asylum reform

Wednesdays for Women #6: Nellie Bly/ Elizabeth Jane Cochrane Seaman

I know if I publish the post at 11:50 PM, it would more aptly be called Thursdays for Women, but I will do better in future! This week I’ve been grappling with the decision of whether to take up Krav Maga. It would be pretty cool to be able to defend myself, but I’m balancing the “cool factor” with the staggering fact that learning how to do so would basically be $320 for two months. Eep! Maybe I’ll stick with the $55/month  yoga…

But on the topic of women kicking some serious butt, let’s talk about Nellie Bly. Her life is almost as legendary as it is fantastic. Before she became a famous social reformer, she casually bested Jules Verne’s literary challenge of travelling around the world in 80 days. At the tender age of 24, she did it almost all alone and in 72 days. But this was feat only came later in her career, after she virtually invented the trade of “investigative journalism,” as we know it today.

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Later, slowpokes.

Our girl Nellie, or Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, as she was known then, was born to a mill worker turned entrepreneur. When her family moved to Pittsburgh, Nellie was aghast at a local newspaper’s column “What Women Are Good For” and wrote a head-turning letter to the editor, signing it “Little Orphan Girl.” The editor was so impressed, he ran an ad looking for this orphan, and when he found Nellie, he gave her the chance to write an article. After seeing her resulting work, he offered her a job, and she joined the newspaper and adopted the name Nellie Bly. Discontent with fashion (unlike this blogger) and gardening articles, Nellie tried to write about women factory workers, and when suppressed on that end, became a foreign correspondent in Mexico, until she was forced to leave after denouncing the local dictator as a “tyrannical czar.”

Thrown out of Mexico, she sought asylum… literally. She left her old newspaper and sought refuge with Pulitzer’s New York World, but her “refuge” was to take a funny shape, going undercover as a mad woman. She feigned insanity in a boarding house and to a number of doctors, convincing the staff at Bellevue that she should be committed (and getting a bit of media attention in the course of the matter). Once inside Blackwell’s Asylum she was surprised to discover the sordid conditions: dirty water, people roped together, rats crawling freely about the area. After 10 days, she was released at The World’s behest, and published Ten Days in a Madhouse, her account of her time inside. She concluded that the frigid water thrown on them coupled with the poor food was enough to make anyone go insane. Huge reform both for asylum entry and conditions were undertaken by a grand jury which supported her findings. An additional $850,000 was committed to the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections following her findings.

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It was after the asylum venture that she travelled around the world (meeting Jules Verne along the way), and she held the world record for a month or two (not bad considering she was given two days notice of the trip). In later years, she married a millionaire (and in a most ironic turn, took the name Seaman… hold the jokes), and became president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co., adding to its patents dual inventions of a milk can and a stacking garbage can. When the company went bankrupt (due to employee embezzlement), she returned to journalism and reported on the Eastern Front during WWI and the rising women’s suffrage movement.

She died of pneumonia at 57, two years after women got the vote.