Nellie was able to fool the doctors at Bellevue into believing she was mentally incompetent and was transported out to Blackwell’s Island (in a 19th century illustration, above). After ten harrowing days there, the paper managed to get her out, but she admitted to feeling a lot of anxiety waiting for it to happen. “Pronounced insane by four expert doctors and shut up behind the unmerciful bolts of a madhouse … was an uncomfortable position,” she said. At one point she described a forced bath she was given, "my teeth chattered and my limbs were …numb with cold. Suddenly, I got three buckets of ice-cold water…one in my eyes, nose and mouth.”
Read Part One of "Circling the World and Changing it."
Nellie would become one of the pioneers of this form of immersion, sometimes called “stunt,” journalism. This would be what she was best at in her journalist career, writing that was centered on herself regardless of the setting or situation. The resulting articles, "Behind Asylum Bars" and "Inside the Mad-House,” caused a sensation and eventually led to reforms of the system. She published a book, “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” a few months later.
(Left: An illustration from Nellie's book.)
The inmates were certainly at the mercy of the powerful, and most of Nellie’s journalist career would involve championing those on the lower rungs of society. Twenty-Three year old Nellie Bly had become a household word in America and would remain one the rest of her days. Back in Pittsburgh Erasmus must have been thinking, “look out for me,” indeed.
Nellie followed this up with several other exposes including going undercover in a box making factory and investigating the plight of unwanted babies, something she would revisit in a bigger way in the last part of her newspaper career. For one story she nearly had her tonsils taken out while investigating medical treatment for the poor. She even tried her hand at fiction, publishing a novel, “The Mystery of Central Park, in 1888, but she proved not to be a skilled novelist and never published another.
In 1889 she performed the “stunt” that would make her world famous. She proposed to her editor, John Cockerill, that she attempt to circle the globe and beat the fictional 80 day record of Jules Verne’s, Phileas Fogg. When he objected that a woman couldn’t do such a thing alone and suggested having a male reporter do it instead, she told him to “Start a man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” Knowing it was probably not an idle boast, and that her popularity had already greatly increased his circulation, he gave in. She left from Jersey City, NJ sailing east across the Atlantic on the “Augusta Victoria” (below) on November 14, 1889.
Unknown to Nellie, the magazine “Cosmopolitan” sent one of their reporters, Elizabeth Bisland, in the opposite direction shortly after she left hoping to beat Nellie and steal the “stunt” from the “World.” Nellie would be blissfully aware that she was racing more than a fictional character until she reached Hong Kong.
In France she visited creator of the character she was racing, Jules Verne. He and his wife were very gracious hosts, with Mrs. Verne commenting that Bly was "trim, energetic, and strong. I believe, Jules, that she will make your heroes look foolish.” Meanwhile the “World,” seeing the intense interest that was being generated, had started a raffle to guess Nellie’s exact finishing time. People had to buy a paper get the official raffle ticket, so circulation exploded.
When Nellie reached San Francisco Pulitzer had a private train waiting with the most powerful engine he could get. He was not about to lose this race. At several stops along the way Nellie was feted by the locals. "One maze of happy greetings, happy wishes, congratulating telegrams, fruit, flowers, loud cheers, wild hurrahs, rapid hand-shaking," was how she described it.
Her official time back to Jersey City was seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds, beating Fogg’s fictional time by nearly eight days and also Bisland, who was delayed getting her last ship across the Atlantic, by several days. Nellie would write another book about this adventure: “Around the World in 72 Days.” The small bag that was her only luggage on the trip (below left) is presently on display at the Newseum in Washington D.C.
(Above: The "Round the World with Nellie Bly" gameboard.)
It was an amazing adventure for such a young girl from rural western Pennsylvania. The people of the United States at the time knew far less about the rest of the world in those days before the internet, TV, and radio. So it was not surprising that her reports of these far-away lands and exotic cultures and peoples captivated the country. Nellie even returned with a pet monkey she acquired in Singapore which she gave the very Irish name of McGinty. Though much of what she wrote about what she saw on this trip would be considered bigoted and xenophobic by modern standards, she should be judged by the times she lived in.
Nellie Bly had now reached a pinnacle of worldwide fame that few of the era ever matched; think Kim Kardasian, but based on actual accomplishments. There were Nellie Bly trading cards and product endorsement newspaper ads (see some at the end of the article) and even a "Round the World wih Nellie Bly" game (see game board above right). It was the modern equivalent of "going viral." She shortly quit the paper, however, when Pulitzer offered her no pay raise or bonus in spite of the tremendous increase in circulation her “stunt” had brought them. Impulsive as ever, she walked away from her job. She traveled around lecturing for three years, but then returned again to her job at “The World.”
Throwing herself into her work again, she interviewed several famous figures of the time including anarchist Emma Goldman and suffragist Susan B. Anthony. She was sent to cover the famous Pullman strike in Chicago and was one of the few reporters at the time to take the side of the strikers in her articles.
Then in April 1895 the 30 year old Nellie shocked everyone by marrying Robert Seaman, a 72-year-old millionaire industrialist and owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. Perhaps her childhood experience with poverty following the death of her father made her seek out financial security. When Seaman died in 1904 Nellie had the opportunity to help forge yet another new road for women in America when she took over the management of Seaman’s company. She was one of a very few women running a major company in the world at the time.
(Right: Nellie's "Ironclad Industries" business card.)
Nellie ran it in a very progressive manner, even building a gymnasium and library for her workers, and the company was very successful for a number of years. At one point Iron Clad employed 1,500 and could produce 1,000 steel barrels daily. Unfortunately she ran into trouble due to embezzlement from some of her management people and the company went bankrupt.
On August 1, 1914 Nellie set out for Europe to get away from the gloom revolving around her business. Austria declared war on Serbia three days before she left, but this did not dissuade the indomitable Miss Bly. She wouldn’t be back in the U.S. for five years.
After landing in France, Nellie made her way to Austria. Whether it was something passed on by her father or mother or caused by something else, Nellie shared the aversion to Great Britain that many Irish-Americans held. During her business and newspaper career it was said no one was ever sent to see her if they had even a hint of a British accent. Thus she gravitated for the side opposing the British. Nellie was already a pioneer among women reporters, and now she helped woman go down another new path: war correspondent.
In spite of now being over 50 years old, she talked the Austrians into allowing her to visit their fronts against the Russians and Serbians, thus becoming one of the first women to ever report from the actual frontlines. In late 1915 she began sending reports back that were published in “The Evening Journal” in New York. After the U.S. entered the war and Austria became the enemy, her reports didn’t endear her to American readers.
(Left: Nellie near the front with an Austrian officer.)
She returned to New York following the war and began writing a column for “The Evening Journal.” It soon morphed into an advice column for poor women in the city and she would often meet them face to face and help with her own money. These women often had children, sometimes infants, that they couldn’t afford to care for. Soon she began to use her column to help connect these children either temporarily or permanently to foster homes. Again this often cost Nellie, who had called herself “Little Orphan Girl” in that first letter to the editor years ago, money out of her own pocket.
As had been the case all her life, she dedicated herself to the “have nots” of society and exhausted herself doing it. Her health began to fail, and finally it turned into pneumonia complicated by heart disease. On the morning of January 27, 1922, Elizabeth Jane Cochran Seaman passed away at St. Mark’s Hospital in New York City, two weeks after her friend and mentor, Erasmus Wilson. In one of her columns later in life she wrote, “It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world," something she had witnessed many times in her travels, and she had given her "last full measure" to remedying that to the small extent that she could.
(Right: Nellie shortly before her death.)
Early in her career Nellie had once said that “Energy rightly applied and directed can accomplish anything.” She had not mentioned that it was much easier for that to work for a man than a woman at that time, but she had certainly proven over and over that it could still be true for some women, even then. In the obituary of her old paper, “The World,” her friend Arthur Brisbane wrote:
"Nellie Bly, whose work and character are know to millions, died yesterday. More important is the work of which the world knew nothing. She died leaving little money. What she had was promised to take care of children without homes, for whom she wished to provide. Her life was useful. She takes with her from this Earth all that she cared about -- an honorable name, the respect and affection of her fellow workers, the memory of good fights well fought and many good deeds never to be forgotten. Happy the man or woman that can leave as good a record ... her heart was ever with the weak and the miserable poor. She was the best reporter in America and that is saying a good deal."
She was probably not ever the best reporter in America, but she was a courageous reporter who never fawned on the rich and powerful as so many reporters did in the “Gay 90’s” era when she came of age. She was perhaps an early recipient of the sort of “cult of personality” adulation that would become far more common in modern times, but unlike so many of the modern recipients, she often used it to help others. She worked so hard for those who society often forgets that it may have even shortened her life, and that surely is, “saying a good deal.”
Nellie's travails in the insane asylum on Blackwell's Island was recently made in a feature film: “Ten Days in a Madhouse”
Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World
Nellie Bly's 151st Birthday Song by Karen O
Nellie Bly Trading Cards and Advertisements