The Incredible Nellie Bly

Would you volunteer to spend 10 days in here? What if you thought it could change the world?

David Lalonde

10/27/20233 min read

The Incredible Nellie Bly

Her real name was Elizabeth Cochran, born in 1864, in Pennsylvania. She had a modest, unremarkable upbringing but somewhere in that brain of hers, she must have had a plan. Fact is, she refused to allow anyone to limit or define her; just ask the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, George Madden!

In 1885, one of his reporters wrote a column entitled “What Girls Are Good For.” One can’t help but think that even in those times they were hoping to provoke a response, and provoke they did. Twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth wrote back and let them know exactly what she thought. Madden was so impressed, he gave her a job. He gave her the pen name “Nellie Bly”, because it was considered “immodest” for a gal to use her own name, and then set her loose on the city.

She ended up pissing everyone in Pittsburgh off, so they sent her to Mexico as their “foreign correspondent.” Guess what? She pissed everyone in Mexico off too. She had to flee the country because the government was going to arrest her! What is a girl to do? Go to New York, I suppose; I dunno, I’m not a girl.

Now, I’ve never been to New York personally, but I understand it’s a wonderful town; the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, if I’m not mistaken; but I digress. Nellie goes to see Joseph Pulitzer himself at the New York World, which like all the other New York newspapers at that time, didn’t hire women. She must have seemed crazy to him.

We’ll probably never really know Pulitzer’s motivations, or what he thought of Nellie, but here’s what he did: he challenged her to get herself committed to the notorious Women’s Lunatic Asylum, on Blackwell’s Island, New York, and report on conditions there. She would be working undercover and he would figure a way to get her out afterwards. Whoa, Nellie!!

I’ve had some good bosses, but never one I trusted that much; have you? Anyway, Nellie says “fuck it, I’m going for it,” (or some Victorian version of that), and gets herself committed. What resulted from that was a groundbreaking article called “Ten Days in a Madhouse.” It changed the way that institutions dealt with people with mental health issues and improved the lives of millions. You gotta admit, that took guts.

It takes more than guts though to be an investigator, and Nellie had much more. She was a pioneer in investigative journalism, and her legacy lives on. Elizabeth Cochran, “Nellie Bly”, pulled back the curtain on how people really lived in that era. Turns out, our predecessors were actually very human, and a lot like us. I take some comfort in that.

I hope you take the time to read her article, which I’ve added a link to below. She wrote a lot more, and though this is not my favourite, I think it is her best. Here’s why I think what she did constitutes a great investigation, and why she is one of the best investigators of all time:

1. She clearly understands and is able to articulate her mission

2. She is organized and prepares well for the unknown

3. She keeps an open mind and follows the evidence

4. Her observational skills are exceptional and she utilizes all of the five senses so well that I almost feel like I have the sixth sense when reading her descriptions

5. She seeks the truth and gives voice to those who are not able to make their own heard

There’s lots of other biographical stuff on Nellie Bly on the Internet, but here is my challenge to you: if you really want to know her, she reveals herself in her writing. She’s worth the effort.

And now, “Ten Days in a Madhouse.”