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Nellie Bly, 1864-1922: Newspaper Reporter Used Unusual Methods to Investigate and Write About Illegal Activities in New York City


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I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Ray Freeman with the Special English program, PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Every week we tell about a person important in the

history of the United States. Today, we tell about a reporter of more than one hundred years ago.

The year was eighteen eighty-seven. The place was New York City. A young woman, Elizabeth Cochrane, wanted a job at a large newspaper. The editor agreed, if she would investigate a hospital for people who were mentally sick and then write about it.

Elizabeth Cochrane decided to become a patient in the hospital herself. She used the name Nellie Brown so no one would discover her or her purpose. Newspaper officials said they would get her released after a while.

To prepare, Nellie put on old clothes and stopped washing. She went to a temporary home for women. She acted as if she had severe mental problems. She cried and screamed and stayed awake all night. The police were called. She was examined by doctors.  Most said she was insane.

Nellie Brown was taken to the mental hospital. It was dirty. Waste material was left outside the eating room. Bugs ran across the tables. The food was terrible: hard bread and gray-colored meat.

Nurses bathed the patients in cold water and gave them only a thin piece of cloth to wear to bed.

During the day, the patients did nothing but sit quietly. They had to talk in quiet voices. Yet, Nellie got to know some of them. Some were women whose families had put them in the hospital because they had been too sick to work. Some were women who had appeared insane because they were sick with fever. Now they were well, but they could not get out.

Nellie recognized that the doctors and nurses had no interest in the patients' mental health. They were paid to keep the patients in a kind of jail. Nellie stayed in the hospital for ten days. Then a lawyer from the newspaper got her released.

Five days later, the story of Elizabeth Cochrane's experience in the hospital appeared in the New York World newspaper. Readers were shocked. They wrote to officials of the city and the hospital protesting the conditions and patient treatment. An investigation led to changes at the hospital.

Elizabeth Cochrane had made a difference in the lives of the people there. She made a difference in her own life too. She got her job at the New York World. And she wrote a book about her experience at the hospital. She did not write it as Nellie Brown, however, or as Elizabeth Cochrane. She wrote it under the name that always appeared on her newspaper stories: Nellie Bly.

The child who would grow up to become Nellie Bly was born during the Civil War, in eighteen sixty-four, in western Pennsylvania.

Her family called her Pink. Her father was a judge. He died when she was six years old. Her mother married again. But her new husband drank too much alcohol and beat her. She got a divorce in eighteen seventy-nine, when Pink was fifteen years old. Pink decided to learn to support herself so she would never need a man.

Pink, her mother, brothers and sisters moved to a town near the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pink worked at different jobs but could not find a good one.

One day, she read something in the Pittsburgh Dispatch newspaper. The editor of the paper, Erasmus Wilson, wrote that it was wrong for women to get jobs. He said men should have them. Pink wrote the newspaper to disagree. She said she had been looking for a good job for about four years, as she had no father or husband to support her. She signed it "Orphan Girl".

The editors of the dispatch liked her letter. They put a note in the paper asking "Orphan Girl" to visit. Pink did. Mr. Wilson offered her a job.

He said she could not sign her stories with her real name, because no woman writer did that. He asked news writers for suggestions.  One was Nellie Bly, the name of a girl in a popular song. So Pink became Nellie Bly.

For nine months, she wrote stories of interest to women. Then she left the newspaper because she was not permitted to write what she wanted. She went to Mexico to find excitement. She stayed there six months, sending stories to the Dispatch to be published.  Soon after she returned to the Pittsburgh Dispatch, she decided to look for another job. Nellie Bly left for New York City and began her job at the New York World.

As a reporter for the New York World, Nellie Bly investigated and wrote about illegal activities in the city. For one story, she acted as if she was a mother willing to sell her baby. For another, she pretended to be a woman who cleaned houses so she could report about illegal activities in employment agencies.

Today, a newspaper reporter usually does not pretend to be someone else to get information for a story. Most newspapers ban such acts. But in Nellie Bly's day, reporters used any method to get information, especially if they were trying to discover people guilty of doing something wrong.

Nellie Bly's success at this led newspapers to employ more women. But she was the most popular of the women writers. History experts say Nellie Bly was special because she included her own ideas and feelings in everything she wrote. They say her own voice seemed to speak on the page.

Nellie Bly's stories always provided detailed descriptions. And her stories always tried to improve society. Critics said Nellie Bly was an example of what a reporter can do, even today. She saw every situation as a chance to make a real difference in other people's lives as well as her own.

Nellie Bly may be best remembered in history for a trip she took.

In the eighteen seventies, French writer Jules Verne wrote the book "Around the World in Eighty Days." It told of a man's attempt to travel all around the world. He succeeded. In real life, no one had tried. By eighteen eighty-eight, a number of reporters wanted to do it. Nellie Bly told her editors she would go even if they did not help her. But they did.

Nellie Bly left New York for France on November fourteenth, eighteen eighty-nine. She met Jules Verne at his home in France. She told him about her plans to travel alone by train and ship around the world.

From France she went to Italy and Egypt, through South Asia to Singapore and Japan, then to San Francisco and back to New York.  Nellie Bly's trip created more interest in Jules Verne's book. Before the trip was over, "Around the World in Eighty Days" was published again. And a theater in Paris had plans to produce a stage play of the book.

Back home in New York, the World was publishing the stories Bly wrote while travelling. On days when the mail brought no story from her, the editors still found something to write about it. They published new songs written about Bly and new games based on her trip. The newspaper announced a competition to guess how long her trip would take. The prize was a free trip to Europe. By December second, about one hundred thousand readers had sent in their estimates.

Nellie Bly arrived back where she started on January twenty-fifth, eighteen ninety. It had taken her seventy-six days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds. She was twenty-five years old. And she was famous around the world.

Elizabeth Cochrane died in New York in nineteen twenty-two. She was fifty-eight years old. In the years since her famous trip, she had married, and headed a business. She also had helped poor and homeless children. And she had continued to write all her life for newspapers and magazines as Nellie Bly.

One newspaper official wrote this about her after her death:

"Nellie Bly was the best reporter in America. 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."

This VOA Special English program, PEOPLE IN AMERICA, was written by Nancy Steinbach. Your narrators were Shirley Griffith and Ray Freeman.


Voice of America Special English
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Source: Nellie Bly, 1864-1922: Newspaper Reporter Used Unusual Methods to Investigate and Write About Illegal Activities in New York City
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