For the 81st episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke to Brooke Kroeger about the daring career of Nellie Bly, the newspaper reporter who feigned insanity to investigate abuse at an asylum and traveled the world in a record-breaking 72 days.
A professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, Brooke Kroeger is the author of five books. Among them are Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist and Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception, which has a companion online database created in collaboration with NYU Libraries.
Brooke Kroeger: The two and a half years between the insane asylum and her trip around the world are really everything her legacy is based on, all before 25 years old.
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Nick Hirshon: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
A century ago, on January 27,
1922, Elizabeth Jane Cochran died in New York City, her body destined for an unmarked grave. Every obituary mentioned the feats that highlighted her rousing career: how she feigned insanity to investigate deplorable conditions at an asylum, and pulled off a record-breaking trip around the world in just 72 days.
But the daring reporter known to readers as Nellie Bly had accomplished much more than that. In spurts of nearly four decades, she had written hundreds of articles in the Pittsburg Dispatch, the New York World, and the New York Evening Journal. She had pioneered the stunt journalism of the 1880s, the forerunner of investigative reporting.
She was the first woman to report from the Eastern Front in World War I. Admirers called her “Will Indomitable,” “the best reporter in America,” “the personification of pluck.” Her sensational stories have fascinated little girls,
inspired movies and plays, and landed her on a postage stamp.
On this episode of the Journalism History podcast, we examine the career of Nellie Bly with Brooke Kroeger, the author of the 1994 book Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Brooke, thanks for joining us today to discuss Nellie Bly, the most famous woman journalist of her day in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And before we review her life, I’d like to start by talking about how she was almost lost to history, would have been maybe if not for your biography, which was the first on Nellie Bly.
And you describe in the book how you were surprised that no other serious historians seemed to have covered her life in full, couldn’t find any biographies of her listed in the Library of Congress catalog. There was not a single doctoral dissertation about her in any of the national registries. Even histories of journalism dismissed her in just a few sentences.
So I was struck in particular by a few lines that you wrote that the problem with her legacy was poor planning for posterity. And you –
wrote, “Guaranteeing a place in history, it seems, takes more than living a phenomenal life. In most cases it takes careful attention to creating a documented record of that life that isn’t hard to retrieve. Something like I squirreled, therefore I was.”
And we often say history is written by the winners, but you seem to be saying it’s written about the packrats, and now we’re approaching three decades after your book was published. I wonder if you’ve reflected since then on how close Nellie Bly was to being reduced to a minor character in journalism history, and if journalism history is just rife with these biographies of people who squirreled away their letters for future historians.
Brooke Kroeger: I hope it’s fair to say that I think access, availability of material has always been a reason for pursuing something that already seems interesting, and the lack of that material is a deterrent. So in Nellie’s case, of course there were two juvenile –
biographies that were written in the 1950s. We have to acknowledge that. And that certainly kept her alive for my whole generation of, you know, bookmobile-goers who pulled those biographies, one or the other, out of the children’s library and at 9 or 10 years old read them.
So there was always that, but to – you know, to embark on a PhD dissertation – there was a master’s one at Columbia, which actually proves a very, very good reference because she interviewed a lot of people who were actually still alive in the 1930s when it was written. So there was a, you know, a little bit of a secondary record, but very, very sparse.
And there were six letters. There were a couple at Carnegie Mellon, I believe, and then there were some at Smith, but in all six. So, I was able to pull out something close to 200 –
just by, you know, will, basically, and that’s all there was.
So, you know, you’ll notice like even in the case of Zora Neale Hurston, where there was no family, you know, they were able to resurrect the legacy because somebody took charge of it and took charge of her literary record. For Nellie, there was no one. She had family, but I’m not sure they understood that she was more than her moment.
And anyway, they were – they were all at odds with each other when she died, so that may account for why there was no materials, nothing was kept except by chance.
Nick Hirshon: And yet you were able to put this all together, which we appreciate, so let’s dive into Nellie Bly’s life, which you were able to find. She was born as Elizabeth Jane Cochran toward the end of the Civil War, May 5, 1864, western Pennsylvania, into a prosperous –
family of Irish settlers. And she was nicknamed Pink because she eschewed the standard utilitarian black outfits of the day for the standout color pink.
Her father, Michael, was a judge who had been elected justice of the peace and ran for Pennsylvania State Assembly, but he had died without leaving any provisions for his wife and Nellie’s fourteen siblings, herself. And she eventually drops out of school, ends up in the newsroom of the Pittsburg Dispatch, so that’s where she earns the name that she’s known by today.
So how did Elizabeth Jane Cochran become Nellie Bly, and what did she write about in her first newspaper job at the Dispatch?
Brooke Kroeger: One thing I just want to add, that the 1864 date was something I pulled out of a baptismal record, I believe. She herself claimed 1867. This was very common, I noticed, that women of the era, and maybe of later eras to not to want to give up their age. She’s in her 20s, early 20s. She’s only had
a semester, not even a full semester of normal school, which was, you know, Indiana College in Pennsylvania.
And so they’re back in Pittsburg. Her mother is running a boarding house. Her column appears in the Pittsburg Dispatch by Erasmus Wilson, who later will become her – well, soon will become her mentor. And he writes a column about, you know, what girls are good for. He’s kind of upset that they’re making their way into the workforce, and he thinks it’s wrong and has a real screed about it, which she reacts to.
Because of course she understands that some girls actually need to work for a living. This isn’t just biding their time till marriage. And she writes him back a letter, and the legend is that George Madden, who was the editor of the Pittsburg Dispatch, sees the letter. And even though her grammar was terrible, she had no punctuation, but he feels the spirit in the letter.
And that’s, that’s the legend.
And he actually runs an ad in the paper. She had signed herself “Lonely Orphan Girl,” because a young woman without a father would be considered an orphan even though her mother was living, and says, “Would you please come forward?” And, and that actually exists, so we know that that’s a fact. And she does.
And it was not always the case, and certainly had not always been the case since the 1840s, but many women would take on an alliterative – usually a literative penname, you know, under the rubric of women only being in the newspapers by name at birth, marriage, and death, so that was probably mostly the reason.
And another legend, someone was walking by whistling Stephen Foster’s “Nelly Bly” song, which is spelled with a Y not I-E.
She spelled with I-E, and they decided to make that her penname. That, that’s the story.
Nick Hirshon: But then Nellie Bly became frustrated at the Dispatch, like many women journalists of the era. She was assigned to cover fashion, society and gardening, and she grew impatient with those kind of assignments so she traveled as a foreign correspondent to Mexico, which was exotic, dangerous, and accessible to her. She covered the people, their habits, their customs, and their politics, and she even wrote a book about her six months there.
But by 1887 she was writing long features again on everything from the history of visiting cards to the origins of wedding rings to the rituals of marriage. And she had two columns: backstage insights into the theatrical productions in Pittsburg, and another column on the painters and sculptors of the city.
But she’s not satisfied so she heads to New York. She wants to write for the World, which is Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper which had been surging in circulation, 200,000 readers on Sundays. And she then –
arranges to interview the top editors at all the New York newspapers. I thought this was ingenious.
She wasn’t able to get a job there immediately so she says, “Hmm, maybe I’ll go about writing a profile of, you know, what it’s like to be a woman journalist and interview all the editors of the New York papers,” and that’s her excuse to get into the newsrooms and meet everybody.
Ah, and then she finally gets her chance at the World by agreeing to what’s one of her most famous, maybe the most famous assignment by agreeing to feign insanity and try to get herself committed. So can you tell us a little bit, Brooke, about Bly’s assignment here at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum in Blackwell’s Island?
Brooke Kroeger: So, the idea comes up when she finally gets in to meet John Cockerill, who’s the editor of the New York World, where she really wanted to work. The World was the really up-and-coming paper and most exciting kind of journalism was happening there. Ah, much sensational, but also pretty bedrock, good reporting.
And so from that –
series she did of interviewing the various editors in town, she got a pretty good sense of what they might be looking for if they would hire a woman. And of course they were full of caveats about why they would not hire – you know, not be inclined to hire a woman, having to do with their clothes, how are they gonna shimmy down a banister in 15 petticoats, etc., etc.
So she had a pretty good idea that she needed to come in with ideas. Pretty good advice for any young journalist now also. So she suggested that she would go overseas, come back from South Hampton, England, steerage. Because of course, this is the moment of immigration and she wanted to talk about what, what that trip was like. They, they considered that too difficult, too expensive.
But in the summer, this – her, her interview happens in September, so in the summer there had been stories about untoward things happening on –
Blackwell’s Island at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. There were suggestions of inappropriate behavior by doctors or by nurses. I mean, it was all a little mysterious, and the kind of thing that would be very hard to document unless you didn’t go in with the bosses, you know, that you really made it into an undercover operation.
So like all great ideas, lots of people take credit for it. You’ll find in some records that it was Pulitzer’s idea. I think that’s mostly a courtesy. He wasn’t even much in the newsrooms in those days. Sometimes it’s credited to Cockerill, and Bly herself takes credit.
So, you know, it was some combination in that meeting. And, and she agrees to do it. She was a little bit theatrical anyway. So she practices looking insane in the mirror over and over again, and then checks into a boarding –
house on the Lower East Side, that was of course an all-women’s house, acting so strange that the matron calls the police, exactly what Nellie had hoped would happen.
And so she goes through, you know, a small tribunal. They send her to Bellevue. From Bellevue, they examine her. They decide she is certifiably not okay. They put her on a little ferry and send her over to Blackwell’s Island, which of course is Roosevelt Island today.
And at that time this was where, ah, I love this phrase, where all the cancer spots of modern Manhattan were housed: the alms houses, the prisons, the insane asylums, etc. And she gets committed. There was a plan. They had already been to see the district attorney to get her quashed legally because of course you’re taking the place of a person. This would be good –
At any point, you’d want to make sure, A, that she wasn’t going to get prosecuted for doing it, and, B, there might be a way to get out. And, and she remained 10 days, kept a little notebook, and then of course remembered everything else. And then Walt McDougal, who was her illustrator of most of her stories that would become, and, and an attorney for the firm, I believe, came to rescue her with a concocted story.
While she was there, a reporter for one of the Pittsburgh papers whom she knew from Pittsburgh, actually came to see who was this insane girl. Because all the newspapers, other than the World, were writing about it because the case was so mysterious. She was, you know, reasonably well dressed, she was speaking with a Spanish accent, the residue of her, her Mexico sojourn, I guess, calling herself Nellie Moreno, Nellie Brown,
and, ah, and so everyone was writing about her.
This is part of the reason she became such a major figure because her initial splash into New York was covered by everyone. And, and then she comes out, and then she over two weeks, in the Sunday supplement, in the Sunday feature section, front page, she does, you know, this mass retelling of everything she had experienced.
And this was not a new form because other people were doing “stunt work,” but she’s, you know, the greatest exponent of this exploitive moment in history where women were used for these sorts of things. What set Nellie apart, and over the next two and a half years where she was doing many, many of these, and I’m sure you’re going to reel some of them out, it’s amazing that these two and a –
half years are really what makes her everything.
I mean, yes, her life goes on, and, yes, she does many other interesting things that I find fascinating, but the two and a half years between the insane asylum and her trip around the world are really everything her legacy is based on. And she’s – all before she’s 25 years old.
Nick Hirshon: It’s a stunning story, as I was reading your book, just realizing, as you say, she accomplished so much in a short period of time. She becomes so famous, the most famous of the stunt girls in a matter of months. I mean, this is her first assignment that she has at the World.
And then a year later, in 1888, the World’s circulation is starting to sag, and she’s helping them crank up another phenomenon to try to get those numbers rising. Fifteen years earlier, Jules Verne had published his adventure novel Around the World in Eighty Days, a story about a rich British gentleman who attempts to circumnavigate the world with his valet, as the –
title tells it, in 80 days.
And so in November 1889, Bly sets off to try to replicate that feat, or beat that time. What can you tell us about the reporting for this series?
Brooke Kroeger: So, by this time, she’s a pretty big deal, and she has helped circulation. She has been key to the economic interest of the paper, which is already very important. She has a huge following. She probably is not gonna do a whole lot more undercover work because now people know who she is. You know, that was possible when she was [inaudible] in New York, but now not so much.
So she walks into the newsroom one day, this is her telling, and says that she would like to go around the world. The idea was in the zeitgeist. And the editors already had the idea and were planning to send a man, and she said, “Well, go ahead and do that and I’ll simply do it for somebody else.”
And so they agree to send her. They organize it in a split second. I mean –
within not even two days she’s had a traveling coat made, she’s got the bag. And part of the conceit was that she was going to do this, A, as a woman alone, which was the peg, and, B, without, as she put it, a round dozen trunks, which of course no woman traveled like that, but she ostensibly did.
She talks about what she was managed to put in this small satchel. It was leather, it was alligator. I used to own it. I gave it to the Newseum. God knows where it is now. But anyway, so off she goes. And she follows a plan much like Verne’s.
Of course they do a great publicity stunt by having her stop in Amiens, France, to meet him. Of course he was thrilled because that also created some juice for his book. And they had this wonderful meeting and on she goes on her trip around the world.
Cosmopolitan magazine, which of course at that time as a general interest publication, decides to send Elizabeth Bisland, who was a much more popular writer than Nellie, much, much better regarded at least by the journalism trade magazines. People were insanely jealous of Nellie. I mean, no one could stand how famous she was, and, you know, really looked for any opportunity to cut her down, but that’s how it went.
So, so off she goes. Elizabeth Bisland – she leaves from New Jersey. Elizabeth Bisland leaves from San Francisco to traverse the country. Nellie is going to come back that way. And of course Nellie beats her. There was some indication that perhaps there were some shenanigans to make sure that happened. We will never know. But Nellie beats the record, and it’s just a cause of enormous celebration.
Now, how did they keep interest –
going for all these 72 days and X hours? How did they do that? Well, she was sending, you know, three-word cables back. I mean, a very expensive trip. So what they did was run geography lessons, interviews, guessing games, they made up a board game that then got published as an actual board game by three different game publishers. There were Nellie Bly hats and Nellie Bly lamps, and, after her, Nellie Bly horses, and, you know, just, she just was such a figure.
Journalists who are able to sustain a reputation over, what is it, a hundred and how many years? A hundred and many years. Um, it’s, it’s unimaginable today that a legacy would sustain for that length of time. Mostly because of the image –
she created, you know, more than the work itself, and also the ideas she had of what to do.
And I think also the fact that there was always a social agenda to what she was doing. She wasn’t just putting on a bullet-proof vest and getting shot at, or, you know, going up in a balloon or down in a diving bell. She was looking for things that addressed the social issues of the time, from the baby-buying trade to corruption in Albany. You know, she just always had that idea both in her journalism then, and in her journalism much later.
Nick Hirshon: And when we look back at that today, of course, we’re thinking about how she could have been texting or emailing constantly, calling, Skyping, what have you with her editors, but that was not a possibility. So the fact that they were able to maintain this interest over the entire 72-day journey with all of those kind of creative measures that you described is really neat.
But I just want to take a detour for a second ’cause you said –
something in there that I think we have to talk about. How did you come to own Nellie Bly’s satchel?
Brooke Kroeger: Well, you know, I needed totems when I was writing this book. So when I had proposed the idea initially, and I guess I should tell that story, but maybe people know it. So my daughter was doing a woman’s project. She went to a girl’s school and they do an annual “pick a figure from history.” And of course having had this, you know, 10-year-old experience of my own I said, “You should do Nellie Bly. This was mom’s childhood hero, and I think we should do it.”
So we went looking for the juvenile books. We found both of them. In those days, of course, you had to go to the antique trader and run an ad. It came back. And so reading the two books, it was clear how fictionalized they were. And Brett said, “Well, you know mom, you should write a real book,” and I thought, “Well, that’s really a good idea.”
And when I made the proposal, which was 14 double-spaced pages long, I mean not very –
long, because there just wasn’t that much that was evident, I had suggested that if I couldn’t find more I would do something about women of this era, which of course other people have subsequently done and done very well.
And but, you know, I just – I got nutty, which I think is something, you know, journalism historians and other historians get, and I just was willing finding things. And so part of the thing I did was the first thing that happened was a board came – a board game came on the market. I bought it, then I became friendly with the crazy board game people who – you know, not crazy but crazy passionate about things such as this.
Then the satchel came on the market, and I got the satchel. You know, is it actually hers? It is certainly the exact satchel in style and form. I can’t, you know, promise, but it was sold as hers, and certainly the price suggests that. And I got the trading – the trade –
cards, and I got the steel card when she – you know, a little – her later incarnation.
I just needed totems. And then lots of magical things happened in the writing of that book. It’s caused me always to tell my students that sometimes you have to will things. You know, that you, you will it. It will come. Because I actually had that experience.
Nick Hirshon: Well, that’s what makes history so special is that these are real people who left behind real artifacts so that we can touch and feel closeness to them, and I just find that fascinating. And of course this is an era before you could just go on eBay and search Nellie Bly and then maybe a bunch of this stuff would pop up when you’re collecting some of it. That’s amazing.
And I hope that that got saved because the Newseum is no longer around, of course, so hopefully it ends up in, ah, some other home where people can view it.
Brooke Kroeger: Who knows? Um, who knows?
Nick Hirshon: But, ah, but her stunt there did help circulation. On the day of her return from that journey the World’s –
circulation hit 280,000, which was up 10,000 from the previous Sunday record, so it obviously did the job effectively. And you were describing here how that journey made her the most talked-about woman in America. She was still annoyed, though, that her editors didn’t say so much as a thank you, didn’t offer her any bonus or a salary increase.
She said that Joseph Pulitzer did cable his congratulations and asked her to accept a gift that he was going to send from India, but that gift never arrived. Um, so she goes on the lecture circuit, she discusses her travel. She publishes a book entitled, Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World in Seventy Two-Days. First edition sells out all 10,000 copies.
Then again she appears on the front page of the World in September 1893 with a jailhouse interview with the anarchist Emma Goldman. And all of this sensational journalism we’ve been talking about, from the asylum to the trip around the world, interviewing an anarchist, this feeds her reputation as the most notable of the so-called stunt girls of that era, but –
the word “stunt” can be maybe misleading or underselling her.
And you were kind of getting into this that you write that her stunts were, “rarely frivolous or spurious in concept.” So what do you mean by that?
Brooke Kroeger: Well, I mean, as I just said before, that a lot of the stunt girls were doing things that were daring for daring’s sake. In Nellie’s case, almost invariably she was picking something that had that feeling of daringness, or, you know, surreptition, but always with a purpose.
Like, she would be showing what conditions were at rehabilitation centers, or she would be exposing the baby-buying trade, or she would be going to prison to see how women were treated when they were arrested, if there was anything untoward happening with the matrons, that kind of thing.
So there always was, as I was saying, a social purpose in the kinds of things she did, and that was not true of –
all the other stunt girls. Many emulated the things she did, like, you know, working in factories to see what factory girl – factory girl life was like. And I can think of five who did that, and all did it very well in Chicago, in Minneapolis, in San Francisco. I mean, all sorts of places.
So, you know, these became interesting things to do, but she, she would be the major exponent.
Nick Hirshon: I almost think that using that term “stunt girl” kind of cheapens what she’s doing here. Because [in] another age, she might have just been called to a reformer, progressive, advocate journalist. You know, an investigative journalist because, yeah, it’s not just for sensationalism’s sake.
Brooke Kroeger: Exactly. We could say that – you know, I like to say, you know, and I have this argument sometimes with people that they want to call her an investigative journalist. Her work was so personal. She was not, you know, supplementing it with documentary work the way – she’s not Ida Tarbell who comes really on her heels.
But I would say that she precursed, she was the precursor to full-scale investigative reporting as we understand it in the modern era before, you know, data-driven computer work. I mean, you know, looking at Tarbell and the muckrakers, who had a much more documented way of approaching it.
For Nellie, it was “I was there. You can believe me.” And not only that. “I’m going to tell you about my waist, and about my smile, and about my exchange that makes me seem so clever.” I mean, that was also part of her appeal, a great part of it. She was in the center of her stories always.
Nick Hirshon: Yes, there’s a risk of reducing her to a caricature, but there was a lot of depth to her journalism. And then she married at age 31 in 1895. We’ll fast-forward a bit here, Brooke. How does Nellie Bly end up reporting from the front in World War I?
Brooke Kroeger: Nellie ends up in –
Austria, not because she’s going to report the war, though the war is just about to break out. She goes to avoid prosecution because she has taken over the factories of her husband who has – she takes them over before he dies, and then he dies. And then she invents the steel barrel.
I mean she, she really – like she creates a model of social welfare for her employees, the turkeys at Christmas, the recreation room, you know, etc. It’s very Nellie-esque. Of course she’s bankrupting the company, and things get really messy financially. It’s front page of the New York Times. I mean, it’s a mess.
And she leaves to go see Oscar Bondy, a friend she has made at some point. Perhaps he’s someone who she sold steel barrels to for all I know. I don’t really know. But he was a sugar refinery
manufacturer. Owner of a sugar refinery in, ah, near Vienna. And she goes and the war breaks out. So what’s the first thing she does? She calls her old friend Arthur Brisbane, who of course is now running the Hearst empire. They had been friends at the World.
And the first thing she does is goes on the first trip to the front. She and like three or four other reporters. That’s a – that’s a very early woman at the front story. Not the earliest. I have earlier ones from the 1860s and before. 1840 with Margaret Fuller, but in World War I she is about it for a woman on the Eastern Front, and doing that kind of work.
Then she comes back. Of course she becomes an enemy alien because she’s in Austria and we are Americans on the other side of the war, but she’s kind of a darling of the nobility, so she has kind of a gay four years. Comes –
back through Versailles to try to implore Wilson to understand how big the threat the Bolsheviks are. No one is listening to her. By now it’s 1919 and she’s – you know, her, her legacy has faded though her name is still very much in the cultural milieu.
And she comes back. She’s penniless. Her family has – she’s left the company in the name of her family. They’ve not treated her properly. She gets Brisbane to give her a job. I actually found in her probate package an envelope that she had given to Brisbane that showed what money she had, which was nothing except $100 a week he was paying her.
And, ah, and for the next two years, she does do this column, and mostly uses her column, which is right next to his on –
the editorial page of the paper, as a clearing house for children whose parents cannot take care of them, to get them into good foster care. She takes on the cause of American seamen because her name is now Seaman. The husband’s name was Seaman, S-E-A-M-A-N, and she takes on their cause. Foreign workers are taking their jobs, and, and capital punishment, which she opposes. She of course has witnessed a couple of executions and is not a fan.
And at the same time, Brisbane uses her, like he used sob sisters, to, you know, to write the big kidnapping stories and the huge murderers and big trials. She doesn’t do trials so much, but she does do a couple of big kidnappings, that sort of thing. And then, um, she dies.
Nick Hirshon: Well, what’s striking to me about her time at the New York Evening Journal, she already at this point –
had made herself known, maybe overexposed herself in some of the sorts of stories that she had been doing. Um, and so yeah, she returns with this fanfare in the Journal, but she’s covering a heavyweight boxing championship match including Jack Dempsey.
She continues her line of jailhouse confession interviews of accused avengers and murderers, as you write, but isn’t there this possibility that her act has worn thin with readers, and how was she keeping it fresh?
Brooke Kroeger: Well, she isn’t doing stunts anymore. She’s doing what is important in the moment. So this is the sob sister era. Any woman – I mean, in the work I’m doing currently, I’m so struck by the fact that women are constantly trying to get out of the women’s ghetto. They are just trying anything they can.
So in the 1850s and 1860s, you know, there’s abolition. So you work on an abolition paper, people see your work, and then they might hire you to be a correspondent, which is what Nellie was attempting in that trip to Mexico.
That as a correspondent, either from Washington or from a place abroad, you’re able to segue yourself out of the women’s pen, and they are constantly trying ways to do this. This is what made stunt journalism interesting, because it was a way out. It was a way out of that, you know, rubber raincoats and flower shows, and, ah, and that’s really important to see.
In the next era comes the sob sister. They get to be on the front page. You know, that’s better than being stuck in the back writing about weddings, so that is a very appealing thing to do for a while. So it was very much of a peace with what the more sensational papers were doing. I mean, it was exactly the next move.
And then she dies in 1922 when the front-page girls start, and they, you know, are doing real bona fide journalism. There’s only one per paper usually, and not every paper. But the change, you know, starts, but –
man, is it a slow road. It’s really a slow road.
Nick Hirshon: Sure, and much has been written about that and continues to be written about that today. But you mentioned that Nellie Bly died in 1922, age 57, and yet it’s a century after her death, she still seems to capture the public imagination.
It’s been more than a quarter century since you published your biography of her in 1994, and yet you’re still giving talks about her to the Ephemera Society of America, the American Women Writers National Museum, the Empire State Center for the Book. I’ve seen all these listed on your website.
And in pop culture she remained a dominant figure. There was a 1946 Broadway musical about her. NBC broadcast the TV movie in 1981 named The Adventures of Nellie Bly, starring Linda Purl, who’s best known as Fonzie’s girlfriend from Happy Days. In 2002, she was honored on a U.S. postage stamp.
And her exposé for the World on the Women’s Lunatic Asylum inspired a feature film in 2015 –
named 10 Days in a Madhouse, and a TV movie in 2019 titled Escaping the Madhouse. That starred Christina Ricci as Nellie Bly. So why do you think she still has this place in the American consciousness?
Brooke Kroeger: And, um, and I’ve optioned the books six times. It’s, um – well part of it, I think, comes from the inspiration she seems to be to girls of 10. Ah, when the book came out, it was very widely reviewed. Probably no credit to me. No doubt, no credit to me, but because so many people had had the same experience I did. I can’t tell you how many reviews started with the words “when I was a girl of 10.”
And at that moment, you know, probably the middle 1950s, middle to late 1950s, I guess, um, the idea that you didn’t have to be a nurse or a teacher, not that there’s anything wrong with being a nurse or a teacher, but that there was another avenue that we could pursue that felt as giving, and as –
socially conscious, and as – and more wonderful, more, you know, more adventurous, more exciting, was incredibly exciting. And, and so that’s one reason that the legacy held on before there was actually a book documenting who she was.
And then in Armstrong County, where she comes from in Pennsylvania, John Angler, my dear friend, may he rest in peace, he was the head of the historical society. He took on the task of getting her in the Women’s Hall of Fame. So there were just many things that happened to help keep the legacy going.
In the 1970s, you know, the New York Newspaper Club put a marker on her grave, which had been left unmarked. Imagine her family, so shocking, and so that, that had happened. They named an award after her. So, you know, the name kind of had its own currency before.
And then the other thing that happens is –
that I – you know, I always repeat this because I find it so interesting. Every single year since that book came out, I am the – tend to be the live interview for National History Day. Because whatever the theme is, and they always have a new theme, Nellie fits the theme.
And anywhere between five this year, which was a low year, and sometimes as many as 40, often girls who are in middle school, are choosing Nellie Bly as their subject, because there’s something about her story that just holds their imagination. Even though – you know, if you look on undercoverreporting.org and put in asylum, you’ll see how many times people since then, and before then, actually it was done once before by one of her editors when he was still a reporter, had, had undertaken to do, you know, an asylum piece, and, or the trips around the world also done –
a zillion times.
That you won’t find in undercoverreporting.org, but I can tell you it’s a fact. Even as recently the last couple of years, one of my Nellie Bly team colleagues just recently made that trip in just the last couple of years.
So she just provokes, she inspires, she’s just got – she’s an it girl. She’s just an it girl. That’s it.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and your book now, again, a quarter of a century old, we know that history does not change, although sometimes new information does come to light over the years. So since 1994, anything new that we’ve learned about Nellie Bly?
Brooke Kroeger: Yes. There is something new, very recently. I’ve been kind of excited about that because, A, it’s more than a quarter of a century, and, B, um, nothing has come up. I mean, I think somebody sent me one letter from a brother, but, you know, nothing that was really cogent.
But there’s a novelist named David Blixt, B-L-I-X-T, and he has recently written a novel about Nellie Bly.
By the way, there had been now, since the book, a number of novels, at least two in Italian. She’s very hot in Italy and very hot in France, since the book, but those things have happened. Ah, but he has written – he’s one of these novelists, which I think there are at least five or six, and of course there have been several books. There’s at least two books about the trip around the world, putting in the Bisland element. I think that’s all.
And then David Blixt got very interested in her novels, which, you know, I have to tell you are not marvelous, but just that they’re Nellie’s is interesting enough. I found, you know, one or two because the family story paper in which they were published just doesn’t exist. There was literally one. And I mean, I looked hard.
But David went to London and found the –
London edition, and found a number of these novels. And not only did he find them, but he has now published them. So they are available through all the usual purveyors. They’re called The Lost Novels of Nellie Bly. And his own novel is available as well as are the others. But that is pretty exciting. That is a real fabulous find, so bravo to David Blixt.
Nick Hirshon: It’s just incredible that even these figures like Nellie Bly, who since your book certainly have been researched extensively, we’re still discovering things so many years later, and that gives hope to historians who are maybe puzzled by some problem that is centuries old.
There still could be a document in someone’s attic or basement or at a yard sale or something, so keep your eyes peeled and you might be able to tell a story.
Brooke Kroeger: It’s so true. I mean I’m thinking back to writing the book, you know, reeling microfilm for six months every single day, swallowing an egg in the bathroom of –
the New York Historical Society, and now you can go on newspapers.com and then if you can’t find the World, you know, everything was reprinted. So you find it within the day of when it was and it’s three keystrokes.
I mean, it’s so different to do this work now, which is kind of wonderful. And I keep hoping something’s going to come up that I haven’t seen, but of course I look but not yet.
Nick Hirshon: Well, hopefully the next generation of researchers will be looking and inspired by this podcast, by our conversation, to start their search. Ah, but as we wrap up today, and thank you again, Brooke, for taking all this time to tell us about Nellie Bly’s life, I’d like to pose a question to you that we ask all of our guests on this podcast. Why does journalism history matter?
Brooke Kroeger: Well, I think it matters for the reasons that all history matters. I mean, it’s something you need to understand, and understanding it in a documentary way rather than what you’ve –
heard third and fourth hand, which may or may not be accurate. And of course accuracy, you know, we’re always pushing towards accuracy, but I think, ah, I just think it’s terribly important, and also watching how the field has evolved.
On the question of women, you know, I find that as I dug much more deeply into the period before Nellie, and the period after, both of which I knew somewhat about, but nothing close to what I know now. A lot of understandings that we might have are not exactly correct. You really need to see that entire stretch.
So one thing, you know, I want to say, this would relate to women’s journalism history, but maybe it can be extrapolated to a larger context, you know, every time I read an obituary where they call somebody a trailblazer, or the first this or the first that, or, you know, say that the,
the women of such-and-such a war broke this ground and that had never happened before, it is just so not true. It’s never true.
And I wouldn’t even claim it for the first person I find because I’m sure someone’s going to find firsts before them, or people that, you know, really did blaze trails. Dorothy Thompson, ah, in 19 – in the 1920s, writing in the Nation, has this wonderful quote where they want to celebrate her for being, you know, the first woman in a big European correspondent job, which of course also wasn’t true. Not at all.
But she says, “This is like the most specious form of women’s magazine journalism. Why would you ask such a question?” And that, you know, in some ways it’s just belittling because the history is so much richer, and so much greater, and so much bigger.
Nick Hirshon: And we may get lost in trying to detail who is the first or the most recent or most prolific when it’s more about the contributions they’ve made.
I think, again, looking at someone like Nellie Bly it doesn’t even do her justice to just say she was the most famous woman journalist of her era. It’s not just about fame. It’s about the levels there, right? Celebrity can be skin deep sometimes, but it seems like with her she was actually trying to expose wider society problems while also calling attention to herself, sure, but there was more that was being accomplished.
Brooke Kroeger: And think about this, too. You know, journalism is ephemera. It is meant to disappear.
Nick Hirshon: Mhm.
Brooke Kroeger: It is meant to last a very short time. So when a journalist’s legacy or a journalist’s work stands this test of time, we have to take notice. I mean, something special is happening there.
Nick Hirshon: Certainly. Well, you put together a very special book about Nellie Bly. You’ve done so much great research on her that we appreciate you sharing with us today. Thank you for coming on the Journalism History podcast.
Brooke Kroeger: I love having been asked. Thank you very much.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor & Francis. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at @JHistoryJournal. Until next time, I’m your host Nick Hirshon, singing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night, and good luck.”