Remembering Nellie Bly, Rabblerouser and Pioneer of Investigative Journalism

H.J. Meyers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
H.J. Meyers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Elizabeth Jane Cochran came into the world on May 5, 1864. Mrs. Cochran delighted in the baby, her first daughter, dressing Elizabeth in a pink gown for her christening.

The fun was not to last. When Elizabeth was only six, her father died without warning and without a will, plunging Elizabeth and her family into dire financial straits. Several years later, Mrs. Cochran remarried, to a man who was often drunken and abusive. As soon as she was old enough to work, Elizabeth left home to train as a teacher, but ran out of tuition money after only one semester. With no money and no other ideas, she and her mother moved to Pittsburgh, where Elizabeth helped run a boarding house.

What girls are good for

It was in Pittsburgh that Elizabeth found her calling. The city's Dispatch ran a weekly column by a self-important man named Erasmus Wilson, who called himself the “Quiet Observer.” One week in 1885, Wilson published an op-ed entitled “What Girls Are Good For.” The answer, according to him, was housework. It was unseemly and ugly for ladies to work, he wrote, describing working women as a "monstrosity."

Elizabeth was having none of this. She penned an angry letter to the editor, signing it, provocatively, “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The letter was no work of art—Elizabeth had left school at 15, after all—but editor George Madden was impressed by its writer’s fervor. He placed an advertisement in the next issue of the Dispatch, inviting the Lonely Orphan Girl to come forward. She did, and he offered her a job. To protect her identity and her reputation, Madden soon recommended she select a pen name. The two settled upon Nellie Bly, after a popular song by Stephen Foster.

Bly came out with guns blazing. From the very beginning, she was determined to write stories that mattered. She had no experience, no education, and little polish, but she had a fire in her belly that few newspapers had ever seen. She wrote about women’s labor laws. She wrote about sexist divorce laws. She convinced Madden to send her to Mexico, but before long she was expelled for exposing government corruption.

The Dispatch editors were not pleased. They attempted to rein her in by assigning her stories about flower shows and fashion. Nellie Bly would have none of that. She quit, but not before leaving a spectacularly frosty message on the desk of the Quiet Observer: “Dear Q.O.: I’m off to New York. Look out for me.”

“Who is this insane girl?”

The year was 1887, and Nellie Bly had just talked her way into a job at the New York World. For her very first story, Bly agreed to feign insanity in order to gain entry to the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum.

After checking herself into a women’s boarding house under yet another fake name, Bly began acting erratically, peppering her speech with Spanish nouns and claiming she had lost her memory. That night she asked for a pistol. This was apparently all it took; the proprietress called the police, who hauled Bly off to court.

Reporters in the courtroom were instantly captivated by “Nellie Brown.” On the stand, Bly spun a sensational tale of neglect, abuse, and abandonment. A physician who had examined her declared her “demented.”

That weekend, the New York Sun (a World competitor) carried breathless descriptions [PDF] of the enigmatic woman, from the contents of her pockets to the sound of her voice. “WHO IS THIS INSANE GIRL? SHE IS PRETTY, WELL DRESSED, AND SPEAKS SPANISH.”

Bly spent 10 days in the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum, during which time she saw and was the victim of horrific treatment. The asylum’s residents were mostly poor and immigrant women, some of whom were locked up simply because they could not speak English. The women were beaten, starved, and forced into ice-cold baths—a fate from which even Bly’s nice clothes could not save her.

Upon her release (arranged by an attorney for the newspaper), Bly recorded every single awful thing she had seen. She detailed the conditions in which her fellow residents were forced to live, and the punishment they endured: “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”

The paper published "Ten Days in a Madhouse" in serial form. By the time the last installment hit newsstands, New York was paying attention.

Bly’s fearless reporting paid off. A grand jury investigation of the asylum confirmed many of her observations, and the institution was eventually shut down.

Still, Bly was just getting started.

Nellie Bly buys a baby

Bly became a sort of journalistic Robin Hood, exposing the darkest corners of New York City society. Wherever women, children, or the poor were being mistreated, you’d find Nellie Bly. She went undercover as a poor clinic patient and narrowly escaped [PDF] having her tonsils removed. For her story “The Girls Who Make Boxes,” she joined the ranks of young women working in a factory. She visited seven different doctors and got seven different diagnoses and an “extraordinary variety” of prescriptions.

She visited a home for “unfortunate women.” She lived for two days in one of New York’s poorest tenements in the hottest part of the summer. She bought a baby on the black market. No, really: she bought a baby.

"I bought a baby last week, to learn how baby slaves are bought and sold in the city of New York. Think of it! An immortal soul bartered for $10! Fathers-mothers-ministers-missionaries, I bought an immortal soul last week for $10!"

What could possibly top that?

Bly decided to conquer the world.

Around the world in 72 days

Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days, first published in 1873, was all the rage in 1889. Eighty days was pretty impressive given the transportation options at that time, but Bly thought she could do better. After convincing her editors to finance the whole thing, Bly bought a sensible dress and set off.

The rest, of course, is legend. Bly made it home in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes. She even had time to stop in France for tea with Jules Verne. The story made her a household name.

Inspired by Bly’s work, other women began to follow in her daring footsteps. Because these undercover stories were the province of “girls,” their brave work was dismissed as “stunt reporting.” Today we’d call it investigative journalism.

A second career

Bly met industrialist Robert Seaman in 1895 and married him a few days later, leaving the newspaper life behind. Seaman was 40 years older than his bride, but neither seemed particularly fussed by the age difference. Their marriage lasted nearly ten years, until Seaman’s death in 1904.

Elizabeth Cochrane (she later changed her name to add the e) Seaman inherited all of her late husband’s holdings, including his Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. Another widow might have handed the company over. Bly decided to run it herself.

Bly had no experience in this arena, but that had never stopped her before. By 1902, she was filing patents for new types of oil barrels.

As an employer, Bly embodied all the principles she had championed in her stories. She paid her workers fairly and offered them access to gymnasiums, libraries, and healthcare. This was unheard of.

Unfortunately, there was a reason for that. Treating employees like human beings was expensive, and before too long her businesses went under.

Bly returned to the newsroom during World War I. She was still working in 1922, when she died of pneumonia at the age of 58.

Nellie Bly was an unwavering advocate for social change, a journalistic dynamo, and a force of nature. She wasn’t the first woman of her time to join a newsroom, but she was certainly the most ferocious.

This article has been updated for 2019.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

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- COMFEE Toaster Oven $29 (save $9)

- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

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Selieve/Amazon

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Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

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NECA/Amazon

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Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel—And First Nude Movie Star

Audrey Munson photographed in 1915.
Audrey Munson photographed in 1915.
Arnold Genthe, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While you might not know Audrey Munson’s name, you’ve almost certainly seen her likeness somewhere. Munson’s figure can be found in bronze, copper, and marble across New York City, and, in fact, all over the country—Missouri and Wisconsin each have a statue of her atop their State Capitol buildings, for example.

The model posed for some 200 artists throughout her brief career, earning her nicknames like “Miss Manhattan” and “the American Venus,” along with a reputation as the most well-known muse of early 20th-century America. But after an attempt at a film career fizzled out, Munson struggled to reclaim her place among New York’s artist elite. Even as Munson’s image lives on in sculptures and other works, her story is an often overlooked part of art history.

An Ideal Chorus Girl

Munson photographed by Arnold Genthe in 1915.Arnold Genthe Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Audrey Marie Munson was born on June 8, 1891, in Rochester, New York. Her father, Edgar Munson, was a real estate broker who was descended from one of the founders of New Haven, Connecticut, and her mother, Kittie Mahoney, was the daughter of Irish immigrants. Familial bliss, however, was short-lived—the couple separated when Audrey was only 6, after Kittie caught wind of Edgar’s affair. They divorced two years later.

After the split, Kittie and Audrey began a new life in Providence, Rhode Island. Kittie worked as a boarding house keeper, and Audrey eventually attended a Catholic high school called St. Francis Xavier Female Academy. It was there, under the tutelage of the Sisters of Mercy, that the young Munson learned how to sing and play the piano, violin, harp, mandolin, and guitar.

By 1908, a 17-year-old Munson had started performing in small shows like the touring production of the musical Marrying Mary. She and her mother relocated to New York the following year so the teenage performer could pursue a career in show business. On May 31, 1909, at 18 years old, Munson set foot on a Broadway stage for the first time, dressed in drag and playing the part of a footman in a musical comedy called The Boy and the Girl.

Around this time, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. was beginning to make waves with The Ziegfeld Follies, a series of extravagant variety shows that often featured large choruses of attractive young women who came to be known as “Ziegfeld girls.” Though Munson never performed in one of Ziegfeld’s revues, her arresting beauty and many musical talents made her an ideal chorus girl. She appeared in the choruses of similar productions, including The Girl and the Wizard, Girlies, and La Belle Paree.

Had Munson continued on this path, it’s possible her name would have faded into anonymity with the hundreds of other Broadway hopefuls whose careers petered out once they aged past their chorus-girl prime. But a chance encounter steered her in a drastically different direction.

From Performing to Posing

In late 1909, Munson was window-shopping on 5th Avenue with her mother when she noticed a man paying unusually close attention to her. After she confronted him, he invited her to pose for him in his photography studio.

“We did not like the idea at all,” Munson later said in a 1913 interview for the New York Sun. “But finding out that he was one of the best photographers in town my mother and I went. He took some photographs, said I had a head almost antique in line, and began to tell his artist friends about me.”

The photographer was Felix Benedict Herzog, who was also an accomplished electrical engineer, patent attorney, and inventor. Though his role in Munson’s career only lasted a few years—he died suddenly in April 1912, after complications from intestinal surgery—he jumpstarted her pivot from performing to posing.

As Munson posed for Herzog and his contemporaries, she used her newfound connections to seek out more work. This streak of industriousness led her to the studio of sculptor Isidore Konti, who asked her to model for her first sculpture, The Three Graces, to be displayed in the main ballroom of New York’s Hotel Astor.

It was an extraordinary opportunity, but it came with a catch: Munson would have to pose nude.

Making It to the Top

Isidore Konti's Three Graces.Isidore Konti, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though the ever-so-enterprising Munson was open to the idea, her more conservative mother hesitated to endorse it. But after three months of chaperoning her daughter’s (clothed) modeling sessions with Konti, Kittie finally gave Audrey her blessing to bare it all for art’s sake.

Munson quickly became one of New York’s most prolific early models, posing for what she estimated was a total of 200 artists, including photographers, illustrators, painters, sculptors, and even a tapestry weaver. If you’ve been to New York, you’ve almost definitely seen at least a few statues bearing Munson’s image, even if you didn’t realize it—many Manhattan neighborhoods have at least one, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art houses another 30 or so. The caryatids supporting the main saloon’s mantelpiece in one of J.P. Morgan’s yachts were carved from Munson’s likeness, and tapestries in George Vanderbilt’s mansion were designed in her image, too. Since some of the pieces Munson modeled for were privately commissioned, it’s not clear where they ended up (or if they’ve even survived various renovations and relocations).

As for those still prominently displayed, perhaps the most striking piece is Civic Fame, a 25-foot gilded copper statue atop the Manhattan Municipal Building that Adolph Alexander Weinman designed in 1913. It’s New York’s second largest statue, dwarfed only by the Statue of Liberty herself.

Adolph Alexander Weinman's Civic Fame atop the Manhattan Municipal Building.CelsoDiniz/iStock via Getty Images

Another gilded version of Munson—bronze, this time—decorates the top of the USS Maine National Monument in Columbus Circle, honoring the 260 sailors who died during the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, Cuba. Funded by William Randolph Hearst in 1913, the statue depicts Columbia—the female personification of the United States—riding a seashell chariot pulled by three horse-seahorse hybrid creatures called hippocampi. Sculptor Attilio Piccirilli used metal from the sunken ship for parts of the memorial, which also includes a ship's prow jutting over a fountain and a plaque that lists the victims' names.

Attilio Piccirilli's USS Maine National Monument in New York's Columbus Circle.Elisa Rolle, Attilio Piccirilli, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Munson is also immortalized in marble outside the New York Public Library’s main branch, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Frederick MacMonnies's Beauty depicts a mostly nude Munson looking skyward as she leans against a horse.

Frederick MacMonnies's Beauty, at the New York Public Library's main branch.William de Witt Ward, Frederick MacMonnies, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By mid-1913, Munson-inspired works were so prevalent around the city, the New York Sun published a profile on her titled “All New York Bows to the Real Miss Manhattan” in its June 8 issue.

But despite the hundreds of artworks to which Audrey lent her likeness, her paychecks weren't on par with today's Instagram influencers. The going rate for a model at the time—nude or not—was 50 cents an hour, meaning the Munsons lived a modest life. “It was just enough to pay our rent, grocery bills and buy a few clothes once in a while … Almost nothing for amusements,” Munson said in a 1921 newspaper article.

Between the countless hours of sitting, standing, or lying stock-still for artists, Munson branched out into another industry: film.

A False Start in Film

On November 18, 1915, Thanhouser Company released the silent film Inspiration, and Munson became the first American movie star to appear naked in a non-pornographic film. Loosely based on Munson’s own life, Inspiration tells the story of a young girl discovered in New York by a sculptor in need of a muse; it even features some real-life statues that Munson posed for. Though the film was an overall success, it did stir up some dissent from viewers who balked at the nudity. Local officials actually arrested a theater manager in Ossining, New York, for showing the “improper film,” and the city’s Civic League established a censorship committee to prevent similar calamities from happening in the future. “I saw enough and got all the ‘inspiration’ I wanted,” one member said.

Munson was characteristically undeterred. She and her mother moved to California, where the performer appeared nude again in 1916’s Purity. It was another successful (yet polarizing) motion picture, but it also marked the beginning of the end of Munson’s meteoric rise to fame. Her next film, The Girl O’ Dreams, was never released. The reasons are unknown, but biographer James Bone has speculated it may have been a dispute over film rights—no fault of Munson's.

Struggling to Stay Above the Fray

Munson in Purity, 1916.Apeda Studio, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The Munsons returned to New York in late 1916. Audrey spent the next two years caught up in the high society circles of New York and Newport, Rhode Island, and allegedly struck up a relationship with shipping heir Hermann Oelrichs, Jr. Her mother claimed the two had actually married, though there’s no record to support this.

Whatever feelings Munson had for her purported beau turned sour by early 1919. That January, she sent a strange letter to the U.S. Department of State insisting the German government’s considerable investment in the film industry was preventing her from booking any roles. She listed Oelrichs, Jr. and other well-known German-Americans as co-conspirators in this plot, arguing that they discriminated against her because she was descended from early British settlers. “As you know the Kaisers [sic] $25,000,000 in the Motion Picture Industry has thrown me out of work as I am an American of English blood dating back to the Mayflower days,” she wrote.

Nothing came of Munson's baseless accusations, but her vilification of “the German” and “the German-Jew” in the letter hinted at a festering anti-Semitic streak both Munson and her mother made evident throughout other correspondence.

Things unraveled further in February, when Munson and her mother were brought in for questioning about Dr. Walter K. Wilkins’s murder of his wife, Julia. The press reported that Wilkins, who owned a boarding house where the Munsons had stayed, had been carrying on an affair with a “pretty young woman” many assumed was Audrey. She denied any relationship and even vouched for his character, but the onslaught of negative publicity certainly didn't help her career.

In 1921, Munson attempted to reclaim control of her reputation by telling her life story in 20 serialized articles entitled The Queen of the Artists’ Studios in Hearst’s New York American newspaper. The series was meant to drum up publicity for her new film, Heedless Moths, also based on Munson’s life. But the filmmakers only used Munson herself for a few shots, and gave the majority of her role to newcomer Jane Thomas. It was another instance of others enjoying and profiting from Munson's image with little regard for the woman behind it—an inescapable theme of her career as a model and muse—and her writing reflected her despondence.

“I am wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or a remarkable painting of a young girl, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, 'Where is she now, this model who has been so beautiful?'” she wrote in one article. “'What has been her reward? Is she happy and prosperous, or is she sad and forlorn, her beauty gone, leaving only memories in its wake?'”

Advertisements used Munson's name to drum up interest, but Jane Thomas got to be the star of the actual show.Equity Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not long after that, Munson launched a widely publicized search for “the perfect man.” But Munson had grown up valuing her own English-American beauty above all else, and her idea that marriage should be “for the good of the race” reflected her eugenic, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic tendencies. Though she did choose a husband—Joseph J. Stevenson, a World War I pilot and wealth contractor from Chicago—they never actually pursued their relationship.

By 1922, a dispirited, hapless Munson was living with her mother in Mexico, New York, north of Syracuse. In May of that year, at 28 years old, the former model attempted to swallowed mercury-based poison in an attempt to die by suicide. She survived, but she didn't try to return to the limelight.

A Quiet New Life

For almost a decade, Munson lived with her mother in upstate New York, where her mental health further deteriorated. In 1931, citing depression, delusions, hallucinations, and more, Kittie committed her daughter to an asylum.

Shortly after she turned 40, Munson moved into the St. Lawrence State Hospital in Ogdensburg, New York. Except for a brief stint in a nursing home, she remained at that hospital for the next 65 years, and her mother's death in 1958 marked the beginning of a 26-year period with no visitors. Then, in 1984, Munson's half-brother's daughter, Darlene Bradley, tracked her down and took her father to be reunited with his long-lost sister. Bradley continued to pay regular visits until her elderly aunt died on February 20, 1996, at 104 years old.

Munson was cremated, and her ashes were placed in her father’s grave at New Haven Cemetery in New Haven, New York. The tombstone listed Edgar Munson, his second wife, Cora, and their daughter, Vivian—but for 20 years, there was no mention that the former star was laid to rest there, too.

In 2016, New Haven town clerk Debra Allen and town historian Marie Strong decided it was time to honor Munson’s legacy with a tombstone of her own. Since they couldn’t allocate town funds for that purpose, they entered and won numerous county fair baking contests. The two spent their prize money on a simple, elegant tombstone etched with flowers and the words Actress & Model—the last bit of stone bearing witness to the everlasting legacy of America's first supermodel.