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Derek Coleman: How ‘Lonely Orphan Girl’ changed America

December 5, 2018

As an aspiring writer, I like to keep up with the lives of others who have felt the urge to put pen to paper. I’ve read the biographies of many of the world’s most successful authors and this week, I’d like to talk to you about one who made her name in the newspaper industry.

She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran during the Civil War at a place called Cochrane’s Mills, which is now part of Pittsburgh. Her father started life as a laborer, but he had ambition and eventually rose to be a land owner, businessman, postmaster and justice. There were 15 children in the family and they were affluent enough to send Elizabeth, who was nicknamed “Pinky,” to boarding school. That only lasted for one semester, though; her father died suddenly in 1871 and money became tight.

Left without a husband, Elizabeth’s mother moved the family into the city of Pittsburgh and it was there, when she was just 16, that Elizabeth read an article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. The title of the article was “What girls are good for” and its conclusion was that they were only fit for marrying, having children, keeping house and cooking.

Elizabeth had inherited her father’s ambition and she was incensed. She sat down and wrote an impassioned response that she sent to the editor, George Madden. She didn’t sign the piece but called herself “Lonely Orphan Girl.” Madden was so impressed with the article that in the next edition he ran an ad asking whoever wrote it to come forward and identify herself.

Elizabeth did so. By now she’d dropped her nickname and had changed her name from Cochran to Cochrane, but Madden asked her to write another article using her Lonely Orphan Girl pseudonym. Elizabeth jumped at the opportunity. Her article was called “The Girl Puzzle” and was all about divorce and how it affected women. She called for a change in the divorce laws of the period and again Madden was impressed, so much so that he offered her a full-time job writing for the Dispatch.

This was in the 1880s and at that time female writers usually used a pen name. Elizabeth wasn’t sure what to call herself so Madden suggested Nellie Bly, which was the title of a song by Stephen Foster, composer of “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Camptown Races” and a host of other popular tunes.

Bly began her journalistic career by writing a series on the lives of working women. Many of her early articles concerned the conditions in local factories, but this upset the factory owners. They complained to the newspaper and, since their ads brought in revenue, she was taken off investigative reporting and was moved to the women’s pages. Here she wrote about fashion, gardening, cooking and what was happening in society. This was what female journalists usually covered but Nellie Bly wasn’t the usual female journalist. She became bored and so, at the age of 21, she became a foreign correspondent and went to Mexico.

For six months she lived and worked among the Mexicans, sending back reports on their daily lives. She was due to stay longer but a fellow journalist was arrested by the Mexican government, Bly wrote a condemnation of the arrest and then had to hurriedly leave the country before she, too, was thrown in jail. Her dispatches were later condensed and produced as a book entitled “Six Months in Mexico.”

Back in Pittsburgh she was once again faced with writing the women’s pages and so she quit her job and moved to New York. Four months later she had no job and no money, but she didn’t give up. She persuaded Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper to take her on as an undercover reporter. Her first assignment was to pretend to be insane so she could be committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum.

By going without sleep for days and acting strangely, she eventually managed to get herself committed and for the next 10 days she endured the brutal regime at the asylum.

The newspaper managed to get her released and her report, called Ten Days in a Mad House, caused a national sensation. The asylum was forced to undertake reforms and the name Nellie Bly became famous.

So what could a famous reporter who was still in her early ’20s do next? Nellie Bly picked up a book, “Around the World in Eighty Days,” by Jules Verne. She took it to her editor and persuaded him to let her see if the journey was possible. He agreed and, on Nov. 14, 1889, Nellie Bly set sail from New York. With her she took the dress she was wearing, her heavy coat, changes of underwear and about $1,000 in British currency in a bag that she hung around her neck.

A rival newspaper, the Cosmopolitan, sent its own reporter to go around the world in the opposite direction starting out the same day and the New York World ran a competition to guess how long Bly would take. The prize was a free holiday in Europe, with spending money.

On arriving in France, Bly met Jules Verne and she followed much of the journey described in his book. Thanks to the invention of the submarine cable, she sent short reports as she went and she arrived back in New York a little over 72 days after she left. Her rival took 77 days.

This latest exploit brought Nellie further fame but, in 1895, at the age of 31 she gave up journalism and married a 73-year-old millionaire named Robert Seaman. Her husband owned a steel company called Iron Clad and when he became ill she took over the running of it. During this time she patented a milk can and a stackable garbage can.

Unfortunately her husband died, the company went bankrupt and so she returned to journalism. As always, Nellie was not just an ordinary reporter. She covered the Woman’s Suffrage Parade in 1913 and published her report with the headline “Suffragists Are Men’s Superiors.” This article caused a sensation, especially as she accurately predicted it would be another seven years before women were allowed to vote. Undeterred by the uproar, Nellie then traveled to Europe where World War I had just started. There, she visited the eastern front to report on the Kingdom of Serbia fighting Austria.

Once again, she was in the thick of things and even managed to get herself arrested as a suspected spy. That didn’t stop her; she continued to report after returning to the United States but, in 1922, she was admitted to hospital where she succumbed to pneumonia. The world had lost a great American journalist and she was just 57 years old.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.

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