Nellie Bly is the pen name of the American investigative newspaper reporter Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman (1864-1922). Cochrane was renowned for her reportage of social justice issues (which were considered controversial at the time), and her willingness to undertake "daredevil" undercover investigations, which famously included getting herself committed to an insane asylum so she could report on conditions there.
Cochrane was born on May 5, 1864, in Cochran's Mills, a small town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, named after her father who was a mill owner, lawyer and judge (Cochrane added an "e" to the end of her surname later in life). Following her father's death, Cochrane, her mother and her 14 siblings moved to Pittsburgh.
Cochrane's interest in the world of journalism stemmed from her anger at the sentiments expressed in a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885. The columnist had denounced the notion of women working outside of the home. In response, Cochrane wrote a letter to the editor attacking the column, signing it anonymously as "Lonely Orphan Girl." The editor was apparently so taken by the letter that he published a request for the letter writer to word a detailed rebuttal of the column. Cochrane identified herself, published a rebuttal and was subsequently hired by the paper as a reporter. However, she insisted that her reporting focus on social justice issues, such as working conditions for women and slum housing. Cochrane's pen name was chosen by her editor and is an adaptation of the title character in the song "Nelly Bly" by American songwriter Stephen Foster.
Aside from her local reporting on social justice concerns, Cochrane spent six months in Mexico reporting for the paper on poverty and corruption there. She was eventually forced to flee the country after she was threatened with arrest. Her stories from Mexico were later published in the book Six Months in Mexico. Following her return she joined the staff of the New York World. Many of the stories that Cochrane wrote while at the paper have become famous, not only for the hard-hitting reporting focusing on controversial issues, but also for the lengths to which Cochrane was willing to go to investigate the subject matter. In one instance – probably the most famous one – in order to report on conditions at the women's insane asylum, Blackwell's Island, she faked insanity, easily convincing the several doctors who declared her insane and had her committed. After 10 days, the paper arranged for her release and her subsequent reports revealed the deplorable conditions at the asylum, including inedible food, ill treatment of the patients, rat infestation, lack of adequate medical care and so forth. Her reports were later published in the book Ten Days in a Mad-House, and led to a grand jury investigation of Blackwell's Island, resulting in many changes being made at the asylum and an increase in funding for such facilities.
Other examples of her in-depth investigation of issues include going undercover as a recent immigrant so that she could report on the practices of employment agencies; working in sweatshops to enable her reporting on conditions for women there; and getting arrested so that she could comment on conditions in the jails. As a result of such stories, Cochrane became famous as a champion of the underdog, particularly for women.
Another story that brought Cochrane renown was her 1899 trip around the world to see whether she could beat the fictional 80-day record in Jules Verne's book, Around the World in Eighty Days. She managed to achieve the feat in only 72 days. The reports that she filed along route and the immense publicity that resulted led to the creation of a board game and songs about the trip, as well as making Cochrane a popular lecturer.
Following the death of her husband Robert Seaman in 1904 (he was 40 years her senior), she managed his iron manufacturing company, but its failure and her bankruptcy led her to return to the world of journalism, becoming a reporter for the New York Journal. However, continuing to be dogged by financial problems she fled to Europe in order to escape her creditors. She found herself trapped in Austria at the outbreak of the First World War and filed reports for the paper titled "Nellie Bly on the Firing Zone."
Cochrane died from pneumonia on January 27, 1922 In New York City.