Scott Brinton

Nellie Bly: She came, she wrote, she conquered

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"I said I could and I would. And I did.”

—Nellie Bly,

“Ten Days in a Madhouse”

Newspaper writer Erasmus Wilson was, no doubt, an über-male chauvinist. In an 1885 Pittsburgh Dispatch column, he joked that American families should kill their baby girls, as was common in China then.

In the piece, titled “What Girls Are Good For,” Wilson offered advice to an “anxious father” who had written to him, worried that his five daughters, ages 26 to 18, were all unmarried. Women, Wilson argued, belonged in the home — and nowhere else. The working woman, he wrote, was a “monstrosity.”

The father’s letter — and, more so, Wilson’s inane response — riled up 20-year-old Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, who was helping her mother run a boardinghouse in Pittsburgh at the time. Cochrane fired off an angry letter to the editor.

Thank you, Mr. Wilson: Your column inadvertently gave birth to one of history’s most important journalists and women’s rights advocates. The Dispatch’s managing editor, George Madden, was so impressed by Cochrane’s thoughtful, articulate reply that he offered her a reporting job. She took it, changing her name, as was the practice among women newspaper writers then. She called herself Nellie Bly, and went on to become one of the greatest crusading muckrakers of the late 19th century.

I recently read a collection of Bly’s work, “Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings” (Penguin Classics, 2014), as I rode trains in and out of Manhattan, where I attended a seminar for parents of first-year NYU students.

My 18-year-old daughter, Alexandra, will begin her studies in biomolecular science this fall at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, where 40 percent of first-year students were women in 2017-18. My, how things have changed in the 133 years since Wilson scrawled his appalling words, I thought. Most women of Bly’s era never could have imagined a time when young women would study science at a renowned university side by side with men.

Yet not enough has changed. A headline from the blog of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, proves the point: “2016 SAT test results confirm pattern that’s persisted for 50 years — high school boys are better at math than girls.” The piece, by University of Michigan Professor Dr. Mark Perry, skews data to perpetuate a centuries-old myth.

In Bly’s day, women received pennies for every dollar that a man did working the same job — and most jobs were closed to women. Now they are paid 80 cents for every dollar that a man makes, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Working women today are often mocked because of their looks, their every move dissected by male counterparts, and even by our national leaders. So, Alexandra, let Nellie Bly’s life serve as an object lesson for you: She never let a man define her professional ceiling.

After two years of reporting for the Dispatch, Bly grew bored and struck out for New York City, talking her way in to the New York World, a newspaper owned by Joseph Pulitzer. She was given a seemingly impossible trial assignment — which, to my mind, was meant to scare her away. She had to go undercover in the charity ward of the notorious insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island, now Roosevelt Island.

She was all of 22. She dived headlong into her “delicate mission,” as she called it, staying overnight at a women’s boardinghouse, posing as Nellie Moreno, a Cuban immigrant with virtually no memory and little money, and talking crazy — crazy enough that the women around her believed she might hurt them. Soon she was locked up on Blackwell’s Island, where she witnessed — and endured — horrifying verbal and physical abuse.

Women at the asylum, Bly found, were kept in claustrophobia-inducing, rat-infested quarters where they were starved and drugged. When they stepped out of line, they were beaten. Many sane women, she discovered, were imprisoned there because they were broke or spoke no English.

A lawyer for the World vouched for Bly 10 days into her ordeal, and she was released, after which she wrote a two-part exposé for the paper, “Behind Asylum Bars” and “Inside the Madhouse,” which gripped not only the city, but the nation.

Reforms followed. The city’s Department of Public Charities and Corrections allocated an annual budget of $2.34 million to care for the insane, up from $1.5 million — a 53 percent increase. The Blackwell Island asylum received an additional $50,000.

Bly got the job at the World, continuing her undercover reporting and breaking big stories about any number of scandals and atrocities, becoming world-famous. She married in her early 30s and eventually went into her husband’s business, but returned to reporting later on, after he died and the company went bankrupt. She died of pneumonia at 57.

My daughter comes from a long line of strong working women, including my mom and my wife. If Bly were alive today, she would likely advise young women to ignore the Mark Perrys of our still-evolving society and help right its wrongs, just as Bly did with Erasmus Wilson.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.