Breaking Down Barriers

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Breaking Down Barriers


Nellie Bly. Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran (later spelled Cochrane) on 5 May 1864 in western Pennsylvania, Nellie Bly became a journalist to help support her family after her father died. In 1885 she wrote an anonymous response to aPittsburgh Dispatch article about why women should stay home and not seek work or the vote. Editor George Madden ran an advertisement for the author to come forward and was so impressed with the pretty, well-spoken twenty-year-old that he offered her a job as a reporter for five dollars a week. Bly took her pen name from a popular song by Stephen Foster. She wrote about the conditions in the tenements and factories, gaining a prized invitation to join the Pittsburgh Press Club. However, more than anything else she yearned to travel.


Recently married to New York World correspondent Sylvester Harry young and demure Frances Scovel of Saint Louis planned to accompany her husband only as far as Chicago, from where he would depart to cover the Klondike gold rush in the summer of 1897. However, after meeting a frail and sickly woman in Chicago planning to go to the Klondike with her own husband, Fran Scovel announced, If she goes, I can go too. Horrified to learn that women prospectors wore mens overalls, she assembled an outfit that combined knickerbockers with a short, full skirt. Arriving in Skagway, Alaska, the Scovels pitched a tent, and Fran proceeded to cook for the first time in her life, with less than exemplary results.

Harry Scovel hired Billy Saportas as agent for the World. After discovering that a bottleneck in the trail was keeping most people out of the mountains, Scovel charged a large amount of dynamite to the World and widened the trail. Fran and their horses almost fell off the muddy path, but her husband was proud of her fortitude and boasted, She is no ordinary woman,

After Harry was suddenly called back to New York, he rushed off without saying good-bye to Fran, leaving a note telling Saportas to get her on board the boat to Seattle. When she reached Seattle Fran found a packet of lengthy, guilt-ridden love letters from her husband. In 1898, undaunted by her adventures in the Klondike, Fran followed Harry to Cuba, where he had become ill while covering the rebellion against Spain. Risking yellow fever and malaria, Fran managed to get him to a suitable hospital.

Harry died of complications from surgery in 1905, and Fran became the society columnist for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. After corresponding for years with Billy Saportas, who had joined the army, she married him in 1917. Fran Scovel lived to be ninety and died in 1959.

Source: Joyce Milton, The Yellow Kids: Foreign Correspondents in the Heyday of yellow Journalism (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).

Mexico, the Madhouse, and Phileas Fogg. Travelling to Mexico in 1886 with her mother as chaprone, Bly talked with all manner of Mexicans, from the elite to the poorest peasants. Her stories on the living conditions of the poor and the shortcomings of Mexican democracy almost got her arrested, but she escaped back over the border with her notes in her petticoats, pretending to be a niece of President Porfirio Diaz. Her book Six Months in Mexico (1888) brought her enough acclaim that she felt ready to tackle New York. When she arrived in the city Bly repeatedly tried to see Joseph Pulitzer. One day after waiting several hours to see him, she finally forced her way into his office and persuaded him to break his own rule against hiring female reporters. Blys willingness to take great personal risks to get a story fueled the competition among New York papers and inaugurated a new kind of celebrity journalism. In 1887 she gained immediate notoriety by feigning madness to get herself committed to the mental hospital on Blackwells Island. her expose of the conditions there precipitated a wave of reform. Next she got herself arrested and exposed the squalid conditions in the jails. At another time she went behind the scenes at Buffalo Bills Wild West Show. Nothing, however, could duplicate her 1889-1890 trip around the world to beat the record set by Phileas Fogg, the adventurer of Jules Vernes novel Around The World In Eighty Days (1873). With a small satchel and a practical blue broadcloth dress, she sailed for England on a German steamer on 14 November 1889.

Headlines Galore. Pulitzers World trumpeted her projected route of New York to London, then Calais, Brindisi, Port said, Ismailia, Suez, Aden, Ceylon, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Yokohama, San Francisco, and back to New York. A telegram from Verne greeted Bly in Southampton and she met the writer at Amines, France, where he exclaimed that she was a mere baby. Bly described appalling poverty in Brindisi, Italy; went bicycling in Colombo, Ceylon; visited a Hindu trample in Penang, Malaya; rode in a rickshaw and bought a monkey in Singapore; and reached Hong kong two days ached of schedule. She celebrated Christmas with the American consul in Canton.

Breaking the Record. Meanwhile speculations ran rampant in New York, fueled by the World article Nellie Bly Guessing Match, offering a trip to Europe to the reader who most closely guessed the time of her return. A stormy Pacific crossing slowed Blys progress, and when a smallpox rumor threatened to keep her quarantined onboard ship in San Francisco Bay, she jumped into a nearly tugboat. A special World train sped her east, and she arrived in Jersey City on 25 January 1890, seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes, and fourteen seconds after she began.

Rapid Exit. In 1895, after a few more years of reporting in New York, Bly met the millionaire Robert Livingston Seaman, an industrialist and senior director of the Merchants Exchange Bank of New York. The two had met in Chicago and were married within two weeks, despite the forty years difference in their ages. Bly left journalism for high society and luxurious travel. Seaman died nine years later, and Bly attempted to take over Seamans Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, but employees swindled her into bankruptcy.

Return to Journalism. Bly opened the door for other women in journalism. When the American battleship Maine sank in Havana Harbor in 1898, Fanny B. Ward of the New Orleans Times-Picayune was there, one of the first American correspondents on the scene. It was, however, still the highest compliment a women reporter could receive to be told, You write like a man. Twenty years after she had left journalism Bly returned to writing because she once again needed to support herself. Her column on child welfare appeared in Hearst Evening Journal. She died after a bout with pneumonia on 27 January 1922.


Brooke Kroger, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (New York: Times Books 1994);

Madelon Golden Schlipp and Sharon M. Murphy, Great Women of the Press (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983).