Elizabeth Cochrane was born in 1864. Her claim to fame began when she went undercover to expose abuses at a local insane asylum.
To prepare for her work, Cochrane checked into a boarding house called Temporary Homes for Females.
To achieve the appearance of a wide-eyed crazy person, she stayed up all night. Then she started ranting about “all the crazy people about, and one can never tell what they will do.” Her continued ranting eventually scared so many of the other boarders that the police were called to take her to the nearby courthouse, where she was examined by a judge and a physician.
They determined her to be quite insane; she was taken to the infamous Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island in the East River.
Within just a few days, Cochrane had gathered all the information she needed about the inhumane treatment of Blackwell’s patients. Now it was time to leave.
However, when Elizabeth blithely explained to the guards that she was not insane after all, they replied, “Look lady, that’s what they all say.” Now she was in a pickle; she had her story but no way to report it. After not hearing from Cochrane for over a week, the editor of the World convinced the asylum authorities that she was quite sane and was only working on a story for the newspapers.
Though outraged, officials reluctantly released Elizabeth. She reported her experiences at the asylum in the World in October of 1887. Her story provoked the city of New York to appropriate an extra $1 million a year to correct the many abuses Cochrane exposed.
In addition, a grand jury was impaneled to investigate the abuses and poor treatments Cochrane had uncovered at the asylum. Within a month of her story appearing in the World, many of the serious problems she had uncovered had been dealt with. Not only that, the most abusive nurses and physicians had been fired.
Elizabeth had begun her journalistic career in 1880 at the age of 16 after writing a letter to the editor of the Pittsburg Dispatch complaining about the treatment of women. The editor was so impressed, he offered her a job.
Initially, Cochrane focused on the lives of working women, in particular with a series of investigative articles on women factory workers. However, after the newspaper received complaints from factory owners, she was reassigned to the “women’s pages,” covering the usual topics — fashion, society, home, society and gardening. Dissatisfied with this type of work, she soon left for New York City.
According to Cochrane, “I was asked by the World if I could have myself committed to one of the asylums for the insane in New York.” Naturally, Elizabeth jumped at the opportunity.
In 1888, Cochrane suggested to her editor that she embark on a trip around the world, with the intent of turning the fictional “Around the World in Eighty Days” by Jules Verne into reality.
A year later, she began her 24,000-mile journey. To maintain interest in the story, the World organized a “guessing competition" in which readers were to estimate Cochrane’s arrival time back in New York City to the second. Seventy-two days after her departure, Elizabeth Cochrane arrived back in New York City. She had done it — she had beaten the fictional Phileas Fogg.
Oh, by the way, you know Elizabeth Cochrane better by her pen name — Nellie Bly.