January 1, 1994
American Journalism Review
Jan-Feb 1995, p. 49
Review of “Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist”
By CARL SESSIONS STEPP
Oddly, Elizabeth Jane Cochran has slipped into the sidebar section of journalism history, remembered mainly as one of the “stunt reporters” whose gimmicks lured turn-of-the-century readers. While “daredevil” may be what has endured, “reporter” and “feminist” equally apply.
Indeed, she was “the best reporter in America,” Arthur Brisbane wrote in the New York Journal on her death in 1922.
Bly took her pen name at the Pittsburgh Dispatch because ladies of the day didn’t use their true identities in the papers. She went on to cover wars, labor strife, foreign affairs and boxing matches. She ran her own factory, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co., where she designed plant machinery, personally held 25 patents, and created a “model of social welfare for her 1,500 employees.” And she devoted her later years and fortune to the plight of unwed mothers and orphans.
Bly’s range was striking. She provided analytical coverage from Mexico and addressed leading social topics, such as labor issues and sexual politics.
But, true enough, it was the audacious masquerades and posings that cinched her fame. For her first assignment at the New York World she feigned insanity, got herself committed to an asylum and produced a sensational series, “Ten Days in a Mad-House.”
She also posed as, among many others, a patent medicine merchant (to bribe a powerful lobbyist), a charity hospital patient, a chorus girl and even a female job applicant at newspapers (where she was routinely patronized). In her best-remembered stunt, she circled the globe in 72 days, faster than anyone else in history or literature, beating Phileas Fogg’s “Around the World in Eighty Days.”
Kroeger, a veteran wire service and magazine writer, tells this remarkable story briskly and thoroughly. Her work is both a good read and an important historical rescue mission.