Pioneer Woman in Journalism: Nellie Bly Part 1

About pioneer woman in journalism Nellie Bly, her biography and place in history, examples of her methods.

NELLIE BLY (1867-1922). Pioneer newspaperwoman.

It wasn't her real name, of course. But in the heyday of yellow journalism and the penny press--when an American newspaper publisher could plausibly promote war between his country and Spain to boost circulation--a girl reporter needed a good, catchy nom de plume.

The future "Queen of the Sob Sisters" was born Elizabeth Cochrane in a small Pennsylvania mill town, and came to Pittsburgh as a teen-ager wanting to be a writer. She sprang from obscurity with a stinging rebuke to an editorial in the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled, "What Girls Are Good For." In spite of themselves, the editors were impressed by the girl's spirit. They offered her a job.

Fine, she said, and proposed a series of articles on divorce as her 1st contribution. The editors, for all their external toughness, were conventional Victorians. They doubted that this innocent child could write with the maturity and tact such a delicate subject demanded. But under the by-line "Nellie Bly" she turned out stories spiced with the personal tales she heard from the older women she shared living quarters with in the boardinghouse district. Her writing rang true. It was sharp and controversial. Best of all, it sold newspapers.

Nellie's 1st effort was followed by exposes of conditions in Pittsburgh's slums, its sweatshops, and its jails. Under pressure from advertisers the Dispatch encouraged Nellie to take a vacation. She went to Mexico. Soon the young muckraker was pouring forth lurid stories of decadence, debaucheries, and official corruption South of the Border. The Mexican authorities asked her to leave. She did, but managed to get a suitcase full of notes out with her, explaining to railroad agents that it contained ladies "unmentionables."

Pittsburgh was now too tame for Nell. She went to New York where she promised Joseph Pulitzer a scoop on conditions at the city's insane asylum on Blackwell's Island if he would put her on the staff of the New York World. Soon she was practicing wild shrieks and facial grimaces in front of her mirror. She showed up without identification at a local rooming house, threw a fit at mealtime and was on her way to Bellevue within 24 hours. She returned from Blackwell's Island 10 days later with stories of "a human rat hole," of brutal nurses, inedible food, and stifling sanitary conditions. Her stories electrified the nation, empaneled a grand jury, and brought considerable reform. They also made Nellie Bly a celebrity.

Next she went underground as an immigrant girl and came up with an expose of fraudulent employment agencies. Nellie framed herself on a theft charge and landed in prison. The result was another scoop for the World, this time with tales of indignities, leering jailhouse guards, and a Tammany henchman who offered to buy her freedom. Her revelations forced the segregation of male and female prisoners and placed police matrons in charge of frisking the ladies.

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