In 1885, at the age of only twenty, Nellie Bly (May 5, 1864–January 27, 1922) composed and published a searing letter of response to a man who, as the father of five girls, cynically questioned what girls are good for. At twenty-two, she risked her life in a groundbreaking exposé of abuses at insane asylums, which led to some of the first legal protections for the mentally ill. At twenty-five, she circumnavigated the globe faster than any human, outpacing Jules Verne’s fictional hero by eight days.
Picking up where the brilliant and tragically short-lived Margaret Fuller had left off nearly half a century earlier as the first female editor for a major New York newspaper, the only woman in the newsroom, and America’s first foreign war correspondent, Bly pioneered the progenitor of investigative journalism and became the first woman to report from the Eastern Front in WWI. In the factories she founded and operated in an era when factory workers — mostly uneducated young women — toiled in gruesome conditions for meager pay, she modeled social welfare by providing honorable wages and a humane environment for her workforce of 1,500. She invented, patented, produced, and taught Americans how to use the nation’s first successful steel barrel. She was, long before most of these terms took root in the modern lexicon, an entrepreneur, feminist, investigative journalist, activist, and philanthropist of unparalleled drive, discipline, and devotion.
Bly is the subject of a lovely animated documentary by the journalism and justice nonprofit Reveal, directed by Penny Lane — creator of The Voyagers, that poetic short film about how Carl Sagan fell in love — and featuring Bly’s first and foremost biographer, Brooke Kroeger, author of Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (public library).
Kroeger — who was moved by a biographical sketch of Bly she read when she was ten, then decided to write the first thorough, accurate biography of this inspiring but underappreciated role model when her own daughter turned ten — captures the animating force of Bly’s uncommon character:
Bly’s life… spanned Reconstruction, the Victorian and Progressive eras, the Great War and its aftermath. She grew up without privilege or higher education, knowing that her greatest asset was the force of her own will. Bly executed the extraordinary as a matter of routine… As the most famous woman journalist of her day, as an early woman industrialist, as a humanitarian, even as a beleaguered litigant, Bly kept the same formula for success: Determine Right. Decide Fast. Apply Energy. Act with Conviction. Fight to the Finish. Accept the Consequences. Move on.
Complement Kroeger’s altogether invigorating Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist with a lovely picture-book biography of Bly for younger readers and a delightful 1945 radio dramatization of her life, then revisit Bly’s classic Ten Days at the Mad-House, which has inspired generations of investigative reporters and mental health advocates.