Nellie Bly & Stunt Journalism

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy, and our subject for today has really captivated us, so I hope you like her as much as we do.

Katie Lambert: I think she's our new professional heroine. Our subject is Nellie Bly and Stunt Journalism, and when Nellie Bly embarked on the journalistic stunt that made her so famous, which was feigning insanity in order to be committed to a notorious asylum, something I would not do as a health editor, a fellow journalist from a competing paper picked up on the story.

Sarah Dowdy: And he covered the court appearance that resulted in her committal as real news. He - he didn't pick up on the fact that it was a stunt, and he wrote, "The circumstances surrounding her were such as to indicate that possibly she might be the heroine in an interesting story."

Katie Lambert: Indeed. We'd have to agree. Nellie Bly pioneered the era of girl stunt reporters, women who wrote firsthand, somewhat low brow reports that got him off the fashion and flower show and perhaps cat show beat [inaudible] - take note - and instead, into the seediest, most dangerous parts of the city. This was big from about the late 1880s to the early 1890s, but no one was bigger than Nellie Bly.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. She starts off writing for $5.00 a week, and at the pinnacle of her career, she's making $25,000.00 a year, which is big money at the time. So we're gonna start at the beginning as we always do with our heroine's childhood.

Katie Lambert: Elizabeth Jane Cochran was born May 5, 1864 in Cochrans Mills, Pennsylvania. And her father was a Cochran himself, Judge Cochran, and he'd already had a family of ten with his first wife. Elizabeth was his 13th child of 15, and she was considered the most rebellious.

Sarah Dowdy: And so, her mother, Mary Jane, likes attention and quickly instills that in her daughter. She has the baby, Elizabeth, christened in a bright pink gown, which earns her the nickname, "Pink."

Katie Lambert: Pink.

Sarah Dowdy: And her childhood is comfortable. She lives in a nice mansion, has an easy life, you know, the daughter of a judge. But things change when she's about 6 years old when Judge Cochran dies without a will. And because he's already had this first family, his second family is left with no protection. And there's not much anyways to be split between 15 children, so his estate is auctioned off. And the second family moves into a modest home. And Pink helps take care of her siblings and her mother remarries, probably trying to make a more stable life for herself and her children. But unfortunately, she marries an abusive, alcoholic man, and Pink actually even ends up testifying at their eventual divorce trial.

Katie Lambert: Her brothers ended up being able to land decent white-collar jobs, even though they didn't have a lot of education. So Pink decided that she liked to be independent and help support her mother. She enrolled at the Indiana Normal School when she was 15 to train as a teacher but ran out of money after one semester and moved to Pittsburgh with her mother, where she helped run a boarding house. And Pittsburgh is where she will meet her fortune.

Sarah Dowdy: So we're gonna skip to 1885 when she gets her job at the Pittsburgh dispatch, and this was the most amazing way to get a job.

Katie Lambert: I love this story.

Sarah Dowdy: She sends an angry anonymous letter to the editor of the paper in response to an editorial by the quiet observer, a Erasmus Wilson, who had written a piece, called What Girls Are Good For. And Wilson was one of the most popular columnists in Pittsburgh, and he was a Civil War veteran. And this piece he wrote considered women useless outside of the domestic sphere, and this really angered young Pink because she knew that some women didn't have a choice but to work. You know, she was an example of this herself and don't have any other options. So she writes in and the grammar isn't good. There's no punctuation. After all, she hasn't had much of a formal education, but it's such a spirited letter and she signs it, "The lonely orphan girl," that it completely captivates the editor of the paper.

Katie Lambert: And the managing editor of the Pittsburgh dispatch was George Madden, who thinks with his good business sense that he's gotta get this girl to write for his paper. So he puts an ad in the Sunday paper asking that she come forward, and she came to the office the next day and got her job as a reporter.

Sarah Dowdy: And appropriately enough, her first article is a response to Wilson's editorial.

Katie Lambert: Good for her.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And she goes on to cover topics that interest her, like the conditions of working girls in Pittsburgh and life in the slums, the archaic divorce laws in the state, topics that normally wouldn't fall to a woman reporter, who would - who would write more about, yeah, flower shows, cat shows, fashion. And Madden eventually decides that she should be a permanent staffer because even though she's not well trained, she's good and she's interesting.

Katie Lambert: Madden and Ms. Cochran decide that she needed a nom de plume so she could keep her personal and her professional identities separate, and he chooses Nellie Bly from an old Stephen Foster song.

Sarah Dowdy: But eventually, one of Nellie Bly's stunts goes awry, and she poses as a sweatshop worker in Pittsburgh. And the owners get mad at the paper's negative coverage of their business and threaten to cut off all that - all their advertising in the paper. So the editors back off, and Nellie's forced onto the fashion beat, which she is not interested in.

Katie Lambert: So instead, she goes to Mexico. From 1886 to 1887, she traveled through Mexico doing quote, unquote, real journalism. She wrote about corruption, the conditions of the poor, details about the food, what bullfights were like. But the Mexican officials eventually get so angry that she's expelled from the country, and she returns to Pittsburgh.

Sarah Dowdy: But the editors haven't learned their lesson, and they try to stick her on the fashion/flower show beat again. And she quits, and before she leaves, she writes a note for Erasmus Wilson. "Dear Q. O., I'm off for New York. Look out for me. Bly." Just gotta be the best kiss off.

Katie Lambert: Agreed - kiss off. So she arrives in New York looking for a job and decides that she'd really like to work for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, but really, anywhere will do. She's not in a position to be too picky at the time. Months later, she still can't find work. She's running out of money and she smooth talks her way into the office of Colonel John Cockerel, who's the managing editor of the New York World.

Sarah Dowdy: And as soon as she gets her audience with him, she doesn't waste any time, immediately suggests a story where she would travel to Europe and return steerage class to report on all the immigrants coming into the US and what the conditions were like for them aboard a ship. And the editor rejects this idea. He thinks it's too challenging for a young, relatively inexperienced reporter, so in its place he suggests why don't you, instead, pretend to be insane and have yourself committed at Blackwell's Island, which to me -

Katie Lambert: Yeah because that's easier.

Sarah Dowdy: - doesn't sound much easier, but Nellie Bly's into it. She signs up for the job. He gives her $25.00 on the spot, and she joins the staff and starts to prepare for her first assignment.

Katie Lambert: Her piece is called Ten Days in a Mad-House, and we want to say that Jean Marie Lutes' article on girl stunt reporting for American Quarterly was really helpful in researching this part of the podcast.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And actually, Tech Stuff's Chris Pollett was a huge help in actually obtaining the article using his magic library skills.

Katie Lambert: I like his magic skills. Thank you to Chris. So a little background on Blackwell's. It was an interesting place. It offered cheap psychiatric care for mentally ill immigrants, but the conditions were really bad. And Charles Dickens had visited it on his American tour but left very quickly because it depressed him so.

Sarah Dowdy: And reporters were interested in it, too. A Harper's Weekly reporter had taken a supervised tour, and ended up writing that it was a pretty comfortable, fair, and clean place, but you can only imagine what's on the official tour.

Katie Lambert: Of course, it is in the supervised tour.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. So people are curious about what it's actually like on the inside, so Bly has got to get inside to write this report. She's great for this story, too. She doesn't have much of a formal education, no real professional training in journalism, no credentials. She's a total amateur, but she's really good. And she's ou t there and adventurous enough to convince law enforcement and mental health professionals that she's actually insane. But she's still able to maintain that middle class respectability that protects her reputation and makes her popular as a female journalist.

Katie Lambert: And in case you're wondering how you fake crazy, you practice making faces in the mirror.

Sarah Dowdy: There were actually illustrations of her doing this. It's pretty awesome.

Katie Lambert: And we love that. So she checks into a boarding house for women as 19-year-old Nellie Brown, leaving all her documentation behind. She acts irrationally. She stays up all night. She's kicked out in the morning but won't leave the boarding house. So the matron calls the police. The New York Times covered her court appearance and described her as, I quote, "a mysterious waif."

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. So in order to convince the judge to send her to Blackwell's, though, which is the really critical part of this preparation, she calls herself Nellie Moreno and pretends to speak Spanish, sort of trying to play into prejudices against immigrants. And she drops this act as soon as she gets to prison, the - the whole Spanish-speaking bit. But then, she's gotta get past the actual doctors, the mental health professionals, who the professional bit is certainly called into question by what she runs into.

Katie Lambert: The doctor who examines her assumes that she is a woman of the town, which is our new favorite euphemism for a prostitute, before pronouncing her - this is a quote - "positively demented. I consider it a hopeless case. She needs to be put where someone will take care of her," end quote.

Sarah Dowdy: But interestingly, as soon as she's in the ward, she doesn't even bother feigning insanity anymore. She just acts like her regular old self. She writes, "Yet, strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be." And she sees really terrible things inside of Blackwell's asylum. She sees people forced to eat meals, rotten food, beatings, and ice baths, and she describes her own ice bath pretty memorable.

Katie Lambert: She says, "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. For once, I did look insane," end quote. This reminds me of a Sarah Waters book I just finished, actually.

Sarah Dowdy: Well, and she overhears another woman, another patient, shrieking and being beaten while given her own ice bath. And the woman is dead is the next morning, just all this terrible stuff that happens in here. But this is a risky stunt for Nellie, too, aside from just being forced to take ice baths. Female insanity, especially hysteria, which is what she was trying to imitate, was often conflated with nymphomania at the time, which would expose female patients to abuse from people within the hospital. Even the ambulance driver, who takes Nellie to Blackwell's, writes after the series is published that he knew she wasn't crazy because she didn't make a pass at him. And he thought about suggesting her to a, quote, test, which we can only imagine what that would be, but decided that she looked too respectable.

Katie Lambert: After a few days at Blackwell's, Bly asked for a re-examination but was denied. And eventually, Pulitzer sent an attorney to rescue her. We were wondering just how long that took, like you know, where is that Nellie Bly girl?

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. I imagine him getting back from lunch or something and being like, hmmm.

Katie Lambert: She's been gone for a while. We should - we should go check on her.

Sarah Dowdy: When she's out, she starts writing her series, and the piece is called Ten Days in a Mad-House. And the first installment is so incredibly popular that her byline becomes a headline for the next piece. And it actually results in some social changes. There's a grand jury investigation of the asylum. The care improves. And one quote that really sort of sums up her experience there was this one, "Take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up, and make her sit up straight from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Do not allow her to talk or move during these hours. Give her nothing to read, let her know nothing of the world or its doings, and see how long it will take to make her insane."

Katie Lambert: That's a pretty good quote. And the series turns her into a star. She continues to write firsthand investigative accounts. We'll give you some of our favorite titles. The first is my favorite: The Girls Who Make Boxes: Nellie Bly tells how it feels to be a white slave.

Sarah Dowdy: We've got Nellie Bly as a Mesmerist, which kind of reminded me of our Houdini episode.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. Trying to Be a Servant: Nellie Bly's strange experience.

Sarah Dowdy: Nellie Bly and the Pullman. She visits the homes of poverty in the model workingman's town.

Katie Lambert: In the Magdalene's Home: Nellie Bly's visit to an institution for unfortunate women.

Sarah Dowdy: Which was reformed prostitutes, or supposedly reformed. And she also does all kinds of related stunts. She poses as an unwed mother to expose baby buying and poses as a thief to spend a night in jail and does stuff that's, I guess, not quite as risqué as some of these pieces. She uncovers the bribery of lobbyists in the legislature.

Katie Lambert: And in one story, titled Visiting the Dispensaries, Nellie Bly narrowly escapes having her tonsils amputated. She goes to a throat doctor that poor people are forced to visit for medical care, and applies makeup to make herself look poor, says she has a sore throat. And this is what she writes.

Sarah Dowdy: "'That tonsil needs a piece cut off,' the doctor said, dropping the probing instrument and taking up another who's bright gleam gave me a chill. I'll do a great deal, I think, pathologically, to get a story, but I won't give up half a tonsil."

Katie Lambert: A lesson to us all.

Sarah Dowdy: I would draw the line there, too, I think.

Katie Lambert: The price of journalism. So Pulitzer's paper was really good at appealing to multi-ethnic, multi-class audiences, from women to immigrants to poor people. So this socially active journalism that still doesn't offend the middle class mores is really popular.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And the New York world encourages this girl stunt journalism to a certain extent, but they also find a way to keep other would-be Blys anonymous. They don't wanna have all of these superstar -

Katie Lambert: Well, then you gotta pay them.

Sarah Dowdy: - stunt reporters. Exactly. So they decide to call everybody else, who's not Nellie Bly, Meg Merilees. And by eliminating the individuality of stunt reporting, which was what made it so captivating in the first place - it's someone's own experience, they can talk about their own background and how they're reacting to what they're seeing - by removing that, it dooms the genre. It doesn't really extend past the early 1890s.

Katie Lambert: So while the Mad-House piece is what makes Nellie Bly so famous, what she's remembered for is the stunt we're about to talk about. So Pulitzer had a plan to promote the building of The World's new offices. He wanted to launch a stunt where a journalist would travel around the world trying to beat the record set by the fictional Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne's hero in Around the World in 80 Days.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. At this point, she kind of reminds me not only of Brenda Starr, but also Carmen Sandiego. So Pulitzer plans on sending a man, but Bly says that she'll do it for less time for another paper unless they send her. So Pulitzer caves and on November 14, 1889, she sails from New York City to beat the record. And with her, she takes 200 British pounds silver, a tiny bit of American money, which was really more of an experiment to see if other countries accepted American money, and a 24-hour watch, and a huge jar of cold cream, which I think is funny because she hardly brings anything on this trip. She's trying to pack so light, but it must have been the key component of her beauty regimen.

Katie Lambert: Sarah, skin care is very important, and if Charles Bedaux were going with her, he would have told her to bring truffles. But since her dispatches are so sporadic on her travels, to go back to our actual story, The World has to resort to promoting the stunt however they can. They run articles on geography. They hold contests where people guess what her time will be with a prize of a trip to Europe, which gets them one million entries.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. They basically try to keep it in the paper any way they can, and Bly, meanwhile, is traveling by ship, train, rickshaw, bureaux, catamaran. And another gir l stunt reporter joins in to this quest, I guess, Cosmopolitan's Elizabeth Bisland, and she tries to compete, unsuccessfully, but it just kinda goes to show how popular this girl stunt journalism was at the time.

Katie Lambert: And her trip sounds pretty cool. She ends up stopping for wine and biscuits with Jules Verne at his home in France. I wish he would invite me. He shows her a map of Phileas Fogg's route and has hers lined up next to it so, you know, they can compare. And she ends up spending Christmas in a Canton leper colony.

Sarah Dowdy: Which gives us another chance to -

Katie Lambert: To redeem ourselves from saying Canton, like Canton, Ohio all through the opium wars podcast. We're very sorry.

Sarah Dowdy: And she runs into a storm while sailing for Japan, and at this point, she's getting worried that she's not gonna complete the journey in time. And she says, "I would rather go back to New York dead than not a winner." I don't know if that's just her - her natural flair for sensationalism, but maybe that's how she felt. But on Day 68, she docks in San Francisco, and she hears that there might be a smallpox quarantine on her ship. So she jumps overboard onto a tugboat to make sure that she's not held up in San Francisco. And The World has chartered a special train for her to take her to Chicago. It's got one sleeping coach and an engine, so it makes record time getting there.

Katie Lambert: She arrived in New York at 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds to bands, parades, and fireworks, and The World proclaims, in all caps, "The stagecoach days are ended; the new age of lightning travel begun."

Sarah Dowdy: So she's a huge star at this point, and she writes, Around the World in 72 Days in 1890. But despite her huge success with this stunt and the huge success it brings the paper, she's not even given a bonus. So she resigns just kind of -

Katie Lambert: I object.

Sarah Dowdy: - in disgust. World bosses eventually agree to treat her more respectfully and pay her better, and so, she returns in 1893 to do more work on women's rights, unwed mothers, some interesting and influential interviews, too. She profiles the boxer, John L. Sullivan, writes about Susan B. Anthony, and interviews the anarchist, Emma Goldman.

Katie Lambert: We've gotten a lot of requests for her. We might have to do her in another podcast.

Sarah Dowdy: She's in Rad Time, too, another Houdini mention.

Katie Lambert: See, they're all connected people. She also covered the Pullman Strike from the perspective of the strikers and -

Sarah Dowdy: Which she was the only journalist to do that.

Katie Lambert: That's pretty cool. Thanks, Nellie Bly. And she ended up writing an unsuccessful novel before marrying millionaire, Robert Seaman in 1895. She was 30. He was 70. And he was President of the American Steel Barrel Company and the Ironclad Manufacturing Company.

Sarah Dowdy: Which is quite a name, isn't it?

Katie Lambert: It is.

Sarah Dowdy: So he leaves her his business after his death ten years later, but she has some bad luck with it. She's grown accustomed to living her life as this New York matron, but managing the business is not her forte. And the employees commit some forgeries. There was a lot of litigation. The company goes through bankruptcy and she loses the fortune. She ends up going to England for a vacation in 1914, kind of to escape some of these troubles. And World War I breaks out, which would be pretty bad for your average traveler, but for Nellie Bly, it's an opportunity to do some - some journalistic work.

Katie Lambert: She starts reporting through 1919, and goes home when her mother's health began to fail. In 1920, she joined The New York Journal, and she died of pneumonia January 27, 1922 in New York City. And her obituary was over all the New York papers.

Sarah Dowdy: And I think we're gonna close this one with one more quote from Nellie Bly herself. She wrote shortly before her death, "If one would become great, two things are absolutely necessary. The first is to know yourself. The second is not to let the world know you."

Katie Lambert: So while we don't think Nellie Bly would have approved of social media, we do. You should come follow us on Twitter at Missed in History, and we'd like to point you to a pretty cool article that goes back to her Mad-House days, called Top Ten Instances of Medical Quackery Throughout History. I edited that one. I can tell you it's good. And you can find that if you search on our homepage at

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