In fact, Nellie Bly was not mad. She was, however, “committed”–in more ways than one.
Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864, Nellie, as she was known after she became a journalist, always had a deep sense of morality and a desire to help those who could not help themselves.
Perhaps this stemmed from her own hardships as a young girl. Nellie’s father, Michael Cochran, owned and ran a successful mill in Cochran, Pennsylvania. However, when he died six years after Nellie was born, the family could no longer make ends meet and her mother, Mary Jane, moved her children to Pittsburgh. Due to the family’s financial situation, young Elizabeth had to give up her education to help her mother run the boarding house she had purchased for her family’s survival.
Although she had to quit school as a youngster, Nellie had a gift for writing. Especially when something piqued her interest. At eighteen years old, after reading a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch that insinuated a woman’s place is in the home, bearing children and keeping house, Elizabeth wrote a rebuttal under the name “The Lonely Orphan,” and sent it to the editor. To her surprise, the editor not only published the rebuttal but offered her a job as a columnist. It was then she took the pen name, Nellie Bly, after a popular Stephen Foster song.
Nellie wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch for several years. She wrote about the lives of working women, particularly women factory workers. However, the newspaper received complaints from factory owners and the editor reassigned her to cover fashion, society, and gardening. Frustrated with these assignments, Nellie left the Dispatch and traveled to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent. There, she wrote articles reporting on the customs of the Mexican people. When a fellow journalist wrote an article criticizing the Mexican government, he was thrown in jail. Nellie protested with her own writings and the Mexican authorities threatened her with arrest. She had to leave the country.
Bly moved to New York City in 1886. She took a while to find work, but in 1887, she submitted a story idea concerning the immigrant experience in the U.S. to the editor of the New York World, one of the countries leading newspapers, owned by Joseph Pulitzer. The editor turned down her idea but challenged her to go undercover for a different story. A story to expose the abusive treatment of mental patients on nearby Blackwell’s Island, an insane asylum for women.
Bly rose to the challenge.
But she had to be convincingly crazy. To do this, she stopped bathing and brushing her hair. She practiced looking like a lunatic in the mirror. She checked herself into a temporary boarding house for women under the name “Nellie Moreno” and immersed herself deeper into her role. For twenty-four hours, she yelled and screamed at the other tenants, she snarled, she pulled at her hair. She later wrote, “It was the greatest night of my life.”
As she’d hoped, the police took her away and soon she was declared hopelessly insane. Local newspapers wrote about the “mysterious waif with the wild, hunted look in her eyes.” After a few days at the Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward, Bly ended up at Blackwell’s Island. (To be continued)