Nellie Bly – Undercover Journalist.

Elizabeth Cochrane “Nellie Bly”, head-and-shoulders portrait. 1890. This photo is in public domain

As always, an episode of the West Wing recently caught my attention in a fantastical way. I am re-watching the season while I do my hour pilates routine because it gets me fired up! Walk and talk – walk and talk!  Anyhow, in season two there is an episode entitled, “And Its Surely To Their Credit,”  in which First Lady Abbey Bartlet, (Stockard Channing) scolds the President for undervaluing the importance of a memorial to Journalist Nellie Bly. She goes off on a tirade about how America overlooks the accomplishments of women and she is very right.

Just for fun – here is Aaron Sorkin’s witty banter of the conversation:

President Josiah Bartlet: You know what I did, just then, that was stupid? I minimized the importance of the statue that was dedicated to Nellie Bly, an extraordinary woman to whom we all owe a great deal.

Abbey Bartlet: You don’t know who she is, do you?

President Josiah Bartlet: This isn’t happening to me.

Abbey Bartlet: She pioneered investigative journalism.

President Josiah Bartlet: Then she’s the one I want to beat the crap out of.

Abbey Bartlet: She risked her life by having herself committed to a mental institution for ten days so she could write about it. She changed entirely the way we treat the mentally ill in this country.

President Josiah Bartlet: Yes. Abigail…

Abbey Bartlet: In 1890, she traveled around the world in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, besting by more than one week, Jules Verne’s 80 days.

President Josiah Bartlet: She sounds like an incredible woman, Abbey. I’m particularly impressed that she beat a fictional record. If she goes down 21,000 leagues under the sea, I’ll name a damn school after her! Let’s have sex.

Abbey Bartlet: When it comes to historical figures being memorialized in this country, women have been largely overlooked. Nellie Bly is just the tip of the iceberg.

President Josiah Bartlet: I couldn’t possibly hear about the rest of the iceberg right now.

Abbey Bartlet: Elizabeth Blackwell was the first American woman to be awarded an MD. She founded the Women’s Medical College…

President Josiah Bartlet: Keep talking. I’m just gonna sit here and think about plutonium and the things I can do with it.


God this show is witty and perfect and certainly peaked my interest in terms of Nellie Bly. So let’s take a look.

She was an investigative and undercover journalist in the 1880s who had a keen interest in women’s rights. As Mrs. Bartlet emphasised, Nellie was born in Cochran Mills, PA in 1864. Nellie’s career began in her teens, after her family relocated to Pittsburgh. According to Aurthur Fritz in his article called, Nellie Bly: The Pioneer Woman Journalist, Nellie was infuriated over an misogynistic article she read in the newspaper, instructing women to forget any ideas of education and careers and instead refocus their efforts in the home. So she wrote back, under the pseudonym “Little Orphan Girl” and ripped the article a new one. The editor was so impressed with her response that be placed an ad seeking her identity. She responded, wrote for him again which eventually lead to a full time position (1).  IF ONLY IT WERE THAT EASY.

Nellie avoided the typical feminine articles of the household and garden variety, choosing instead to focus on women’s rights and conditions in the workforce and society. She even spoke on the disadvantages women faced in life, including divorce proceedings. She started to go undercover. According to, Bly posed as an undercover sweatshop worker to expose the horrid working conditions those women endured (2). However, the more she exposed and expanded on women’s liberations, the more backlash the newspaper received until finally, “…companies threatened to pull advertising from the [newspaper] because of her articles, Nellie was assigned to a gardening story. When she turned in the article, she included her resignation” (1). DROPS MIC.

Nellie’s next move was to travel around Mexico, write about her travels and send them back to her editor for a sort of travel blog. However, the light hearted article soon turned into a harsh critique of the Mexican Government and Bly soon found herself threatened with imprisonment, so again, she peaced out (1). Guess Mexican officials don’t like being called on their bullshit like ours do. Wait…

So like most do, Nellie packed up and headed to New York. The Big Apple. She began working for the New York World in 1887 where she was assigned to discuss the experiences of those locked up in the mental asylum on Blackwell’s Island, now named Roosevelt’s Island. “In an effort to most accurately expose the conditions at the asylum, she pretended to be a mental patient in order to be committed to the facility, where she lived for 10 days” (2). This girl is quickly becoming my hero.

Image extracted from page 468 of King’s Handbook of New York City …, by KING, Moses. Original held and digitised by the British Library 1893. Public Domain

Most of the articles I have read state that asylums were basically a place where people could stick crazy people and forget about them. There were often 10 girls to a room behind locked doors and they would try, through various methods, to “cure” them with little to no effect. It was a terrifying place and she was venturing into the unknown. In the opening paragraph of her article, Nellie posed many questions  but freely stated:

“I had some faith in my own ability as an actress and thought I could assume insanity long enough to accomplish any mission intrusted to me. Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did” (3).

Her mission was simple. To enlighten the world to the inner workings of the establishment with truth and simplicity. She describes having often heard tales of horrors that she assumed to be exaggerations, but was still worried on making her escape, knowing she was putting herself into the hands of those with the power to restrain her. To her editor, she asks simply, “How will you get me out?” His reply? “‘I do not know,” he replied, “but we will get you out if we have to tell who you are, and for what purpose you feigned insanity–only get in’” (3). Comforting.

The article is a must read. You can find it here at Ten Days in a Mad-House. Nellie goes on to describe how she got herself committed by feigning madness on the streets and becoming a poor ward of the state, sent away to be forgotten. She describes practices such as starvation, hair pulling, beatings, cold baths. She states that she would have nightmares about dying in a fire because they were all locked in so tight. She also describes a few brave souls who’s light wouldn’t be extinguished in the horror of that world (3). She is a beautiful writer, very witty and charismatic while also knowing how to gracefully approach such a harrowing topic.

Needless to say, her article BLEW SHIT UP.  In her own words:

“SINCE my experiences in Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum were published in the World I have received hundreds of letters in regard to it. The edition containing my story long since ran out, and I have been prevailed upon to allow it to be published in book form, to satisfy the hundreds who are yet asking for copies

I am happy to be able to state as a result of my visit to the asylum and the exposures consequent thereon, that the City of New York has appropriated $1,000,000 more per annum than ever before for the care of the insane. So I have at least the satisfaction of knowing that the poor unfortunates will be the better cared for because of my work” (3).

While I was researching mental health practices of the 1880s, nearly all the articles credited Bly for revolutionizing mental health practices. The more I read about her, the more I respect EVERYTHING about her. Her bravery, her badass attitude, her respect for the female voice and rights. She is a fighter.

Mrs. Bartlet was right. We need to pay more attention to our women. I had no idea Nellie Bly existed before this week and it is shameful.

Let’s do better.

-Miranda Rawson


  1. Fritz, Arthur. “Nellie Bly: The Pioneer Woman Journalist.” Web. 18 July 2016. <>.
  2. “Nellie Bly Biography.” A&E Television Networks. Web. 18 July 2016. <>.
  3. Bly, Nellie. “Ten Days in a Mad-House.” New York: Ian L. Munro, Publisher, n.d. Web. 18 July 2016. <>.