Nellie Bly could be a case study in posttraumatic growth from the Victorian Era. In spite of all the loss and trauma she experienced from early childhood, Nellie Bly bounced forward.
In fact, the more difficult the problems that were thrown at her the more determined she was to join famous women in history.
In her new book, Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs, author Michaela Haas, PhD, explores Posttraumatic Growth through profiles of survivors of a wide range of challenges. According to Haas’s website:
“Most people have heard of posttraumatic stress. Yet, beyond the medical community, few are aware of the evidence of posttraumatic growth. The wisdom contained in this idea is ancient…But what is new is that a precise science of posttraumatic growth is emerging to discover what exactly it is that helps us transform adversities for a greater good in our own life and to impact the world.”
Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864 in Cochran Mills. (She later spelled her name Cochrane.) It was a small town in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, named after her father, Michael Cochran. He was born to a poor immigrant family, but through hard work and determination, he became a wealthy landowner and businessman.
Michael Cochran had ten children by his first wife and five by his second wife, Mary Jane Kennedy. Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochran) was the third of these. She was also the most rebellious child in her large family.
Nellie Bly (Elizabeth) loved wearing pink instead of the acceptable dark blues or grays of the Victorian Era. As mundane as that sounds today, it shows she was a rebel from her earliest years. Apparently embracing that trait in his young daughter, her father nicknamed her “Pinky.” She lived a life of privilege, with her father providing handsomely for his large family.
Bly’s father was also a judge who handled cases often involving the poor families in his town. He took his curious daughter with him when he visited homes during his investigations and personal interviews.
Michael Cochran taught his rebellious daughter to look at all sides of a story, to stand in the other person’s shoes, and to observe with her mind clear from preconceptions. Pinky routinely gave up playtime to study with her father in his library.
The Cochran family eventually moved from the country to the river town of Apollo. Michael Cochran died suddenly when Bly was only six years old. “Pinky” who was particularly close to her father was devastated by his death.
Because he died intestate, his family also suffered a terrible financial loss. With no will to protect the interests of his second family, Bly’s mother had no rights to his estate. Still grieving, the family fell on hard financial times. Only a year later, Bly’s mother had to auction off the family mansion.
Perhaps for financial security, Nellie Bly’s mother soon entered into a disastrous marriage to an abusive alcoholic. Although divorce was unheard of, Nellie Bly pushed her mother in that direction. Bly even testified at the divorce trial, another outrageous act for her time. She told the court, “My stepfather has been generally drunk since he married my mother, When drunk he is very cross and cross when sober.”
Bly saw firsthand how difficult it was for a woman to be financially independent. In September of 1879, at the age of 15, she enrolled in the Indiana Normal School to become a schoolteacher. It didn’t particularly spark her passion, but it was one of the few professions open to women in the Victorian Era. After one semester there was not enough money for her to continue.
Bly moved with her mother to Pittsburgh, which would be their home for the next seven years. She helped her mother care for boarders they took into their home to make ends meet, but continued looking for full-time work.
Nellie Bly (still going by the name Elizabeth Cochrane) read an article in January of 1885 in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Entitled “What Girls Are Good For,” it was an aggressively misogynistic column that stated women belonged in the home doing domestic tasks such as sewing, cooking and raising children and called the working woman “a monstrosity.”
Bly dashed off a blistering response to the editor under the pseudonym, “Lonely Orphan Girl”. The editor, George Madden, was so impressed with her rebuttal that he ran an advertisement asking the author to identify “himself.” When she showed up for the meeting, Madden was surprised, since he thought only a man could write with such fire.
Madden gave her an assignment to write “The Girl Puzzle.” He was so impressed with it that he offered her a full-time job at $5 per week. He also gave her the pen name “Nellie Bly” [sic] after the Stephen Foster song “Nelly Bly” because it was considered improper for females to have their name in print except at birth, marriage and death.
According to Dr. Haas, “crisis is not a cul-de-sac, but rather a watershed moment. What we do next matters: advance or retreat, take a turn south or north, run or hide, crawl or fly. We can avert our eyes or dig deeper, try harder or grow softer, close down or break open.”
Nellie Bly chose to fly. She went on to write an undercover first-person series of investigative articles about the plight of working women in factories. When her editor got too much heat for her work, he assigned her to the “women’s pages” where she would cover fashion, society and gardening, the usual role for women journalists of the Victorian Era.
Dissatisfied with this, Bly travelled through Mexico instead, where she wrote a series of investigative pieces. When she was threatened for her outspoken criticism of Mexican government, she returned to Pittsburgh and the women’s pages.
Unwilling to waste her time she announced that she was heading to New York to pursue a more meaningful career. She left a note for her editor: “Dear Q.O., I’m off for New York. Look out for me. Bly.”
In 1887, Bly relocated to New York City. After a long period of knocking on every door of every newspaper publisher on Park Row, she finally got her chance at the New York World, the newspaper owned by Joseph Pulitzer.
For Bly’s first assignment, she pretended to be insane and got herself committed to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum where she spent ten days as a patient. Her expose, published in the New York World shortly after she was released from Blackwell’s, was a huge success.
Bly’s series, Ten Days In A Mad-House, shed light on the terrible conditions at the facility and others like it, and spurred a massive investigation by the New York Assistant District Attorney Vernon M. Davis. With Nellie Bly assisting, the investigation resulted in a number of changes in Blackwell’s and other institutions that would have made Bly’s father proud.
Nellie Bly’s career had launched. She continued with similar investigative work, including editorials detailing the improper treatment of individuals in New York jails and factories, corruption in the state legislature and numerous other first-hand accounts. She also interviewed and wrote pieces on several prominent figures of the time, including Emma Goldman and Susan B. Anthony.
In her book, Michaela Haas presents twelve inspiring stories from survivors of cancer, addiction, PTSD, the Holocaust, loss of mobility, loss of a loved one, and childhood abuse to show how to transform pain into a journey to wisdom, love, and purpose. This book will help you become more resilient, stronger, and happier in the face of life’s inevitable setbacks.
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