Chapter 7: The Famous Nellie Bly!
Monday: Nellie was able to spend 10 days in the mental hospital on Blackwell’s Island, reporting on the bad treatment of poor patients. Now she’s out, and so is her story!
The story of abuses on Blackwell’s Island hit New York and the nation like a thunderbolt, and Nellie Bly became famous overnight.
Though most reporters did not get bylines at all in those days, Nellie did, and readers quickly came to know The World’s fearless young reporter.
Even rival newspapers who had been fooled by the “mysterious Cuban girl” wrote about what she had done: “Nellie Bly Too Sharp for the Island Doctors” was the headline in the Sun.
Her series was exciting, but it was also important. Authorities had talked about cleaning up Blackwell’s Island, and there were even reforms planned, but with the attention Nellie’s stories focused on the asylum, the people who wanted change were sure to get their way!
The district attorney invited Nellie to return to the island with a grand jury to show them what she had learned there, only to find that the series had already had an effect. The most abusive nurses had disappeared, and so had the foreign women who had been called insane because they couldn’t make themselves understood. The food had improved and many other improvements had been made, apparently based on the conditions Nellie had revealed.
Readers wanted more of Nellie Bly’s undercover work, and The World was happy to give them what they wanted: Nellie posed as a domestic worker to show how badly they were treated by employment agencies. She worked in a factory that made cardboard boxes and wrote of the harsh life of the factory girls there. She posed as a poor, unwed mother and found people willing to help her sell her baby for money.
It wasn’t all grim: Nellie also put on a tutu and tried to learn to be a ballet dancer. She learned to fence, exposed a fake hypnotist and appeared in the chorus line of a Broadway play.
Silly or serious, it was all very entertaining, in large part because Nellie had a talent for showing the small details that made readers feel they were really there with her. She also had a way of making herself the star of each story so that readers felt they knew her and wanted to find out what she would be up to next.
As Nellie’s popularity grew, so did her competition. Even the World hired two new reporters, Fannie B. Merrill and Viola Roseboro, to compete with Nellie for space in the paper and for attention from readers.
Joseph Pulitzer’s idea was that, if reporters had competition at their own newspapers, it would make them work harder and come up with even better ideas.
It certainly worked for Nellie Bly. She might have to share space with Fannie and Viola, but she was not about to share fame with them.
Suddenly, there were what they called “girl stunt reporters” at every paper. But there was only one Nellie Bly, and she intended to keep it that way.
Up at the state capital in Albany, there was a lobbyist named Edward Phelps who had a lot of influence with the legislators who voted on New York’s laws. Some people said he had too much influence.
One day, a woman came to Phelps and explained to him that her husband made medicine and was worried about a new law that was about to be voted on. She had heard that Phelps could help make sure the bill never became a law.
He could indeed, Phelps said, and gave her a list of the committee members who he could bribe to make sure they voted against the bill. She took the list with her, promising to return with money for them, and for Phelps.
But the woman didn’t really have a husband in the drug industry. What she had was a front-page story about bribery in the state capital. Nellie Bly had struck again!
Not everything she wrote was investigative work. Before the 1888 presidential elections, she interviewed all the candidate’s wives and attempted to interview all the living first ladies, though the president’s wife, Fannie Cleveland, never gave interviews and even refused Nellie Bly.
Now, however, she wanted to do a story that would set her above the other “stunt girl reporters” once and for all. To do that, she went to a popular novel that had been written 15 years before by the French author Jules Verne.
“Around the World in 80 Days” was about Phileas Fogg, who made a bet that he could make that trip in that length of time. In the book, he won, but since then, people often wondered if anyone really could go around the world that quickly.
Nellie proposed an idea to her editors: Let her try to break Fogg’s record, and file stories from exotic ports as she went!
They said it was a good idea. In fact, they said, they’d talked about sending a reporter to do just that.
But not a young woman of 25. A young woman couldn’t go without a chaperone, and, besides, she would need so much luggage that she couldn’t travel fast enough. Anyway, Nellie didn’t speak enough languages.
No, it was a good idea, but, if they decided to do it, they’d send someone else. They’d send a man.
“Very well,” Nellie replied. “Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him!”
Wednesday: Around the World