Seaman, Elizabeth Cochrane (1864–1922)
Seaman, Elizabeth Cochrane (1864–1922)
American pioneering investigative reporter and journalist who went around the world in 72 days. Name variations: Elizabeth Cochrane; (pseudonym) Nellie Bly. Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran (later changed to Cochrane) on May 5, 1864, at Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania; died on January 27, 1922, in New York City; daughter of Michael Cochran (a mill owner and justice of the peace) and Mary Jane (Kennedy) Cummings Cochran (a homemaker); attended Indiana State Normal School at Indiana, Pennsylvania, 1879; married Robert Livingston Seaman, on April 5, 1895.
Worked as a reporter for the Pittsburg Dispatch, which then spelled Pittsburgh without the "h" (1885–87); was a reporter for The New York World (1887–96); served as reporter and columnist for the New York Journal (1912–22).
Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887), Six Months in Mexico (1888), The Central Park Mystery (1888), and Nellie Bly's Book: Around the World in Seventy-two Days (1890).
Nellie Bly's record-breaking trip around the world in 1889 was deemed "a tribute to American pluck, American womanhood, and American perseverance." With four days to prepare, the 25-year-old reporter for The New York World set out alone to break the travel record in Jules Verne's fictional Around the World in Eighty Days. Her lone piece of luggage, 16" wide and 7" high, contained one silk bodice, two traveling caps, veils, slippers, toilet articles, writing materials, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, underwear, a small flask and drinking cup, handkerchiefs, and one large jar of cold cream. Bly wore a specially made traveling dress constructed to survive three months of continual wear, along with a choice of two coats—one for warmth and one for protection from the rain. She made the trip in 72 days, 6 hours, and 10 minutes, and the press coverage of her journey made her a national celebrity. The trip around the world, however, as exciting as it was, was only one brief adventure for a woman whose public life included innovations in investigative journalism, management of a large manufacturing business, feminist activity, and acquaintance with most of the prominent personalities of her day.
Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, known as Nellie Bly, was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864 in Cochran's Mills, western Pennsylvania. Because her father Michael was a respected gristmill owner, a successful real estate speculator,
and a former justice of the peace (always known as Judge Cochran), the town's name was changed from Pitts' Mills to Cochran's Mills in his honor. Michael Cochran had had ten children with his first wife. Elizabeth was the third of five born to his second wife, a former widow, Mary Jane Kennedy Cummings Cochran.
Perhaps because Elizabeth was her first daughter, Mary Jane Cochran dressed her conspicuously in frilly pastels and white stockings. Perhaps because of her attire, the child was nicknamed "Pink"—a name that would stick until her first newspaper editor gave her a permanent pseudonym, "Nellie Bly."
In 1870, Seaman's father died, leaving no will. The family's lovely home, the mill, and other properties were sold for less than $20,000, with Mary Jane Cochran receiving the traditional "widow's thirds." The remainder was divided among the 15 children. From the time of Michael's death, financial security eluded Elizabeth and most of her family. Many years of their lives would be taken up with economic struggles—often directed against each other.
Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.
Family troubles continued during much of Seaman's youth. Her mother remarried, but after five years divorced her drunken and abusive husband. Living in such a home may have influenced the girl's determination to avoid problems like her mother's. In her own life, she would be resourceful, independent, and self-supporting.
Seaman's first attempt at preparing for a career was an abortive one. As Elizabeth J. Cochrane (she had changed the spelling of her last name), she spent one term at the State Normal School at Indiana, Pennsylvania, a teacher training school. Money from her inheritance quickly ran out, so at 15 she ended her formal education. Soon, the family moved to the Pittsburgh area, and it seems that Seaman tried a variety of traditional domestic female jobs.
In 1885, she read a piece dealing with the role of women in the Pittsburg Dispatch's "Quiet Observations" column. The columnist's view that a woman outside her proper sphere—home—was "a monstrosity" led Seaman to respond over the signature "Lonely Orphan Girl." Although editor George Madden found the grammar and style in the original "Orphan" letter too unfinished for publication, he advertised for the author to come forward to the newspaper office. When Seaman appeared, she was invited to write two responses to the column. The first dealt with the need for women to work and their lack of opportunities to earn a decent living, a fair criticism of the columnist's view that most women had a man to provide for them. The second piece dealt with the controversial subject of divorce, and advised that prospective spouses be required by law to engage in full disclosure of their faults before marriage. For this column, Madden decided that "Lonely Orphan Girl" would not suffice as a pseudonym, and asked the occupants of the newsroom for suggestions. Someone yelled out "Nelly Bly," the title of a familiar Stephen Foster song. Madden hastily wrote down the name, misspelling it in the process. Thus, Elizabeth Jane Cochrane became Nellie Bly. As would be typical of all her writings, the first columns Seaman published were an original combination of firsthand experience, personal opinion, and fact. From the outset, conventional subjects, conventional style, and conventional logic were not her strong points.
After those two pieces were published, Seaman was made a permanent member of the Dispatch staff. Her first real assignment developed into an eight-part series on the factory girls of Pittsburgh. Although her descriptions of factory conditions provided no exposés of shocking working conditions, her interest in how the women spent their free time, and her depiction of "mashing" (picking up men), gave the stories a novel angle. Despite being assigned soon afterward to "women's news"—fashion, gardening, and recipes—Seaman used even that platform as an advocate. She argued that the women of Pittsburgh could provide appropriate leisure activities for working girls.
But Elizabeth reasoned that "women's news" held little potential for advancement as a journalist. To be taken seriously, she decided to try her hand at foreign reporting, proving that a woman could be successful in that respected field. Accompanied by her mother as a chaperon, Seaman headed for Mexico in February 1886. Her account of the trip included stories about geography, food, customs, culture, and governmental corruption. These reports appeared first in regular installments in the Dispatch, and two years later as a book, Six Months in Mexico.
After the foreign assignment, routine at the Dispatch held little interest for Seaman. New York, she decided, was the place for an enterprising reporter to make her reputation. With the persistence that characterized her writing and career, she talked her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Her idea—that she pretend to be mad in order to investigate the treatment of the mentally ill from inside an asylum—would be the beginning of the era of the "Daring Girl Reporter." After ten days disguised as a patient at Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum for Women, Seaman was released and published her experiences in a series called "Inside the Madhouse." She described brutality toward the patients, filth, icy cold baths used as punishment, and incompetent medical care. The reaction was sensational. The World gave Bly her own byline, her columns were discussed all over New York, and, she would claim, the story led to reform of the conditions at the mental institution. (The series was published in 1887 as Ten Days in a Mad-House.)
The young reporter seemed to have found her journalistic niche and style. She followed the insane asylum series with other disclosures while she assumed diverse disguises: a maid to investigate unethical employment agencies; an unwed mother to uncover agencies that bought and sold infants; a "fallen" woman to describe a reform institution; a chorus girl dancing in helmet and tights to recount life on the wicked stage; a businessman's wife to expose a corrupt lobbyist. She also developed her own skills as an interviewer, a knack for asking the probing question without alienating her subject. Seaman interviewed women prisoners, psychic healers, and female rodeo riders in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. She once posed as a girl from the country to report techniques for luring such young women into prostitution. That story gave Seaman the plot line for her one and only published work of fiction, The Mystery of Central Park (1888). During the 1888 election year, she also did a series of political articles from a women's viewpoint, including interviews with feminist attorney Belva Lockwood , with the wives of the presidential candidates, and with all living first ladies.
The following year, Seaman got herself arrested on a charge of grand larceny and wrote about her night of incarceration. She interviewed the wives of the president's Cabinet members, boxer John L. Sullivan, and women medical students. She described fashionable resorts and learned to ride a bicycle, which at the time was still something of a novelty. Through all these stories, Seaman helped to carve out a new and respected place for women in journalism. Articles like Seaman's not only represented a woman's point of view, they helped to sell newspapers.
Her most publicized "stunt" was, of course, her trip around the world in 1889. With her single traveling bag, Seaman went by ship and train through England, France, and Italy, stopping off for a visit with Jules Verne. Her journey took her through the Suez Canal, to Ceylon, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. She sent dispatches all along the way, describing people and sights, everything from leper colonies to exotic food to the habits of her fellow passengers. Nellie Bly seemed the embodiment of the plucky, resourceful American girl and her exploits gave rise to a marketing frenzy. There were Nellie Bly contests, games, caps, pictures, and trading cards. There was also competition, as Cosmopolitan tried and failed to send its own woman journalist, Elizabeth Bisland , to break Seaman's record. Oddly enough, after her triumphal return, a successful lecture tour, and the extremely popular Nellie Bly's Book: Around the World in Seventy-two Days (1890), Seaman left her job at The New York World.
The real cause for the break with the paper is unknown, although Seaman claimed that The World gave her no bonus, no salary increase, no extra compensation for the trip which had greatly increased their circulation. Whatever the reason, she signed a three-year contract with The Family Story Paper to write fiction, though no stories survive from this publication. During this period, Seaman seemed to be suffering from a number of illnesses, both physical and emotional.
Bisland, Elizabeth (1863–1929)
American writer. Name variations: Bessie Bisland; Elisabeth Bisland Wetmore. Born in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, in 1863; died in 1929; grew up in Natchez; married a man named Wetmore.
Elizabeth Bisland was associate editor of the Cosmopolitan magazine. Her book A Flying Trip around the World, an account of her 1889 trip performed in 76 days, was published in 1891. She also wrote A Widower Indeed, with Rhoda Broughton , in 1892.
Marks, Jason. Around the World in 72 Days: The Race between Pulitzer's Nellie Bly and Cosmopolitan's Elizabeth Bisland. Gemittarius Press.
In 1893, she returned to The World with a front-page interview with anarchist Emma Goldman . Seaman was back to reporting—a night at a Salvation Army shelter, interviews with a woman accused of a triple murder, a description of respectable women who spent their days gambling, stories on police corruption. She also covered "real" news, traveling to Washington, D.C., for the march of the unemployed known as "Coxey's Army," and to Chicago where she wrote a sympathetic piece on the strike against the Pullman Railway Car Company and later did a jailhouse interview with union leader Eugene V. Debs.
During a trip to the Midwest, 31-year-old Elizabeth met and married Robert Livingston Seaman, a 70-year-old bachelor and multimillionaire. Neither seemed to adjust well to the odd marriage. Robert was set in his ways and Elizabeth disliked having any restrictions on her activities. Early in 1896, Seaman returned once more to The World. She covered the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and interviewed suffragist Susan B. Anthony . She did a story on Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt's plan to close homeless women's shelters in police stations by spending the night in one of the shelters herself. Seaman entered into the outcry for war with Spain by threatening to lead a brigade to liberate Cuba. The latter story may have driven Robert to try to protect his impulsive wife from her own reck-lessness. Shortly thereafter, Seaman again left The World, and set off for three years in Europe with her husband. While they were abroad, Robert wrote a will leaving all his property to his wife. Because of rumors of mismanagement at one of those properties, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, the couple returned to the United States. There, a series of tragedies occurred over the next few years. Seaman's younger sister Kate Cochran , her closest sibling, died of tuberculosis in 1899. The next year, the Seamans' house in Catskill, New York, burned to the ground. Seaman's mother and her brothers and their families all moved in and out of the Seaman brownstone in New York City. In February 1904, Robert was struck by a horse and wagon while crossing the street. The next month, he collapsed and died of a heart attack.
Seaman became the president of a large manufacturing company and for the next several years managed the Iron Clad. She instituted reforms in wages and working conditions, and at one point held 25 patents in her own name. Meanwhile the company's financial department was permeated with embezzlement and corruption, and over $1 million worth of checks were forged by the company's cashiers. Ultimately, Seaman was driven into lengthy litigation and bankruptcy. Women in business were at a disad-vantage in those days of an unregulated economy, she maintained. Men refused to deal honorably with a female rival and, in fact, treated a woman's financial resources as fair game. If women were to protect their financial interests, Seaman determined, the only answer was to gain the right to vote.
While her financial troubles unfolded, Seaman went to work for The New York Evening Journal. She covered the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions in 1912. She rode in and wrote about the 1913 suffrage parade, calling it "the greatest demonstration for women's suffrage the world has ever been called upon to view." On the day of Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, Seaman climbed up on the podium before the president arrived so she could describe the view to her readers.
The next year, she set out for Europe, in part to seek help for her financial problems. Instead, she found herself in the midst of World War I. She was the first woman and one of the first foreigners to visit the war zone between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. Mistaken for a British spy, she was arrested briefly. Seaman spent most of the war in Austria, and although the United States entered the conflict on the other side, she continued to express sympathy for Austrian interests.
After the war, Seaman returned to the front page of The Journal with a new mission. Her stories about broken families eventually led her into an advice column, a new forum for exposing and solving problems. She answered every letter, privately if not in print, providing information about social services, finding homes for unwanted children, arguing for birth control and against capital punishment. She devoted a great deal of time to actually arranging placement for abandoned and neglected children.
Elizabeth Seaman wrote her last column on January 9, 1922. Hospitalized with bronchopneumonia complicated by heart disease, she died on January 17. A column in The Journal the next day spoke of her courage and her concern for the unfortunate. "Nellie Bly," it said, "was the best reporter in America."
Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. NY: Times Books, 1994.
Rittenhouse, Mignon. The Amazing Nellie Bly. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1956.
Ross, Ishbel . Ladies of the Press. NY: Harper, 1936.
Weisberger, Bernard A. "Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman," in Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Edited by Edward T. James. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.
Johnson, Ann Donegan. The Value of Fairness: The Story of Nellie Bly. La Jolla, CA: Value Communications, 1977.
Noble, Iris. Nellie Bly: First Woman Reporter. NY: Messner, 1956.
Mary Welek Atwell , Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, Radford, Virginia