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Born to Write: Legendary Journalist Nellie Bly

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Born to Write: Legendary Journalist Nellie Bly

By Ellen Mahoney


Although legendary journalist Nellie Bly was one-of-a-kind, she was known by six different names throughout her lifetime….

          1. Birth name: Elizabeth Jane Cochran
          2. Nickname: Pink (!)
          3. Revised name: Elizabeth J. Cochrane
          4. Pen name: Nellie Bly
          5. Undercover name: Nellie Brown
          6. Married name: Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman

These six distinct names helped carve out her identity during her busy, tumultuous, adventurous life. In 1885 when Elizabeth was 21, her life changed dramatically, thanks to her city newspaper. Elizabeth had become an avid reader of The Pittsburgh Dispatch, and she took a particular interest in reading the highly popular columns of writer Erasmus Wilson, who penned the paper’s “Quiet Observer” column.

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One morning, Elizabeth became infuriated after reading one of Wilson’s columns. Wilson had begun to write about women’s roles in the world and expressed many opinions Elizabeth didn’t like. At a time when many women were fighting for equal rights and the right to vote, Wilson wrote about how wives, mothers, and daughters should stay in the home and take pride and joy in their domestic role of cleaning and cooking. He wrote about how a woman who ventured outside her home and into the business world would be a “monstrosity” and added this:

“There is no greater abnormity than a woman in breeches, unless it is a man in petticoats.” —Erasmus Wilson, columnist, The Pittsburgh Dispatch

Elizabeth fumed, thinking his words were sexist and wrong. Elizabeth had aspirations to work outside the home and have a career. So, she decided to take action. Elizabeth picked up a pen and large sheet of paper, and wrote a letter to George Madden, editor of the Dispatch. Her honest, passionate letter to the editor challenged Wilson’s opinions and provided real-life information to contradict the columnist’s conservative point of view. Elizabeth signed her letter “Lonely Orphan Girl,” gave no return address, and popped the missive in the mail.

Nellie 3

When Madden received Elizabeth’s letter, he was surprised. Written on oversized paper, the letter was riddled with poor grammar, bad spelling, and confusing punctuation. But Madden could hear the voice within the words. He knew the Lonely Orphan Girl had something to say, and from what he could tell, she had natural writing talent. He felt compelled to contact the unknown writer and posted a note in the Saturday, January 17, 1885, Dispatch:

“If the writer of the communication signed ‘Lonely Orphan Girl’ will send her name and address to this office, merely as a guarantee of good faith, she will confer a favor and receive the information she desires.” —George Madden, editor, The Pittsburgh Dispatch

When Elizabeth read the paper on Saturday, she saw Madden’s note and knew it was for her. Elizabeth felt excited the editor had responded to her letter and probably shared the news with her mother and family. But instead of writing George Madden a letter in reply, Elizabeth decided to meet with him face to face.

After talking with Elizabeth, Madden decided to give her a chance to write. It would be a test of sorts, to see what she could do. He asked her to write about the roles of women and to focus on women in the home. After many years of working odd jobs for little pay and no specific career on the horizon, Elizabeth must have felt overjoyed with the challenge. She went straight home and got right to work. In a few days, she sent the editor her first article, titled “The Girl Puzzle”:

“Let a youth start as errand boy and he will work his way up until he is one of the firm. Girls are just as smart, a great deal quicker to learn; why, then, can they not do the same? Here would be a good field for believers in women’s rights. Let them forego their lecturing and writing and go to work; more work and less talk. Take some girls that have the ability, procure for them situations, start them on their way, and by so doing accomplish more than by years of talking.” —Nellie Bly, reporter, The Pittsburgh Dispatch

nellie 4


When Nellie Bly read Erasmus Wilson’s columns in The Pittsburgh Dispatch, she felt
angry. But she didn’t just fume; she did something about it. Nellie wrote a letter to Dispatch editor George Madden and told him exactly what she thought about Wilson’s words. This poignant letter changed Nellie’s life. Impressed, Madden hired Nellie as a reporter, which launched her writing career. In this activity you’ll write a letter to the editor about something you feel strongly about.

What You Need
• Current newspapers
• Pencil or pen
• Writing paper
• Envelope
• Stamp
• Computer and printer (optional)

1. Go to the “Letters to the Editor” section of a newspaper. You’ll find guidelines on how to write your letter, including word count, how to submit your piece (by e-mail or postal mail), and contact information.

2. Read examples of published “Letters to the Editor.”

3. Choose a topic to write about. Are you hoping for change toward something in your community? Would you like to respond to an article you read? Is there something positive you’d like to share?

4. Write your letter. Letters are usually one to three paragraphs long and fewer than about 200 words. Remember to back up your opinions with examples.

5. Reread your letter and correct any mistakes. Sign it, provide your contact information, and submit it to the newspaper. Send your letter to only one publication at a time. Editors receive thousands of submissions and publish only a fraction of the letters that arrive on their desks. Writers are typically contacted only if their letters will be published.

6. If your letter is published, cut it out and save it as a writing sample called a “clip.”

Excerpted from Nellie Bly and Investigative Journalism for Kids: Mighty Muckrakers from the Golden Age to Today, with 21 Activities by Ellen Mahoney, with permission from Chicago Review Press. Go here for book purchase info. 


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