Memorial To Be Unveiled Next Spring

Artists: Help RIOC Spend Up To $500K To Honor Nellie Bly

Updated 3 weeks ago David Stone
Nellie Bly, aged 26, three years after her historic visit to the Blackwell's Island insane asylum for women.
Nellie Bly, aged 26, three years after her historic visit to the Blackwell's Island insane asylum for women.
Public Domain

RIOC, yesterday, issued a call for artists to bid on a lightning fast project to build a memorial to Nellie Bly, a groundbreaking journalist and, later, pioneering industrialist, who tore back the curtain on abuses at women's insane asylums by going undercover on what's now Roosevelt Island.

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran near Pittsburgh in 1864, she was given Nellie Bly as a pen name -- customary for women journalists at the time -- by an editor at the Pittsburg Dispatch. The source was a Stephen Foster song, Nelly Bly, and was misspelled.

She got her start by writing a protest over a column in the Dispatch that said a girl's main purpose was to birth children and keep up a house. She followed that up with an article, The Girl Puzzle, arguing that divorce was unfair to women and advocating for changes in the law.

This earned her a full time job as a journalist... and a new name. Bly was created while still in her teens.

Before her twenty-second birthday, Bly's reporting from Mexico caused her to flee the country under threat of arrest. The experience led to her first book, Six Months in Mexico.

Frustrated on her return to Pittsburgh, now given arts assignments, she left for New York City. Penniless after four months, she talked her way into the offices of The New World, operated by Joseph Pulitzer, and landed an assignment that sent her for ten horrifying days to the women's lunatic asylum on Blackwell's Island.

Blackwell's is, of course, now Roosevelt Island, and what's left of the asylum forms the central lobby of the Octagon.

Just 23, Bly took a room in a boarding house where she worked at convincing first the assistant matron, then a cop, a judge and a doctor that she was mentally disturbed. 

She was sent to the asylum and, after witnessing horrifying conditions, was released only after The New World came to the rescue. Her book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, brought international fame and prompted reforms.

Her storied writing career halted in 1895 when Bly married Robert Seaman, head of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, a maker of steel containers. Her husband's illness led to her taking over his business, dropping journalism temporarily. Seaman died in 1904.

A leading woman industrialist, Bly patented a couple of inventions before the business went bankrupt during her watch.

Returned to journalism, she was the first woman to cover World War I on the ground in Europe. In 2013, she covered the Women's Suffrage Parade in Washington. Her article, Suffragists Are Men's Superiors, predicted that women would not win the right to vote until 1920.

Details for the Call for Artists can be found by clicking here.

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