Nellie Bly turns 151 today.
Nellie Bly was an American journalist, author, and charity worker, who received initial renown after writing a stinging expose of the mistreatment of the mentally ill while faking insanity and living undercover at a New York mental institution.
Today considered an innovator in the field of investigative reporting, she became a national folk hero after her 72 day record breaking trip around the world in 1889.
Her idea for a newspaper story chronicling her round-the-world trip was presented to her editor at the New York World, but he thought a man would be more up to the task and worried about the amount of luggage she would carry. In answer to his objection, Bly came up with the design for a dress that would stand up to three months of wear and tear and the rigors of travel.
Her initial goal for the trip was to beat the fictional record of Phileas Fogg, the protagonist from Jules Verne’s, Around the World in 80 Days. Not only did she beat his record, she interviewed the renowned author after stopping in France on her journey home to the United States. Upon her arrival she was greeted with a parade and much fanfare (but no raise from her newspaper employer); still her trip was deemed, “a tribute to American pluck, American womanhood and American perseverance.”
Seeking a career that was broader in scope than theater and arts reporting, Bly left the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1887 for New York City. There she talked her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.
It was here that she came up with the idea to go on an undercover assignment in which she would feign insanity in order to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. The assignment resulted in her being dubbed “daring girl reporter”‘ by other reporters.
After a night of practicing deranged expressions in front of a mirror, she checked into a working-class boardinghouse. She refused to go to bed, telling the boarders that she was afraid of them and that they looked crazy. They soon decided that “she” was crazy, and the next morning summoned the police. Taken to a courtroom, she pretended to have amnesia. The judge concluded she had been drugged.
She was then examined by several doctors, who all declared her to be insane. Positively demented, said one, I consider it a hopeless case. She needs to be put where someone will take care of her. The head of the insane pavilion at Bellevue Hospital pronounced her “undoubtedly insane.” The case of the “pretty, crazy girl” attracted media attention: Who Is This Insane Girl? asked the New York Sun.The New York Times wrote of the “mysterious waif” with the “wild, hunted look in her eyes,” and her desperate cry: “I can’t remember. I can’t remember.”
Committed to the asylum, Bly experienced its conditions firsthand. The inmates were made to sit for much of each day on hard benches with scant protection from the cold. The bathwater was frigid, and buckets of it were poured over their heads. The nurses were rude and abusive. Speaking with her fellow residents, Bly was convinced that some were as sane as she was. On the effect of her experiences, she wrote:
“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A.M. until 8 P.M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”
After ten days, Bly was released from the asylum at The World’s behest. Her report, later published in book form as Ten Days in a Mad-House, caused a sensation and thrust her into the national limelight. While embarrassed physicians and staff fumbled to explain how so many professionals had been fooled, a grand jury launched its own investigation into conditions at the asylum, inviting Bly to assist.
The jury’s report recommended the changes she had proposed, and its call for increased funds for care of the insane prompted an $850,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections.
Around the World
Her most publicized reporting stunt was her trip-around-the world. On November 14, 1889 she embarked from New York City on her 24,899-mile journey. Journeying by both ship and train, she traveled through England, France, the Suez Canal, Ceylon, Hong Kong, and Japan. “Seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after her Hoboken departure” (January 25, 1890) Nellie arrived in New York. The publication of her book, Nelly Bly’s Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days marked the height of her journalistic career.
She followed this success with reports on other issues of the day including a piece about the Oneida Community, a utopian religious group, and interviews with Belva Lockwood, (the Woman Suffrage Party’s candidate for president in 1884 and 1888) and Eugene Debbs the Socialist leader of the railroad union. The World also featured a front-page interview she conducted with the anarchist Emma Goldman. Having eclipsed what was expected of women in her time, at the age of 30, Bly was ready to settle down.
In 1895 Bly married millionaire manufacturer Robert Seaman. Bly was 31 and Seaman was 73 when they married. She retired from journalism and became the president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co., which made steel containers such as milk cans and boilers. In 1904, her husband died. In the same year, Iron Clad began manufacturing the steel barrel that was the model for the 55-gallon oil drum still in widespread use in the United States. Although there have been claims that Bly invented the barrel, the inventor is believed to have been Henry Wehrhahn, who likely assigned his invention to her. (U.S. Patents 808,327 and 808,413).
Bly was, however, an inventor in her own right, receiving U.S. patent 697,553 for a novel milk can and U.S. patent 703,711 for a stacking garbage can, both under her married name of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman. For a time she was one of the leading women industrialists in the United States, but embezzlement by employees resulted in the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. going bankrupt. Back in reporting, she wrote stories on Europe’s Eastern Front during World War I and notably covered the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913. Her headline for the Parade story was “Suffragists Are Men’s Superiors”, but she also “with uncanny prescience” predicted in the story that it would be 1920 before women would win the vote.
Bly died of pneumonia at St. Mark’s Hospital in New York City in 1922 at age 57. She was interred in a modest grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, coincidentally in the same cemetery as Bisland, who died in 1929, also of pneumonia.
In an era of Yellow journalism and at a time when women were just beginning to break into the field of journalism the type of undercover investigative reporting undertaken by Bly, set an important precedent. As forerunner to Ida M. Tarbell, and Dorothy Thompson, she successfully pioneered working in the male dominated field of newspaper writing. And like author Charlotte Perkins Gilman and lawyer Belva Lockwood she addressed social issues that desperately needed attention at the turn of the 20th century; issues that affected not only women but all minorities marginalized by society.
For Bly this was especially true in the case of children unprotected by labor laws. In her own childhood, she witnessed first-hand how property laws – which did not protect the rights of widows in those days – marginalized women.
Additionally, in an unregulated economy, Bly was at a distinct disadvantage in running her husband’s business after his death. In her time, Bly reported the news from the perspective of a woman and, as such, helped to elevate the role of women in American society.
Japanese Balloon Bombs
Also on this day in 1945, a pregnant Elsie Mitchell and 5 Sunday school children are killed by a Japanese Balloon Bomb in Bly, Oregon, the only known American civilians killed by enemy action in the Continental US during WWII.
Just a few months ago a couple of forestry workers in Lumby, British Columbia — about 250 miles north of the U.S. border — happened upon a 70-year-old Japanese balloon bomb.
The dastardly contraption was one of thousands of balloon bombs launched toward North America in the 1940s as part of a secret plot by Japanese saboteurs. To date, only a few hundred of the devices have been found — and most are still unaccounted for.
The plan was diabolic. At some point during World War II, scientists in Japan figured out a way to harness a brisk air stream that sweeps eastward across the Pacific Ocean — to dispatch silent and deadly devices to the American mainland.
The project — named Fugo — “called for sending bomb-carrying balloons from Japan to set fire to the vast forests of America, in particular those of the Pacific Northwest. It was hoped that the fires would create havoc, dampen American morale and disrupt the U.S. war effort,” James M. Powles describes in a 2003 issue of the journal World War II. The balloons, or “envelopes”, designed by the Japanese army were made of lightweight paper fashioned from the bark of trees. Attached were bombs composed of sensors, powder-packed tubes, triggering devices and other simple and complex mechanisms.
‘Jellyfish In The Sky’
“The envelopes are really amazing, made of hundreds of pieces of traditional hand-made paper glued together with glue made from a tuber,” says Marilee Schmit Nason of the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum in New Mexico. “The control frame really is a piece of art.”
As described by J. David Rodgers of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, the balloon bombs “were 33 feet in diameter and could lift approximately 1,000 pounds, but the deadly portion of their cargo was a 33-lb anti-personnel fragmentation bomb, attached to a 64–foot-long fuse that was intended to burn for 82 minutes before detonating.”
Once aloft, some of the ingeniously designed incendiary devices — weighted by expendable sandbags — floated from Japan to the U.S. mainland and into Canada. The trip took several days.
“Distribution of the balloon bombs was quite large,” says Nason. They appeared from northern Mexico to Alaska, and from Hawaii to Michigan. “When launched — in groups — they are said to have looked like jellyfish floating in the sky.
Sightings of the airborne bombs began cropping up throughout the western U.S. in late 1944. In December, folks at a coal mine close to Thermopolis, Wyo., saw “a parachute in the air, with lighted flares and after hearing a whistling noise, heard an explosion and saw smoke in a draw near the mine about 6:15 pm,” Powles writes.
Another bomb was espied a few days later near Kalispell, Mont. According to Powles, “An investigation by local sheriffs determined that the object was not a parachute, but a large paper balloon with ropes attached along with a gas relief valve, a long fuse connected to a small incendiary bomb, and a thick rubber cord. The balloon and parts were taken to Butte, [Mont.] where personnel from the FBI, Army and Navy carefully examined everything. The officials determined that the balloon was of Japanese origin, but how it had gotten to Montana and where it came from was a mystery.”
Eventually American scientists helped solve the puzzle. All in all, the Japanese military probably launched 6,000 or more of the wicked weapons. Several hundred were spotted in the air or found on the ground in the U.S. To keep the Japanese from tracking the success of their treachery, the U.S. government asked American news organizations to refrain from reporting on the balloon bombs. So presumably, we may never know the extent of the damage.
We do know of one tragic upshot: In the spring of 1945, Powles writes, a pregnant woman and five children were killed by “a 15-kilogram high-explosive anti-personnel bomb from a crashed Japanese balloon” on Gearhart Mountain near Bly, Ore. Reportedly, these were the only documented casualties of the plot.
Another balloon bomb struck a power line in Washington state, cutting off electricity to the Hanford Engineer Works, where the U.S. was conducting its own secret project, manufacturing plutonium for use in nuclear bombs.
Just after the war, reports came in from far and wide of balloon bomb incidents. The Beatrice Daily Sun reported that the pilotless weapons had landed in seven different Nebraska towns, including Omaha. The Winnipeg Tribune noted that one balloon bomb was found 10 miles from Detroit and another one near Grand Rapids.
Over the years, the explosive devices have popped up here and there. In November 1953, a balloon bomb was detonated by an Army crew in Edmonton, Alberta, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In January 1955, the Albuquerque Journal reported that the Air Force had discovered one in Alaska.
In 1984, the Santa Cruz Sentinel noted that Bert Webber, an author and researcher, had located 45 balloon bombs in Oregon, 37 in Alaska, 28 in Washington and 25 in California. One bomb fell in Medford, Ore., Webber said. “It just made a big hole in the ground.”
The Sentinel reported that a bomb had been discovered in southwest Oregon in 1978.
The bomb recently recovered in British Columbia — in October 2014 — “has been in the dirt for 70 years,” Henry Proce of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police told The Canadian Press. “It would have been far too dangerous to move it.”
So how was the situation handled? “They put some C-4 on either side of this thing,” Proce said, “and they blew it to smithereens.”
On the Web:
Nellie Bly –
Ten Days in a Mad-House, and other early investigative reports by Nellie Bly Digital.library.upenn.edu.
Nellie Bly Sources:
- Bly, Nellie, and Ira Peck. 1998. Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World in 72 days. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books. ISBN 0761309713
- Bly, Nellie. 1887. Ten days in a mad-house; or, Nellie Bly’s experience on Blackwell’s Island. Feigning insanity in order to reveal asylum horrors. New York: N.L. Munro. OCLC 10873647
- “Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman,” Dictionary of American Biography. American Council of Learned Socieities, 1928-1936. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2008.
- Kroeger, Brooke. 1994. Nellie Bly: daredevil, reporter, feminist. New York: Times Books. ISBN 0812919734
- “Nellie Bly,” Contemporary Authors online, 2008. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.
- “Seaman, Elizabeth Cochrane” Women in World History. 2002. Detroit, MI: Yorkin Publishers/Gale Group. ISBN 0787640735
Japanese Balloon Bomb –
“Japan’s Secret WWII Weapon: Balloon Bombs,” by Johnna Rizzo
On Paper Wings, a film by Ilana Sol
On a Wind and a Prayer, a film by Michael White
“Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America,” by Robert C. Mikesh