Nellie Bly was the pen name of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, one of America’s first investigative journalists. Bly was born May 5, 1864, in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania. She began her career in 1880, at the age of 16, writing on “women’s” subjects such as homemaking, gardening, and society for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. She soon convinced her editor to let her investigate more controversial topics, such as divorce, but she was itching for more. She spent six months in Mexico as a special correspondent, and soon after her return, she left Pittsburgh, leaving behind the note, “I am off for New York. Look out for me.”
In New York, Bly talked her way into the New York World and left with an assignment to investigate the treatment of inmates in the city’s infamous Bellevue Hospital, on Blackwell’s Island. Bly decided the best way to do this was to get herself committed, even though neither she nor her editors had any clear plan for getting her out again. She first checked into a cheap boarding house, and then began to imitate the behavior of an insane woman. Within days, she found herself committed to the insane ward at Bellevue.
Once incarcerated, Bly took careful notes of the grim conditions, including the abusive treatment, mandatory cold baths, and damp, vermin-infested rooms. After ten days, a lawyer acting for the New York World secured her release. Two days later, on October 9, 1887, the paper ran the first installment of her story, entitled “Behind Asylum Bars.” It became an overnight sensation. New York City began an investigation, and within a month, the city had made major changes to eliminate many of the worst problems that Bly had reported on.
Bly’s book about her incarceration, “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” secured her reputation and helped popularize the practice of investigative journalism. Bly later traveled around the world in just 72 days, setting a world record.
In 1895, at the age of 31, she married millionaire Robert Seamen and retired from journalism. When Seaman died in 1904, Bly ran his manufacturing company, and eventually went on to patent several inventions related to oil manufacturing. In her later years, Bly returned to journalism, reporting from the Eastern Front during World War I, and covering the woman suffrage movement. Bly was still working as a writer when she died from pneumonia on January 27, 1922.