Salute to Nellie Bly on January 25, 2023


Last night, January 25, 2023 we in the JPL/Caltech Toastmasters Club celebrated the century-and-a-third anniversary of Nellie Bly’s most famous reporter’s feat. 

It wasn’t the most important.  That might have been when she traveled thru Mexico in 1886–1887 and reported on conditions of the poor, which got her fleeing the country, one step ahead of the federales, out of the country—but those stories were compiled in the book Six Months in Mexico.  The stories brought important world support when the peasants eventually rose up against President Porfirio Diaz.

The most important story might have come from Nellie acting strangely to herself committed to the asylum on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island by feigning insanity. Her exposés of conditions—later compiled as Ten Days in a Mad House (1887)—precipitated a grand-jury investigation of the asylum and helped bring about needed improvements in patient care. 

The most important story might have been her stories as one of the first female war correspondents in World War I so that now female reporters are routine.  Those stories continued onward to support for charity efforts during and after the war.

Finally, the most important might have been her writing and speaking for women’s suffrage (the write to vote) that was a rare thing until 1920.

Nellie Bly was a reporter (and often activist) in all those things.  But none of those great deed was her greatest feat.

The high point of Nellie Bly’s career began in 1873 when science fiction writer Jules Verne published Around the World in Eighty Days.  In Verne’s novel, his hero,   Phineas Fogg, used a number of transportation modes to circumnavigate the world in the aforementioned 80 days.  That was a science-fictionish speed considering that the various ship passages of the day might—might connect up to go around the world in half a year if one were lucky.

Nellie Bly repeatedly proposed a race against Phineas Fogg, but her boss Joseph Pulitzer (yes, that Pulitzer) always put her off.  Finally, Nelly threatened to quit and start the race for another newspaper.

Pulitzer gave in and threw in for a major venture.  Nellie sailed east from New York on November 14, 1889.  Pulitzer hyped the story by running daily articles and a guessing contest in which whoever came nearest to naming Nellie Bly’s time in circling the globe would get a trip to Europe. Nellie telegraphed articles back from her various stops, including an interview with Jules Verne who cheered her on.  She rode on ships, trains, rickshaws, sampans, horses, and burros as she drew ever closer to her goal.  

On the final lap of her journey, Pulitzer hired a special train to transport her from San Francisco to New York.  As she passed, she was greeted at each station by cheers, brass bands, and fireworks.  Her Book: Around the World in Seventy-two Days) was a great success, and the name Nellie Bly became a synonym for a female star reporter. 

In its day, Nellie Bly’s 72 days was the wondrous science fiction turned fact just as much as the ninety minutes around the world of Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn in the 1960s was amazing.  

It showed that a woman could do things that it was thought could only be done by a man.  Furthermore, as Jules Verne said, women might do some things … better.


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