright © 2020 by Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.