Elizabeth Jane Cochran revolutionized print journalism and became a pioneer of women working in the newspaper industry. She was born in 1864 in Cochrans Mills (near present-day Burrell Township in Armstrong County), a town named for her father, Michael Cochran. After her father’s death left her family nearly penniless, it moved to Allegheny City (today’s North Side) to find work.
At age 21, Ms. Cochran read an editorial in the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled “What Girls Are Good For” that chastised women for attempting to have an education or career when their responsibilities were to care for the home.
Infuriated, Ms. Cochran wrote a letter to George Madden, the editor, expressing her disgust. He was so impressed by her writing that he invited her to join the publication under the pen name “Nellie Bly,” based on the lead character of a popular Stephen Foster song.
Frustrated by the typical subjects for female reporters at the time — gardening, fashion and society — Bly tackled issues affecting the poor and oppressed, often focusing on the plight of underprivileged women.
Her stories attracted some unwanted attention from the business community, and when companies threatened to pull their advertising dollars, the Pittsburgh Dispatch assigned her a story about gardening. Bly handed in her resignation letter with the article.
In 1887, she moved to New York City and landed a job at the New York World. For one of her first assignments, she went undercover as a patient at the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. She spent 10 days experiencing the asylum’s deplorable living conditions, which included rotten food and physical abuse from the staff.
After the New York World demanded her release, Bly’s firsthand accounts of the horrors of the asylum, “Ten Days in a Mad House,” became a book that prompted a grand jury investigation.
Two years later, she decided to travel the world faster than novelist Jules Verne’s character Phileas Fogg in “Around the World in Eighty Days.” She boarded a ship from New York Nov. 14, 1889, and returned Jan. 25, 1890 — 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds after her departure.
Bly temporarily retired from journalism in 1895 but returned during World War I to become one of America’s first female war correspondents.
Visitors to the Heinz History Center can celebrate National Women’s History Month and learn more about local female innovators as part of the long-term exhibition “Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation.” Information: www.heinzhistorycenter.org.