Remembering Nellie Bly

Maya Rodale
10 min readJan 26, 2022

When women’s stories were not deemed newsworthy, Nellie Bly made them sensational.

She was the one who put women on the front page of the biggest newspapers in America — in the 1880s. She was the one with her name in the headline, when most male reporters didn’t even get a byline. She arguably invented investigative journalism, with her undercover exposés on conditions for women in insane asylums, factories, and jails. She was the one who raced the fictional Phileas Fogg around the world — and won. Long before Oprah, she was a gifted interviewer, who got the story from her notable female subjects of the day: Susan B Anthony, Emma Goldman, Belva Lockwood and all the first ladies. When she died, one hundred years ago this year, it was said she was the best reporter in America.

Her given name was Elizabeth, her mother called her Pink, but she was and is best known as Nellie Bly.

Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Cochran in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on May 5, 1864. Her father died unexpectedly when she was young, leaving his wife, Mary Jane and their daughter, Pink (as she was called due to the frilly clothes her mother dressed her in), to fend for themselves. Mary Jane’s disastrous second marriage to an abusive alcoholic followed; at just fourteen Nellie was taking the stand to testify in their divorce proceedings. It is no wonder that young Pink was determined to earn her own way and rely on no man.

But how was a girl in the 1880s supposed to support herself? The one career open to women at the time — teaching — was out of reach, since Nellie couldn’t afford the tuition. The other option was marriage. Fortunately, Nellie lucked into another path.

She got her start writing for newspapers when she penned an outraged letter to the editor of the local paper in response to a father’s despairing letter about what to do with his five daughters. “Gather up the real smart girls, pull them out of the mire, give them a shove up the ladder of life, and be amply repaid both by their success and unforgetfulness of those that held out the helping hand,” Nellie wrote in “The Girl Puzzle.” The editor liked her style, gave her the pseudonym Nellie Bly and she spent the next six years writing for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. She was mostly confined with the…

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Maya Rodale

Bestselling author of funny, feminist historical romance. As seen in Bustle, Glamour, Shondaland, Buzzfeed, HuffPo,PBS. She/Her.