Historical Markers
Nellie Bly Historical Marker
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Nellie Bly

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
500 Terrace, Apollo

Dedication Date:
July 22, 1995

Behind the Marker

Formal portrait of a young Nellie Bly, seated.
Elizabeth Jane Cochran (Nellie Bly), circa 1884.
In the late 1800s, American newspapers entered a period of explosive growth, intense competition, and scandal-mongering sensationalism, popularly known as "yellow journalism." Led by William Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, newspaper publishers became powerful national figures. Some, like Hearst, who wanted to be president, had their own ambitious political aspirations.

To attract a broader range of urban readers, they introduced new features, including comic strips, sports and women's columns, and undercover expose's written by undercover reports, one of the most famous of whom was Pennsylvania's Nellie Bly. When she died in January 1922, the New York Evening Journal praised her as "the best reporter in the world."

Game board and box cover.
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"Round the World with Nellie Bly" board game. McLaughlin Brothers, New York,...
Like fellow Pennsylvania journalist markerIda Tarbell, Bly did her important work in New York. No major newspaper or publisher in Pennsylvania was willing to employ a woman to take on either the political machine or the business interests that dominated the state and were responsible for much of their advertising. Similarly, muckraker Lincoln Steffens, who included Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as two of the nation's urban centers worthy of inclusion in The Shame of the Cities, published with McClure's Magazine in New York.

Elizabeth Jane Cochran - Bly's real name - was born in 1864 in the town of Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania, where her father, a county judge, also owned the mill after which the town was named. One of fifteen children, Jane was only six when her father suddenly died. By the age of fourteen, she had moved with her mother and two brothers to Pittsburgh, where she made her journalistic debut as the "Lonely Orphan Girl" in a letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch criticizing a column that suggested women should stay at home and not work. Recognizing her talent, the newspaper's editor gave her a column that appeared under the pen name "Nellie Bly," which she took from a marker Stephen Foster song.
Two head shots, one with a hat and one without.
Emma Goldman, Philadelphia Police Department mug book, 1893

Portrait of Nellie Bly Sitting in Chair
Nellie Bly, circa 1920.
Bly was tireless in her pursuit of adventure and desire to further women's rights and other worthy causes. In 1887, after spending five months in Mexico, she moved to New York. There, she had so much trouble getting a job as a woman reporter that she made that the subject of her first story. Hired by Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, she spectacularly launched her career by pretending to be insane, getting committed to the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island, and arranging to be freed by friends after a brief stay. Exposing the terrible conditions, she became the first "stunt girl," as the first investigative woman journalists were called, and demonstrated how women could be as good journalists as men, especially when it came to investigating the lives of women.

To document the plight of women in America, Bly assumed more false identities as a domestic servant to expose corrupt employment agencies, and as a purchaser of an unwanted baby. She tackled political corruption and wrote in a clear, vivid style that delighted readers. In November 1889, she pulled her greatest "stunt": traveling around the world in seventy-two days, the fastest time to that date. When she felt the World had not rewarded her, she briefly tried writing fiction before she got her raise and returned to the paper. In the mid-1890s, her interviews with marker Emma Goldman, Eugene V. Debs, and other radicals demonstrated her political sympathies as well as her reportorial skills.

In 1895, Bly, now thirty, married seventy-year-old Robert Seaman, the owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, which produced household goods and ornaments. Upon his death in 1904, she took over the company, patented the first steel barrel, and treated her workers well, giving them good pay, health care, and recreation. The company went broke, however, after her executives cheated her, and Bly again turned to reporting.

During World War I, she covered the Russian front for the New York Evening Journal and pleaded with Americans to help orphans and widows. She next reported on the Paris Peace Conference before returning home, where she called attention to the plight of unwed mothers and seamen.

Bly died age fifty-eight in 1922. Practicing what women's-rights activists preached, she expanded the boundaries of what it meant to be a reporter in the United States as a pioneering investigative journalist who also crusaded for social change.
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