Celebrating Nellie Bly’s Life on the 100 Anniversary of Her Death
Guest post from author Rosemary J Brown.
On the centennial of Nellie Bly’s death — 27 January 2022 — let’s celebrate the life of this trailblazing journalist, adventurer and humanitarian. Nellie’s creed ‘nothing is impossible if one applies a certain amount of energy in the right direction’ led her to pioneer investigative journalism in 1887 and travel around the world faster than anyone ever had in 1890, alone, with just a Gladstone bag. Throughout her life, she challenged oppression, championed vulnerable people and gave voices to the voiceless.
Today it is hard to fathom that she was once the ‘most famous woman on earth’ following her record-breaking global race, according to The New York World. She had achieved ‘the most remarkable of all feats of circumnavigation ever performed by a human being,’ the paper said.
Alas, Nellie’s accomplishments faded through the decades. When she died in New York City, aged 57, she was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Woodlawn Cemetery. She laid in obscurity for 56 years until the New York Press Club erected a headstone in 1978 calling her a ‘famous reporter’ – a massive understatement in my view.
It was Nellie Bly who introduced undercover reporting after exposing atrocities at the women’s insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) in New York City. Her accounts, later compiled in a book called Ten Days in a Mad-House, brought about sweeping reforms. Although I most admire Nellie for her investigative journalism and pursuit of justice, it is her record-breaking 72-day race around world in 1889-90 that brought her the most acclaim. She travelled through a man’s world to beat Phileas Fogg’s fictional 80-day record.
In a homage to her, I followed in Nellie Bly’s global footsteps 125 years later. The result was my book Following Nellie Bly: Her Record-Breaking Race Around the World (Pen and Sword 2021).
Chapter 13 ‘In Which Nellie is Laid to Rest’ describes my pilgrimage to her modest grave in Woodlawn Cemetery after I completed my own journey re-enacting hers. My heart sank upon learning that she died without even enough money for a proper burial. Her finances had collapsed and her achievements had been forgotten … until now.
Nellie Bly – her life and legacy — is now immortalised in a monumental installation on Roosevelt Island. Nellie made history there with her exposés of wretched asylum conditions 135 years ago. She did it again on 10 December 2021 when The Girl Puzzle monument, named for her first published article, was dedicated on Human Rights Day. Nellie’s iconic role has at last been acknowledged in this remarkable commemoration designed and created by American artist Amanda Matthews of Prometheus Art.
Nellie Bly’s face, sculpted in silver bronze, presides over a 60-foot walkway shared with the faces of four women from diverse or marginalised communities – the type of vulnerable women she championed. Joining the 7-foot bronze faces are three progressively larger mirrored spheres that reflect the growing impact of her reporting. The largest sphere represents her record-breaking travels around the world that I followed for the book. Ground-breaking in many ways, the Girl Puzzle also helps to address a shocking inequality — less than 8 percent of statues in America commemorate women.
In the words of sculptor Amanda Matthews: “Nellie Bly told the stories of other women. Now, we will tell hers. She began her journey as a girl who dared not to be defined by someone else and emerged a woman who transcended her time and changed the world, leaving it a better place.”
Beneath Nellie’s silvered face at the base of the monument, Amanda Mathews has sculpted a tribute from renowned editor, Arthur Brisbane of The New York Evening News published the day after her death:
“Nellie Bly was THE BEST REPORTER IN AMERICA and that is saying a good deal… She takes with her from this earth all that she cared for, an honourable name, the respect and affection of her fellow workers, the memory of good fights well fought and of many good deeds never to be forgotten by those that had no friend but Nellie Bly. Happy the man or women that can leave as good a record.”
On the 100th anniversary of her death, this is indeed a fitting eulogy to Nellie Bly.
Use the code BLY100 at checkout to save 30% off the RRP of Following Nellie Bly on Thursday 27th January 2022.
The code can also be used on the following titles:
- The Life and Travels of Isabella Bird
- The Infamous Sophie Dawes
- Mary Ward, First Sister of Feminism
- The Greatest Explorers in History