Today is the birthday of journalist Nellie Bly (books by this author), born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania (1864). When she was 16, her family moved to Pittsburgh, where she read an editorial in The Pittsburgh Dispatch titled “What Girls are Good For.” (The paper’s answer was “not much,” at least, not outside the home.) She wrote a furious reply and signed it “Little Orphan Girl.” The editor was so impressed that he invited her in and offered her a job. She took it, and she borrowed the name “Nellie Bly” from a Stephen Foster song to use as her pen name.
Unlike most female journalists of the time, she didn’t write about fashion or gardening, though. She wrote about the poor, and the way women were exploited in factories, sometimes posing as a sweatshop worker to report from the inside, which made companies nervous. They threatened to pull their advertising, so she was demoted to a beat that was deemed more suitable for a lady. She turned in her letter of resignation along with her story. She went to New York in 1887, and after several months with no job prospects, she talked her way into an opportunity with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Her assignment was to cover the notorious Blackwell’s Island Women’s Lunatic Asylum, and she went undercover, convincing doctors and judges that she was mentally ill. She was committed to the asylum and lived there in appalling conditions for 10 days. She wrote: “I have watched patients stand and gaze longingly toward the city they in all likelihood will never enter again. It means liberty and life; it seems so near, and yet heaven is not further from hell.”
In 1914, she went to work for the New York Evening Journal as America’s first female war correspondent. She wrote from the front lines of World War I for almost five years. She returned Stateside in 1919 and died of pneumonia in 1922.