Profile is a series of brief biographies on noted Pennsylvanians.

When Nellie Bly died January 27, 1922, at the age of fifty-eight, New York’s Evening Journal eulogized her as “the best reporter in America.” A rebellious child of Michael Cochran and his second wife, widow Mary Jane Kennedy Cummings, she channeled her noncon­formjty and fire into becoming one of the most notable journalists of all time. At a time when most female reporters were assigned polite “lady like” topics, Bly refused to compromise her unusual perspective of the world around her. Not only did she blaze a new path for women reporters, she pioneered what was first labeled “stunt journalism.” From the sensational exploits of Nellie Bly evolved one of America’s most important watchdogs of American democracy and justice – investigative reporting.

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, on May 5, 1864, in Pitts Mills, Armstrong County, the young girl was known as “Pink” because she was dressed in a bright pink, frilly dress with white stockings. Her father, for whom the community was renamed Cochran’s Mills in 1855, was a successful blacksmith and an associate county justice. The Cochran family moved to a grand house in Apollo in 1869, but “Judge” Cochran died intestate the following year and his property, including the mansion, was ordered to be auctioned.

Elizabeth attended Indiana Nor­mal School (now Indiana University of Pennsylvania) intending to become a teacher, but finances forced her to drop out with little more than having added an ‘e’ to her surname. Her mother remarried, but Elizabeth Cochrane’s stepfather, an abusive alcoholic, hardened her resolve to become an independent woman. Helping her mother run a boarding house in Pittsburgh in 1881, she became outraged after reading “What Girls Are Good For” by Pittsburg Dispatch columnist Enamus Wilson, known as “The Quiet Observer.” Her rebuttal to “Q.O.” landed on the desk of managing editor George Madden, who was so impressed with the young woman’s spirited conviction that he placed an advertisement to find the “Lonely Orphan Girl” and offered her a job. At age twenty-one was born the celebrity the world came to know as Nel­lie Bly, her pseudonym borrowed from a popular song written by Stephen Foster in 1870.

Nellie lost no time writing about the world seen through her hazel-colored eyes – poverty, child labor, the elderly, and divorce. The Dispatch too often assigned her to stories traditionally given to female reporters, such as society, fashion, and flower shows. She had had enough, left a good-bye note, and went to New York where she took a reporting job with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, her editor taking a calculated risk that her reform-minded and feminist slant would sell newspapers. She became an overnight sensation when, disguised as “Nellie Brown,” an indigent Cuban immigrant, she convinced a judge, six doctors, and even reporters for her own newspaper who did not recognize her, that she was insane. Her eyewitness, illustrated report of the grim Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum to which she was committed appeared in newspapers across the country and in a book, Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887), exposing horrible conditions and abuse of the mentally ill.

Nellie’s undercover “stunts,” written in the first person, became the talk of people everywhere, readers anxious to read the next installment of her daring deeds. To get a story, she posed as a destitute mother (to expose a black-market baby-selling ring), a campaigning reformer, a ragged beggar, a prostitute, and a chorus girl. Other newspapers – and even Pulitzer himself – hired imitators, but author Brooke Kroeger, who helped raise the journalist from the footnotes of history with her detailed biography, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (1994), remarked that her subject “certainly did this better, more sensationally, and to greater effect than anyone else.”

One of the journalist’s most celebrated series began in 1889. Following the path of Jules Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, Bly set out to circle the world in record time while cabling reports to an eager audience. Before completing her twenty­-eight thousand-mile trek – made by ships, trains, mules, and on foot – in sev­enty-two days, she interviewed Verne in France and visited a leper colony in China. Her return to Jersey City attracted thousands. Manufacturers scrambled to name articles after her. Her name also graced a hotel, a racehorse, and a Pennsylvania Railroad express. Nellie Bly’s fame faded nearly as quickly as it rose, and at the age of thirty she married wealthy industrialist Robert L. Seaman, forty years her senior. When Seaman died ten years later, his widow took over his company, and acquired twenty-six patents, including one for the design of an improved steel barrel that earned her a new title – “the Beautiful Steel Barrel Queen.” An embezzler bankrupted the American Steel Barrel Company, and she returned to reporting for the New York Evening Journal. She crusaded to find homes for abandoned children, and was the first female World War I correspondent at the Serbian Front and the first woman to report a World Heavyweight Boxing Championship from ringside.

Nellie Bly, who adopted the motto “energy rightly applied can accomplish anything,” created a repertoire that is only recently being appreciated. Among recent honors was the erection, in 1995, of a state historical marker by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission at her childhood home in Apollo.