Happy Birthday Elizabeth Seaman!
On May 5th, 1864, Elizabeth Seaman was born to Mary Jane and Michael Cochran. Her father, a wealthy judge and landowner, tragically died when Mary Jane was six years old. His death created financial hardship for the large family that had a total of 15 children from Michael’s previous marriage and marriage to Elizabeth’s mother.
At age 15, Seaman enrolled in Indiana Normal School in Indiana, Pennsylvania to become a teacher, in hopes of helping to support her mother. Due to money she was not able to finish her degree and moved to a city near Pittsburgh to help her mother run a boarding house.
When she was 18 she read an editorial piece in The Pittsburgh Dispatch, “What Girls Are Good For.” The article talked about how ludicrous women were for entertaining the idea of getting an education and should remember their place is in the home. Seaman was so livid that she decided to write a reply, signing it, “Little Orphan Girl”. The managing editor was so impressed by Seaman’s letter that he offered her a job.
Seaman took on the pen name, Nellie Bly, after a song by Stephen Foster. During this time female newspaper writers could often only publish pieces about fashion, society or gardening. Seaman blew those stereotypes early on, as her first piece was about the struggles of poor working girls. She proceeded to do a whole series about factory girls in Pittsburgh. In this assignment, Seaman explored a love for investigative journalism, posing as a sweatshop worker to expose the working conditions.
Editors at the paper tried to push Seaman back into writing about “women’s issues”. She pushed back by convincing the paper to send her to Mexico as a foreign correspondent, sending back-stories about the everyday lives of Mexican people. Upon returning, editors again tried to move her to the writing solely about “women’s issues”. Seaman was not interested and aspired for more.
Seaman decided to move to New York in hopes for more opportunities. She moved from newspaper to newspaper until finally John Cockerill of New York World finally gave her an assignment. Seaman was asked to go undercover at a mental patient institution in New York City. After impersonating a mad person from 10 days she returned with stories of, “cruel beating, ice-cold baths, and forced meals that included rancid butter”.
The mental institution article started many investigations into the institution and created discussion about needed improvements in health care. The Department of Public Charities and Corrections lead the change, including, “larger appropriation of funds for the care of mentally ill patients, additional physical appointments for stronger supervision of nurses and other and health-care workers, and regulations to prevent overcrowding and fire hazards at the city’s medical facilities”. In 1887 her experience at the institution was reprinted as a book, Ten Days in a Mad-House.
Seaman continued to write exposes about corruption, poverty, shady lobbyists, mistreatment of female prisoners, inadequate medical care for the poor and more. Fame began to allow Seaman to interview well-known people, including suffragist Susan B. Anthony and anarchist Emma Goldman.
In 1889, Seaman traveled around the world, to break fictional character Jules Verne, from Around the World in 80 Days, record. New York World encouraged her journey. Seaman would travel by ship, horse, rickshaw, sampan, burro, and other vehicles. She set a real world record, finishing the trip in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds. Seaman later wrote about her experience in, Around the World in 72 Days. It is said that,
Everywhere Bly went, she brought her feminist and progressive perspective on the world. In Port Said, Bly saw that, to keep the beggars at bay, the male boat passengers took to the streets with canes and the women with parasols . Bly, refused to take the casual weapons with her, saying that “a stick beats more ugliness into a person than it ever beats out.” On shore in Singapore, Bly visited a Hindu temple, but a holy man prevented her from entering. Bly’s response was true to form:
“Why?” I demanded, curious to know why my sex in heathen lands should exclude me from a temple, as in America it confines me to the side entrances of hotels and other strange and incommodious things.
“No, señora, no mudder,” the priest said with a positive shake of the head. “I’m not a mother!” I cried so indignantly that my companions burst into laughter, which I joined after a while, but my denials had no effect on the priest.
In 1895, at age 30, Seaman married a millionaire industrialist, Robert Seaman. She also retired from writing for the next 15 years. After her husband passed she ran his business until she was forced to file for bankruptcy. In 1920, she began working for New York Journal, where she would use her platform to find homes for abandoned children. She worked here until her passing in 1922.
Seaman paved the way for female journalists everywhere. Her investigative techniques and refusal to back down allowed her to break barriers for women in the field.
Happy Birthday Elizabeth Seaman!