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"What Girls Are Good For"
May 5, 2014 10:21 AM   Subscribe

Today is the 150th birthday of Elizabeth Jane Seaman, née Cochran -- best known by her pen name Nellie Bly. She is perhaps most famous for her re-creation of Jules Verne's epic Around the World in 80 Days, but this real-life Phileas Fogg did it in a record-breaking 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes, and wrote a book about her adventure. She was a pioneering investigative journalist, brave enough to get herself committed to an insane asylum to expose its practices, which resulted in the book Ten Days in a Mad-House. As she wrote, "I was too impatient to work at the usual duties assigned women on newspapers."

As quoted in an NPR story this morning:
"I left the insane ward with pleasure and regret," she wrote in her account for the World. "Pleasure that I was once more able to enjoy the free breath of heaven; regret that I could not have brought with me some of the unfortunate women who lived and suffered with me, and who I am convinced are just as sane as I was and am now myself."
From her Wikipedia article:
While embarrassed physicians and staff fumbled to explain how so many professionals had been fooled, a grand jury launched its own investigation into conditions at the asylum, inviting Bly to assist. The jury's report recommended the changes she had proposed, and its call for increased funds for care of the insane prompted an $850,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. They also made sure that future examinations were more thorough so that only the seriously ill actually went to the asylum.
She wrote for the New York World, becoming famous for what was derisively called "stunt journalism" -- going undercover to expose corrupt government officials, telling the stories of the downtrodden, of the poor, of women and children, of those who were neglected and ignored. All in her 20s.

But at the age of 30, Bly gave up her career as a journalist and married a 70-year-old industrialist. She took over his businesses upon his death nine years later, but despite her best efforts, and more due to management and corruption issues than her leadership, she had to declare bankruptcy in 1914.

She returned to journalism that same year, however, when a European vacation found her witness to the start of World War I. She became the first American woman war correspondent.

Nellie Bly died at the age of 57 from pneumonia. She wrote all the way to the end.

"I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall."

Also: The title of this post was the title of an editorial in the Pittsburgh Dispatch which Bly read in January 1885. As her full bio on nellieblyonline.com says:
The article admonished women for even attempting to have an education or career, suggesting they should stray no further than the home. This infuriated Elizabeth to the point of writing a scathing reply that she signed "Little Orphan Girl." Dispatch editor George Madden was so impressed by the reply, he placed an ad for the Little Orphan Girl to visit the newspaper. When Elizabeth introduced herself to Madden, the editor offered her the opportunity to write a rebuttal piece to be published. Elizabeth went home and wrote her first newspaper article "The Girl Puzzle." Impressed again, Madden offered Elizabeth a full-time job.
posted by Celsius1414 (26 comments total) 79 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fantastic, thanks for this! The name Nellie Bly rang a bell, but I couldn't tell you more about her. And what better reason to travel around the world, other than you don't have any idea of what articles to write next week. Out of ideas?

"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?"
posted by filthy light thief at 10:27 AM on May 5 [3 favorites]


Thanks. I've always admired the hell out of her. I am sad to learn how short lived she was, but what a life!
posted by bearwife at 10:36 AM on May 5


Love her and her writing was a huge inspiration and influence on me. Thank you so much for the link...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 10:51 AM on May 5


First learned about Nellie Bly in the Origin game, Martian Dreams. Man, I loved that game in 1991...
posted by Ashwagandha at 11:04 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this! I read her adult biography, mentioned in the link above. It's very thorough, and fascinating. Her life story's ending was so sad.
posted by Melismata at 11:29 AM on May 5


And don't forget the Nellie Bly board game!
posted by Melismata at 11:43 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]


I have Googled in vain for a Kate Beaton Nellie Bly cartoon. Maybe it's one that's only in her book, but I just feel like it has to exist.
posted by emjaybee at 12:05 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]


But I DID find an interview with Susan B. Anthony by Bly.

"Do you think women should propose?”

“Yes!” very decidedly. “If she can see a man she can love. She has the right to propose today that she did not have some years ago because she has become a bread winner. Once a proposal from a woman would have meant, ‘Will you please support me, sir?’ And I think woman will make better choices than man. She’ll know quicker what man will suit her and whether he loves her and she loves him.” …


Meanwhile: Fox Host Wonders if "Female Breadwinners" Disrespect the "Innate" Biology of Men.
posted by emjaybee at 12:08 PM on May 5 [2 favorites]


Another fan here - I remember reading a biography of her when I was a kid and thinking she was so cool.
posted by mogget at 12:13 PM on May 5


"Nellie Bly Asked Gov. Altgeld The Question And He Said, 'Pshaw.'"

Regardless of what the question is, this is an awesome line.
posted by divabat at 12:27 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]


Oh, and: wow, a time when journalists would expose corruption and the people in charge would actually do something about it.
posted by Melismata at 12:32 PM on May 5 [11 favorites]


Today it's Adventurer's Park, but it used to be called Nelly Bly park. And riding the school bus past it on the Belt Parkway back in the 80s, I wondered who Nelly Bly was to get such a ratty-looking death trap of roller coaster attraction named after her.

Looks to be much cleaned up.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 12:44 PM on May 5


I heard the NPR piece, and was reminded of the character Maggie DuBois played by Natalie Wood in the movie "the Great Race".
posted by Abinadab at 1:39 PM on May 5


There's a fun discussion of Nellie Bly about halfway down this page - apparently she was also the inspiration for Lois Lane.

Representative sample from that link:
EDITOR OF NEWSPAPER: You had better report about lady things! Shoes and so forth.
NELLIE BLY: GONE TO MEXICO TO REPORT ON DICTATORSHIP STOP. MY ARREST MAY BE IMMINENT STOP.
EDITOR OF NEWSPAPER: I think I may swoon.
posted by Bill_Roundy at 1:41 PM on May 5 [9 favorites]


Thanks for the reminder that I still have Eighty Days in my to-read queue, which chronicles both Bly's journey and that of her competitor, Elizabeth Bisland.
posted by sysinfo at 1:46 PM on May 5 [2 favorites]


And riding the school bus past it on the Belt Parkway back in the 80s, I wondered who Nelly Bly was to get such a ratty-looking death trap of roller coaster attraction named after her.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I used to see signs for the park and thought Nelly Bly was the name of a pirate.
posted by cazoo at 1:49 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]


"What Girls Are Good For: 20-Year-Old Nellie Bly’s 1885 Response to a Patronizing Chauvinist" by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings. Also, "Ten Days at the Mad-House: How Nellie Bly Posed as Insane in 1887 in Her Pioneering Exposé of Mental Health Care" by Maria Popova. Popova is a fan so a search of the Brain Pickings archives reveals a number of Nellie Bly articles. Finally a drawing of: What to Pack to Travel the World per Nellie Bly.
posted by gudrun at 1:53 PM on May 5 [3 favorites]


Came in here to be sure someone had brought up Eighty Days, which was an interesting read for me even if the prose didn't live up to the fascination of the subject matter.

Also, I want a Kate Beaton Nelly Bly cartoon now. If you're reading, Ms. Beaton, please make it happen!
posted by immlass at 1:54 PM on May 5 [2 favorites]


I wonder if her story might have been the basis for Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor.
posted by cazoo at 2:00 PM on May 5


For some reason I thought Nellie Bly was a pirate too! I'm not even sure where I picked up that one from.
posted by divabat at 2:03 PM on May 5


Just tweeted Kate Beaton about this thread and she said "ah she was pretty great". Not much else, but maybe a comic will be in the works!
posted by divabat at 2:09 PM on May 5 [2 favorites]


And don't forget the Nellie Bly board game!

My new mission in life is to make "ALLLL RECORDS BROKEN" a thing.
posted by BrashTech at 2:19 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]


I first learned of Nellie Bly as a kid, after seeing the movie "The Great Race" and learning that the character played by Natalie Wood was inspired by a real person (as much as she could be in a big-budget '60s comedy in which all the other major characters were inspired by cartoon characters). Still, it was an early step in my own 'feminist education', since the character of 'Maggie DuBois' did really somewhat rise above the role of 'eye candy' and it actually made me want more to learn about Nelly Bly than Natalie Wood.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:34 PM on May 5


cazoo, according to The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You, yes it was. Although at a certain point the concept had become a trope (after all, Hamlet).

For some reason I thought Nellie Bly was a pirate too! .

Possibly you both were thinking of Anne Bonney.
posted by dhartung at 7:13 PM on May 5 [2 favorites]


emjaybee: "I have Googled in vain for a Kate Beaton Nellie Bly cartoon. Maybe it's one that's only in her book, but I just feel like it has to exist."

My mind went to the velocipedestrienne one. And the T-shirt.

AIN'T GIVE A DAMN
posted by hangashore at 8:05 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]


Oh I knew that name rang a bell. Further to Melismata's game image, the last 3 images in this post (self link) shows the Nelly Bly Around the World board game. Of which there were apparently many.
posted by peacay at 7:43 AM on May 6 [1 favorite]


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