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Nellie Bly: Ingenuitive Investigator

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

By Tara Mae

There is a journalistic tenet “The role of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Muckraker and a mother of investigative journalism, Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, better known as Nellie Bly, was an ambassador for this credo. Born in Pennsylvania in 1864, she adopted New York as her home, and it was here that she produced some of her most legendary work. Her incendiary journalism helped set a modern precedent for using the written word not only to expose corruption and abuse but to inspire change. Although her journalistic intention often came up against patriarchal constraint, she sought to balance her fluff and “stunt” reporting with meaningful writing. 

Bly’s first published piece was a letter to the editor, written under the pseudonym “Little Orphan Girl” when she was approximately sixteen years old. In it, she excoriated a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch entitled “What Girls are Good For.” Bly took issue with the fact that according to the author, women were primarily suited only for birthing children and keeping house. The editor of the newspaper, George Madden, was so enthused by Bly’s fervor that he ran an advertisement in the paper, asking the unknown writer to identify herself. Upon meeting Bly, he suggested that she write an article under the same pseudonym. Little Orphan Girl penned “The Girl Puzzle,” which addressed how divorce impacted women and argued for a reform of divorce laws, themes close to Bly’s heart since her mother had divorced her alcohlic, abusive third husband. Madden was further impressed and offered her a full-time job. 

He gave Bly her nom de plume, taken from a popular minstrel song, “Nelly Bly,” by Stephen Foster. Among other things, it had been a campaign song for Abraham Lincoln’s reelection. The different spelling of the first name was due to an editorial error and she kept it for continuity. Still very much considered to be the domain of men, it was quite common for female journalists, writers, and artists to labor under pen names. As a woman, Bly’s voice was stifled, socially and legally. It was generally considered unbecoming in polite society for women to have careers. Her alias afforded her a certain freedom and anonymity, but that changed as her articles and escapades became more popular.

Women did not have the right to vote, and while state laws were shifting, many women did not have legal rights to their property or even their children. Bly, who had expressed to Madden a desire to write about ordinary persons, began composing a series of articles about the working conditions and struggles of female factory workers. She depicted the always dirty and too often dangerous factories, detailing the unsanitary spaces and exploitative practices faced by employees. Bly recognized the individuality of her subjects, highlighting their daily toils and personal dreams. 

When factory owners barred her from their businesses, Bly began her first undercover assignment. Dressed in tattered garments, she became a factory worker and wrote first-person narratives about her experience. Incensed at her reporting, the owners complained to Madden who reassigned her to the women’s pages of the paper, where she discussed high society, gardening, and fashion: topics that were considered suitable for female reporters.  

Very dissatisfied with the trajectory of her employment and resolved “to do something no girl has done before,” she went to Mexico as a foreign correspondent. Such an act was highly unusual and considered incredibly dangerous for a woman. Bly’s mother initially traveled with her as a chaperone but soon returned to the United States, leaving Bly to explore the country on her own, a fairly scandalous act for the time. For five months, she sent reports back to America that described Mexican life and culture. After she sent a dispatch that opposed the imprisonment of a local reporter who had criticized the dictatorial government of Porfirio Diáz, authorities threatened to arrest her, and she left the country. Her articles were later compiled in a book, Six Months In Mexico.

Upon her return, Bly briefly resumed working for the Dispatch until continued frustration with her assignments inspired her to move to New York City. Resolute in her desire to be seen as a serious journalist, Bly left a note for her associate Erasmus Wilson that read “Off to New York. Look out for me.” The move would become the entry point for some of her most fiery prose, but it initially took her months to find a job. Hungry for funds and meaningful opportunities, Bly talked her way into the offices of the New York World and managed to get a meeting with Joseph Pulitzer, its powerful and infamous publisher. Impressed with her boldness, they agreed on a trial assignment: an exposé of the notorious Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island (now Roosevelt Island).

The first crucial step was for Bly to get herself admitted into the asylum. Bly spent one night rehearsing in front of her mirror the persona of a “mad woman,” then rented a room at a boarding house to debut her character. She refused to go to sleep, informing the boarders that they were untrustworthy and crazy. Subsequently, they decided that she was insane and summoned the authorities. Brought before a judge, Bly claimed amnesia.

 A team of doctors examined her and declared her legally insane; one noted that she was a “hopeless case.” The judge decreed it so, and sent her to Bellevue Hospital from which she was shipped to Blackwell Island. Bly’s performance as a mad amnesiac was so enrapturing that other newspapers picked up the story of the “mysterious waif,” as the New York Times called her. Once Bly was successfully admitted to the asylum, she resumed her typical behavior. Instead of judging this as a sign of sanity, the doctors and nurses viewed these actions as symptoms of her mental illness. 

After interacting with the patients, Bly concluded that many of the women were perfectly sane but held in medical captivity for a variety of reasons, including physical impairments and abusive husbands or relatives who had committed them. Bly was subject to the same degrading and dangerous conditions with which the other inmates grappled: being served rotten, spoiled food, bitterly cold and aggressively administered ice baths, consistent verbal abuse, and regular beatings. She chronicled the added hardships that immigrant women faced, such as language barriers and cultural insensitivity. To her knowledge, there were only 16 doctors who attended more than 1600 women. She kept meticulous notes, recounting the mistreatment and mismanagement. 

Getting admitted to the asylum proved alarmingly easy, but getting released was a bit more challenging. When she explained that she was actually an investigative journalist and demanded to be freed, the staff took it as more of her delusional ravings. Bly’s liberation came when a lawyer for the World vouched for her mental capacity and ensured her release. The first of the resulting series of articles, titled “Behind Asylum Bars,” ran on October 9, 1887, two days after her release. The series was a sensation, and Bly became a renowned cultural figure.

She decried the injustice of the entire process of institutionalization, beginning with the unilateral authority of a (male) judge to declare a woman insane “by merely bidding her good morning and refusing to hear her pleas of release? Even the sick ones know it is useless to say anything for the answer will be that it is their imagination.” The articles were syndicated, and her painstaking accounts of the deplorable conditions and policies received national attention. Bly then wrote Ten Days in a Mad House, a critically lauded book about her time on the island.

Mortified, the psychiatrists who had mislabelled and misdiagnosed her offered their apologies. Beyond that, the New York City municipal government took notice of the negative attention and allocated more funds to the care of the patients on Blackwell’s Island. New York Assistant District Attorney Vernon M. Davis enlisted Bly’s assistance and convened a grand jury to investigate her discoveries. In conjunction with her muckraking, these findings inspired important changes in New York CIty’s Department of Public Charities and Corrections (later divided into two entities), which oversaw the state asylums. Within weeks, a number of the most egregious abuses relayed by Bly had been in some way addressed: living conditions and the food supply were improved, translators were hired for immigrant women, many of whom were not mentally ill but rather unable to understand their wardens, and the most malicious staff had been fired and replaced by other doctors and nurses. 

Not willing to rest on her fresh laurels, Bly quickly took on many new assignments from the World, immersing herself in the dangerous environments of homelessness, sweatshops, jails, and the legislature, where she exposed how bribery was used as a tool by certain lobbyists to influence politicians. In Albany, she posed as a lobbyist and enlisted a real lobbyist, Ed Phelps, to kill a bill for a fee of $1000. He used that money to pay off six assemblymen, checking each one off a list that he read aloud and gave to her. The newspaper published both this document and his subsequent denial of any wrongdoing. The six politicians demanded an investigation, the result of which was that they were each cleared of any crimes. Bly testified in front of the Assembly Judiciary Committee and was well-received by the crowd. Phelps, however, left the state capital and did not return the next year.