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Seaman, Elizabeth Cochrane

SEAMAN, Elizabeth Cochrane

Born 5 May 1865, Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania; died 27 January 1922, New York, New York

Wrote under: Nellie Bly

Daughter of Michael and Mary Jane Cochran; married Robert L. Seaman, 1895 (died 1910)

Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, a.k.a. Nellie Bly, spent her youth in a small milltown; her education, except for one year in a local boarding school, was directed by her father, a lawyer and mill owner. After the death of her father, who left only a small legacy, Seaman moved to Pittsburgh with her mother and sought work for their support. Seaman found her first journalism position with the Pittsburgh Dispatch at nineteen. At twenty, she moved to New York, attaining a position on Joseph Pulitzer's New York World which she kept from 1887 until 1895. She became an international celebrity after her 72-day trip around the world, breaking the record of Jules Verne's fictional hero Phileas Fogg. In the U.S., her exposé stories about urban social conditions and corruption were widely syndicated. Seaman's husband was an industrialist and a New York socialite. After his death in 1910, she controlled his failing business interests through 1919. Returning to journalism, she worked on the New York Journal until her death in 1922.

Seaman's writings consisted primarily of articles written for the Dispatch and the World, some of which appeared as subscription series books. Ten Days in a Mad-house (1887) contained three stories written for the World, an article about Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum, sketches on servant girls' experiences at employment agencies, and a piece on shop girls working in a paper box factory.

The story of Blackwell's Island, pronounced by the World to be "an immense sensation everywhere," established Seaman as a journalist in New York. She pretended insanity in order to "chronicle" the "simple tale of life in an asylum." She illustrated conditions and treatment of patients by describing her personal experiences and the experiences of individual women whom she met. Her narrative, written in unadorned prose, was a dramatic and realistic account. To arouse the reader's emotions Seaman openly expressed sympathy for "her suffering sisters" and her intent to "influence others to make life more bearable for them." While the asylum story and others which Seaman wrote appeared under "sensationalist" headlines—"Behind Asylum Bars" or "Nellie Bly as a White Slave"—her exposé journalism, in both content and style, was an early manifestation of the progressive period's muckraking journalism.

Six Months in Mexico (1888), Seaman's most thoughtful and stylistically pleasing (although often repetitive) book, was an examination of national character and an exposé of corruption and exploitative social conditions. The fact that Seaman went to Mexico as a foreign correspondent in late 1886 made the book a significant document, for this was a period when few other American journalists were providing the public with firsthand information about their neighboring country. Seaman recorded "Mexico in all its splendor," but she also showed that through "civilization's curse or blessing," the country was becoming a "new California." While the book indicated Seaman's sensitivity to unjust social conditions, especially for women and the native Indian population, and provided a record of the responses of an American middle class woman toward a culture both alien and "beautiful" to her, it was occasionally condescending in tone.

The "around the world" story for which Seaman achieved the widest attention was of the "stunt" variety. Chronicling her journey in Nellie Bly's Book: Around the World in Seventy-two Days (1890), Seaman presents herself as a "free American girl" encountering diverse cultures, all exciting and exotic, but none measuring up to the American way of life. She provides colorful descriptions of peoples and customs while maintaining the suspense of her race against time. From San Francisco to New York, Seaman was met with extraordinary public adulation; her journey was celebrated in song and dance; toys, clothing, and games carried her name. Seaman's story of "Nellie Bly's stunt" and the public response to it are material for a case study of the rapidly changing relationship between the press and the popular mind in the late 19th century.

Bibliography:

Marzolf, M., Up From the Footnote: A History of Women Journalists (1977). Noble, I., Nellie Bly: First Woman Reporter (1956). Quillan, J., Nellie Bly (produced 1946). Rittenhouse, M., The Amazing Nellie Bly (1956). Ross, I., Ladies of the Press (1936).

Reference works:

A Woman of the Century (1893). Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia (1987). NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Pittsburgh Press (8 Jan. 1967, 15 Jan. 1967).

—JENNIFER L. TEBBE

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