Born On: 5th May, 1864
Born In: Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania
Died On: 27th January, 1922
Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, better known as Nellie Bly, was a journalist who received nationwide fame for her investigative reports on abuses in public institutions and many different companies. Her stories were filled with first-hand experiences; she undertook challenging and difficult actions such as getting herself arrested in order to peep into the most exploited urban America, she went undercover and got herself admitted into a mental asylum and she also worked in a factory sweatshop. She captured the entire nation’s attention with a light hearted project when she successfully managed to imitate Jules Verne’s fictional trip around the world in less than 75 days while Americans waited restlessly for the tales of her travel. In those times, journalism was a field that was mainly dominated by men but Nellie managed to break through that concept and made a name for herself. Her accomplishments opened a door of acceptance for other women journalists as well. Read on to know about the profile, childhood and timeline of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman.
Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, better known as Nellie Bly was born on 5th May, 1864 in Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania. She was the third child of Michael and Mary Jane Cochran. Michael Cochrane was the founder of the town and was an associate county judge and also was a self made businessman. Both her parents had been previously married. Mary Jane, who belonged to a wealthy Pittsburgh family, was a widow with no children from her first marriage. Her father had seven children from his previous marriage. In her younger days, Nellie was keen on keeping up with her elder brothers. She would engage in rough activities, including climbing trees and racing, to prove herself as one of them. In her early years, she was home schooled by her father. But when she was six years old, her father passed away in 1870. Her mother married John Jackson Ford, but due to his abusive nature, it ended in divorce. She educated herself from Methodist Episcopal Church in Apollo. She had dreams of becoming a teacher but due to financial troubles, she dropped out in less than a semester. In school, she wasn’t a bright student but she showed talent and creativity towards writing. Later, the family moved to Allegheny City.
Elizabeth made a living out of writing because of her unusual personality and determination. She got her first break in 1885, when she wrote “Lonely Orphan Girl” in response to Erasmus Wilson’s column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch where he explained his concern towards women’s failure to perform their duties as housewives and criticizing their employment by offices and other firms. Elizabeth argued in her letter saying that women were capable of independent thought and important careers; that women could do many more things than just producing babies and doing household things. Her letter caught the eye of the paper's editor, George A. Madden and he got impressed with her thought flow and her boldness and immediately hired her as the paper’s first women reporter.
Her first few articles showed sympathy and dealt with the dilemmas of poor working class women. These articles created a lot of controversy for factory bosses and public officials and thus she was reassigned to fashion and society criteria. In November, she quit as a full time employee and started working as a freelancer, writing articles on her experience for the Pittsburgh Dispatch whilst traveling in Mexico with her mother. Though she showed lot of interest in Mexican class and societal structure, she demeaned the country in respect to her homeland. These criticisms encouraged the government authorities to throw her out of the country.
By late 1887, Elizabeth had made a good name for herself in the world of journalism. Hence, soon after shifting to New York, she joined Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. She volunteered to get admitted for 10 days in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum at Blackwell’s Island, now known as Roosevelt Island, for her first assignment. She went under the name of Nellie Brown. In order to get accepted in the asylum, she had to practice to be a catatonic amnesiac. After getting inside, she shook the country by giving reports on the poor conditions and abusive practices carried out in there. Due to her reports, there was much public awareness, helping reforms for mental health care and pushed Pulitzer’s publication into a new era of journalism.
She did many other undercover pieces on white slavery, domestic labor, Albany lobbyist Edward R. Phelps’ political corruption, baby-selling rings, a religious sect called the Oneida Community and women’s achievements like that of Woman Suffrage Party candidate Belva Lockwood. Even though most of her articles were on women’s political rights, she would never associate herself with the suffrage movement. On November 14, 1889, she started her most important project, travelling eastward across the globe as in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. During her trip, in Amiens, France, she even met Verne in person.
In her reports, she wrote of her subjects in complicated and rich details and expressed sympathy towards the class struggle. Her eager fans back home were fascinated to know what Nellie Bly’s true identity was and where she would travel next. At the same time, the magazine Cosmopolitan sent Elizabeth Bisland, a reporter, to take on the same project by traveling in the opposite direction. On January 2, 1890, Nellie returned to New York, defeating Elizabeth Bisland and the novel character Phileas Fogg’s venture in just 72 days. However, she got really angry at the fact that the New York World (a newspaper for which she was working) did not reward her for her efforts, leaving her furious and fuming.
Elizabeth left the New York World and worked for Chicago Times-Herald for 6 weeks before getting married to a 72 year old millionaire industrialist of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, Robert Livingston Seaman, in April 1895. The next January after her marriage, she moved back to New York World, focusing mostly on women’s issues and even suggesting that woman volunteers should help fight in the Spanish-American War. She took a 16 year break after that. Her husband passed away in 1904 and thus, she helped run his company and founded the first steel barrels company in America, the American Steel Barrel Company. In 1912, she joined the New York Evening Journal. Just in time for the outbreak of the First World War, she fled to Austria.
Little did she know that her reporting from the Russian and Serbian fronts and that her support for the Austrians and calls for their help would eventually turn into enemy collaboration after the US announced a war against them. This led to some complications with the authorities and she had to return to America in 1919. By the end of the war, her funds had exhausted and she wrote for the Evening Journal in the advice columns. Her articles couldn’t grab the public’s attention anymore as much as they used to earlier because more women were being accepted into journalism. Poor and alone, she died on January 27, 1922 and was buried in the Church of the Ascension Cemetery. Even today, she is remembered for her striking details and heartfelt opinions in her articles.
Due to Elizabeth’s hectic work life she had very little time for her personal life. In 1895, she got married to Robert Livingston Seaman, a millionaire who owned the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company and the American Steel Barrel Company. In order to assist her husband in his business, she retired from writing and became president of his companies. She had many disputes with Seaman’s family and the people he associated with. Robert died in 1904 and due to her poor business instincts she declared bankruptcy and returned to journalism in 1911.
On January 27, 1922, Elizabeth died of pneumonia, brought by a heart disease at St. Mark’s Hospital in New York City.
1864: Elizabeth was born on 5th May in Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania.
1885: She wrote a letter “Lonely Orphan Girl” to Pittsburgh Dispatch.
1886: She returned to Pittsburgh from Mexico.
1887: She moved to New York.
1889: On November 14 she started her journey for Around the World in Eighty Days by French author Jules Verne.
1890: She got back from the tour on January 25 after 72 days.
1895: She got married to Robert Livingston Seaman.
1904: Robert died.
1911: She declared bankruptcy and returned to journalism.
1922: She died in New York on January 27.