Badass Ladies of History: Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman)

Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman is a hero to a lot of us at Persephone.  Not only did she change the world one word at a time, she was a sassy feminist with a passion for psuedonyms.  She didn’t just break barriers, she pounded through them like Popeye on spinach.  Read on for a tiny peek into her amazing life. Elizabeth Cochran was born in Pennsylvania on May 5, possibly in 1867. Her first known published piece was in response to a Pittsburg Dispatch editorial “What Girls Are Good For,” tsking women who worked outside the home.  Her letter piqued the interest of the Dispatch editor, who assumed she was male and offered her a job interview.   Agreeing to a weekly salary of $5 and a byline of “Nellie Bly,” Cochrane (Now with an ‘e’) wrote several popular articles on Pennsylvania factories and workhouses.  She eventually left the Dispatch and continued to write about underrepresented groups, including her penultimate expose on the living conditions at Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum, Ten Days in a Mad House. Cochrane’s writing about her experiences as an undercover patient in the hospital helped to create years of reform in how we care for our most mentally ill members of society.  While her style is often described as muckraking, Cochrane knew how to get her audience’s attention. (Hardy, Gayle J. American Women Civil Rights Activists: Biobibliographies of 68 Leaders, 1825-1992. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993. p. 345 Questia. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.)

Pleased with her first article, Madden asked Pink to write another; she chose the controversial, difficult topic of divorce and the shocking treatment of women in divorce courts. When her next project produced a strong series on the lives of factory girls, Madden hired her on at $5.00 a week, a respectable salary. Not yet twenty-one years old, Pink became the first female staff member at the Dispatch. Madden chose the byline “Nellie Bly” for her from a popular Stephen Foster song. Pink, now Nellie Bly, became a hardworking, sensitive, perceptive interviewer. She had a strong sense of justice that informed all her assignments; while not a sophisticated analyst, she was a fearless, utterly blunt, but nonjudgmental interviewer. In her eight-part series on the lives of factory girls, she addressed the “easy” sexuality of which many working girls were routinely accused. One interviewee candidly admitted that she frequently went looking for men interested in casual sexual encounters. (Berson, Robin K. Young Heroes in World History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. p. 22 Questia. 8 Nov. 2010 )

In Elizabeth’s own words, from Ten Days in a Mad House.

AT SUPPER. Rancid Butter, Weak Tea and Five Prunes Her Uninviting Portions.

This examination over, we heard some one yell, “Go out into the hall.” One of the patients kindly explained that this was an invitation to supper. We late comers tried to keep together, so we entered the hall and stood at the door where all the women had crowded. How we shivered as we stood there! The windows were open and the draught went whizzing through the hall. The patients looked blue with cold, and the minutes stretched into a quarter of an hour. At last one of the nurses went forward and unlocked a door, through which we all crowded to a landing of the stairway. Here again came a long halt directly before an open window. “How very impudent for the attendants to keep these thinly clad women standing here in the cold,” said Miss Neville. I looked at the poor crazy captives shivering, and added, emphatically. “It’s horribly brutal.” While they stood there I thought I would not relish supper that night. They looked so lost and hopeless. Some were chattering nonsense to invisible persons, other were laughing or crying aimlessly, and one old, gray-haired woman was nudging me, and, with winks and sage noddings of the head and pitiful upliftings of the eyes and hands, was assuring me that I must not mind the poor creatures, as they were all mad. “Stop at the heater,” was then ordered, “and get in line, two by two.” “Mary, get a companion.” “How many times must I tell you to keep in line?” “Stand still,” and, as the orders were issued, a shove and a push were administered, and often a slap on the ears. After this third and final halt, we were marched into a long, narrow dining room, where a rush was made for the table.

The table reached the length of the room and was uncovered and uninviting. Long benches without backs were put for the patients to sit on, and over these they had to crawl in order to face the table. Placed close together all along the table were large dressing-bowls filled with a pinkish-looking stuff which the patients called tea. By each bowl was laid a piece of bread, cut thick and buttered. A small saucer containing five prunes accompanied the bread. One fat woman made a rush, and jerking up several saucers from those around her emptied their contents into her own saucer. Then while holding to her own bowl she lifted up another and drained its contents at one gulp. This she did to a second bowl in shorter time than it takes to tell it. Indeed, I was so amused at her successful grabbings that when I looked at my own share the woman opposite, without so much as by your leave, grabbed my bread and left me without any.

Another patient, seeing this, kindly offered me tiers, but I declined with thanks and turned to the nurse and asked for more. As she flung a thick piece down on the table she made some remark about the fact that if I forgot where my home was I had not forgotten how to eat. I tried the bread, but the butter was so horrible that one could not eat it. A blue-eyed German girl on the opposite side of the table told me I could have unbuttered bread If I wished, and that very few were able to eat the butter. I turned my attention to the prunes and found that very few of them would be sufficient. A patient near asked me to give them to her. I did so. My bowl of tea was all that was left. I tasted, and one taste was enough. It had no sugar, and it tasted as if it had been made in copper. It was as weak as water. This was also transferred to a hungrier patient, in spite of the protest of Miss Neville. “You must force the food down,” she said, “else you will be sick, and who knows but what, with these surroundings, you may go crazy. To have a good brain the stomach must be cared for.””It is impossible for me to eat that stuff,” I replied, and, despite all her urging, I ate nothing that night.

It did not require much time for the patients to consume all that was eatable on the table, and then we got our orders to form in line in the hall. When this was done the doors before us were unlocked and we were ordered to proceed back to the sitting-room. Many of the patients crowded near us, and I was again urged to play, both by them and by the nurses. To please the patients I promised to play and Miss Tillie Mayard was to sing. The first thing she asked me to play was “Rock-a-by Baby,” and I did so. She sang it beautifully. (Belford, Barbara editor. Brilliant Bylines: A Biographical Anthology of Notable Newspaperwomen in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. pp. 128-129. Questia. 8 Nov. 2010)

Nellie Bly is memorialized on a stamp with other badass women of history, Marguerite Higgins, Ida M. Tarbell and Ethel R. Payne

Ten Days in a Mad-house at Amazon.

Nellie Bly's calling card.

Image Credits: Portrait image, Nellie Bly stamp and Nellie Bly calling card.

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

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