Chapter 4: The World of Joseph Pulitzer
Wednesday: After completing her series on Mexico, Nellie is unhappy to find herself once again assigned to write about "women's subjects." So she quits her job in Pittsburgh and heads for New York.
In the two years Nellie wrote for the Dispatch, her byline became quite well known in Pittsburgh. Some of her stories were even picked up by the syndicates, which sent them to other newspapers to use.
But none of the newspaper editors in New York city knew who Nellie Bly was, and none of them much cared, either.
Nellie rented a furnished room and began trying to get interviews, so she could show the editors samples of her work and explain why they should hire a talented young woman reporter.
But nobody wanted to talk to her, or look at her samples. It didn't seem like anybody wanted to hire a young woman reporter, talented or not.
Nellie was able to write some stories from New York for her old paper back in Pittsburgh, and make a little bit of money that way.
But as the weeks went by without anyone giving her a job interview, those stories weren't enough to help her get by. Her money was running out.
Then, just when she most needed it, something lucky happened.
It seems (as Nellie explained it) that a young woman who wanted to be a reporter in New York wrote to her and asked for her advice. So Nellie got the editors of the Dispatch to give her a new assignment: Go to the editors of the most important newspapers in the city and ask them the best way for talented young women reporters to find work at their newspapers.
With her assignment from the Dispatch, Nellie was able to get through those doors that had slammed in her face before, and meet those editors who had refused to talk to her before.
What they told her, though, was not very encouraging.
Charles Dana, the editor of the Sun, said he wasn't prejudiced against women reporters, but they weren't as accurate as men, and that was the most important part of reporting.
At the Herald, Dr. George Hepworth told her readers liked stories with violence, sex and crime, and "a gentleman could not in delicacy ask a woman to have anything to do with that class of news."
And at the World, Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, the most interesting, fast-growing newspaper in the city, Colonel John Cockerill said most women reporters didn't want to write about women's subjects, and that was the only thing they were good at. But, he added, the World wasn't prejudiced against women. There were two women reporters working there, writing about women's subjects.
The other editors she interviewed told her the same sorts of things. New York newspapers didn't want to hire women reporters.
Whether or not anybody really wrote Nellie that letter asking for advice, Nellie really did write the article, and other newspapers besides the Dispatch published it. One of them was even a New York paper, The Mail and Express, which introduced it by describing Nellie Bly as a "bright and talented young woman who has done a great deal of good writing for the newspapers."
It was also read by a columnist, John Howard, who wrote criticizing the "ignorance of Sunday newspaper editors ... on the subject of women in journalism" and added a long list of successful women journalists, topped by "Miss Nellie Bly."
But Nellie wasn't feeling successful. She still didn't have a regular job, and she was almost out of money.
Then she lost her purse, and now she really was out of money.
She wasn't going back to Pittsburgh, either. "I cannot say the thought ever presented itself to me," she wrote later, "for I never in my life turned back from a course I had started on."
So she prepared a list of stories she said were "as desperate as they were startling" and went back to the World, the paper she really wanted to work at.
Nellie talked the security guards into letting her see Col. Cockerill. He looked at her ideas, asked her to give him a few days to think, and gave her $25 to keep her from taking any other job meanwhile.
When she returned, he told her about an important story the World had been thinking about.
In those days, poor, mentally ill women in New York were sent to "The Women's Lunatic Asylum" on Blackwell's Island in the East River. The word "asylum" means a place of safety, but Blackwell's Island did not seem like a safe place at all.
There were rumors of mistreatment of poor people there. Newspapers had written editorials calling for investigations. But nothing ever happened.
And sending reporters didn't seem to work: Whenever anyone got permission to visit, the hospitals were always seen to be clean and nice, and everyone there seemed happy and well-treated.
The editors decided the only way to learn the truth would be to have a reporter pretend to be a poor, mentally ill woman, so she could be in put the Women's Lunatic Asylum and treated just like any other poor, mentally ill woman.
If the rumors were true, it would be a very, very dangerous assignment.
They needed a young woman who was clever and bold, and who had the talents of a real newspaper reporter.
And now they had found one.
Friday: To the Madhouse!