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After two months in the courts it was decided that in accordance with the law a third of his estate went to Mary, while the remainder was split equally between his children. Since Elizabeth was only six, she was appointed a guardian to manage her funds. Mary was left to raise her children by herself, but in she fell prey to a charming Civil War veteran named John Jackson Ford. Jack as he liked to be called was a widower with no children. He was also an abusive drunk, something which he hid up until Mary had said her vows. Once they were married he showed his true colours, threatening and beating Mary until she became fearful for her life.

In she finally reached her limit and she filed for a divorce. This was a risky move, as divorce was not usually well accepted by the community. Despite this and despite Jack fleeing the town in disgrace it took a long year of judicial inquiry and second-guessing before her divorce was granted. She saw first-hand how powerless women could be against men who would ruin their lives. Like her father in his youth, she determined to make her own way. She decided to become a school teacher, and enrolled at the nearby Indiana State Normal School.

Her guardian, Colonel Jackson, assured her that her inheritance would cover her tuition. So she enrolled with a clear heart, [1] and dove into a world of learning about writing and art with joy. She was much less happy when she finished her first semester and found that there was not enough money left to pay for her to return. She was very displeased with Colonel Jackson for what she regarded as mismanagement of her funds. When Elizabeth was forced to drop out of school, her mother made the decision to move the family to Pittsburgh.

Two of her sons had already found work there, and Mary set up home with them. She opened a boarding house, and Elizabeth either worked there or in odd jobs in order to help with the household finances.

It seemed that she was at a dead end, but then salvation came in an incredibly unlikely form. Having a bit more lived experience of why women needed to be able to earn an independent living, Elizabeth wrote a furious letter to the editor. But editor George Madden was impressed by both the unique voice of the writer and the way she marshalled her arguments.

Nellie Bly

His article had been written more from thoughtless privilege than from dogmatic malice, and her account of her life had swayed him over to her side. The two actually became good friends, something Elizabeth would never have predicted. The real meat of the meeting came in the form of an offer of work from Madden. Elizabeth went home and wrote The Girl Puzzle , which became her first published work.

How many wealthy and great men could be pointed out who started in the depths but where are the many women? Let a youth start as errand boy and he will work his way up until he is one of the firm. Girls are just as smart, a great deal quicker to learn; why, then, can they not do the same? Madden liked the article enough to ask Elizabeth if she had any other ideas for things she could write about.

Her family had the fortune to be well-off enough to afford a divorce, and had enough social capital to survive the aftermath. Many were not so lucky. This article is also significant as being where she took on her famous name. One spelling error later and Elizabeth Cochrane became Nellie Bly, girl reporter. However this also earned the ire of factory workers and conservatives, who put pressure on Madden to rein her in. He canceled her column, and told her that she would have to cover the more traditional woman reporter subjects of fashion and nature.

Nellie was decidedly not okay with this. Instead she proposed a somewhat different idea. She had recently found out from one of the boarders that it was now possible to take a train from Philadelphia all the way to Mexico City.

The Adventures of Nellie Bly (1981)

So she offered to travel down to Mexico and become a freelance foreign correspondent. Madden was somewhat apprehensive about the idea, but Nellie convinced him. And off to Mexico she went. Her mother Mary came along as a chaperone and companion. She spent six months there, writing articles that Madden published under the title Nellie In Mexico. The unusual subject matter meant that many other papers around the country picked them up for syndication, and Nellie became quite famous. Nellie wrote mostly of food and local customs, including several articles about bullfights that she saw or had described to her.

She avoided politics for her own safety, though she was indiscreet enough to mention that one of her local journalist friends had been arrested for criticizing the government.


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Of course, by doing so she was herself criticizing the government. When word reached her that officials had been asking about her, she decided to pack up and return to Pittsburgh. There she started writing about Mexican corruption in earnest. She wrote about censorship, bribery and the incompetent tyranny of the unfairly elected government. Her columns were later collected into her first published book, Six Months in Mexico. Having shown a flair for descriptive writing, Nellie was put on to the arts and culture beat for the Pittsburgh Dispatch.

However she soon grew bored, and one day suddenly quit. She had decided to move to New York and see what she could do there. She was full of confidence, but she found it a lot harder to break into the deeply chauvinistic New York media scene. Unable to find work, she did some freelance articles for the Dispatch. That gave her an idea, and she wrote an article for them about the New York newspaper scene. That got her into those newspapers to interview the editors, and all of them wanted to see the article when it was done.

It got her some contacts on the scene, and a foot in the door.

Nellie Bly’s Record-Breaking Trip Around the World Was, to Her Surprise, A Race

But it would take a bold audacious move to really establish her. Luckily she had one in mind. Nellie went to see John Cockerill, editor of the World. She pitched him her idea: He promised to take her proposal to Joseph Pulitzer, the legendary owner of the World. So when Nellie returned to see if her pitch had been accepted, John had a counter-proposal. How would she like to go into a lunatic asylum for them? Fifteen years earlier New York journalist Julius Chambers had made history when he had gotten himself committed to Bloomingdale Insane Asylum in order to expose the abuse going on there.

Now Joe wanted Nellie to do the same. But Nellie was up to the challenge. She spent that evening at home practicing in front of a mirror, and stayed up all night in order to lend her performance some verisimilitude. She stayed awake for the second night running, and then the next morning caused a new scene by refusing to leave her room and insisting that somebody had stolen her luggage during the night. Eventually the boarding house owner called in the police and she was taken down to the station.

The police took Nellie to a judge to decide what to do with her, and Nellie gave an admirably incoherent performance. To his credit the judge came to the conclusion that she had been drugged which was not far from the truth and had her sent to Bellevue Hospital. Of course Nellie was unable to keep written notes, so she was forced to rely on her luckily excellent memory. She began by surveying her fellow patients, and soon realised that many of them seemed to simply be unable to speak any English, rather than suffering any mental illness. She was unable to stomach any of it before she was taken off, forcibly stripped, given an ice-cold bath and then locked in a tiny room.

She was given no opportunity to dry herself, and was forced to sleep with wet hair and in wet clothes. Despite her fatigue, sleep was difficult as she realised that if there were a fire she would have no means of escape, between the locked door and the bars on the windows. It was a bad beginning to a terrible ten days.

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After an inedible breakfast, the patients spent the morning in maintenance of the hospital; cleaning and doing laundry. Once that was done they were herded onto hard wooden benches and left to sit there in silence for the rest of the day. Unruliness or disobedience were swiftly punished, usually with force. As Nellie later observed, it was a routine that would eventually have destroyed the mind of even the sanest woman. Luckily for her, she knew that her time there was limited. A lawyer named Peter Hendricks arrived to free her on the 4th October.

Nellie felt bad leaving behind the women that she had befriended there, but she hoped that her articles might help to free them too, or to make their lives more tolerable at least. It was called Behind Asylum Bars , and it was an immediate media sensation. Papers all across the country syndicated it, and it was the talk of the entire country.

She followed a week later with Inside the Madhouse , which was equally popular. Nellie was called to give evidence at it. In she came up with a new adventure for her to write about. Nellie sat down with a set of timetables, and figured out that she could make the journey in 75 days. John Cockerill was willing to give it a go, but the other editors were more dubious. Joseph Pulitzer , American newspaper editor and publisher who helped establish the pattern of the modern newspaper.

In his time he was one of the most powerful journalists in the United States.

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Nellie Bly | National Women's History Museum

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