Friday, November 13, 2009

A Girl Named Pink Makes A Difference

What words come to mind when you hear the name Nellie Bly? Adventurer? Reporter? Women’s Rights Activist? They would all be correct, but how did a woman born in 1864 come by the courage and spirit to delve into places no men dared to go?

Life wasn’t easy for little Elizabeth Cochrane. Born to a well-respected judge and his wife, and almost immediately nicknamed Pink, Elizabeth’s life should have been one of comfort and bliss. But her father died when she was six-years-old. Since he didn’t leave a will, and it was 1864, her mother had no rights to his property. Wanting to provide the best home she could for her children, she remarried and Pink’s life changed dramatically. Instead of a loving daddy, Pink ended up with an abusive step-father.

Imagine if you will, a lonely little girl who watched her mother go from a life of happiness to one where she and her children endured years of abuse. At age fourteen, Pink had to testify about the abuse at her mother’s divorce trial. After that, they moved to Pittsburgh where her mother took in boarders in order to feed her children.

It was during this time that Pink took notice of the young girls who worked in the factories and canneries under the most atrocious of conditions. Pink was at a loss to understand why they couldn’t get jobs similar to their male counterparts. When she was eighteen, she read a newspaper column that basically said women were useless outside of marriage. Fueled by years of abuse followed by years of watching her mother slave away and seeing how young women in Pittsburgh were treated in their workplace, Pink fired off a letter to the editor in response to the article and signed it Lonely Orphan Girl.

She made an impression.

Pink’s letter wasn’t published, but she was invited to meet with the editor and he hired her to write for the paper. Her first articles were about the lack of women in the business world, bad marriages, and divorce—everything she’d experienced as a young girl. Lonely Orphan Girl dared to question whether a bad marriage was better than no marriage at all.

When her editor decided she needed a proper byline, he chose the name of a popular song by Stephen Foster: Nelly Bly. But because of a printing error on her first byline, Nelly became Nellie.

She made a difference.

Nellie wasn’t interested in society balls and who wore the latest fashions. She wanted to cover politics and crime just like the male reporters. She wanted to make people aware of cruel treatment of women and children in the factories. The only way she could do this was to go undercover as a factory worker. It wasn’t long before she was able to bring their issues to light.

Eventually Nellie convinced her editor to send her to Mexico as a foreign correspondent. She reported about poverty and violence, and the homelessness of some of the people. Because of her outspokenness, it wasn’t long before Nellie began receiving threats and eventually had to leave Mexico.

Her next stop was New York City. With her reputation as an undercover reporter and foreign correspondent, surely she’d have no trouble getting a job in the big city. Right? Wrong. In New York, she was a nobody. It took four long months before she convinced Joseph Pulitzer to hire her. But it was well worth the wait because it led to one of her most famous exposés.

Illustrious Nellie managed to get herself committed to an insane asylum known as Blackwell’s Island. She checked herself into a boarding house under the name Nellie Brown, and soon began drawing negative attention to herself by acting crazy. When she emerged ten days later, her series of articles created a sensation. No other reporter had ever dared such a thing.

That she was brave is without question. But her purpose was noble. She wrote, “I answered the summons with pleasure because I longed to help those of God’s most unfortunate children whom I had left prisoners behind me.”

Nellie’s bravery changed lives.

She continued working undercover to expose corruption and help women in precarious situations. And of course, she had her adventures. She once jumped off a ferry to see if the rescue crew knew how to do their job. She rode in a hot air balloon, and danced in a chorus line. But her biggest adventure had to be when she traveled around the world to see if she could beat the record set by Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s novel: Around the World in Eighty Days. She did it in seventy-two days.

But that was Nellie, always determined.

Many people associate her with a dare-devil spirit. An adventuress. They overlook the part of her that longed to make the world a better place for the less fortunate. Even after her biggest adventure, she continued looking out for others with her writing and in 1914, she became the first woman war correspondent.

Without a doubt her unhappy childhood influenced her desire to make things better for others. I think it was that childhood, and the things she saw as a young woman that gave her the courage to delve into the world of undercover reporting, in spite of being told it couldn't be done.

I hope you enjoyed reading about Nellie. I’ve always been fascinated by her and the life she led, more so after reading her own words. In fact, in one of my historical novels, my heroine longs to be a reporter and make a difference like Nellie Bly. And like my heroine, Nellie's story inspires me to dig a little deeper, to try a little harder, and to pray even more: Dear Heavenly Father, help me be aware of those around me. Help me try to make a difference in someone's life today.

Serious questions of the day: Which do you think made Nellie more successful in the field of journalism: her spirit of adventure, or a desire to make life better for the less fortunate? Do you think they were equally fulfilling?

Fun questions of the day: Do you have a spirit of adventure? What is the most adventurous thing you've ever done?

Note: My bibliography sources are all pictured above by bookcover. These books (and the Stephen Foster Songbook) can all be purchased through amazon, barnes and noble, or overstock. However, the two books by Nellie Bly herself can also be read for free by clicking these links:


  1. What a fantastic story! Great job, Suzie, and thanks for sharing this insightful, informative, truly interesting post.

    You started my day on a truly positive note!


  2. Excellent post, Suzie. I remember reading a biography of Nellie Bly in the 4th grade. Her story is one of the things that inspired me to write, and to get involved in journalism.
    I think you have to have both a sense of adventure and a desire to help others to succeed, because when the adventure gets to be a little too hard, or too scary, the only thing that keeps you going is that motivation of love for others.
    Thanks again for a great post today!

  3. I loved Nellie's story, and I hadn't heard it before. Thanks, Suzie.

    I would imagine her rough childhood had much to do with her accomplishments. When we face hard times, either we can let them defeat us or come out stronger.

    I worked at a summer camp with children who had spina bifida one summer. They fell into two distinct categories, the weakest children you would ever want to meet, and the strongest.

    Adventurous things I've done. Oh, there are quite a few, but my favorite was when my car died in a desert in California and my friends and I got to drive a semi-truck the rest of the way to L.A. Fun times.


  4. Thank you for the lovely compliment, Loree. I'm glad I helped your day start off positively.

    I totally agree with you, Niki. I think you have to have both. Adventure is a good thing, but sometimes it really can be scary. But the desire to help others can help keep us strong.

    Dina, I always wondered what it would be like to drive a semi-truck. It sounds fun. I imagine working at that camp was very touching. You're amazing.

  5. I'm with Niki too, if the adventurousness isn't seasoned with compassion then she was just pulling stunts. Ploys that had no true value. But levin that with love for others and suddenly you have action that means something.

    I love Nellie's story and all that she accomplished both for herself and others. There have been so many awesome female role models discussed already! I have to admit, as we were claiming our 'characters' I kept thinking: "Oh, I wish 'd thought of her. Rats. Oh, great one. Oooh why didn't I think of that!"

    We're blessed to have so many ladies to celebrate and learn from!

  6. That was a great post! Fascinating. A lot of the people y'all have posted about I haven't known and it's been great learning material. Thanks.
    Also both spirit of adventure and wanting to help those less fortunate were important for her which is probably what made the results they did. Helping the less fortunate alone would have motivated but not to the degree she did with her adventurousness added too.

  7. Suzie, you're right. The summer camp for kids with Spina Bifida was life changing and quite an adventure of it's own. The interesting part of the story is that I took the job because I felt uncomfortable around people with disabilities, and I didn't like that about myself. Obviously, I got over that very quickly. I learned so much from the kids and befriended some of the older teens for many years to come.

  8. I didn't know much about Nellie Bly, although I'd heard her referenced often.
    Very cool! Wow, another gutsy girl.
    This is fun and we still have a bunch of famous women to learn about.

    Nice job Suzie Jo!

  9. Wow, what a gutsy woman she was. I am in awe of people like Nellie, because I am not the sort who seeks out adventure. Especially after having kids. When I was single I was more apt to take the unknown road, bungee jump, that sort of thing. Now I'm a wimp.

    She clearly was a compassionate person whose bold sense of adventure gave her the guts to expose wrongs and shed light on those in need of help.

    Fabulous post, Suzie. I learned so much!

  10. What a wonderful post. Where do y'all find all these inspirational women?

    Thanks bunches!!!


  11. When I read the header, my first thought was, 'Oh, I know her.' But when I tried to think why I knew her, I couldn't think of anything. So it wasn't her I knew but her famous name.

    Thank you Suzie for this informative post. I don't think I'll ever forget Nellie Bly now because you've painted such a vivid picture of her in my mind.

    As for me, I believe I do have an adventuring spirit. No, I don't want to climb Mt Everest or walk across to the North Pole, and I don't want to fly halfway around the world to experience the giant bugs and snakes in the jungle.

    However, I love to drive and explore Canada and the US and go where the wind takes me. And I must've instilled some of that in my kids because I used to take my eldest along when she was a pre-teen and now as an adult, she's travelled - alone - to New Zealand, India, the Philippines and the Caribbean. And then my 2nd daughter who just turned 18 spent part of this past summer in Scotland. Oh, and my 14 yr old son spent 3 wks touring between Sask and Alberta this summer. Hmmm... they didn't get that wanderlust from their father! LOL

  12. I think her heart for others was a greater influence, because adventure can become tiresome. Amazing story.

  13. Wonderful post, Suzie. I don't think Nellie would have accomplished much without her adventurous spirit, esp back in those days so I think they went hand in hand and complimented each other to get things done.

    You won't find me jumping off a ferry to see if they could rescue me! But someone had to put them to the test, right?

    I love to step (cautiously) out of my comfort zone, but usually like the life-line hooked on just in case. I don't consider traveling adventurous, but if it is, I am!

    Thanks for the insight into another great woman.

  14. Ladies, you'll have to forgive me for taking so long to answer. I'm at work, and had to wait until lunch time.

    I'm so glad you all stopped by and that you enjoyed reading about Nellie. I am so inspired by her, that I've been thinking of writing a book about her.

    One thing I've been thinking about all morning is a line from a song that someone mentioned a few weeks ago by the Sidewalk Prophets. "Don't forget why your here." I love it. And it kind of reminds me of what Nellie did. She didn't forget why she was here and she fulfilled her purpose.

  15. Hi Susanne, I have an adventurous spirit, but not an adventurous body. I wanted to go parasailing before my 40th birthday, but went ice-skating a month before and broke my leg in 2 places. I have been thinking of taking up snow-shoeing this winter, but knowing me, I’ll probably fall and break something again.

    Hi Patti! I don’t remember when I first heard of Nellie Bly, but something about her just fired up my imagination.

    Anita, you sure have had lots of adventures!

    Hi Patricia. Thanks for stopping by!

    Connie, I think traveling is adventurous. We get to see new things, meet new people, and see more of God’s creation. It’s especially more adventurous if we have to go on an airplane, but that’s an adventure I never look forward to.

  16. Dina, in my not so humble opinion, your reasons for going to the camp, and what you brought away from it, make you all the more amazing than I originally thought.

    Lisa, I keep thinking like you. We’ve learned bout a lot of great females this week. And Lisa? I can’t wait to read about yours! If she's who I remembered you talking about, she's one of my favorites!

    Hi Adge. Thank you for stopping by. I agree with you about Nellie. I think her adventurous spirit gave her the courage to step forth and uncover the things she did.

    Thanks Deb. There’s a lot more about Nellie than I could possibly write here. She also wrote a book called Six Months in Mexico, that I was unable to read. And, get this….she also wrote a fiction novel! Yes, our Nellie was like a lot of us. She wrote books and wanted to help others. I was also unable to find her fiction novel, but it was titled The Mystery of Central Park. It sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?

    I'll check back in after work. Have a great day everyone and thanks for making my day by stopping by!

  17. I think her compassionate heart sought for ways to shock people out of their complacency.

    Thanks for the great article.

    Susan :)

  18. Hi Susan. What a great way to think about her. I like your way of thinking.

  19. Suzie, Nellie Bly's story is fascinating and inspiring. Being an Aussie, I haven't heard of many of the women you've featured this month and I've learned so much by reading all your posts. Thank you!

  20. Hi Narelle! I'm so glad you stopped by. I've learned a lot this month, too. I can't wait until next week to read about more fascinating ladies. Have a great weekend!


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