Elizabeth Jane Cochran (b. 5 May 1864, d. 27 January 1922) was the epitome of the MisBehaved woman. And as we all know, well behaved women, rarely make history. Ms. Cochran is better known by her pen name… Nellie Bly.
Starting her career by challenging men’s perception of women in a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, with a rebuttal signed “Lonely Orphan Girl”, the editor offered the “gentleman” (who else could have written such a well written response, right??) a job on the paper. When it was discovered that Ms. Bly wrote it, the offer was rescinded. She argued for the job and won, choosing her famous moniker “Nellie Bly” from a Stephen Foster song of the same name that was famous from the time.
Her early work, in support of the plight of working women was discouraged and the editorial board of the Dispatch kept trying to push her to the “women’s pages” to write about fashion, society, coming out parties and gossip. She broke out of the mold and became a foreign correspondent, reporting on the customs of the Mexican people and Mexican governmental corruption and the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Obviously she had to beat a hasty retreat from Mexico.
Her famous expose of New York insane asylums in 1887 for the New York World, put her name on the map. For ten days, she endured the life of an inmate at New York’s infamous Bellevue Hospital’s insane ward. Finding abuse, inedible food, inhumane treatment, and disgusting conditions, Nellie wrote:
“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”
The New York World secured her release after ten days. After publishing her story (and subsequent book, Ten Days in a Madhouse) a grand jury was convened and with its findings, over $850,000 was added to the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections (today’s Department of Social Services) for making the lives of the inmates of the asylums better. The grand jury also made sure that there was also more checks and balances so that only those in true need went to the asylum.
Besting Jules Verne’s fictional traveler Phineas Fogg, was the order of the day. Nellie Bly beat his eighty day trip around the world by making it around the world, unchaperoned (unheard of! The scandal!) in seventy two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds with only the clothes on her back, a sturdy coat, a few changes of undies, and a few thousand dollars.
Nellie held a patent, was a leading female industrialist, and covered the women’s suffragist convention of 1913 and the Eastern Front during World War I.
All of this, before women could vote. Before she had the right to control her medical choices. She was not a “well behaved woman”. This is why she made history.