The World of Nellie Bly

The 1800’s were a time of invention and creativity. In the next 150 years America would have hundreds of breakthroughs in computer science, railroad technology, factories, space and air transportation, farming and goods production technology. Fashion was an interest to people in the 1800’s as a way of expressing style and wealth. Food and goods production were becoming more of an interest to the world. In the following century,  people would be sent into space for the first time and two world wars would be stirring up chaos and destruction to the whole world. The world in the 1800’s was about to start on the road to new advancements in technology, new discoveries and and new ideas of class and social structure that would lead to where we are today.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania was still the capital of its state (the capital would soon be Harrisburg). The population in Lancaster shot up from 4,200 to 17,000 in just 60 years.

The Industrial Revolution had a large impact on Pennsylvania. Railroads and steam mills were up and working by 1834. In 1852 Pennsylvania saw the construction of both the Fulton Hall Theater or the Fulton Opera House and North Prince Street. Telephone service was introduced to Pennsylvania in 1886. People’s fashion tastes changed as well, becoming more sophisticated and simpler. Their clothes changed from extremely elaborate and intricate to simple and plain. Children had to wear simple clothes they could run and play in. Girls wore blouses and simple dresses and boys wore trousers and boots. Men wore simple, workable clothes designed for working outdoors or sitting in an office for long periods of time. Woman wore tight dresses with lots of ruffles and bows when they went out in public. Corsets and blouses were also garments women were expected to wear to town. In their homes woman wore looser gowns and aprons.   

Woman in the 1800’s were expected to be housewives. They were expected to cook and clean their houses while their husbands went and earned a living working at farms or offices. Most women did not have jobs and if they did they could be paid less than $3 dollars a week. In this time women had to do as they were told. Most women agreed to this as this was how they were raised. Most women cooked and cleaned for their families and stayed home as housewives. And then there was Nellie Bly.         

The Beginning  

Nellie Bly was born as Elizabeth Cochran on May 5, 1864 in Cochran’s Mill, Pennsylvania. The town was founded by her father, Michael Chrochan, who was a judge and a landowner. Nellie grew up with 14 siblings, eight of whom were her half siblings. When Nellie was six her father died unexpectedly. Because her father did not have the time to write a will before he died, the money he owned could not go to his widowed wife, Mary Jane Cochran, or his 14 children. And so Nellie and her family were left to fend for themselves in the town her own father had founded. A few years later, the family scrounge up enough money to move to Indiana and send Nellie off to attend the Indiana Normal School. Nellie studied hard at her new college to become a teacher. But the family was running out of money and they needed her to come home and help. So Nellie dropped out of college and moved to Pittsburgh with her mother where they ran a small inn for for some time.Then, in the early 1880’s, when Nellie was just 18, she submitted a response to a report in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. The report had been written by a man by the name of Erasmus Wilson who, in his report, stated that women who worked outside their homes were ‘a monstrosity’ and that women should not be allowed to work and earn a living on their own. Nellie had always had a talent with words and it took her just a day to write a strong, sensible response. She told Mr. Wilson that he was wrong and that woman were just as capable as men were. She signed her report using the pen name ‘Lonely Orphan Girl.’  Her earnestness response caught the attention of the chief editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, George Madden, who offered her a position immediately. Nellie accepted the job offer.

Not Your Usual Woman

“Could I last a week in the insane asylum?

I said I could. And I did.” -Nellie Bly

Nellie wanted to become a journalist to educate people and move people to change. She was afraid she could not excel in this career because she was a woman yet she was determined to fulfill this ambition and she started with the things she was most passionate about. Nellie was working as a journalist and undercover investigator for a newspaper. She went undercover as a sweatshop worker to reveal poor working conditions faced by women. In her reports she drew attention to the importance of women’s rights, something most journalists avoided in their writing. She earned $5 a week and was still living with her mother in Pittsburg. Elizabeth Cochran was going by the pen name Nellie Bly after a song. Nellie Bly was gaining fame and money for herself and her family. But then the newspaper she worked for moved her to the ‘woman’s page.’ Enraged by this setback, Nellie began researching a better paper that would treat her more fairly and pay her a larger salary. In 1887 Nellie moved to New York where she started to work for the New York World Newspaper. One of Nellie’s most famous investigative cases happened in this time. Her paper decided to give her an undercover assignment. Nellie was to go undercover as a mental patient at a mental institution. She lived as a mental patient there for 10 days and when she released herself wrote a book and a report on the terrible living conditions for patients in the asylum. The result of Nellie’s hard work was a major investigation of the asylum and several changes to the New York Department of Public Charities and Corrections. These included more funding for mentally ill patients, exams, and staff training at mental facilities. Nellie had become an investigative journalist. She had educated hundreds of people on hard working conditions, she had revealed the horrible conditions the patients of the asylum were living in, and she had written about women’s rights; something nobody did. And now she was going to be the first to sail around the world in under 100 days.

Nellie Bly’s Trip Around the World

“I was too impatient to work at the usual duties assigned to woman on newspapers.”

-Nellie Bly

Nellie did several more undercover and investigative reports which included; treatment of people in jails/factories, corruptions in the legislate, and several reports on famous people including Susan B. Anthony and Emma Goldman. In early 1889 Nellie was inspired by a famous book she read when she was little (Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne) and decided to set off on an 80 day journey around the world. She wanted it to be challenging so she made it a competition. Another newspaper would have a man set sail on the same day, going on a different route and whoever got back to New York first was the winner. Nellie set sail in November 1889. She traveled all over the world; first by boat, then by horse, then by rickshaw, and finally by car. Nellie completed her journey in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds, breaking records and winning the competition. When Nellie arrived home, a crowd of people awaited her, cheering her on until she stepped off the ship and returned home after 72 days away. Nellie Bly married the billionaire Robert Seaman. They moved back to Nellie’s home town together. Nellie’s husband died just a few years later. She took over his manufacturing company later that year. She supported fitness gyms and libraries and new inventions as the times progressed. Nellie kept working on her papers and books throughout the last years of her life. Nellie Bly died on January 27, 1922 from pneumonia. She was 57. Nellie’s legacy still thrives today. She is an inspiration to all who hear of her. At age 18 she became one of the first woman authors in newspapers and went on to become one of the most well known and most accomplished women in the world. She went from an innkeeper in Pittsburg to a investigative journalist who sailed around the world. She went from the Lonely Orphan Girl to the legend of Nellie Bly. Nellie Bly wrote her own story, one to remember and learn from.

“I have never written a word

that did not come from my heart.”  

-Nellie Bly    


Appendix I.

Her Family

Nellie Bly had four brothers, two sisters, and eight other half siblings from both of her parents’ former marriages. She grew up in a household with 14 other children and her father and mother. Nellie’s father was a wealthy landowner in Pennsylvania. He founded the town Nellie and her siblings grew up in, Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania. He married twice, first to a woman who died after having six children, and then to Nellie’s mother, Mary Jane Cochran (maiden name Mary Jane Kennedy). She had four children with her second husband, including Nellie Bly. Mary Jane died of old age in 1921. Mildred Cochran Mclaughlin was Nellie’s oldest sibling, she was born June 5, 1851 in Cochran’s Mills Pennsylvania. She went on to marry a man by the last name of Mclaughlin and had several children. William Worth Cochran was born April 11, 1848 in the Mills. His mother, Catherine Murphy, died when he was younger and his father’s second wife, Nellie’s mother, took him in. Harry Cummings Cochran was born March 15, 1870 in Pennsylvania. He was one of Nellie’s four full brothers and named after a distant relative. Albert Paul Cochran was born on Halloween in Pennsylvania. He went on to marry and have several children of his own. Robert Scot Cochran was Nellie’s half sibling. Angela K. Cochran, John Michael Cochran, Julianna McGrahm, and Mary Ann Sanchez were all Nellie’s half siblings as well. Thomas Jefferson Cochran and George Washington Cochran were named after former presidents of the United States and Isabella Davis was the youngest sibling of the 14. Nellie had her hands full.


Appendix II.

My Thoughts on her Writing

Nellie had an amazing writing voice; it was powerful, strong and to the point. She had a large vocabulary and used big words to emphasise her ideas, yet kept things short when they were not as important. Nellie was a very funny person.She was kind and tried to help people whenever she could and I think people liked her because of it. At one point in her book Around the World in Seventy Two Days, Nellie is late for a boat and the man bringing her to the port asks her if she can run. She says “yes”, and together they run all the way through the town to the boat. Nellie says they laughed the whole way and the man thanked her afterwards for giving him such a wonderful time. I think Nellie tried to make a statement with her writing. She didn’t want it to be about her, she wanted it to be about the writing and the point she was trying to make. Nellie was strong-willed and did not like to be told what to do or how to do things. She was eager to learn and teach and she was not to be deterred from her dreams. Nellie didn’t care what people thought of her and in that way she was very different from most women of her time. It is clear that a lot of the people she spent her time with had some sexist ideas. At one point in one of her books a man was writing up her passport when he asked everyone else in the room to leave. He made Nellie swear to tell the truth before asking her how old she was and how much she weighed. Nellie laughed at the man and told him willingly her age and weight, not caring who knew. Over and over again in her books, Nellie displays unique skills and a strong mind. She wanted to educate people about the hardships for not only women of the time, but also the average citizen. She wanted to help and she was prepared to do anything to achieve her dreams.  

Appendix III.

Excerpts From Her Book

“Gather up all the real smart girls, pull them out of the mire, give them a shove up the ladder of life, and be amply repaid both by their success and unforgetfulness of those that held out the helping hand.” Nellie Bly said this in a report in early 1885. She was 18. This report got her a job at her first newspaper, a boost of confidence, and the greatest shove up the ladder of life anyone could get. Nellie signed this report as the “Lonely Orphan Girl”. A lot of people have looked at this name and thought about why she would call herself this. She was not an orphan; her mother was still well. She was not lonely; she had more than enough siblings. But at the same time she was an orphan. She was alone. Most of her siblings had moved out, gone along to find their own shoves up the ladder. Nellie had been left to fend for herself and her elderly mother. I think Nellie felt like she was alone. She was a girl in a steadily progressing world where if she didn’t become something more than an innkeeper and a daughter she would be forgotten and pushed aside in the race to get to the top. Here is the beginning of her first report:

What shall we do with our girls?

Not our Madame Neilisons; nor our Mary Anderson’s; not our Bessie Brambles nor our Maggie Mitchells; not our beaty or our heiress; not any of these, but those without talent, without beaty, without money. What shall we do with them? The anxious father still wants to know what to do with his five daughters. Well indeed may he wonder. Girls, since the existence of Eve, have been a worriement, to themselves as well as to their parents, as to what shall be done with them. They cannot, or will not, as in the case may be, all marry. Few, very few, posses the mighty pen of the late Jane Grey Swisshelm, and even writers, lecturers, doctors, preachers, and edits must have money  as well as ability to fit them to be such. What is to be done with the poor ones? The schools are overrun with teachers, the stores with clerks, the factories with employees. There are more cooks, chamber maids, and washerwoman than can find employment. In fact all places that are filled with women are overrun, and still there are idle girls, some with elderly parents depending on them. We cannot let them starve. They can that have full and plenty of this world’s goods, realize what it is to be a poor working woman, abiding in one or two bare rooms, without fire enough to keep warm, while her threadbare clothes refuse to protect her from the wind and cold, and denying herself necessary food that her little ones may not go hungry; fearing the landlords frown and threat to cast her out and sell what little she has, begging for employment of any kind that may earn enough to pay for the bare rooms she calls home, no one to speak kindly to encourage her, nothing to make life worth the living? If sin in the form of man comes forward with a wily smile and says ‘fear no more, your debts shall be repaid,’ she can not let her children freeze or starve, and so falls. Well, who shall blame her. Will it be you that have a comfortable home and a loving husband, sturdy, healthy children, fond friends – shall you cast the first stone? It must be so; assuredly it would not be cast by one similar situated. Not only the widow, but the poor maiden needs employment. Perhaps father is dead and mother is helpless, or just the reverse; or maybe both are dependant on her extensions, or an orphan entirely, as the case maybe.     

In this small page of words we see that Nellie was not going to sit and watch people mistreat girls that had nothing. Nellie paints a picture of what it was like for girls like her to live at the time. She makes a point to call out the wealthy’s flaws and clearly states that girls are just as worthy of she push up the ladder as anyone. Nellie would not stand by and watch as girls like her starved and ran out of money. She was going to make a difference no matter what. And she gave herself the first push up the ladder to doing that with this paper.

Nellie continued to write amazing reports and papers over her lifetime. When she went around the world in under 80 days she kept journals and notebooks and filled them with stories. When she returned, she pieced them together into a book of adventures. Here’s one of her stories:


WHAT gave me the idea?

It is sometimes difficult to tell exactly what gives birth to an idea. Ideas are the chief stock in trade of newspaper writers and generally they are the scarcest stock in market, but they do come occasionally,

This idea came to me one Sunday. I had spent a greater part of the day and half the night vainly trying to fasten on some idea for a newspaper article. It was my custom to think up ideas on Sunday and lay them before my editor for his approval or disapproval on Monday. But ideas did not come that day and three o’clock in the morning found me weary and with an aching head tossing about in my bed. At last tired and provoked at my slowness in finding a subject, something for the week’s work, I thought fretfully:

“I wish I was at the other end of the earth!”

“And why not?” the thought came: “I need a vacation; why not take a trip around the world?”

It is easy to see how one thought followed another. The idea of a trip around the world pleased me and I added: “If I could do it as quickly as Phileas Fogg did, I should go.”

Then I wondered if it were possible to do the trip eighty days and afterwards I went easily off to sleep with the determination to know before I saw my bed again if Phileas Fogg’s record could be broken.

Nellie Bly was one of the most influential people of her time. She was a smart, personable woman who knew who she wanted to be and how to change the world. Her writings are still important today.


Bly, Nellie. Around the World in 72 Days. Pictorial Weeklies, 1890.

Bly, Nellie. Corrigan, Maureen. Lutes, Jean. Around the World in 72 Days and Other Writings. Penguin Classics, 2014.   

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Fessenden, Marissa. “Nellie Bly’s Record Breaking Trip Around the World Was, to her Surprise, a Race.” Smart News, January 25, 2016,  

“Nellie Bly Biography.”, January 21, 2019,

“Nellie Bly.” Encyclopedia Britannica, January 23, 2019,  

Norwood, Arlisha. “Nellie Bly.”  National Women’s History Museum, 2017,                   

“Pioneer Settlement in Indiana.” The History Museum,     

Wills, Mathew. “Nellie Bly, Girl Reporter.” Daily, November 14, 2014,