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Tuesday, July 12, 2022

July 12, 2022: Investigative Journalists: Nellie Bly

[This coming weekend we’ll celebrate the 160th birthday of one of my favorite Americans, Ida B. Wells. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of fellow investigative journalists, leading up to a special tribute to the inimitable Wells!]

On a rightly famous work of investigative journalism, and another that should also be.

Yesterday’s subject, Fanny Fern, arrived at Blackwell’s Island (literally and as a subject for her journalism) long after she was well-established as a successful columnist—as I argued in that post, that timing only adds to the series’ impressiveness, but it does also mean that Fern was by no means an investigative journalist in her career overall (and never would have defined herself as such). Whereas when Nellie Bly (the pseudonym for Elizabeth Jane Cochran; 1864-1922) published her own sensational (in every sense) 1887 series about the Island, she had already been producing substantive investigative journalism for many years, since she was just a hugely precocious young writer submitting columns to the Pittsburgh Dispatch on controversial topics like the need for divorce reform. Bly published her groundbreaking first column for the Dispatch, “The Girl Puzzle” (1885), when she was just 20 years old, launching a career in provocative and investigative journalism that would change the industry and America alike.

When the Dispatch tried to limit Bly’s columns to more conventionally “women’s” subjects like theater and the arts, she left the newspaper and the city, moving to New York and talking her way into a job with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. She did so by making the case for the truly groundbreaking investigative assignment that would become her justifiably famous series on the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (which had been renamed Roosevelt Island). Fern visited Blackwell’s and wrote thoughtfully about what she saw there, but Bly found a way to truly live the experience: going undercover, first in a boarding house where she convinced the authorities she was insane, then for a ten-day imprisonment at the asylum (before the World reached out to identify her and request her release). She published her reporting first in the World in October 1887 and shortly thereafter as the book Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887), and in both forms her investigations and journalism alike truly altered the way America thought about mental illness, public health, and women’s rights—as well as about the possibilities for women journalists and all journalists.

If Bly’s asylum work was her only investigative journalism, it would be more than enough to establish her as a titan in that field—but it wasn’t, and indeed despite her youth it wasn’t her first extended such assignment. Shortly after she began writing for the Dispatch her published a series of investigative reports on women factory workers in the city; they were significant enough that factory owners complained to the paper and Bly was reassigned. She then embarked on an extended investigation that, to my mind, was at least as impressive as the asylum one: the 21 year-old Bly traveled to Mexico and spent six months embedded with locals, producing in-depth reporting on their communities as well as the dictatorial government of Porfirio Díaz. The latter reports angered the government sufficiently that Bly was forced to leave, but not before she had accumulated enough investigative journalism to publish in the subsequent book Six Months in Mexico (1888). I’m not in any way trying to downplay the asylum work by suggesting that this Mexican project was just as impressive—quite the opposite, I would argue that both represented the best of investigative journalism, of a courageous writer pushing into settings and stories that many of her colleagues and audiences alike never would, and changing our collective conversations in the process.

Next journalist tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other investigative journalists you’d highlight?

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