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Ten Days in a Mad House & Seventy-two Around the World

Photo by Author

What are the craziest ideas that you've ever had? Did you write them down? Have you thought of seeing if you could race a fictional character around the world? Or committing yourself to an insane asylum just to write a story about it?

The woman in this week's story decided to do these and many more assignments in the name of journalism. Her name was Elizabeth Jane Cochran(e). She was born on 5 May 1864 to Michael and Mary Jane Cochran. Elizabeth was the 13th of 15 children, as this was a second marriage for both of her parents (Michael had ten children by his first wife Catherine). Elizabeth often went by her nickname Pink, because that was one of the colors she wore the most.

The family lived in Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania, where Elizabeth's father owned a lucrative mill among many other roles.

"Her father, founder of the town, was . . . an associate county judge and was once a self-made businessman (store owner, gristmill worker, and real estate speculator). Cochrane educated herself through her father's private library and writings. He died in 1869 after moving his family to Apollo, Pennsylvania, where her mother Mary Jane supported the family on a meager allowance and married John Jackson Ford in 1873. After years of abuse, Mary Jane divorced Ford in 1879, thanks to Elizabeth Cochran's testimony. Cochran was educated at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Apollo, adding an "e" to her name and changing to Cochrane when enrolling in the Indiana State Normal School in Indiana, Pennsylvania, to become a teacher." (1)

However, Elizabeth never finished her semester at Indiana. She dropped out and returned home due to a lack of finances. Elizabeth helped her mother and siblings run a boardinghouse. Life continued with the mundane needs of the family and boarders. Until one day, in January 1885, when infuriated by an article called "What Girls are Good For" written by Erasmus Wilson in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Elizabeth penned an open letter to the editor. This was not the only article that had upset her, just the last straw.

"She read the series in which Wilson complained about women who were entering the work force. He told women to let up on the business sphere and make the "home a little paradise" and to play "the part of angel." In another piece, Q.O. [Wilson's pen name - short for Quiet Observer] wrote that a woman who worked outside the home was "a monstrosity.... There is no greater abnormality than a woman in breeches, unless it is a man in petticoats."

Bly, like many women in the city, was offended by the series, and unleashed her anger in a letter to the paper. Bly wrote that Q.O. had no understanding of the plight of young women, explaining that she had spent the last four years in working class Allegheny row houses. There, she had met the poor young women who so often were unable to find a good job." (2)

Elizabeth signed her article "lonely orphan girl". The editor of the Pittsburg Dispatch, George Maddon, was impressed by the letter and published it along with a notice wishing for the author to make herself known with the offer of a job. She accepted the position.

Elizabeth's pen name, Nellie Bly, was suggested by others in the newspaper office. The name came from a Stephen Foster song of the same name ("Nelly Bly"). She wrote about the unfair treatment of factory girls and women's unequal treatment in divorce cases, which she had experienced with her mother's own divorce.

"Far from merely advocating for a more significant role for women, Nellie became one of the pioneers of investigative and undercover reporting, often placing herself in harm’s way. But being outspoken had its price. When one of the Dispatch‘s advertisers threatened to withdraw their advertising from the Pittsburgh paper because of her stories, Nellie was reassigned to the social and fashion beat.

Not one to settle down and do what she was told, Nellie left for Mexico and started writing for the Dispatch about corruption and poverty under the rule of dictator Porfirio Diaz. She again found trouble, this time with the Mexican government, and was forced to leave the country or face arrest." (3)

Instead of returning to live in Pittsburgh, Elizabeth moved to New York in 1887 and started looking for work - it took her six months. Eventually, she found a place as a journalist for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World.

One of her most famous articles came when she spent time in the women's asylum on Blackwell Island in New York. She wrote that the more sane she acted the more crazy she was perceived. She also found that the treatment of the women in the asylum, which included cold water being poured over the head, rotten food, and sitting quiet for hours on end with nothing to do or read, would make one go mad if they hadn't been before. Elizabeth's ten days at Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum turned into newspaper article and later a book about her time and what led her to go, called Ten Days in a Mad House.

"Her report . . . resulted in not only embarrassment for the Institution but a grand jury investigation into the conditions and the question of how so many "professionals" had been fooled. The end result was a $1,000,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections as well as their recommendation of changes proposed by Nellie. Ultimately, this report brought about the end of the Asylum Blackwell's Island." (4)

Her next grand adventure would be one around the world. Elizabeth was inspired by Phileas T. Fogg of Jules Gabriel Verne's Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-vingts Jours {Around the World in Eighty Days}. In the story, Mr. Fogg is challenged to travel the world and make it home to London in 80 days. After many adventures traveling from London eastward around the globe he returns just in time.

It took Elizabeth a year to convince the World to let her go by herself and to make the trip. Pulitzer worried that a woman could not make all the swift changes because of all the baggage that she would need to carry and that she would need a man to travel with her. Eventually, he agreed and Elizabeth set out for her trip on 14 November 1889. She left with only two small bags, which was very uncommon for ladies of the time to travel so unencumbered.

Elizabeth headed first to France where she met Jules Verne and then on around the world. All the time she kept her readers informed of her travels by telegraph messages, which were published in the newspaper. Elizabeth was not the only one trying to make it round the world in 80 days. She was raced by Elizabeth Bisland from The Cosmopolitan, whose route went westward starting by crossing the US.

Elizabeth (Nellie Bly) arrived home in 72 days "six hours, eleven minutes, and fourteen seconds" (5) on 25 January 1890. After her trip, Elizabeth became a national sensation having won the race.

Beyond daring expeditions, journalism allowed Elizabeth to interview many interesting people, including Susan B. Anthony, Belva Ann Lockwood, and John Lawrence Sullivan, just to name a few.

On 21 April 1895, she married Robert Livingston Seaman, who was forty years her senior. Some wondered if she had married him either for his money or just for another experiment to write about. Robert was a millionaire and the owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. Robert and Elizabeth attended the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Elizabeth took over work in her husbands company.

"At the time, Iron Clad produced milk cans, riveted boilers, tanks, and 'The Most Durable Enameled Kitchen Ware Made.' At the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, Iron Clad factories were promoted as being, 'Owned exclusively by Nellie Bly – the only woman in the world personally managing industries of such a magnitude.' " (6)

Evidently, her work on previous factory cases influenced how she ran the Iron Clad factories. Elizabeth's "plants were social experiments, with physical fitness programs, health care, and libraries to teach employees how to read." (7)

Robert passed away, on 11 March 1904, from heart trouble related to an accident, where he was struck by a wagon.

"Bly was left alone to preside over her dead husband’s floundering company and did her best to rise to the challenge. After several legal entanglements, Bly discovered that her manager had cheated her out of $50,000 dollars in a scandal involving forged checks and fraudulent employees. The legal mess dragged on before Bly finally admitted defeat, with the forgers acquitted and the former heiress out of money (Kroeger, 1994, p. 381). Still hounded by the law, Bly decided to leave the country for Vienna to seek more financing for what was left of the steel company. World War I broke out four days before she left and Bly plunged into the heart of a continent wracked by war.

During her stay in Austria from August 1914 to January 1919, Bly completed one of the few roles she had not yet occupied as a journalist: that of a war correspondent. Bly repeatedly wrote home asking Americans for contributions to war widows and orphans in Austria. Because of her friendliness toward Austria, she maintained her safe and privileged status in the country even after the United States joined opposing forces (Kroeger, 1994,p. 428). Despite Allied suspicions that she had German or Bolshevik leanings, Bly was permitted to return to America." (8)

Elizabeth continued to write on various topics including covering an electrocution (a capital punishment). She also worked to find homes for orphans. Elizabeth Jane Cochrane passed away 27 January 1922 "of pneumonia complicated by heart disease at St. Mark’s Hospital in New York City." (9)

As President Biden so eloquently said recently, "Words have consequences". (10) Elizabeth Cochrane used her words to bring about justice for others.

All pictures of Elizabeth Cochrane are from the Library of Congress and are circa 1890.



American National Biography ~ Bly, Nellie: reporter and manufacturer

Apollo Area Historical Society ~ Elizabeth Jane Cochrane (Nellie Bly)

Biography ~ Nellie Bly

Britannica ~ Nellie Bly

Brook Kroger's Nellie Bly ~ Before Blackwell

Chronicling America ~ Mrs. Robert Seaman (from The Pacific Commercial Advertiser - 30 May 1895), Nelly Bly's Career Ended as She Wished -- In Chosen Work As Reporter (from The Washington Times - 2 April 1922), and EXTRA: A Girl's Feat: Nellie Bly Starts Out on a Wonderous Flying Trip Around the Globe (from The Evening World - 14 November 1889)

Find A Grave ~ Nellie Bly

National Women's History Museum ~ Elizabeth Cochrane and Nellie Bly

Pan-American Exposition Buffalo 1901 ~ Nellie Bly

Pennsylvania Center for the Book (Penn State University Libraries) ~ Elizabeth Cochrane

University of Kentucky (UKnowledge) ~ Uncovering Nellie Bly

Wikipedia ~ Nellie Bly

Your Dictionary ~ Nellie Bly

Around the World in 72 Days:

PBS - American Experience ~ Around the World in 72 Days

Around the World in 80 Days:

Elizabeth Bisland:

More about Blackwell Island:

New York Historical Society: Museum & Library ~ What Was Blackwell's Island?

Crystal Bridges: Museum of American Art ~ What is Blackwell's Island?

More about the Stephen Foster and his song:

Britannica ~ Stephen Foster

Center for American Music (part of University of Pittsburgh Library System) ~ The Life and Music of Stephen Collins Foster

Internet Archive ~ Nelly Bly Recording

IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project)~ Nelly Bly (Foster, Stephen) and List of Stephen Foster's work

Library of Congress ~ Nelly Bly

Song of America ~ Nelly Bly

Songwriters Hall of Fame ~ Stephen Foster

Traditional Tune Archive ~ Nelly Bly

Wikisource ~ Nelly Bly

Other Similar Women:

C-Span - Lectures in History ~ Women Journalists at the Turn of the 20th Century

PBS - American Experience ~ Nellie and Other 19th Century Writers

Smithsonian Magazine ~ The Woman who Took on the Tycoon

Wikipedia ~ Ida Minerva Tarbell

Robert Seaman:

New York Public Library - Digital Collections ~ Robert Seaman Photo

YankeeTV ~ Robert Seaman

Six Months In Mexico:

Google Books ~ Six Months in Mexico

Ten Days in A Mad House:

Digital Library at University of Pennsylvania ~ Ten Days in a Madhouse


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