The World Stage of Nellie Bly

A few words this morning on the colorful and worthy topic of Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Jane Cochran, 1864-1922). Bly was an investigative journalist who became a pop culture phenonemon on account of her real-life adventures. She is virtually a figure of legend…yet she was wonderfully real.

Bly was born outside Pittsbugh in a community called Cochran’s Mills, named after her father Michael Cochran, who owned the local mill. But a crucial point to consider was that her dad had started out WORKING in the mill and that his father had immigrated from Ireland. Unlike many families who live the American Dream, the Cochrans seem not to have fogotten where they came from. The humanity and the plight of the worker were major subjects of concern to Nelly Bly. Her pseudonym, by the way, comes from a Stephen Foster song. She took it when she began writing for the Pittsburgh Dispatch in the 1880s. Her pathway in was an outraged letter to the editor in response to a condescending column entitled “What Are Women Good For?” which laid out the usual risible “childbearing, child rearing, making a home, etc” laundry list. Though Bly only had a little bit of college under belt, she wrote in a frank, impassioned style that was engaging, and she quickly made a name for herself with a couple of series of articles. One was an expose of the conditions of female factory workers; the other was a six-month series of dispatches on the volatile situation in Mexico under dictator Porfirio Diaz. They were published in book form in 1888. The text of it is at this link. Happy Cinco de Mayo, by the way!

After both of these journalistic series there were complaints from powerful people, and both times, she was busted by her editors back down to the women’s pages, relegated to covering society doings, gossip, gardening, and arts. Not to be judgmental — some people don’t mind that beat (ahem) but some prefer, shall we say, more of a challenge. Bly clearly lived for drama and adventure, and even danger. In 1887, she moved to New York and secured work at Pultizer’s New York World. Her assignment: to go undercover in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island and report on the conditions, which were predictably horrible. Can you imagine anything more harrowing? You’re submitting to lock-up! You might never get out! I feel like there are a zillion movies with this premise; the one that springs immediately to mind is Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963). Anyway, she made a big name for herself with this risky stunt, which was published in the book Ten Days in a Mad-House.

During this period she also did a lighter expose that will be of special interest to our readers. She went undercover as a chorus girl! Frustratingly (especially in a piece of journalism) she names no names, leaving us to wonder the identity of the theatre, the show, the personalities, etc. But it still provides a nice little snapshot of atmosphere and color. You can read that 1888 article here. (Addendeum: according to Nellie Bly scholar David Blixt, about whom more below, the show was probably Imre Kiralfy’s revival of Ravel’s pantomime Mazulm, the Night Owl.)

Then came her most famous stunt. Inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, she undertook the same journey herself, and wrote about her adventures along the way. You can decry the fact that the public was far more interested in this gimmicky cry for attention than, say, learning about the lives of factory workers and mental patients. But if you think about it, even THIS is about the woman’s experience. It was considered too dangerous for women to travel alone back then, let alone fly around in hot air balloons. But Bly did it. She had these risky adventures and lived to tell the tale unscathed. She became a hero, even a kind of folk figure. Her dispatches were published in an 1890 book Around the World in Seventy-Two Days (she beat the fictional Phileas Fogg’s record by eight days). More notably from a pop culture stand-point, her journey became the basis for one the first modern board games “Round the World With Nellie Bly” (pictured above). I’d love to be able to report that she went on the vaudeville circuit with her story, and, say, a slide show. This would have been a perfect act for Hammerstein’s Victoria. I havent come across any such reference, however, although she most certainly went on a very lucrative public speaking tour of the lecture circuit.

Believe it or not, after all that, there is still more to tell. In fact, in a way, I have buried the lede. There is actually some very recent news about Nellie Bly. After her world tour she retired from journalism and became a novelist, publishing a dozen full length works of fiction between 1889 and 1895. For the most part they sound like pulpy dime novel stuff ranging from adventure to social themes, with titles evocative of everyone from Horatio Alger to Dickens to Stephen Crane (e.g. Dolly the Coquette, and Little Penny: Child of the Streets). One them: Alta Lynn M.D., about a lady doctor, sounds especially intriguing. At any rate: all of these novels were thought LOST for over a century, but guess what? They were recently discovered! Author/actor David Blixt stumbled across them while researching Bly a couple of years ago and they have now been published! This article here gives all the info as does Blixt’s website. Have at it! I know I wanna read ’em.

In 1895 Bly married wealthy industrialist Robert Seaman of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, who was over 40 years her senior. The company made things like boilers, milk cans, and those ubquitous 55 gallon steel oil barrels, which some people think Bly invented, Because Seaman was in ill health, Bly began to run the company for him. After he passed away in 1904 she was in complete charge. So this period in her life is interesting as well, for, much like her father, she was the boss of a factory for a time. Needless to say, she was good to her workers. Unfortunately, for a wide variety of reasons, the company finally went under in 1911.

Bly returned to journalism yet again: covering World War One in Eastern Europe as one of the first female war correspondents. She also (naturally) wrote about the Woman’s Suffrage Movement. The 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. Bly passed away of pneumonia two years later. Almost as though she had said, “Ah, my work here is done”.

But wait! There’s still more! Did you know that there was a Nellie Bly Amusement Park in Brooklyn??? It was built in 1966 as part of NYC’s Nellie Bly Park, which had been created a decade earlier. The amusement park portion has since been renamed “Adventures Amusement Park“. It’s an adorable kiddie park with about a dozen rides just a little bit north of Coney Island. It is crazy to me that outside of locals, few people know about this park or the nearby Calbert Vaux Park. In my fantasy world they would be all looped into the same amusement district with Coney Island, improved, and promoted as a destination. It would take tens of millions to do this of course. TAX THE RICH!