At 9:40 am on November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly boarded the Augusta Victoria beginning her 72-day journey around the world, aiming to beat the fictious Phineas Fogg’s journey of 80 days. She traveled light: her dress, heavy coat, small bag with changes of underclothes and toiletries, with her traveling money in a small bag tied around her neck.
Adventure was nothing new for Nellie, born as Elizabeth Cochran Seaman on May 5, 1864, in Pennsylvania. Her family was the classic “American Dream” story: her father, son of an Irish immigrant, rose from mill worker to merchant and associate justice. With his death in 1870, Nellie’s mother moved the family closer to Pittsburgh, eventually opening a boardinghouse.
Having had to give up teacher’s college in Indiana due to lack of funds, Nellie returned home. Angered by a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch which stated girls were only good for becoming wives, mothers and homemakers, Nellie wrote an anonymous rebuttal using the pseudonym, “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The editor was so impressed he advertised the letter writer to reveal herself and accept a job at the newspaper. Elizabeth took on the pseudonym of Nellie Bly, and began her career as a columnist and journalist.
She began her journalism career writing a series of investigative articles on the lives of woman factory workers. When factory owners complained, Nellie was reassigned to the women’s pages, covering fashion, society and gardening. At 21, she was determined to “do something no girl has done before,” and travelled to Mexico as a foreign correspondent. For six months she reported on the lives and customs of Mexican peoples. These included criticism of the Mexican government’s detention of journalism and suppression of the press. Once back in Pittsburgh, she chafed at writing about “women’s topics;” deciding to find a more fulfilling journalism job in New York City in 1886.
She had no luck until she talked her way into the office of Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World. She took an undercover assignment to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. At that time the term lunatic encompassed a variety of misunderstood physical and mental conditions and behavioral disorders.
In order to be committed, Nellie convinced the police, a judge and a doctor she was insane. What Nellie found at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum was horrific: abuse and neglect, filthy living conditions, and rotten food. After 10 days, Pulitzer had Nellie released; her 1887 articles (later published as the book, Blackwell’s Island: Ten Days in a Madhouse) caused a sensation and was the impetus for hospital and asylum reforms. She made a name for herself, and established the importance of women to investigative journalism.
She first purposed her journey to Pulitzer in 1888. Besides circumnavigating the globe in less than 80 days, Nellie also set out to disprove the stereotypical concepts that women were not good travelers and need to take excess amounts of baggage and personal items on trips. Her 25,000 trip in 1889 included a stop in France to meet Jules Verne, the author of Around the World in Eighty-Days. She utilized existing steamship and rail-lines which could lead to delays. When a rough Pacific Ocean crossing set Nellie behind by several days, Pulitzer chartered a private train to meet her in San Francisco. Nellie arrived back arrived back in New Jersey on January 25, 1890, at 3:51 p.m.
Rather than return to journalism, Nellie took a lucrative job writing serial novels, completing 11 of them between 1889 and 1895. She married the industrialist Robert Seaman in 1895, and due to his failing health, took over the day to day running of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. She ran her company as a model of social welfare including health benefits and recreational facilities for her employees. For a while, she was one of the leading women industrialists in the US, but unwise business practices and embezzlements by employees lead to her losing everything.
By 1912, she was again a journalist covering the Women’s Suffrage Movement and then as one of the very few American woman war correspondents in Europe during World War 1. Nellie died of pneumonia in 1922 at age 57.
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