America's first investigative journalist got her start in an asylum

Trailblazer Nellie Bly first went undercover in a New York psychiatric hospital in 1887, when she exposed its horrific conditions.

Nellie Bly, 1890 photograph
BRIDGEMAN/ACI

In 1885 the Pittsburgh Dispatch published an article entitled “What Girls Are Good For,” which claimed a working woman was “a monstrosity.” The feature provoked a fiery rebuke from a 21-year-old reader, Elizabeth Jane Cochran, whose argument so impressed the editor that he published an advertisement asking the author to come forward so he could meet her.

She did, and he hired her on the spot, her first article appearing under the name “Orphan Girl.” Soon after, she changed her pen name to the title of a popular song by Pittsburgh songwriter Stephen Foster, and so “Nellie Bly” was born—a name forever associated with her pioneering role in investigative journalism.

In the course of her life, she spotlighted social ills and corruption, often at great personal risk, resulting in important reforms. Distinguishing herself in the almost exclusively male world of late 19th-century journalism, she broke new ground for women in the field.

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