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Suzanne McCabe
Scholastic Editor-at-Large

Nellie Bly: From Bylines to Headlines

Celebrate a Pioneering Journalist

In the 1880s, the newspaper business was all but closed to women. That didn’t stop Elizabeth Jane Cochrane. With nerve and pluck, she became Nellie Bly, one of the most daring—and famous—reporters of her time.

Cochrane’s career began in 1885, when she responded to a Pittsburg Dispatch editorial that belittled women, at a time when they had few rights or opportunities. What did a man know about women’s struggles, the 21-year-old asked anonymously.

“I have heard the hard-luck tales of poor, young women like myself,” wrote Lonely Orphan Girl. “I, too, have known the frustration of needing a good job and not being able to find one.”

The letter caught the eye of a Dispatch editor. “She isn’t much for style,” he said, “but what she has to say she says right out.”

The Dispatch hired Cochrane, giving her the byline “Nellie Bly.” After a year, Bly persuaded her bosses to send her to Mexico as a foreign correspondent. Six months into the assignment, she was expelled for writing stories that exposed government corruption.

Bly later charged into the offices of the New York World, demanding a job. Not even Joseph Pulitzer, the famous World publisher, could refuse this fearless rebel.

Bly’s journalistic exploits made headlines. She got herself admitted to a notorious “insane asylum” in New York City and bested the fictional Phileas Fogg’s globetrotting record. French author Jules Verne was stunned when Bly turned Around the World in Eighty Days into 72.

Our special edition of The Scholastic Tribune (PDF), created for middle and high school students, features excerpts from Bly’s “Ten Days in a Mad-House” (1887) and “Around the World in 72 Days” (1889). We’ve also included text-based questions, a brief chronology and suggestions for additional reading (below).

Beneath Bly’s old-world style and sometimes-convoluted syntax, readers will find a keen eye and sharp wit. Anyone who hates alarm clocks, for example, will identify with this passage from “Around the World in 72 Days”:

Those who think that night is the best part of the day and that morning was made for sleep, know how uncomfortable they feel when for some reason they have to get up with—well, with the milkman.

Of course, milk is no longer delivered before dawn in thick glass bottles. But at least gossip has not gone the way of the landline:

I think it is only natural for travelers to take an innocent pleasure in studying the peculiarities of their fellow companions. We were not out many days until everybody that was able to be about had added a little to their knowledge of those that were not. I will not say that the knowledge acquired is of any benefit. Nevertheless, it was harmless, and it afforded us some amusement.

It isn’t easy to resist an adventurer who, as her obituary noted, “went down into the sea in a diving bell and up in the air in a balloon”—pen in hand.

Additional Reading

Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist

Brooke Kroeger (Three Rivers Press, 1995) Biography—A chronicle of the most famous woman reporter of her time, who had herself committed to an insane asylum, circled the globe in 72 days and worked as an elephant trainer, all for a good story

Bylines: A Photobiography of Nellie Bly

Sue Macy and Linda Ellerbee (National Geographic Children’s Books, 2009) Photobiography—Text and photos tell the story of the spirited news reporter.

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World 

Matthew Goodman (Ballantine Books, 2013) Nonfiction—An account of the race around the world between two women reporters, including Nellie Bly

Ten Days in a Mad-House

Nellie Bly (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011) Primary Source (Newspaper article)—Bly’s account of her undercover investigative assignment at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York City

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