Nellie Bly: Legendary Journalist Who Revolutionized Asylum Practices

Nellie Bly was a pioneering journalist. She changed the world of investigative reporting. Her work exposed the harsh conditions of asylums. Bly's daring undercover work revolutionized mental health care. She remains a legendary figure in journalism. So, let's read more about this woman.

✍🏻 Written by Dr. Laura Whitman from MemoryCherish

Nellie Bly

Ever wondered what it takes to change the world through writing? Nellie Bly did just that.

Nellie Bly was an investigative journalist who exposed harsh truths. She helped transform asylum conditions through her daring undercover work.

Nellie Bly

Imagine going undercover in a mental asylum or traveling around the world in 72 days. These were not just stunts but significant contributions to journalism and social reform.

Bly’s legacy continues to inspire those seeking to uncover hidden truths and challenge societal norms. She showed that with grit and determination, anyone can make a significant impact.

So, let’s read more about this woman.

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Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House

Imagine this: It’s 1887, and a young reporter named Nellie Bly decides to go undercover in a mental asylum. Why? To reveal the shocking conditions inside.

Nellie, only 23 at the time, got herself committed to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum in New York. She posed as a patient, using the alias “Nellie Brown.” She fooled everyone. The police, judges, doctors—no one suspected she wasn’t truly insane.

Her goal? To report on the treatment of the patients in the asylum.

Inside, she found the conditions were horrific. Patients were treated with cruelty and neglect. They were given rancid food and forced to live in filthy conditions. Many were not even mentally ill.

Her experience lasted ten days. When she was finally released, she wrote a series of articles, which were later compiled into her book, Ten Days in a Mad-House.

The impact was immediate. Her vivid descriptions and brave reporting led to public outrage and significant reforms in mental health care.

Nellie Bly became a pioneer in investigative journalism. Her work showed the world the power of undercover reporting. She brought attention to inhumane conditions that needed to be changed.

Nellie Bly’s Around the World in Seventy-Two Days

Imagine deciding to travel the world alone. Sounds thrilling, right?

In 1889, Nellie Bly, a daring journalist, set out to do just that. Inspired by Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg, she aimed to complete the journey in less than 80 days.

Bly’s journey was more than just a race against time. It was a bold statement about what women could achieve. She wanted to prove that a woman could travel as swiftly and independently as any man.

She departed from New York on November 14, 1889. Her journey took her through England, France, Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo, and Hong Kong. She even met Verne himself in France.

During the trip, Bly faced various challenges, including missed connections and delays. Yet, she managed to keep going, often with the help of local officials and fellow travelers.

On January 25, 1890, Nellie Bly returned to New York, completing her journey in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.

It was a record-breaking achievement that solidified her place in history. For details, her book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, captures the intricacies of her adventure.

Helen Smith: Investigative Journalism and Women’s Rights

Nellie Bly

Helen Smith didn’t just report the news; she made it. Her focus on women’s rights transformed the landscape of investigative journalism.

Smith’s articles often spotlighted issues that were overlooked. She used her platform to shine a light on injustices faced by women. From workplace discrimination to domestic abuse, she covered it all with a fearless perspective.

Her undercover work was groundbreaking. Disguised as a factory worker, she exposed the harsh realities female laborers faced. This brought about significant changes in labor laws, and it didn’t stop there. Helen’s findings pushed for better working conditions and fair wages.

Helen also tackled sensitive subjects. She once lived in a women’s shelter to reveal the struggles of homelessness. Her detailed accounts compelled readers and lawmakers alike to take action.

She knew the power of storytelling and used it to create real change. She believed in the equality of all genders.

Smith’s writing wasn’t just about problem areas; it highlighted women’s achievements too. By celebrating victories and addressing issues, she provided a balanced view that inspired many.

Samuel Morse’s Role in Early Investigative Journalism

Nellie Bly

Many know Samuel Morse for inventing the telegraph. But did you know he played a role in early journalistic efforts too?

Samuel Morse was a talented painter before he became an inventor. His art often captured important moments in American history.

While working, he met many newsmakers, giving him firsthand insight into events.

Morse’s invention of the telegraph in 1837 changed communication forever. With a few clicks, news could travel fast. This speed helped investigative journalists spread their stories quickly, making Morse’s work vital.

Imagine being a reporter in the 1800s. Before the telegraph, sharing your big story took days, sometimes weeks. Thanks to Morse, that changed. Journalists could now report breaking news almost immediately.

His telegraph helped newspapers grow by spreading sensational headlines faster. Just like Nellie Bly’s groundbreaking stories.

Harriet Martineau’s Social Reform Writing

Nellie Bly

Harriet Martineau was a pioneer in writing about social reform. She tackled tough subjects and made them understandable for everyone. Known for her clear and direct style, she aimed to educate and inspire change.

Her book “How to Observe Morals and Manners” is a key example. She laid out ways to study societies and their customs without bias. This approach influenced many future sociologists.

Martineau also wrote “Illustrations of Political Economy.” These short stories explained complex economic ideas through everyday situations.

Her journalism often focused on the conditions of the poor. She reported on their struggles and advocated for their rights. This work contributed to improving living conditions and labor practices.

Many credit Martineau with shaping how we discuss social issues today. Her emphasis on objectivity and accessibility in writing had a lasting impact.

Nellie Bly’s Early Life and Career

Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, is remembered for her courageous investigative reporting. Her initial steps into journalism set the stage for her remarkable career.

Background and Education

Elizabeth Cochran Seaman was born on May 5, 1864, in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania. Her family faced financial difficulties after her father died, which disrupted her education. Elizabeth showed a strong desire to learn and improve her circumstances.

She adopted the pen name “Nellie Bly” and pursued journalism to address social issues. Her first pieces focused on women’s rights and injustices, driven by her own experiences and observations.

Initial Journalism Work

In 1885, Bly started her journalism career with the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Her articles on women’s issues quickly gained attention. Seeking broader opportunities, she moved to New York City in 1887. Afterwards, Nellie Bly joined the New York World newspaper.

One of her first assignments involved going undercover at a mental health asylum. Her exposé on the poor conditions led to significant reforms. Bly’s dedication earned her a permanent place in the history of the profession.

Investigative Journalism

Investigative journalism involves digging deep into subjects, uncovering hidden truths. This practice relies on specific techniques and has a significant impact on journalism standards.

Techniques and Methods

Investigative journalists use various techniques to uncover the truth.

Nellie Bly famously did this by pretending to be mentally ill to expose the harsh conditions in asylums.

Document analysis is another crucial tool. This involves sifting through public records, databases to find inconsistencies, patterns, or evidence. Journalists often rely on interviews with key sources. Those interviews include whistleblowers who can provide insider information.

Finally, multiple sources and verifying facts ensures the reliability of the findings. These methods help journalists build comprehensive and credible reports that hold power accountable.

Impact on Journalism Standards

The efforts of investigative journalists set high standards for the field. Nellie Bly’s work, for example, led to real-world changes.

Investigative reporting encourages critical thinking among the public. Readers learn to question and analyze what they see, fostering a more informed and engaged society. It propels journalism forward, pushing for improvement and continuous evaluation of practices.

Asylum Reform

Nellie Bly’s undercover work brought significant changes to the treatment in mental asylums. Her brave reporting shed light on the harsh conditions and led to substantial public and governmental action.

Exposé on Blackwell’s Island

Nellie Bly, disguised as a mentally ill patient, was admitted to Blackwell’s Island in 1887. Her mission? Expose the appalling conditions inside the asylum.

She endured poor treatment, unsanitary conditions, and neglect. Bly’s vivid accounts in the New York World shocked readers. The articles described malnutrition, ice-cold baths, abusive staff, and harsh living conditions.

Her reporting wasn’t just a headline grabber. It was personal. Bly’s bravery revealed the human cost of neglect. She didn’t just talk about it; she lived it. This bold move shone a bright light on an industry that thrived in the shadows.

Public and Institutional Response

The public reaction to Bly’s reports was immediate and intense. People were outraged. Letters poured into newspapers, demanding change. The whole city buzzed with talk of reforms.

Bly’s articles sparked a grand jury investigation. This led to a significant increase in funding for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. The funding went from $1.5 million to $2.34 million with $50,000 earmarked for improving conditions at Blackwell’s Island.

Institutions had no choice but to respond. Conditions improved. Patients saw better food, cleaner environments, and more humane treatment.

Bly’s work didn’t just change Blackwell’s Island. It set a new standard for mental health care in asylums across the country. Bly showed the power of journalism to drive reform and bring justice to the voiceless.

Join Our Community of Memory Keepers!

Become part of a dedicated group where you can revive and celebrate your treasured memories. Get exclusive access to expert photo restoration tips, share your stories, and connect with people who value preserving the past. Join our Facebook Group today for free and start preserving your legacy!


Nellie Bly’s legacy endures. Her fearless journalism set new standards. She changed how society views mental health.

Bly’s work continues to inspire reporters. Her impact on journalism is undeniable.

About The Author
Dr. Laura Whitman | MemoryCherish
Dr. Laura Whitman | MemoryCherish

Dr. Laura Whitman is the Head of Education at MemoryCherish, the #1 photo restoration company in the world.

With a PhD in Art History and a specialization in photographic preservation, she brings an unrivaled breadth of knowledge to her role.
Over her 19-year tenure in the field, Dr. Whitman has become a respected authority on topics ranging from photo restoration techniques to historical context and genealogy.

Her work has been recognized by major media outlets such as ABC, NBC, and FOX News, and she has been trusted with collaborations by Adobe. As an educator, she has developed numerous 'how-to' guides and tutorials, making photo restoration accessible to millions.

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