Originally published Dec. 3, 2014
An Interactive Project for CMJ 211: Journalism Introduction and History
Few journalists make the news in addition to reporting it. In the nineteenth century, few women even reported the news at all. But that all changed when Nellie Bly took her pen to the paper of Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York World, launching a career that would take her inside New York’s best-kept secrets and eventually across the globe.
And when you look at her career through maps, it’s astounding just how far Bly went in order to further the journalism profession.
Born in Cochran Mills, Pa., in 1864, Bly grew up in poverty after the passing of her wealthy father. Struggling to support her mother, she took a position at the Pittsburgh Dispatch but left when her gender became the main topic of the bulk of her assignments. In 1887, she left a note to her editor saying “I am off to New York. Look out for me.” What happened in the coming years was history in the making.
Below is a map of the Pittsburgh area where Bly was born and first worked. Click on the map points for more information.
Countless editors in New York turned her down because of her sex. It was Pittsburgh all over again. But Bly’s big break came when, after months of searching for a job John Cockerill, the managing editor at The New York World took a chance in assigning her to fake insanity and gain entry into the asylum at Blackwell’s Island in city’s East River, according to Fellow. In true muckraker fashion, she took her work to the streets, speaking in a strange Spanish accent and displaying odd behavior. After gaining entry for being showing “dementia with delusions of persecution,” according to History, Bly spent 10 days in the asylum and documented the horrors she saw and encountered before Pulitzer’s attorney was able to have her released, Fellow describes.
A map of Manhattan, Ny. can be seen below. In Lower Manhattan Island, the former location of Pulitzer’s New York World can be seen plotted near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. Blackwell’s Island, which has been called Roosevelt Island since 1973, can be seen in the top-right of the map. The World building was torn down in 1955 to expand automobile entry to the bridge, according to Columbia University Libraries. The original asylum building is now luxury green-living apartments.
Bly’s piece, Ten Days in a Mad-House brought to light the tragic fallacies of the mental healthcare system. Her book described the mistreatment of patients who could not speak English and were dubbed insane.
“Confined most probably for life behind asylum bars, without even being told in her language the why and wherefore,” she writes, “Mrs. Schanz begged in German to know where she was, and pleaded for liberty. Her voice broken by sobs, she was led unheard out to us.”
She recounted the horrors of the ice-cold baths.
“Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head–ice-cold water, too,” she wrote. “I think I experienced some of the sensations of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane.”
The horrors went on, from the serving of rotten food to the beating of patients to the nurses’ mockery at mental illness, and Bly was there to document it all.
She was an instant success; so much so, in fact, that Pulitzer utilized her courageous spirit to launch his most ambitious journalistic stunt. Nellie was to travel the world in under 80 days in attempts to beat Phileas Fogg of Jules Verne’s classic, Around the World in Eighty Days.
Starting in Hoboken, Nj. in November of 1889 and traveling by steamboat, rail and mule, her record-setting, 72-day journey can be seen chronicled on the world map below. Zoom in to see each individual point and click on the points to see more information about the dates Bly traveled there and when she left.
Back in the United States, one million World readers took part in a competition to see how long it would take for Bly to make it home. The winner would earn a free trip to Europe with $250 to spend on Pulitzer’s dime, according to Fellow.
When Bly returned from her trip, she was treated as a celebrity, regarded as the best reporter in the United States. Her Around the World in Seventy-Two Days documented her 21,740-mile journey around the globe. And although many dismissed her travels as a publicity stunt, her heart remained true to her journalistic responsibilities in New York: to search for the truth, expose wrongdoing and promote justice, and reinvent the profession of journalism. And, while she may have been working for The New York World, her reporting career served as an influence to the broader world, as a whole.