Competition between newspapers was fierce in the 1890s. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal went head to head for readers. Mass circulation paved the way for stories that appealed to the general public. The very definition of “news” expanded to include entertainment, first-person accounts–even contests. Nellie Bly articles provided powerful ammunition in Pulitzer’s battle for readers. She wrote everything from serious exposés to light-hearted stories that are lesser known today.
Joseph Pulitzer understood publicity. He introduced what became known as “yellow journalism” to his newspapers in the 1880s. Also called the “yellow press,” it was a style of journalism that utilized sensationalism and exaggerations of real news events. Pulitzer courted stunt journalism and Nellie Bly was his star “stunt reporter.”
According to Texas A&M Professor Karen Roggenkamp in Dignified Sensationalism: Cosmopolitan, Elizabeth Bisland, and Trips Around the World:
“… new journalism was marked by such journalistic novelties as ample illustration, enormous stacked headlines, celebrity writers, and above all, an emphasis on drama—all for the low price of two cents a copy.”
Nellie Bly started her work at Pulitzer’s New York World by getting herself committed to the infamous Blackwell’s Island Asylum to write an exposé on the treatment of the mentally ill. Her resulting series of articles, Ten Days In A Madhouse, prompted a grand jury investigation with Bly assisting. She won lasting fame and Pulitzer won a huge spike in readership.
Bly’s runaway hit story resulted in green lights for her to write many more. Her topics included working conditions in factories, abuses in various medical fields, government scandals, and many more.
Nellie Bly’s readers could not get enough of her first-person accounts. While they loved her serious undercover investigations, they also enjoyed having a good laugh with her. Sometimes in disguise and sometimes as herself, she was privileged to go places the average reader never could.
Following are a few of our favorite Nellie Bly stories on the lighter side. Most follow a familiar format. She’s terrified to face some challenge, but she overcomes her fears and emerges victorious. You can read many of the Nellie Bly articles in full at the Archive of American Journalism.
“Nellie Bly In Short Gauze Shirts Kicks At A Mark.
How it Feels to Go About in an Abbreviated Costume—Making Her Outfit—Holding on a Bar to Practise –Why It Is Healthful—Comments of the Old Professor—It Seems Easy, but Requires Much Hard Work”
When Nellie Bly first entered her ballet class in her short costume, she nearly lost her nerve.
“I caught my crinoline skirts in and vainly tried to increase their length by bending. The Professor smiled.”
“Oh, this is your first appearance in ballet skirts, I see. Never mind, you’ll get used to them in a little while,” he said kindly. I did. Before my lesson was finished I was sorry to exchange my short, airy costume for the heavy garments fashion says we must wear.”
Despite her discomforts, Bly endured ten days of ballet school. She emerged with a healthy respect for the art and the exercise with the conclusion:
“It is no child’s play.”
Nellie Bly Articles: Nellie Bly And The Ghost, Feb. 4, 1894
“Armed with Two Pistols, She Passes a night in That Haunted House at Woodport,
N.J. The Spook Not at Home
A Rather Courageous Venture by Miss Bly That Many Men Would Shrink from Undertaking”
“Afraid of ghosts? Oh, no! Not I! Why, I was wildly eager to see one, and as for living in a haunted house, I just hankered for a chance.
I pooh-poohed the idea of ghosts. I laughed at those that believed in them and sneered at those that feared them. I did not hide my courageous disrespect for ghosts under a bushel. I couldn’t. It was too large for a bushel, and as for what I would do in regard to ghost-searching, if opportunity offered, I had stated it all with a fearless frankness that charmed even myself.
Oh, I was brave, dreadfully brave; but that was before I spent a night alone in the haunted Minton house in New Jersey. I got frightened. But I hadn’t the courage to say so. Anyway, it was too late to retreat, for I had made my boast and given my promise.”
“A Novel And Thrilling Experience With The Immense Animals in their Winter Home.
Perilous Ride On The Ivory Tusks Of Fritz.”
“I tried to train an elephant last week.
The elephant was very scared. So was I. Neither of us mentioned it at the time. But I have thought of it since and doubtless so has he.
I have always had an intense fondness for elephants. This fondness has necessarily pined at a distance. I once hoped to own an elephant and—
So it can readily be understood why I rushed to see the proprietors of the “Greatest Show on Earth,” when I heard they had brought eight new elephants to America.”
In this adventure, Nellie Bly is first taken into the tent with several baby elephants in training. She disapproves of the harsh techniques they use, particularly the use of a pole with a metal prod on on the end. She also notes that one of the elephants is forced to work even though her ankle is injured and she is obviously in pain.
Bly is then taken to the main tent where she encounters full-grown elephants. It seems that the trainers are having a bit of fun at her expense. They tell her to sit beneath the largest elephant. She’s terrified to do so, but in her typical Nellie Bly way, she finds the courage to complete the task at hand. Afterwards, the trainers admit that they’re scared to do what they asked of her.
My heart was beating very rapidly and my left arm felt sprained, but I determined that I would do the trick.
“Put me on again,” I urged, and once more I was seated on the ivory tusks. This time I sat squarely and held firmly to the leather harness.
“Up! Up! Up!” commanded Mr. Conklin, and Fritz lifted his head until I thought I could easily touch the roof. If Fritz stands eleven feet, by throwing up his head he must have held me at a low estimate fully sixteen feet above the ground.
The other elephants stood at the same time, one with his feet resting on the back of the other.
This position was held for some time and I felt the tusks tremble under me. I could catch a gleam of the little eyes and I felt I would give a good deal to know what thoughts were within that big head against which I leaned.
Were they friendly or unfriendly? If he took the notion there was nothing on earth to prevent Fritz throwing me across the building and crushing my life out. Or if it pleased his humor he could drop me and jump on me. That is the way elephants enjoy treating those whom they hate.
And that great big trunk against which I rested, longer than my entire body, and the greater part of it thicker than my body, what if he suddenly wound it around me and crushed me to death?
I touched the trunk. I patted it in a friendly way. I thought if I could convey to him my meaning Fritz should know I felt kindly towards him.
Then came the command to lower and down went the big head until I slid off into Mr. Conklin’s uplifted arms.
No sooner was this over and I was counting on my release than Mr. Conklin commanded the giant Fritz to take a bell in his trunk and stand on his hind feet. The other elephants stood on either side, the first with their fore feet elevated on Fritz’s shoulders and the second two with their feet resting on the others’ backs.
As Fritz stood in this uncomfortable and agonizing position, Mr. Conklin told me to stand directly under Fritz and close up against his huge body.
“I don’t want to,” I said frankly. “I am afraid he’ll fall down on me and kill me.”
“Step in quickly,” said Mr. Conklin regardless of my appeal.
I obliged. If I had to die, so be it. I stood against the dark mountainous elephant while he rang a bell many feet above my head.
I dared not move. I stood there waiting for orders, when suddenly Mr. Conklin jerked me aside, and down came all the big elephants.
I tried to breathe again, but it was difficult work.
“Down again, Fritz!” commanded Mr. Conklin, and again I was hosted on Fritz’s tusks.
“Sit steady now and hold on tight.” He said. “I am going to make him carry you out of the ring. Forward march!”
Carefully the big fellow moved but with a feeling of strength beneath me that was delicious. It gave me the same feeling of power I have on board a steam yacht as it cuts through the water.
Outside the ring Fritz lowered me to the ground and went back to eat whey while the men clustered around me.
“You are very brave,” said Mr. Conklin. “You couldn’t find any other man or woman, who would go in that way among those elephants. I don’t mind telling you now that it takes lot of nerve even for trainers to stand under Fritz and that it is the most dangerous act to perform.”
I did not tell him I had not courage through it all. I merely did it because I hadn’t courage to say no.
But I want to own an elephant more now…
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