In 1880, after witnessing her mother and abusive, alcoholic stepfather go through a painful divorce, Nellie Bly and her family moved from Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh where she anticipated there would be more career opportunities in the field of journalism. After unsuccessfully job searching, she was forced to help her mother with running a boarding school as they continued to live in poor conditions. Sadly, Bly was not even able to finish her education due to lack of funding, which made job hunting all the more difficult.
In 1885, Bly came across an article in The Pittsburgh Dispatch called “What Girls Are Good For”. The piece criticized passionate women who desired an education or a career. The article went on to say that a woman’s place is at home. Bly, who grew up understanding the value of work, was outraged. With her pen name “Lonely Orphan Girl”, she wrote an angry letter to the editor George Madden. Madden was so impressed by Bly’s writing ability that he placed an ad in the newspaper for Lonely Orphan Girl to come visit the office. He assigned her to write a rebuttal piece to “What Girls Are Good For” that was to be published, which Bly wrote and titled “The Girl Puzzle”. After showing Madden her work, Bly was immediately offered a full-time job.
Even before she became the world’s first investigative journalist with her exposé 10 Days In A Madhouse, Bly revolutionized the field simply by writing about topics that no other writer was talking about at the time, topics that would later spark the Feminist Movement. While other women were writing about gardening or fashion, Bly was completely uninterested in those topics. Instead, she discussed more pressing issues that often dealt with the disadvantages of being a woman in the male-driven world. She wrote about topics such as divorce, poverty, discrimination and the poor treatment of female factory workers. Readers were captivated by her articles but working men were infuriated. In response to the backlash and threats from businesses to remove advertising from the newspaper, Madden assigned her a story about gardening, to which she responded by quitting.
After Bly left The Pittsburgh Dispatch, she moved to New York where she would once again encounter the difficulty of finding a job as a woman. Finally in 1887, publisher of New York World, Joseph Pulitzer,hired her as a writer. Pulitzer himself had a campaign to “expose all fraud and sham” and “fight all public evil and abuses”. Bringing on Bly was a perfect choice.
For New York World, Bly would go on to write world-famous articles including Ten Days In A Mad-house, which details her first undercover assignment in a women’s insane asylum at the young age of 23. She risked her life by convincingly acting insane in order to get committed to the notorious mental asylum and report on its conditions. Bly lived in the mental hospital for ten days and witnessed brutal conditions, abuse, violence and even murder. After she was released, Bly reported on the atrocities that occurred within the asylum and ultimately saved countless lives. The following year, Bly turned the Jules Verne book Around The World in 80 Days into a reality. Even against her publisher’s concern that a woman cannot possibly complete the challenge without a man by her side, Bly beat the world record and went on to write Around The World in Seventy-Two Days.
A symbol of strength, courage and compassion, Bly’s name lives on. She will always be remembered for standing up against gender inequality and discrimination.
On November 20th, the world will get to understand a portion of Nellie Bly’s incredible life when 10 Days In A Madhouse – The Nellie Bly Story comes to US Theaters.
The movie accurately follows Bly’s expose of the same name and stars newcomer Caroline Barry as the courageous, feisty, infectiously likable Nellie Bly, Christopher Lambert (The Highlander, Mortal Kombat), Kelly Le Brock (Weird Science), Julia Chantrey (Mean Girls, Mama).
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