When America had reporters

How Nellie Bly changed journalism forever

Nelly Bly

More than a half-century before “gonzo journalism” was a figment in Hunter S. Thompson’s imagination, newspaper writer Nellie Bly was living it. Today is Nellie Bly’s 151st birthday, so it’s a fittingly unique day to celebrate her. She reformed an insane asylum by getting committed for 10 days, she described the world on a whirlwind trip, and she reported alongside chorus girls and factory girls with equal vigor.

Bly was a Victorian superstar who created media sensations week after week. She was groundbreaking, too — she traveled the world alone 31 years before women were allowed to vote. But more than just making hits, she usually had a purpose: her work advanced the cause of people few others were willing to defend.



 A woman from coal country becomes a star New York City columnist

Nellie Bly in 1890.    Myers/Library of Congress


Nellie Bly’s career started when the incorrigible young woman named Elizabeth Cochran turned an angry letter into a job.

It began when she read an 1885 column titled “What Girls Are Good For,” which argued that working women were immoral. Eighteen-year-old Bly wrote an anonymous letter to the paper, passionately arguing that women could help support a family in need. (She herself had grown up near Pittsburgh caring for her family of three brothers and her widowed mother.)


Instead of being upset, the paper’s editor put out an ad for the “Lonely Orphan Girl” who’d signed the letter (Bly called herself an orphan because her father had died). “She went to the office,” says Brooke Kroeger, author of Bly’s biography,Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. “And the legend is that the editor says, ‘She’s got no grammar, she’s got no spelling, let’s bring her in.'”

In that unlikely way, Bly’s newspaper career began in Pittsburgh, and she quickly caught up to everyone else (after taking the pseudonym Nellie Bly, after a Stephen Foster song).

It was at a time when women journalists were incredibly rare, but that didn’t stop Bly. There were still a lot of obstacles — Kroeger says that though Nellie tried to find big news, she lacked the access to break stories. As a foreign correspondent in Mexico, she was largely relegated to reporting local color (though some of her commentary was ahead of its time: “American food is insipid in comparison,” she wrote).

Her difficulties reporting hard news drove her from Pittsburgh to New York City, where she had another uphill battle. “The way she tells it,” Kroeger says, “she shows up at the offices of the World, talks her way past the guards, and proposes the insane asylum assignment.”

Suddenly, Nellie Bly was one of very few women reporters in New York City — and her first assignment was to get committed.

Nellie Bly fakes insanity to investigate an asylum

Two images from Nellie Bly's book about an insane asylum.Nellie Bly/University of Pennsylvania


Two images from Nellie’s book about an insane asylum.

“Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did.”

That’s part of the opening paragraph of Nellie Bly’s investigative report into insane asylums,which was initially published in the New York World and later collected in the 1887 book Ten Days in a Mad-House.

Bly began her investigative reporting experience as “Nellie Brown, the insane girl.” She walked down the street with a “far-away” expression and practiced seeming crazy. After staying in a group home for a night, she got herself taken to Bellevue hospital and then committed to the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island (called Roosevelt Island today).

While there for 10 days, Bly reported on poor conditions and questionable treatment of both patients who were mentally ill and women who were effectively imprisoned there for no good reason. Her book prompted an investigation, more oversight, and increase in funds for the improved asylum.




Bly emerged from “mad-house” a hero

It also made her a journalistic superstar. After that, she became a jack of all trades, writing about numerous “day-in-the-life topics” like being a chorus girl, learning ballet, working on an assembly line, and doing other fantastically interesting things (there’s a great collection of her writing here). Her name was attached to all her articles — a rarity at the time — and she eventually showed up in the headlines, as well.

But Bly wasn’t just writing hits.

“She had a million imitators,” Kroeger says. “What was interesting about her work was that it always had a social justice angle.”

In addition to the stories Bly broke, implicit in her success was the proof that a woman journalist could do as much, if not a lot more, than her more numerous male competitors.

And all that set the stage for her biggest story of all — a trip around the world, in less than 80 days.

Nellie Bly races around the world — to prove a woman could do it

Nellie Bly's reception when she made it home.C.Bunnell/Library of Congress

A depiction of Nellie Bly’s reception when she reached home.

“No female reporter had ever been so audacious, so determined, so willing to sacrifice her own safety in pursuit of a story,” says Matthew Goodman. He wrote about Bly’s incredible trip inEighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World. A trip around the world wasn’t just considered difficult; it was considered unsafe for a woman. But for Bly, that was the point.

“The idea of sending a woman unchaperoned without a man was just unthinkable,” Goodman says. “On top of that, they believed a woman would never be able to do it because she’d have to bring so many clothes.”

Bly didn’t care about those arguments. As she wrote when her editor told her nobody but a man could make the trip:

“Very well,” I said angrily, “Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”

After some back and forth (and some poor circulation numbers for the New York World, which was in need of a fresh publicity stunt), Bly got her choice assignment. She carried a single handbag with her and was off on November 14, 1889. She made it around the world in 72 days, beating the 80 days from the famous Jules Verne book that inspired her. The front page of the New York World was a triumphant boast — and had amazing sales.

Nellie Bly, close to home, and on the front page.New York World/Library of Congress

The front page of the World when Nellie Bly came back.

“She was already well-established,” Goodman says. “The trip around the world catapulted her to being an American celebrity.”

Though there were imitators of Nellie Bly’s style — Goodman’s book tells the story of a race against the equally fascinating Elizabeth Bisland, another woman tasked with traveling around the world at the same time — there was nobody as big as Bly. While some shirked fame, she embraced it.

Bly buys a baby, runs a company, and campaigns for the vote

After her race around the world, Bly went on to write more pieces exploring social issues. Just before her around-the-world trip she wrote “Nellie Bly Buys a Baby” (an exposé of the orphan market in New York), and she followed that up with articles about zoo cruelty and the homeless.


Bly temporarily retired from journalism at age 31, when she married a manufacturer named Robert Seaman (who was 42 years her senior), but she didn’t stop being active. She became president of her husband’s company, got a patent for a new type of milk can, and tried to run her company ethically after her husband’s death. (Kroeger says Bly’s tenure as sole owner, though admirable, was marked more by enthusiasm than acumen.)

When the company went broke, she got right back into journalism, writing for William Randolph Hearst, among others. She reported from Vienna during World War I and agitated for women’s suffrage (sample headline: “Suffragists Are Men’s Superiors”). She kept going nearly until her death. When she died of pneumonia in 1922, she was only 57.

Why Nellie Bly’s legacy lives on today

Once her career took off, Nellie Bly didn't just report the news. She was the news.New York World/Library of Congress

Nellie Bly didn’t just make news — eventually she became news.

Bly was an obvious trailblazer, but her legacy in death has lasted surprisingly long.

“This reputation survives and thrives off basically two and a half years,” Kroeger notes, when Bly had her most active period busting into insane asylums and traveling the world. So what turned Nellie Bly into a legend?

Part of her appeal is obvious: she had a relentless talent and a knack for a great story that never went away. “She knew how to pick the story that would thrust to the front,” Kroeger says.


But Bly’s trailblazing attitude and focus on others probably helped her stories endure long after the newspaper pages disintegrated. Goodman believes she always had a focus on the greater impact of her work: “Even in her trip around the world, which was kind of a stunt, she was also proving that a woman could do anything a man could do.”

“Whatever her circumstance,” Kroeger says, “she was trying to do the same thing. She was trying to make a difference. Was it off of self-interest? Sure. But at bottom, it really did have to do with doing right by someone.”

And ultimately, with many of the stunts forgotten, that’s the reason Nellie Bly remains fascinating today.

Tracking Truth: a final report to the fan club’s membership from its national president

Originally posted on Eléctrica in the Desert:




I was a lot smarter before I was recruited by the American Chapter of Truth’s International Fan Club. Until then, I like to think I did my share of big thinking. Well, not BIG thinking, but certainly nuanced, certainly multi-dimensional, characterized by a superior plasticity capable of applied abstraction,  theoretical awe, and the synthesis of five or six simultaneous subtexts with their oppositional intersections.

What-is-truth B I G T H I N K I N G

Things got more complicated (but not more complex) and more simplistic following my election by acclamation to the club’s presidency two years ago. Now, when it comes to Truth, I spend most of my time on the intellectual equivalent of a middle school playground.   Over and over, I tell the same simple story of an outrageous bluff pulled off by a powerful media elite for the specific purpose…

View original 1,292 more words


Originally posted on Eléctrica in the Desert:

download (800x436) Both corporate media interests and the ACLU have welcomed this recently released photo of journalist Claire O’Brien at age three, as vindication of their campaign to oust O’Brien from the industry. O’Brien (front row , far L) is pictured with a small cell of communist spies, including her parents, operating out of a rural base in western Massachusetts. (Her father is not shown here)



My siblings and I began belting out our favorite Commie song when we were six  or so. I felt very sophisticated about Harry as I  turned eight, for by then I understood that the song was something of an inside joke – and I was able to sort of  get  the joke on its most elementary level. As well, my brothers and I were  big hams, and the roars of  laughter and applause…

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Living like a warrior: Aztec boy defends the Earth


Xiuhtezcatl is mobilizing youth in 25 countries to demand greener policies from our world’s leaders.

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez’s father raised him in the Aztec tradition. From an early age he learned that throwing a water bottle in a river will impact your community, those downstream and eventually have a global impact. He is fighting for people to think twice about how they interact with the world.

At 14, Xiuhtezcatl is the youth director of Earth Guardians, a non-profit environmental organization that is committed to protecting the water, air, Earth and atmosphere. To reach young people, Xiuhtezcatl and his younger brother Itzcuauhtli started an eco-hip-hop duo in the namesake of their non-profit, “Earth Guardians.”

“The earth has been here long before us, and it will continue to be here long after we’ve been wiped out”, said Xiuhtezcatl. “The biggest challenge we face is shifting human consciousness, not saving the planet. The planet doesn’t need saving. We do.”

Xiuhtezcatl has spoken twice at major United Nation’s forums. President Obama awarded him the Youth Change Maker of the Year Award and he is a member of the Presidential Youth Council to advise the president on youth views and policy.

You can find him in Showtime’s “Year of Living Dangerously” series, and HBO produced a music video for his song “Be The Change.”

Xiuhtezcatl summer schedule includes an Arctic expedition with National Geographic to study glacial recession and a meeting with the former prime minister of the Netherlands.

He is mobilizing youth in 25 countries to demand greener policies from our world’s leaders. He was able to convince the city of Boulder to remove pesticides from its parks, institute a fee for plastic bags and contain coal ash. He is also working to ban fracking in his home state, which includes lawsuits against the state of Colorado.

Xiuhtezcatl and his army of teenagers are pushing for policy change around the world. He believes that just because kids can’t vote does not mean they can’t make a difference in the world.

Establishing a sense of civic engagement in pre-voters breeds empowerment. If kids behind the Earth Guardian movement can push massive change before the legal voting age of 18, imagine the possibilities for society at large.

Alhough Xiuhtezcatl  hasn’t even begun to think about college, the future of his grandchildren is in the forefront of his mind.

You can sign his brother Itzcuauhtli’s pledge to be a climate leader, which the boys plan to deliver with a million signatures to world leaders at the Climate Paris Talks in December.

An exhibition in Moscow: “The History of Anarchism”

Russian anarchist newspapers

The official opening of the exhibition “The History of Anarchism: Sources” will be held April 17 at the Centre for Social-Political History of the GPIB [State Public Historical Library] of Russia. Using the materials on display, it is possible to study the history of anarchism from Godwin, Proudhon and Bakunin up to our own times.

The curators of the project have concentrated on three key moments of this history:

– The history of Russian anarchism: the historical Bakuninism of the 19th century, the rebirth of the movement during the First Russian Revolution, anarchism in the Revolution and Civil War 1917–1921, the Russian anarchist emigration.

– Anarchism as a global movement; its currents and activity in various countries; anarchist anti-militarism; libertarian pedagogy.

– The anarchist movement in contemporary Russia: from perestroika to the present.


Also on display are publications from the collection of anarchist literature of J. Mackay [John Henry Mackay, 1864–1933, Scottish-German individualist anarchist] – one of the first collections acquired by the Marx-Engels Institute in the 1920s.

The exhibition is timed to the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists (KAS) – the first mass organization of anarchists in the era of perestroika.

The curators of the project are: Kirill Buketov, Yuliya Guseva, Vadim Damier, Irina Novichenko, Dmitriy Rublev, Yelena Strukova, Vlad Tupikin.


Photos from the April 17 2015 opening:

Russian anarchist periodicals

Dmitriy Rublev

Another one. Freddie Gray died in Baltimore, his neck broken and his spine 80% severed; doctors say “you have to apply a significant amount of force” to make that happen. Police admit their own explanations for why he was arrested remain “a bit vague,” except that Gray, 25, was in a high-crime area with drug problems and they suspected he was “involved in criminal activity,” possibly that of having or selling a knife. Baltimore’s mayor and police commissioner, both black, say they will “move forward in a responsible way to determine all the facts of this incident so that we can provide the community with answers.”

Baltimore police say Gray was initially apprehended because he began “running unprovoked” when he saw them; they have a well-documented history brutality. Eric Garner was standing on a sidewalk possibly selling cigarettes. Walter Scott was running away. Michael Brown was walking. They were likely all scared of the police; Tamir Rice was too young to know he should be scared. On Tuesday, a March 2 Justice organized by Justice League NYC will end its eight-day, 250-mile trek from Staten Island to D.C. with a rally and concert on the National Mall. Activists, artists and others say they are marching because a black man is shot by police at least every 28 hours; because “this must stop”; because “every town has its Michael Brown”; because it’s time “to prove once and for all that all men and women are created equal.” Past time, in fact. The great Toni Morrison on the legacy of slavery, the intersection of race and class, the failure of police to “stop and frisk on Wall Street,” the conversation on race that America has yet to have, but so desperately needs: “I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back…Then when you ask me, ‘Is it over?’, I will say yes.”

From Common Dreams at commondreams.org

By Abby Zimet