Article, Nellie Bly

Prologue/National Archives: “Nellie Bly: She Did It All”

April 1, 1996



PROLOGUE/Quarterly of the National Archives
Spring 1996, Vo. 28, No. 1 pp.7-15

Nellie Bly was one of the late nineteenth century’s most rousing characters. In the 1880s she pioneered the development of “detective” or “stunt” reporting, the acknowledged forerunner of full-scale investigative journalism. While still in her early twenties, the example of her fearless success helped open the profession to coming generations of women journalists clamoring to write hard news.
Bly performed feats for the record books. She feigned insanity and engineered her own commitment to a mental asylum, then exposed its horrid conditions. She circled the globe faster than any living or fictional soul in 1890. After leaving journalism, she designed, manufactured, and marketed the first steel barrel produced in the United States. She owned and operated her factories as a model of social welfare for her fifteen hundred employees, offering them health benefits, a library, and recreational facilities. She was the first woman to report from the eastern front in World War I. She journeyed to the Paris Peace Conference to argue the case of defeated Austria to President Woodrow Wilson. Returning to New York, she wrote a widely read advice column while devoting herself to the plight of the unfortunate, most notably unwed and indigent mothers and their offspring.

Bly’s life (1864-1922) spanned Reconstruction, the Victorian and Progressive Eras, the Great War, and its aftermath. Though born to privilege, she grew up without it. She had no formal education after the age of fifteen. It was then she added the final “e” for flourish to her birthname of Elizabeth Jane Cochran and at age twenty took the byline Nellie Bly, which she came to use in her private life as well. She always knew that her greatest asset was the force of her own will. Even well into middle age, Bly saw herself as “Miss Push and Get There,” the living example of what, in her time, was “That New American Girl.”

The clearest testimony to how phenomenal Bly’s life was is the fact that her legend has survived without any organized collection of her personal or professional papers in the form of published memoirs, correspondence, a memorial, or an established archive. This, in part, explains her neglect by scholars. In fact, before the publication of Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist in 1994, anyone interested in knowing more about her had to rely on a number of juvenile biographies, all partly fictionalized, which have done as much to distort the record as they have to perpetuate Bly’s memory.

Under such conditions, the decision to write a full-scale biography was bound to mean an inordinate amount of hunch-following. Bly’s most sensational newspaper adventures were well known, of course; but the rest of her life was a blur. At the start of this project, seven of her letters had been preserved in research facilities: six at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh and one in the Sophia Smith collection at Smith College. Bly worked for The Pittsburg[h] Dispatch, The New York World, and The New York Evening Journal, but her stories had never been cataloged or indexed.1 As a celebrity of the first magnitude in turn-of-the-century New York, repeated references to Bly were sure to have appeared in the major popular publications of the day. But again, there was no bibliographic index for locating them. The only primary source materials readily available were the four books Bly wrote: Six Months in Mexico, Ten Days in a Mad-house, The Mystery of Central Park,and Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World in Seventy-two Days; the seven known letters; and a few contemporaneous profiles in newspapers and in one biographical dictionary of the period. In addition, there was material indexed under her numerous names, her company’s name, or her family members’ names in The New York Times Index. More newspaper clippings appeared in envelopes under her name from the crumbling old newspaper morgues of the defunct New York Sun, Brooklyn Eagle, and New York Journal-American. Various libraries across the country also had a few clippings about her, collected in vertical files over the seventy-odd years since her death.

Still, it was not enough material for a book. A page-by-page search of the relevant newspapers produced a comprehensive file of her articles — some six hundred lengthy newspaper stories, all in the first person, written over the course of thirty-six years. A similar search of other newspapers, journalism trade magazines and gossip sheets of the time added another thousand stories of direct relevance to Bly’s story. Taken together, these elements formed an ersatz journal. When supplemented by a myriad of legal documents and records and the 130 personal and business letters ultimately amassed, a more multidimensional portrait finally began to emerge.

The quest for Bly’s actual birth date (Bly always claimed 1867 as her birth year) sparked another line of inquiry that led to another unexpected cache of detailed documentation. In her book Around the World, Bly reports that she applied for a passport in London in November 1889, on the first leg of her journey. Reference archivists in the National Archives retrieved the original passport application. Not even to her government was Bly prepared to reveal her actual age, but the application does confirm other important personal details: her height, hair and eye color, even the shape of her turned-up nose. Other passport applications also appeared in State Department files, confirming the dates of later trips abroad. This information became extremely helpful in filling in what became a reasonably complete month-by-month chronology of her life.

National Archives records brought two fascinating and almost unknown aspects of Bly’s life to light: her four-year sojourn in Austria during World War I and the immediate aftermath of that curious stay, and the painful, final severing of relations with her family over control of her steel barrel company.

Bly sailed for Austria in August 1914, just as the war broke out. She reported from the Russian and Serbian fronts in 1914 and appealed through U.S. newspapers for aid to Austrian war widows and orphans in 1915 and 1916. She remained in Vienna throughout the war — despite United States entry on the opposing side in 1917Cand returned to the United States in early 1919. This much could be traced through the New York newspapers of the time, but nothing else about this strange period in her life was known.

From National Archives collections it was possible to learn a great deal more. The hand-signed citizens’ register of the U.S. embassy in Vienna confirmed that Bly checked in with the embassy on August 11, 1914. The same files also confirm that she and U.S. Ambassador Frederic Penfield were longtime friends and that he supported her request to report from the war front with a very persuasive letter of recommendation to the appropriate Austrian authorities.

The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Austria-Hungary in 1917, making Bly a very warm and friendly “enemy alien” for the remainder of her stay. Spain handled the representation of U.S. interests in Vienna for the duration of the war. Copies of the Spanish representation files confirm that Bly was never interned, as many American nationals in Austria-Hungary were. The records also give details of her departure: by special train to Berne, Switzerland, on January 25, 1919, with nineteen other U.S. citizens, among them several children. Her destination was Paris.2

Both from the standpoint of the storyteller and the researcher, Bly’s decision to remain in Austria after 1917 raised two intriguing possibilities: that the U.S. government had serious questions about what Bly was doing there or that it had asked her to do so for its own reasons. John Taylor of the National Archives reported with enthusiasm the uncovering of a sizable file on Bly. U.S. Military Intelligence officers had compiled it, starting with her arrival in Paris in early 1919 and ending shortly after her return to New York a few weeks later.

While in Austria, Bly managed to ingratiate herself with the highest echelons of Viennese officialdom and society.3 In fact, the new republic of German Austria paid for a special train compartment for her to travel to Paris because Bly had a quasi-official assignment from its leaders: to argue their nation=s case before President Wilson and to warn him against the perils of Bolshevism.4 Though she never saw Wilson personally,5 she did have lengthy conferences with Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the force at Chaumont, and with Brig. Gen. D. E. Nolan, the assistant chief of staff.

Bly piqued the attention of U.S. Military Intelligence on February 4, 1919, when she applied for a visa at the Passport Bureau in Paris to return to the United States.6 This was her first opportunity to explain to “a G2 representative” exactly what she was doing in Austria throughout the war. The representative made full report to the Office of Military Intelligence. Two days later, Bly’s casual but emphatic conversation with an American soldier on a Paris street triggered another letter for the file. “She said that all France was not worth one American life,” the young private reported. “[She] said the Germans were more like our people in regard to their attitude towards women.” She told him she had met the kaiser personally and that she liked and admired him.

In the meantime, Bly dashed off an urgent, handwritten letter to President Wilson, requesting an immediate personal interview. An aide replied to Bly’s appeal, saying this was out of the question because of the pressures of the Peace Conference, but that she should send a detailed statement containing the information she wanted to impart. “Believe me,” she wrote in reply,

if my communications were not more important than the Peace Conference for the safety of the world, I should not ask for a personal interview at this time. But of what use will be the Peace Conference or the League of Nations if meanwhile Central Europe becomes a second Russia? For once the middle countries are in the clutches of the Bolshewicks, nothing can save the rest of the world from the same dreadful fate. The salvation of the world depends upon what you do now. Every hour is precious.7

Bly had a second debriefing at Chaumont with General Nolan and his assistant, Col. A. B. Coxe. At the same time, the State Department was asked to investigate her citizenship status and sent inquiries back to the embassy in Vienna. Bly remained at headquarters for three days, at the end of which Military Intelligence requested from headquarters a full report on what had been learned from Bly “in order that our information in this case may be as complete as possible.” Nolan clearly harbored no more doubts about Bly’s American loyalties or the reasons for her pro-German views. He told the inquiring officer, Lt. Col. Cabot Ward, on February 15, 1919:

She went to Austria in 1914 when war was declared by that country against Serbia. She was with the Austrian Army as a correspondent until our entry into the war, when she returned to Vienna and did not again go to the front. She had met and is on friendly terms with many of the government officials and men in public life. She has not corresponded with her friends or relatives in the United States, and has received no news directly from the United States since our entry into the war. Her only information regarding our participation in the war has been received from German and Austrian sources. She is convinced that England brought on the war for commercial reasons and believes that we entered the war to recover the money we had advanced to the Allies. She is apparently a perfectly loyal American woman, who has heard only the arguments of the Central Powers regarding the war for four years and who knows nothing of the Allied point of view.8

Ward responded again, confirming to Nolan that the Passport Bureau had been instructed to facilitate Bly’s return to the United States “at the earliest possible date.” He explained that the further questioning resulted from concern over Bly’s pro-German leanings.

With U.S. clearance to travel, Bly boarded the SS Lorraine at Bordeaux for New York on February 22, 1919. Ward sent to Washington the earlier, more suspicious reports on Bly that preceded her final questioning and permission to leave. Ward told his Washington counterparts that the reports demonstrated Bly’s “pro-Germanism” and her attitude toward Bolshevism, on top of which she was “outspoken in her opinions going to the extent of being aggressive and defiant.”9

Unsure if she should be granted permission to return to the United States, Ward explained that his office had referred the question to Brig. Gen. D. E. Nolan at general headquarters and to a Colonel Van Deman. Both, he said, “were of the opinion that she would do less harm in America than in France where at this time tendencies such as she has manifested may be serious in their consequences.” This, of course, had not been the expressed view from general headquarters at all.

Word of Bly’s departure was cabled immediately to Washington and from there to Capt. J. B. Trevor in New York with the added note: “Although residents of New York, Mayflower descendants and original members of the Pilgrim Society will remember Nellie’s activities, our files however are not sufficiently antiquated to furnish any information.”10

Trevor met Bly at Military Control House in New York following her arrival February 28. On March 6 he reported back to Washington:

Nellie is a bit hazy as to her exact reason for visiting the Central Empire, and still more hazy with regard to prolonging her stay there even after the entrance of her native land into the world war, and there is no doubt as to Nellie being a bit pro-German. Nellie is an avowed hater of England and all that is English, and out of this hatred of the land of the Lion and the Unicorn grew her hope for the success of German arms. She avows and declares, however, that the United States of America is nearest and dearest to her heart, and that her reason for returning to this country was to save us from the perils of Bolshevism.11

He went on to explain how Bly’s unrequited desire to see soldiers under fire drove her to Austria at the end of July 1914, that she had visited the front, “and that she did not mind at all whether or not she was killed because of her discouragement over her financial affairs in this country previous to her departure.”12 He went on to report Bly’s statement that the Germans and the Austrians treated her with utmost courtesy even after the United States had entered the war. He also wrote of her efforts to give President Wilson the benefit of her advice and how the Austrian government had encouraged and enabled her to do so. She reported her conversations with Pershing, Nolan, and Coxe and how Coxe had a stenographer make a verbatim transcript of her remarks while promising never to reveal their source. “We are hereby violating this agreement” was Trevor’s facetious aside.

As to specifics, Bly told Trevor that while in Austria she “enjoyed the rare and distinct privilege of being in the inner councils of the Bolshevik leaders,” that the leader of the movement was “the scion of a wealthy family and somewhat of a writer.” Trevor reported the man’s name as “Kiss,” possibly a misspelled reference to the journalist Egon Erwin Kisch. Trevor said Bly “avow[ed] and declare[d] that one Bauer, Secretary of the Austrian Foreign Office is one of the ring leaders of the Bolshevist group in Austria” and claimed that both men had entrusted her with valuable secrets. Trevor’s report went on:

What these secrets were Nellie did not dilate upon. However, she states that the Bolshevist headquarters in Austria is sending forth forty agents amply provided with funds and a diversified supply of passports, their objective being the United States; that the Bolsheviki feel that if they can win the United States to their cause they have conquered the world. Nellie could not be specific as to the routes to be taken by these agents but was certain that they would obtain entrance into the United States. She praised the cleverness of the leaders of the Bolshevist cause, and declared that they were not a lot of long haired, dirty peasants, but were astute and clever diplomats.13

Trevor decided not to “bore” headquarters with Bly’s detailed plan for defeating Bolshevism, but he summarized it: to throw a line of troops along the Russian frontier to cut off the passage of agents to and fro. He went on to say that Bly was “eager to devote her remaining days” to the cause of stopping Bolshevism and “is eager to get in touch with such Government officials as may wish to make use of her efficient self, to send her back to the Dual Empire and from there into Russia where she can get into the confidence of the leaders.”14

He said she could be reached at the McAlpin Hotel for the time being, but “her funds have been so dissipated that she will have to seek cheaper quarters.” In this connection, he added:

Miss Bly . . . was arrested yesterday on the charge perjury and interfering with justice and held in $1000 bail in the Federal Court of Brooklyn. It will be recalled that back in 1914, previous to her departure abroad, Mrs. Seaman was president of the Ironclad [sic] Manufacturing Co., of Brooklyn which went into bankruptcy and brought Nellie into considerable prominence in the courts. It was charged that she was secreting books and documents so that the Commissioner in Bankruptcy could not get possession of them.15

Military Intelligence’s glib summation: “It is our opinion that Miss Bly’s aspirations should not be taken seriously.”16

* * * *

In the National Archives, another little-known cache of Bly information told the sad, sad end of Bly’s barrel-manufacturing career.17

Bly, upon her arrival in Austria back in 1914, arranged to travel to the Russian and Serbian fronts with a group of correspondents. Her stories appeared over a number of months in the New York Evening Journal, until Austrian officials blocked all reporting to the Allied nations. The temptation to involve herself in war work — first reporting, then appeals for food for Austrian war widows and orphans — belied her original intent in traveling to Vienna. Bly actually went to see her friend, Oscar Bondy, a wealthy Bohemian sugar refiner, in order to arrange new financing for her company. At the same time, she managed to flee further prosecution on contempt charges in connection with the bankruptcy proceedings against her company.

Before leaving New York, Bly put the company in the name of her eighty-year-old mother, Mary Jane Cochrane. This was an apparent move to keep it out of the hands of its many creditors. While in Austria, Bly instructed her mother to transfer title of the company to Bondy, probably to secure a personal loan he had made to Bly to defray her expenses while in Austria. Bly’s mother followed her daughter’s instructions but soon regretted doing so. For as soon as the United States declared war on Austria, Bondy became an enemy alien. The company, by then in his name, immediately fell under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Alien Property Custodian. National Archives files illuminated this unhappy chapter in Bly’s life for the first time, including the final and irrevocable breach in relations between Bly and her mother.

Bly’s mother filed suit against the Alien Property Custodian in an effort to restore her ownership of the firm. By the end of February 1920,18 U.S. District Court Judge Edwin L. Garvin ruled that Bly — not her mother — was the firm’s rightful owner and that nothing improper had been done in getting Mary Jane to sign control over to Bondy. Bly’s mother retained income from the shares of the company for her lifetime, after which the shares were to revert to Bly.

Judge Garvin said so much bitterness between the parties surrounded the case that the court had made every effort to reconcile their conflicting interests “and to restore the natural relation of mother and daughter.” That proved impossible, he said. Even though Bly won the case, it turned out there was nothing left to fight over. The firm was too heavily in debt. The severing of relations with her mother, whom Bly had cared for and supported all her adult life, broke Bly’s heart. The illustrious history of Nellie Bly and the steel barrel ended in dissipation by litigation.

For the two and a half years remaining until her death from pneumonia on January 27, 1922, Bly was as active and engaged as she had been as a young daredevil reporter. Her ruinous finances led her to appeal to Arthur Brisbane, her old friend from New York World days, for a job on the New York Evening Journal. He put her to work as a feature writer and advice columnist on the editorial page. Bly turned her column into a social service clearinghouse. If an unwed mother needed work to support her child or a new home for the infant, Bly found it. If American seamen could not get work because foreign laborers underbid them for jobs, Bly organized the workers into an association and wrote repeatedly about their plight. From whatever her place or circumstance, Bly viewed every situation as an opportunity to make a difference in other people’s lives as well as her own. As the most famous 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.


Copyight 1996 Brooke Kroeger

This essay is based on a talk given by Ms. Kroeger at the National Archives on April 25, 1995, on her book Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (New York: Times Books, 1994). In fall 1996, the PBS series “The American Experience” will premier a documentary about Nellie Bly based on Ms. Kroeger’s book. The National Archives Office of Public Programs schedules author lectures throughout the year.

The following records in the National Archives were particularly useful in uncovering the portion of Nellie Bly’s life described in this article:

Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, Record Group 84: Great Britain, passport vouchers, vol. 5, no. 182.

General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59: Passport Application No. 530, Nellie Bly, dated Aug. 11, 1914, Paris, France; Passport Application No. 1250, June 4, 1915, Vienna, Austria; and Lost or Stolen Passport Files, 138.7/35, Aug. 11, 1915, Jan. 8, 1919, Feb. 13, 1919, Apr. 7, 1919, May 17, 1919, June 4, 1919, June 13, 1919; Vienna embassy, Registration of American citizens, 1907B1920; U.S. Ambassador to Vienna Frederic Penfield=s correspondence, 1914; Spanish embassy representation of the United States in Austria, 1917B1922.

Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Record Group 165: Military Intelligence Division files, MID 10297-331.

Records of the Office of Alien Property, Record Group 131: Alien Property Custodian, entry 242, Records of GAO Audits, exhibit D-19; entry 199, Report 1709, Cochrane v. APC; entry 61A, Records of the Bureau of Trusts, Trust File, 1917B42, Trust 3574; and entry 138, Bureau of Audits, report #3669.

1 She also worked very briefly in 1895 for The Chicago Times-Herald.

2 Cable to Spanish embassy, Berne, Switzerland, confirmed No. 4798, Jan. 29, 1919, Spanish embassy representation of the United States in Vienna, 1917B1922, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59, National Archives, Washington, DC (hereinafter, records in the National Archives will be cited as RG ___, NA).

3 Brooke Kroeger, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (1994), pp. 393B395.

4 Chancellor Karl Renner’s office to Nellie Bly, Jan. 23, 1919, Archive der Republik, �sterreichisches Staatsarchiv.

5 Bly’s letters to Wilson, and the replies of his aide, are included in the Woodrow Wilson Papers at the Library of Congress, Paris Peace Conference, 1919.

6 A long report of Bly’s appearance at the U.S. Passport Office in Paris was filed by 2d Lt. John A. Chamberlain on February 4, 1919, and retransmitted on February 24, 1919, by the assistant chief of staff, G-2, to the chief of the Military Intelligence Division. Statement made by Pvt. John N. Moffitt, Feb. 12, 1919. Both documents are in 10297-331, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165, NA.

7 Bly to Woodrow Wilson, Feb. 9, 1919, Wilson Papers, Paris Peace Conference, LC.

8 Brig. Gen. D. E. Nolan to assistant chief of staff, G-2, Feb. 15, 1919, Military Intelligence Division, 10297-331, RG 165, NA.

9 Correspondence of Lt. Col. Cabot Ward enclosed in Nolan to acting director of military intelligence, Feb. 22, 1919, Military Intelligence Division, 10297-331, RG 165, NA.

10 Acting Director of Military Intelligence Col. J. M. Dunn to Capt. J. B. Trevor, Feb. 25, 1919, quoting cable from Bordeaux, Military Intelligence Division, 10297-331, RG 165, NA.

11 Trevor to Dunn, Mar. 6, 1919, Military Intelligence Division, 10297-331, RG 165, NA.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Brig. Gen. M. Churchill to Nolan, assistant chief of staff, G-2, GHQ, AEF, May 16, 1919, Military Intelligence Division, 10297-331, RG 165, NA.

17 This material was originally retrieved from the National Archives by Russell Adams, who passed it along to the author.

18 See New York Evening Journal, Feb. 22, 1920, 22: 3.