Nellie Bly was an investigative journalist just before and during the turn of the century. Her birthday was yesterday, and she would have been one hundred fifty-five years old. She was born during the Civil War, and died in the Roaring 20s, after the First World War but before the Great Depression. Many people, I think, are surprised to learn that she was a real person, thinking that she is a figment of fiction alongside her fictional inspiration, Phileas Fogg, the character in Jules Verne‘s well known book, Around the World in 80 Days. Nellie Bly did her circumnavigation in 72 days, holding the record for only a short time before it was broken (also in 1890).
She was a pioneer in the field of investigative journalism, although much of her early writing focused on the lives of working women. She was a foreign correspondent in Mexico for the Pittsburgh Dispatch and after going to New York, she worked at The New York World, the publication owned and published by Joseph Pulitzer. She went undercover to expose the women’s lunatic asylum’s treatment of its patients located at Blackwell Island. They wouldn’t let her leave until the newspaper was able to get her out.
For her trip around the world, she left onboard the steamer, AugustaVictoria on November 14, 1889 with only two days notice, bringing only “the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear, and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials.” [Kroeger, Brooke (1994). Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Three Rivers Press.] In a bag tied around her neck (similar to today’s hidden security pouches), she carried most of her money. She made her trip primarily by steamer and rail. In Amiens, France, she met Jules Verne, the writer whose book inspired her journey.
She was the first woman to write from a war zone, sending her stories from the Eastern Front during World War I. She was mistaken for a spy and arrested.
She died at age 57 after a bout with pneumonia and is buried in The Bronx.
In recent times, since 1978, the New York Press Club gives out the Nellie Bly Cub Reporter Award, and in 2002 she as part of a postage stamp sheet commemorating Women in Journalism along with Marguerite Higgins, Ida M. Tarbell, and Ethel L. Payne.
In her 2013 book, Examining Lois Lane: The Scoop on Superman’s Sweetheart, Nadine Farghaly stated that Nellie was one of a few women modeled as the basis for Lois Lane, created by writer, Jerry Siegel and artist, Joe Shuster.
You can read more about Nellie Bly here, and can also read her writings:
Around the World in 72 Days
Six Months in Mexico
Ten Days in a Mad-House
Look for related posts through the rest of the week.