Nellie Bly's life was so full and interesting I have decided to write a series of blogs about her. I will cover her early life, her life as a reporter and author, and her life as an inventor and business woman. I first discovered Nellie when I was researching the oil industry for the blog, but we will get to that part later.
Elizabeth Jane Cochran, aka Nellie Bly, was born May 5, 1864. Very few people recognize her name today, but 100 years ago every American knew who Nellie Bly was. She was named to the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998 for many good reasons. Nellie was an independent and strong woman for the times she lived in. Women did not even have the right to vote until just two years before her death.
Elizabeth Jane was born in Burrell Township, Pennsylvania. Her father taught her and her siblings the virtues of hard work and determination by example. He started as a modest mill laborer and eventually bought the local mill and most of the land surrounding his family's farmhouse.
When Elizabeth became a teenager she wanted to portray herself as more sophisticated, so she dropped her nickname, "Pinky", and added an "e" to the end of her last name spelling it, Cochrane. After just one year of boarding school she was forced to withdraw because of a lack of money.
In 1880, Elizabeth and her family moved to Pittsburgh. An aggressive sexually discriminative column against working women appeared in the Pittsburgh Dispatch prompting her to write a blistering rebuttal to the editor with the pen name "Lonely Orphan Girl." The editor was so impressed with the writer's earnestness and spirit that he asked the "man" who wrote the letter to join the paper. When she showed up he refused to give her the job. Using her "push-and-get there" attitude and what her father had taught her, she persuaded him to change his mind. Female newspaper writers at that time customarily used pen names, and for Elizabeth the editor chose "Nellie Bly" from the title character in a popular song by Stephen Foster.
As a writer for the Dispatch, Nellie focused her early work on the plight of working women, writing a series of investigative articles on female factory workers. Editorial pressures soon pushed her to the "women's pages" to cover fashion, society, and gardening which were the usual assignments for female journalists of the day.
There are many things that single Nellie out as unusually independent to the times for me starting with this...Dissatisfied with the duties of the women's pages, Nellie took the initiative and traveled to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent. The year was 1885, and she was only 21. Nellie spent the next half year reporting the lives and customs of the Mexican people. Her dispatches were later published in a book called "Six Months in Mexico." In one of her reports she protested the imprisonment of a local journalist for criticizing the Mexican government and then dictator, Porfirio Diaz. When Mexican authorities learned of her report, they threatened her with arrest prompting her to leave the country. Safely home she denounced Diaz as a tyrannical czar suppressing the Mexican people and controlling the press.