How Nellie Bly Risked Her Life And Invented Undercover Journalism

What is it that's so exciting about the idea of a journalist going undercover? Maybe it's the challenge of passing yourself off as someone you're not. Maybe the risk of getting caught makes it extra thrilling. Or maybe it's the simple fact that when you go undercover, you find out more than you ever could from the outside. But no matter how deep modern journalists get, not many got as deep, or risked as much, as the original: Nellie Bly.

Ten Days In A Mad-House

Even before the exposé that would propel her into journalism history, Nellie Bly (real name Elizabeth Cochran) was a force to be reckoned with. In 1885, The Pittsburgh Dispatch published a blustery op-ed entitled "What Girls Are Good For" about the new trend of women pursuing education and careers. Obviously, this couldn't stand. So Elizabeth penned a scathing response and submitted it under the name "Little Orphan Girl." The editor, George Madden, was so impressed that he asked her to come into the offices. He hired her shortly after.

Two years later, her credentials were firmly established, but Bly still struggled to find work in her new hometown of New York City. So the 23-year-old reporter settled on an unbelievable scheme — for her debut with The New York World, Nelly Bly would have herself committed to the Woman's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island and report on what life was like on the inside for the women most in need of help.

"Ten Days In A Mad-House" became an instant sensation. Bly discovered that many of the women who had been committed didn't seem to have any mental illness at all, and some were only institutionalized only because they couldn't speak English. All were forcefully bathed in ice-cold water, sustained on a diet of stale bread and rancid butter, and kept in unsanitary, even grotesque conditions. The women were beaten by their doctors for such offenses as shivering, or choked for showing signs of being unwell. Though she was eventually released thanks to the arrangement she had made at the newspaper, Nellie Bly did not mince words: "The insane asylum on Blackwell's Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out."

As painful as the ordeal was, the story does have something of a happy ending. Nellie's reporting sparked a great public uproar, followed by a grand jury investigation into how exactly the doctors could have overlooked her sanity. What's more, the facility was granted $850,000 to improve its conditions — that's more than $21 million in today's money. While the fight for justice for the mentally ill will never truly be over, the work of people like Nellie Bly proves that one person can make a huge difference in the world.

Around The World In (Less Than) 80 Days

Of course, Nellie Bly couldn't be satisfied by transforming the real world. She had to show up a fictional adventure as well. In 1888, she suggested to her editor that she could challenge the hero of Jules Verne's Around The World In 80 Days — and she did. In "Around The World In 72 Days" (click here to download the story), she beat the fictional Phileas Fogg armed only with the clothes on her back, a heavy overcoat, and a bag of toiletries. She traveled via steamship and train, and sent dispatches back to the home office thanks to the newly installed transatlantic telegraph cables. Along the way, she met Jules Verne in Amiens, bought a monkey in Singapore, and, when she arrived back home, set a new world record for fastest circumnavigation.

Nellie Bly died in 1922 at the age of 57, but not before changing the world. Without her, we might not even have the concept of an undercover journalist, and some of her more outrageous stunts foreshadowed the gonzo journalism that became popular nearly 100 years after her. There simply wasn't another person like her — but she more than ensured that future generations would keep trying to be.

To Expose the Truth of Mental Hospitals, Nellie Bly Feigned Insanity to Study One

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 16, 2017

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