Nellie Bly: The Woman Who Inspired Investigative Journalism and The Fictional Character of Lois Lane

Isabella Boneham

Nellie Bly was a remarkable woman, one who formed what we now know as investigative journalism and defied gender stereotypes.

Nellie was fearless, determined and tenacious. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on 5th May 1864 in Pennsylvania. Her family owned a lucrative mill but had to move after being unable to keep up the payments of the land and house, following her father’s death at age six. She attended Indiana Teacher’s College and added an “e” to her last name becoming Elizabeth Jane Cochrane to sound more dignified and noble. Due to her family’s financial crisis, she was unable to finish her education. Instead, she helped her mother run a boarding house. During this time, columnist Erasmus Wilson wrote a piece for the Pittsburgh Dispatch called “What Girls Are Good For” under the name “The Quiet Observer”. 20-year-old Elizabeth Cochrane was infuriated and wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, pointing out the paper’s negative representation of women. She signed the letter “Lonely Orphan Girl”. In response, the editor placed an advertisement in his paper summoning whoever was behind the “Lonely Orphan Girl” to the Dispatch offices. She went and the editor offered her a job as a columnist, where she took the pen name Nellie Bly – taken from a Stephen Foster song. During her time at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Nellie was mainly asked to write about women. However, she wanted to write about both genders and so she went looking for more serious work. In 1866 she took the leap and moved to New York City. She found it extremely difficult to find work and decided to create her own opportunities. She went into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the New York World, and promised him she could deliver a major story. He took a chance and gave her the assignment to go undercover at an asylum. With no guidance given, Nellie seized the opportunity with motivation, passion and intent. In 1887, she leaped into the role, and began practising her ‘insane’ look in front of a mirror, accompanied by her convincing actions and attitudes. She checked herself into a working-class boarding house with the aim of frightening the other boarders so that they would kick her out. She used the name Nellie Brown, pretended to be Cuban and ranted that she was searching for “missing trunks”. The police were called out and a hearing was formed at New York City court. The judge ordered her to Blackwell Island where a poorhouse, smallpox hospital, prison and insane asylum all used to be. She stayed in the asylum for ten days. The perfectly pieced together article was published following her release and made her one of the most famous journalists in the United States at just 23 years old.
Nellie Bly: The Woman Who Inspired Investigative Journalism and The Fictional Character of Lois Lane
Nellie Bly

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During her ten days, Bly spoke to as many women as she could.

Nellie found sane women, immigrants who didn’t understand English and had been mistakenly committed to the asylum and poor women who thought they were going to the poorhouse. She wrote about the awful conditions these women endured and exposed what went on behind closed doors. After ten days, lawyers from New York World arranged for her release and Bly wrote about her covert operation. She published her articles in a six-part series called Ten Days in a Mad-House. Her account shocked the American public and she became known as the “girl detective”. Not long afterwards, Bly inspired by the popular book Around the World in 80 Days, set off on her journey to travel the world. She completed it in 72 days, holding the world record (only for a few days). Soon after she retired from journalism. Both of these accounts are Bly’s most popular works. However, Bly had many other daring stories up her sleeve. Apprehending a serial rapist in Central Park by posing as a potential victim, exposing a white slavery ring selling children, and being chased out of Mexico for exposing government corruption, are more of Bly’s marvellous and hands-on take of journalism. In 1895 she married a millionaire, Robert Seamen. When he died in 1903, Bly was left in control of a massive manufacturing company. She went on to patent several inventions relating to oil manufacturing, many of which are still used today. Bly returned to journalism in 1911, as a reporter for the New York Evening Journal. She covered the events of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, where she argued that women were as capable as men in all things. During World War One, she travelled to Europe, and became the first woman to report from the trenches on the front line. All throughout her life, Nellie made remarkable achievements. There is no surprise therefore, that she was the inspiration for DC Comics’ Lois Lane. She died on 27th January 1922, yet her legacy lives on. Not only through one of the most well-known female fictional characters, but also through the investigative journalism field as a whole and every female journalist.
Ancestry UK
Nellie Bly: The Woman Who Inspired Investigative Journalism and The Fictional Character of Lois Lane

Isabella Boneham

Isabella wrote for Edition 2, Forgotten Women of History.
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