When Nellie Bly was eight, Jules Verne published a book about a man named Phileas Fogg who traveled Around the World in Eighty Days. Seventeen years later, Bly said Phileas was a slacker. I shall do it faster. People thought she was crazy, but she’d already spent time in a mental institution, so why not?
–On This Day in History, Shit Went Down: November 14, 1889–
Born Elizabeth Cochran near Pittsburgh in 1864, when she was 16, she read a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled “What Are Girls Good For?” and the answer the author provided was basically “making babies and doing housework.” Nellie was all oh fucking hell no and wrote a response and the editor was impressed with her prose and gave her a job. She took on the pen-name Nellie Bly.
She began with investigative writing about the harsh lives of working women, and when factory owners complained about being exposed as douchebags the paper moved her to writing about fashion. She said fuck you and went to Mexico and spent six months writing about that, publishing it in a book. What made her really famous was when she was 23, Nellie pretended to be insane to get locked up in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now called Roosevelt Island) in New York as an undercover assignment. She wrote about the deplorable conditions for New York World, which was owned by that Pulitzer guy, and Ten Days in a Mad-House became a book that caused a massive sensation, and the asylum was forced to implement reforms. Her heroic stunt launched a new form of investigative journalism.
Ready for another adventure, on November 14, 1889, with two days’ notice, she left Hoboken on a steamship headed for Europe to prove that Verne’s circumnavigation could be completed in under 80 days. One of her stops was in France where she met the inspiring author Jules Verne himself. She sent telegraphs along the way to report on her travels.
She traveled across Asia mostly by rail; in China she visited a leper colony and in Singapore she bought a pet monkey that she took back to the U.S. with her. She completed her trip around the world in 72 days and wrote yet another book about her adventures, although some dude couldn’t abide a woman being a world record holder and beat it a few months later, but Nellie was first to do it in under Verne’s 80 days.
In 1998, Nellie Bly was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. The New York Press Club has a journalism award named after her.
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