It had been four months since she’d left Pittsburgh for New York yet Elizabeth Jane Cochran, or “Nellie Bly,” as her byline read, still hadn’t landed a job as a newspaper reporter. She had left the Pittsburgh Dispatch because she was tired of being assigned to the ladies’ pages – writing the society column, reviewing operas, and reporting on the latest women’s fashions.
It was now September of 1887. Bly was running out of money – and then she lost her purse, losing the little bit of money she had left. “I was penniless,” she wrote later, yet she still was not willing to return her former position in Pittsburgh, an industrial city so ugly, said a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, that it was “like looking into hell with the lid off.” New York was the center of the publishing world, a world dominated by men, a fact not lost on Bly. She had to be clever, very clever, to convince a newspaper why they should hire her, a woman, and not a man.
So Bly made up a list of clever story ideas, sure to boost any newspaper’s circulation. Then she borrowed cabfare from her landlady and headed to Park Row, home to the city’s newspaper offices. She managed to talk her way into the office of the managing editor of the New York World Colonel John Cockerill. She took out her list of ideas. She offered to sail steerage class from Europe to America so she could report firsthand the experiences of an immigrant.
Cockerill didn’t like her idea, but he must have recognized Bly’s potential, because he proposed an even wilder assignment. Why didn’t Bly fake insanity, he asked, and get herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum? As an undercover agent, Bly could witness for herself and later report on the rumored abuses suffered by the inmates at the hands of a sadistic staff.
The notorious Women’s Lunatic Asylum was set on the 120-acre sliver of land called Blackwell’s Island in the East River. It was surrounded by prisons and charity institutions. If Bly accepted the assignment, she would be asking for trouble. It could be dangerous. Bly had never been around crazy people before. Could she pull it off? What if she got sent to Blackwell’s Island, got locked up in the asylum with a bunch of lunatics and couldn’t get out?
Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly. (New York: Random House, 1994)
Next: Nellie decides.