Elizabeth Cochran Seaman is more famously known by her pen name, Nellie Bly. As a child, Cochran’s parents instilled the importance of education and hard work in their children. Her father immigrated from Ireland and eventually purchased the local mill and the majority of the land around the family home. The family made a moderate living, but Elizabeth was forced to drop out of boarding school due to financial constraints.
When the family relocated to Pittsburgh, a derisive letter in the local newspaper titled, What Girls Are Good For, angered her so much that she sent in a scathing, albeit anonymous, reply. The editor was so impressed with the letter that he ran an ad asking the author to identify herself. Cochran did so and he offered her the chance to write a follow up article. This article also impressed the editor and led to an offer of a full-time job. It was he who selected her pen name, Nellie Bly, because it was customary for female writers of that day to use one.
A prolific writer, Bly chronicled the plight of poor working women. She went on to champion a reform in divorce laws, and more favorable conditions for male and female factory workers. She also worked as a foreign correspondent in Mexico. Despite her impressive investigative reporting, she was soon relegated to the fashion and society pages. Unwilling to write under these restrictions, she left and moved to New York.
In New York, she hounded newspaper editors until one agreed to give her an assignment writing about patients in a mental institution. Bly, unbelievably, feigned mental illness to gain admittance to the institution, where she remained for ten days. When she was released, she wrote of institutional horrors like ice baths, rancid food, and beatings.
Her report helped spur political action to improve patient conditions. Her career from then on focused on investigations of corruption, poverty, and the treatment of female prisoners. She received further acclaim when she undertook a whirlwind trip around the world in 1889. Bly was determined to beat the record set by fictional character, Phileas Fogg. Bly completed her trip in a record 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes.
Although he was forty years her senior, Nellie married industrialist, Robert Seaman at the age of thirty. She was instrumental in inventing the metal barrels and cans manufactured in his factories that contained milk and beer. Their marriage lasted until his death ten years later, at which time, she returned to reporting.
Elizabeth Cochran lived life on her own terms, demanding fair living and working conditions for herself and for those less fortunate. She made her mark on history by standing up for what she believed in and by forging ahead in a role traditionally held by men. She died peacefully in 1922, but her legacy will live forever.
Elizabeth Cochran is an amazing example of the power of the pen to bring about change, awareness, and improvements. She’s also an example of taking risks, breaking constraints, and paving the way for others.