Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864 in the town of Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania. The town was named for her father, Judge Michael Cochran. Early in life, Elizabeth earned the nickname "Pink" because her mother routinely dressed her in that color. Judge Cochran passed away when Elizabeth was just six. Elizabeth's mother, Mary Jane, would re-marry three years later to a man who was very abusive, forcing her to go through the tortuous process of divorce. This left the family on very hard times. Elizabeth attended Indiana Normal in hopes of becoming a teacher. However, she could not afford tuition and spent only one semester at the school.
In 1880, Mary Jane moved her family to Pittsburgh. Elizabeth assisted her mother with duties around their house which they had opened to boarders. In January of 1885, Nellie read an editorial in The Pittsburgh Dispatch entitled "What Girls Are Good For." The article admonished women for even attempting to have an education or career, suggesting they should stray no further than the home. This infuriated Elizabeth to the point of writing a scathing reply that she signed "Little Orphan Girl." Dispatch editor George Madden was so impressed by the reply, he placed an ad for the Little Orphan Girl to visit the newspaper. When Elizabeth introduced herself to Madden, the editor offered her the opportunity to write a rebuttal piece to be published. Elizabeth went home and wrote her first newspaper article "The Girl Puzzle." Impressed again, Madden offered Elizabeth a full-time job writing under the name Nellie Bly (the title of a popular song by Stephen Foster).
At the time women who worked at newspapers almost always wrote articles on gardening, fashion or society. Nellie Bly eschewed these topics for hard pressing stories on the poor and oppressed. Drawing from her mother's experience, she wrote on the inherent disadvantages women had in divorce proceedings. She also wrote numerous articles on the lives of poor women who worked in Pittsburgh's bottle factories. Nellie's articles fascinated readers, but drew criticism from the business community. When companies threatened to pull advertising from the Dispatch because of her articles, Nellie was assigned to a gardening story. When she turned in the article, she included her resignation.
Nellie's next adventure was a six month trip to Mexico. She wrote of her travels to Madden, who published her reports in the Dispatch. However, what started out as a travelogue soon turned into a scathing review of the Mexican government. When she reported on President Porfirio Diaz imprisoning a journalist for criticizing the government, Nellie soon found herself threatened with arrest and left the country. Her accounts would later be collected in the book Six Months In Mexico.
Back in the United States, Nellie decided that her next destination would be New York City. In 1887, Nellie arrived in New York hoping to land a job at a major newspaper, but none was offered. After four months of rejection, and near penniless, she talked her way into the office of John Cockerill, managing editor of the Joseph Pulitzer newspaper The New York World.
Determined not to leave without work, Nellie was eventually assigned to go under-cover as a patient in the notorious asylum on Blackwell's Island and report first-hand on her experience.
Nellie convinced both doctors and judges that she was insane, and was committed to the asylum. She endured filthy conditions, rotten food and physical abuse from doctors and nurses for ten days before a World agent rescued her. Nellie's articles "Behind Asylum Bars" and "Inside The Mad-House" created an uproar in New York. After further investigations were launched, New York officials provided more money and a change in care for the people at the asylum. Nellie Bly had arrived.
Nellie would spend the next several years writing articles for The World. She pioneered the field of investigative journalism. Often going under-cover, she exposed crooked lobbyists in government, tracked the plight of unwanted babies, reported on the conditions for poor workers in box-making factories and much more. Nellie was becoming so popular, The World would often use her name in the story's headline! People couldn't wait to see what Nellie Bly was up to next.
Nellie's most famous story would begin in 1889. She proposed to travel around the world faster than Jules Verne's character Phileas Fogg in Around The World In Eighty Days. Editors at The World were wary of the idea. Women didn't travel without escorts, they carried too much baggage. Never one to be denied, Nellie Bly stepped onto the ocean liner Augusta Victoria by herself on November 14, 1889 carrying only two small satchels.
Nellie traveled the world heading east from New York. Her journey took her from England to Egypt, Ceylon, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan before heading back to the United States. During a stop in France, Nellie got to meet Jules Verne himself, who encouraged her to break his own - fictional - record! In the meantime, to keep interest in Nellie's trip alive, The World promoted a hugely popular guessing game for her arrival time.
Nellie would step back on to American soil in San Francisco. She then boarded a train that took her across the country. On January 25, 1890, Nellie Bly arrived back at her starting point; seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after her departure. Nellie was now a hugely popular international celebrity. However, to her surprise, The World did not offer Nellie a bonus despite the increase in circulation she had created. Upset over the sleight, Nellie Bly resigned from the newspaper.
Though unemployed, Nellie was not short of opportunities. Her image graced trading cards, board games and numerous other products. She went on lecture tours and wrote Nellie Bly's Book: Around The World In Seventy-Two Days. Unfortunately, during this time, her brother Charles died, and Nellie began taking care of his wife and two children.
In 1893, a new editor at The World convinced Nellie to come back. On September 17th, the headline "Nellie Bly Again" appeared on the front page of The World. For the next three years, Nellie was back with articles about police corruption, the violent Pullman labor strike and an interview with noted suffragist Susan B. Anthony among others.
In 1895, Nellie surprised everyone by marrying noted industrialist Robert Seaman, and by 1896 she had stopped writing for The World. Robert Seaman was owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company which made milk cans, barrels and other steel products. As the marriage progressed, Nellie became more and more involved with the company. She even patented a milk can of her own design. When Robert died in 1904, Nellie (as Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman) took over the company and became the world's leading female industrialist. Unfortunately by 1914, poor management and fraud within the company forced her into bankruptcy.
That same year saw Nellie travel to Europe to visit a friend in Austria. It also saw the outbreak of World War 1. Nellie got in contact with former World editor Arthur Brisbane who now worked at the Hearst newspaper The New York Evening Journal and made arrangements to become a journalist once again. Nellie Bly was America's first female war correspondent, writing articles on her experiences at the war's front lines. What had started as a vacation turned into a five year tour of duty.
By 1919, Nellie was back in New York and writing regularly for The Evening Journal. She had her own column and dispensed advice as well as her opinion on topics of the day. She helped poor women find jobs and raised money to aid widows, children and others who faced hard times.
Nellie Bly passed away on January 27, 1922 from pneumonia, having continued to write her column up until her death. The next day, The Evening Journal carried a tribute to the pioneering reporter, declaring Nellie Bly "The Best Reporter In America."