Elizabeth Cochran was very different than many other women. For one, she had 14 siblings, all of who she helped raise with her mom after losing her dad at a very young age.
But it was her work as an investigative journalist and women’s rights advocate beginning in the late 1800s that made her famous and influential.
She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864, in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania. Her beliefs in the equal worth and rights of women started early when she responded to an article written in the Pittsburgh Dispatch called “What Girls Are Good For.”
Elizabeth was twenty years old by then, and the article in the Dispatch was written in response to a father of five daughters who had submitted a letter to the newspaper, inquiring what to do with his unmarried female children.
The “Quiet Observer” Offends
Signed “Anxious Father,” the newspaper published a reaction to the concerned father in the form of a column written by Erasmus Wilson. Wilson had a regular spot in the paper known as “Quiet Observer.” The “Quiet Observer” or “Q.O.” as he was referred to, was anything but quiet in his column he wrote about the “anxious father’s” concerns.
Wilson wrote about how working women were “a monstrosity” and declared the only proper place for a woman was in the home. He even attacked the parents of daughters who allowed their girls to be raised believing that it was all right to work and have a career when they became older.
Worse yet, he hinted, supposedly in humor, at the idea of adopting one of the more disgusting parts of Chinese history, in which they practiced infanticide for babies born female.
The Response That Started Everything
Elizabeth was horrified at both the letter and the response to it, and she wrote a letter to the editor proclaiming her outrage.
Editor George Madden took note and was quite impressed with Elizabeth’s writing. In fact, because of that letter, he offered her a job to write a column for the Dispatch. She agreed and was subsequently hired by Madden as a permanent writer.
Permission To Be Heard
Her pen name became Nellie Bly, and she was given permission to write about the topic she was passionate about—women’s rights and issues. There were female professional writers working for newspapers at the time, but those issues were rarely discussed.
Recipes, gardening, and fashion were the types of topics usually written by women at that time. Nellie was a pioneer in her field and for women in general.
Moving On & Undercover
Elizabeth’s departure from what was considered suitable for women to write about resulted in her often going undercover. She would secretly plant herself into a situation in which she suspected were (or known) to be mistreating women in the workplace. After a thorough investigation, she would expose the horrible treatment and working conditions women were forced to succumb to.
When the Dispatch eventually reassigned her writing to typical women’s content, she left Pittsburgh for New York to find better opportunities. After four months with no luck finding work, Elizabeth finally landed a job with New York World newspaper. For one of her very first assignments, she was asked to go undercover as a patient at a well-known mental hospital.
The Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island was cut off from most everything and everyone, and rarely did they let any outsiders into their institution. Rumor was that the asylum’s employees were notoriously cruel and abusive, but nobody knew for certain, given their strict code of inaccessibility. Those who did know were too afraid to talk.
Elizabeth’s assignment was go out into her community and behave in a way that would ensure she would be committed to the asylum, while the New York World newspaper promised to come and have her released after ten days. Elizabeth was afraid, but determined. What she had heard about the place would have made anyone’s skin crawl.
But it was surprisingly not difficult for Elizabeth to go undercover and convince authorities she was insane, and soon she was sent to the asylum.
10 Days Of Hell
The asylum was overcrowded with double the number of patients that it had beds for. The food was inedible, dry, or spoiled, with no utensils, and served with with dirty water called “tea.” Rats were as much a part of the environment as patients.
Once inside, Elizabeth began to act normally and stopped even attempting to pretend to have a mental illness. But she later noted that the place was horrid enough to cause a person to develop one. It was horrific. No one even considered the fact that she might not be insane after all. Elizabeth interviewed other patients who also had no mental illness. Some were simply unable to speak English and poor. She witnessed regular physical and mental abuse of the cruelest kind.
Patients were bathed with ice-cold, dirty water in unwashed tubs. They were tied up and beaten and all complaints were met even worse punishment. Women had lost all trust and hope in their doctors because they would not believe the conditions the women bravely disclosed to them. Often doctors would even disclose to other staff what their patients had shared, resulting in more punishment by the asylum staff.
Perhaps worst of all, the patients who truly did have mental illness went untreated. Elizabeth never imagined just how awful things would be, but she dutifully gathered all the information she would need for when she would be released.
Released To Rebel
After Elizabeth had spent her ten days as an undercover patient, she was released via a lawyer. Her experience was documented in a book she wrote shortly thereafter titled, “Ten Days in a Mad-House.” The exposé revolutionized how mentally ill women, as well as all mentally ill patients, were admitted and treated in facilities throughout America.
The groundbreaking investigative journalism caused a tsunami of improvements, starting with a grand jury investigation, a $1 million budget increase for New York City’s mentally ill, and even new laws enacted.
Elizabeth, a.k.a. Nellie Bly, was famous, but not finished. Her celebrity status allowed her to contribute many more articles on topics such as politics, poverty, and a myriad of issues that were often untouchable and inaccessible to women.
A Hero To Us All
Elizabeth Seamen (Seaman was her married name) became and still is an American icon. Her tenacity and bold spirit allowed her the opportunity to inspire generations of women who would follow.
She passed away having engraved a permanent legacy in the civil rights of women and all humanity. Before she passed away in 1922 at the age of 57 due to a stroke, she witnessed the women’s suffrage finally win the battle to vote, when the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920.
Source: Reporter was locked in mental hospital for 10 days, when her true identity was revealed, the doctors were shocked from Newsner.
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