SWHM Guest: Cathy Pegau on Nellie Bly

Hi friends! So, more fun/not fun with hosting and I’m just losing my mind – beyond the time cost there have been actual monetary ~losses on my part and I’ve just sat there wondering if I should scrap this whole thing. For now, however, we’re holding strong, and Smithsonian Women’s History Month marches on! In fact, we’ve got Cathy Pegau visiting with us again today. This time, she’s talking about one of her favorite female historical figures. I want to say all of us who are stateside know of Nellie Bly – possibly friends overseas as well, but I remember learning about her in elementary school. <3


Nellie BlyMy awareness, and subsequent appreciation, for the woman known as Nellie Bly came while doing research for a book I was writing. I’d found Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World* and later several websites** dedicated to the intrepid journalist, giving me great insight into the era I was interested in. By the time I finished reading, however, I’d received more than a history lesson.

Two things about Nellie Bly immediately captivated me. First, she was a journalist living in a challenging time for women (though seriously, what era isn’t?). The main character in my new series is a journalist in 1919, when women were pushing hard for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to allow women the vote. Second, I saw a lot of things in Nellie’s passion, spirit, and determination that I wanted to have in my character, Charlotte.

Elizabeth Jane “Pink” Cochran was born in May 1864 or 1865 (Nellie Bly was the professional name she used later) and grew up in Pennsylvania coal country. The death of her father, and later the divorce of her mother and abusive step-father, were events that stayed with Pink throughout her life, making her keenly aware of the situations women—particularly poor women—had to face.

An “ah ha” moment came at age twenty, as Pink was trying to decide what sort of job she wanted. After reading an article called “What Girls are Good For” in The Pittsburgh Dispatch that basically told girls they had no reason to bother with getting an education or having a career, she wrote a scathing letter to the editor. Impressed, the editor invited her to pen a rebuttal. She did, and the editor was again bowled over by her voice and passion, if not her command of spelling and grammar. He offered her a job at the paper. She wrote under the name Nellie Bly, taking a pen name as many women journalists of the time did to protect their identities.

Nellie started with a bang at The Dispatch. One of her first series of articles revealed the conditions for the poor female workers in a local bottle factory. Another piece focused on the corruption of the Mexican government she had seen while visiting there for five months. She had started to write about it while in Mexico, but the authorities threatened to arrest her. She left Mexico one month sooner than planned so she could have the piece published in the U.S. But when Nellie’s investigative reporting started to irritate local companies, who threatened to pull advertising, she was assigned a gardening piece, more typical fare for a woman in journalism. Nellie turned in the article and her resignation and went to New York.

In 1887 New York, Nellie found it quite difficult to get a job as a news reporter. To make a living, she worked as a freelance writer of pieces on the only topics that papers would buy from her: women’s fashion and the like. She wasn’t alone in her frustrations.

In the 1880 census, 12,308 Americans listed their jobs as journalist. Of those, 288 (~2%) were women. The majority of those were writing for the “women’s pages” of newspapers on things like fashion, shopping, cooking, high society doings, and the home. Few women in the profession were allowed to prove they were as smart, as tough, and as determined as the men. Women reporters and journalists such as Flora McDonald, Jane Grey Swisshelm, and one known only as J.L.H., often criticized the treatment they received. From their being “paid in compliments” rather than cash, like the men, to being told women were too delicate and distractible to be serious writers, to sexual harassment, they overcame all manner of obstacles to be in the news portion of the newspaper.

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the WorldNellie eventually met the editor of The World, John Cockerill, and proposed going to Europe and returning via the steerage class in order to describe to readers the conditions poor immigrants faced on their crossing to America. Cockerill and The World publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, didn’t think a lone women should take on such a journey. (Later, Pulitzer encouraged the ‘round the world race, but that’s another story : ) They did propose she do a story of more local interest. Pulitzer had been told the staff of Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum was mistreating its female patients. If Nellie could get in and get the inside information on what was going on there, she could change the lives of the women remanded to the facility. This was the sort of story Nellie loved, something that would expose corruption or shed light on the situation of those who had no voice.

In September of 1887, feigning symptoms such as constant headache and tiredness, and not understanding English well (she pretended to be from Cuba, using the Spanish she learned while in Mexico), Nellie was committed to Blackwell’s Island. For ten days, she experienced the ice cold baths, poor food, abuse, mistreatment, and deplorable conditions typical of the asylum. Some of the women there were not suffering from mental health issues at all, but were immigrants who spoke little to no English. All were treated no better than animals.

Luckily, Nellie was retrieved by a lawyer hired by The World, and she felt terrible leaving the other women behind. But her series of reports led to an investigation by the state and a court case in which Nellie gave testimony. Conditions at Blackwell’s Island improved, though more likely due to threats from the courts than out of any sort of desire to change on the part of the staff.

Throughout her life, and practically until the day she passed away in 1922, Nellie was a constant champion for poor women, children, and anyone in need or who was being taken advantage of. She wrote about swindlers and animal cruelty, crooked politicians and the plight of the homeless, over-crowded conditions of New York’s tenements and women’s suffrage. Anyone who wasn’t on the up-and-up headed for the nearest escape route if they knew Nellie Bly was outside their door.

But she was also game to go anywhere or do anything or talk to anyone she felt would grab the readers’ attention, from entertainers to public figures. She trained with boxer John L. Sullivan, interviewed Helen Keller, and performed with the chorus line of a stage show.

Nellie used her adventurous spirit and way with words to draw readers in and make them see what was really happening right under their noses. If she were alive today, I could easily see her all over television or on social media calling for justice and fair treatment.

Reading about Nellie Bly not only gave me better insight about my suffragette character Charlotte Brody, who is also someone to stand up for others (though not as daring as Nellie), it made me think about all the women who have come before us, striving to make the world a better place in whatever way they could. And all the women who are now making history by speaking up and acting for the benefit of all. While I will never go undercover in an asylum or factory, I hope I can somehow channel Nellie’s spirit and sense of justice in my own way.

*In Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman, there is, of course a second interesting young woman, Elizabeth Bisland. Elizabeth was a journalist as well, writing literary review for The Cosmopolitan when she was tapped to partake in the race (though she never called it a race). She didn’t have the adventurer’s spirit that Nellie had, but she deserves a lot of credit for taking on what had to be a daunting task.

**There are a good number of websites dedicated to Nellie Bly, but http://NellieBlyOnline.com is a pretty good source.

About Cathy Pegau: Cathy lives in Alaska with her family and a house full of critters. She writes speculative fiction and has a historical mystery series coming out in November 2015 from Kensington Publishing, starting with Murder on the Last Frontier. She has an addendum to one of her favorite quotes: “Well-behaved women seldom make history…or the future.”
Find her online or say hello on Twitter @CathyPegau

Thanks so much for sharing about Nellie Bly, Cathy! I’d forgotten some of the amazing things she had done. <3 Do any of you have a favorite Nellie Bly story? Or another favorite female reporter?

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