Monday, May 4, 2009

May 5: “…I am running a race with Time.”

Do you know who this is?

-Her nickname was 'Pink" because it was her favorite color when she was a child.
-Her professional name was from a Stephen Foster song.
-She was one of the leading female industrialists of the early 20th Century.

"Down in the bottom of my hand-bag was a special passport, number 247, signed by James G. Blaine, Secretary of State. Someone suggested that a revolver would be a good companion piece for the passport, but I had such a strong belief in the world's greeting me as I greeted it, that I refused to arm myself. I knew if my conduct was proper I should always find men ready to protect me, let them be Americans, English, French, German or anything else." - Around the World in 72 Days
Elizabeth Jane Cochran was born on May 5, 1864, at Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania. She was the last of three children born to Michael and Mary Jane Cochran. Both of her parents had been married previously, with Mary Jane a widow with no children, and Michael an industrialist and associate judge who had seven children from an earlier marriage. As a youngster, Elizabeth would try to prove herself the equal of any of her older brothers, including racing with them and climbing trees.

Her early education was conducted at home by her father, but he died in 1870 when she was only six years old. Three years later her mother would remarry, but would divorce her alcoholic and abusive husband when Elizabeth was fourteen. After her father's death, Elizabeth would be sent to a school near their home to prepare for a teaching career. At school she excelled in being a creative and talented writer. When she was sixteen, the family funds were gone and the family moved to stay with relatives in Pittsburgh.

It was in Pittsburgh that Elizabeth would be set on a course that would establish her role for a significant portion of her life. The Pittsburgh Dispatch had printed a column which Elizabeth responded to with a fiery rebuttal to the editor. The editor was so impressed with her that he asked her to join the Dispatch, where her first article was on divorce - a rare topic in 19th Century society.

Women newspaper writers in the late 19th Century customarily used pen names, and the editor chose the name "Nellie Bly" for Elizabeth. The name was a misspelling of the title character of a popular Stephen Foster song. Elizabeth earned five dollars a week for her work.
Elizabeth had to fight the prejudices of the day in her job on the newspaper. She wanted to be an investigative reporter, and wrote on the plight of the working women in a series of articles that dealt with the working conditions of female factory workers. She went under cover to make sure her information was accurate, working as a factory girl - then reporting on the low pay, long hours, and firetrap conditions of the building.

However, the newspaper wanter her to write on more traditional topics, such as women's fashion, society, and gardening. Unhappy with the assignments, Elizabeth - at the age of twenty-one - travelled to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent. She would spend almost six months reporting on the lives and customs of the Mexican people. She would protest the imprisonment of a local journalist for criticizing the Mexican government, which prompted the Mexican government to threaten her with arrest. She would leave the country, and later these dispatches would be published in book form under the title Six Months in Mexico.

Elizabeth moved to New York City soon after her return from Mexico in the hopes of securing a job as a serious journalist and investigative reporter, but soon discovered that the New York papers did not want to hire a female journalist. She turned that fact itself into an "expose'" story, selling it to her former employers in Pittsburg. Eventually she was able to arrange an interview with the managing editor of the New York World, John Cockerill, and the owner, Joseph Pulitzer.

After being hired by the World, she quickly conceived of an idea to have herself admitted to the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island, which was New York's insane asylum for the poor, by feigning mental illness. Her purpose was to discover the truth behind reports of abuses by the institution - which included physical and mental abuse by the staff, vermin-infested food, and admittance of individuals who were physically ill, but not mentally ill. She said:

"Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell's Island? I said I could and I would. And I did."
Her experience became more horrifying after she dropped her insanity act. The doctors and nurses refused to believe her. After ten days in the asylum, Elizabeth was removed - through prior arrangement with the World - by a lawyer from the newspaper. The resulting stories led to reforms at the asylum, and a permanent position on the World, as well as a book: Ten Days in a Mad-House.

Elizabeth's greatest fame, however, came from a well-publicized effort to beat the record of Jules Verne's fictional character, Phineas Fogg, in Verne's book Around the World in Eighty Days.

In a trip financed by the New York World, she would leave New York on November 14, 1889, beginning a 24,899-mile journey that would take her around the world. She cabled her observations to the World almost every day, and travelled by a variety of methods, including steamer, train, horseback, and rickshaw. While in France she paused in her trip long enough to interview Jules Verne. Near the Suez Canal, she would share her experience with her readers:

"Before the boat anchored the men armed themselves with canes, to keep off the beggars they said; and the women carried parasols for the same purpose. I had neither stick nor umbrella with me, and refused all offers to accept one for this occasion, having an idea, probably a wrong one, that a stick beats more ugliness into a person than it ever beats out."
The last leg of her trip - across the continental United States - was on a special Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway train, the Miss Nelie Bly Special, which made the San Francisco to Chicago leg of the journey with a new speed record: 2,577 miles in only 69 hours, average 37 miles per hour.

New York was waiting on January 25, 1890, as - seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes, and fourteen seconds after her departure - Elizabeth arrived home, three days ahead of her planned schedule of a 75-day trip around the world.

"I was told when we were almost home to jump to the platorm the moment the train stopped at Jersey City, for that made my time around the world. The station was packed with thousands of people, and the moment I landed on the platform, one yell went up from them, and the cannons at the Battery and Fort Greene boomed out the news of my arrival. I took off my cap and wanted to yell with the crowd, not because I had gone around the world in seventy-two days, but because I was home again."
She was greeted with fireworks, parades, and bands, and had been responsible for a huge increase in sales of the World. She was catapulted - for a time - into the world's spotlight. A book she published about her adventures, Around the World in 72 Days, was successful. But, while she felt she was due a bonus from the World for her accomplishments, none was forth coming and she would become disillusioned with her employers.

In 1894, Elizabeth would marry millionaire industrialist Robert Seaman, who was 72 years old - and 42 years her senior. She would retire from journalism, and become the president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. By the time her husband died in 1904, she had become one of the leading female industrialists of the early twentieth century. Embezzlement by her employees would eventually cause her company to fail, and she would have to go back to journalism, where she reported on the suffragette convention in 1913 and was sent overseas to do stories on the Eastern Front in World War I.

She would die from pneumonia at the age of 57 on January 27, 1922, at St. Mark's Hospital in New York City, and is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York.

Elizabeth "Nellie Bly" Cochran Seaman would leave behind a legacy of determination, creativity, and inspiration for women in the 19th Century. As she once said:

"If you want to do it you can do it. The question is, do you want to do it?"
Ann Donegan Johnson: The Value of Fairness: The Story of Nellie Bly (Juvenile Section)
Bonnie Christensen: The Daring Nellie Bly: America's Star Reporter (Juvenile Section)
01. Portrait: Library of Congress
02. American Journal of Psychiatry: Nelly Practices Insanity
03. Ten Days in an Asylum: Library of Congress
04. Nellie Bly in Travelling Outfit
05. Victorian Trading Card: Nelly Bly Waving Goodbye

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