Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in “Cochran Mills”, today part of the Pittsburgh suburb of Burrell Township, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania on May 5, 1864. In 1880, Cochrane and her family moved to Pittsburgh. An aggressively misogynistic column titled “What Girls Are Good For” in the Pittsburgh Dispatch prompted her to write a fiery rebuttal to the editor under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl”. The editor, impressed with her passion, and ran an advertisement asking the author to identify herself. When Cochrane introduced herself to the editor, he offered her the opportunity to write another piece for the newspaper, again under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl”.
After her first article for the Dispatch, titled “The Girl Puzzle”, ran, the paper offered her a full-time job. Many woman newspaper writers at that time used pen names, and for Cochrane her editor chose “Nellie Bly”, adopted from the title character in the popular song “Nelly Bly” by Stephen Foster. The pseudonym was intended to be “Nelly Bly,” but her editor wrote “Nellie” by mistake, and the error stuck.
In honor of her 150th birthday, here is the complete text her first Godey’s article, Among the Mad, in on which she tell’s Godey’s Lady’s book readers about how she got started in New York journalistic circles and the events that led to her first standout article, Ten Days in a Mad-House.
Among the Mad
Become insane? and through my own desire be confined as a lunatic in a madhouse; bring upon myself all the mental torture of being day and night with those staring, senseless creatures, whose proximity alone fills our souls with sickening horror?
And to what end? In order to make for myself a position whereby I could earn a livelihood.
A few months previous I had come to New York a stranger. I had never been in the city before, and had not one acquaintance among its million and more inhabitants.
“We have more women now than we want,” was the invariable reply of the editors to my plea for work, while some added, “Women are no good, anyway.”
At last my purse, containing all my money, was stolen from me, and I was penniless. I was too proud to return to the position I had left in search of new worlds to conquer. Indeed, I cannot say the thought ever presented itself to me, for I never in my life turned back from a course I had started upon. I borrowed ten cents from my landlady for car-fare, and in my desperation sought out Col. Cockerill, managing editor of the New York WORLD. I had to do a great deal of talking before I was allowed to enter the elevator which carries visitors to the sacred precincts of the editor’s sanctum.
An editor is always a hard-worked man, and if he saw every person who called with some crank notion, his life, which now lasts but half the allotted time, would reach but a quarter, and the newspaper would never be issued. I really think at last I gained admission by saying that I had an important subject to propose, and if the editor-in-chief could not see me, I would go to some other paper. I always say energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything. I accomplished my purpose.
Without wasting any time, I laid before Col. Cockerill some plans for newspaper work, as desperate as they were startling for a girl to attempt to carry out. He gave me twenty-five dollars to retain my services while he would think over my suggestions. When the time expired, I called for his decision.
“Do you think you can work your way into an insane asylum?” he asked.