Traveling From Home: Following Nellie Bly

  • Lawson Pace next to a millstone reading "In Honor of Nellie Bly"
  • Nellie Bly raising her hat, dressed as she would have been on her journey around the world
Lawson Pace next to a millstone reading "In Honor of Nellie Bly"

Posing with the millstone memorializing Nellie Bly in Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania.

 

Traveling From Home: Following Nellie Bly

Museum Studies Intern at the Senator John Heinz History Center - Fall 2020

Telling a story about a whirlwind journey around the world seems ridiculous at a time when a global pandemic has led many countries to restrict travel or even close their borders, and yet this was my task this semester as an intern at the Senator John Heinz History Center. Working closely with the museum’s excellent curatorial and marketing staff, I helped to research and write material for the History Center’s website and social media pages telling the story of Nellie Bly’s trip around the world.

Bly’s real name was Elizabeth Cochran, and she worked as a reporter for the New York World. Bly was already known for her daring and confidence, having faked mental illness to be admitted to a mental asylum in 1887. Her exposé of the asylum’s miserable conditions inspired public outrage and reform of the medical system. In 1888, she had the idea to embark on a journey around the world in a publicity stunt for the newspaper. Departing in November 1889 and returning in January 1890, Bly broke the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe, managing the feat in only 72 days at the age of 25. Later in life, she owned and operated a major manufacturing firm and even reported from the Eastern Front during the First World War. Nellie Bly was a journalist, feminist, industrialist, inventor, and an all-around fascinating woman.

I started my internship by researching Nellie Bly and her trip broadly, trying to understand who she was and her significance to the time that she lived in. Since my internship was entirely virtual, I used digitized newspaper records extensively. After several weeks of preliminary research, I began the main task of my internship, to write twenty short articles following Bly’s journey day-by-day. My previous writing experience was predominantly academic, so I worked with my supervisor to develop my skills writing for a general audience. As I wrote, I began to discover that the story I was writing was not only about Nellie Bly; it was also about gender, race, imperialism, and the rapidly changing world of the late nineteenth century. Learning how to engage with these topics in a sensitive way was one of the most important parts of my internship.

Besides the many other things that she was, Nellie Bly was also a Western Pennsylvanian. She was born in Cochran’s Mills, a small village in Armstrong County built around the mills that her father owned; and she got her start in journalism at the Pittsburgh Dispatch. One Sunday, I decided to drive out to Cochran’s Mills to see what remained of the hometown of the woman that I feel that I have come to know so well. I found a church, a fire department, a few scattered houses, and a millstone with a plaque honoring Bly. The 45-minute drive felt like a surprisingly long trip to make to see a single historical marker at first, but it made me think about how the pandemic and its accompanying isolation has altered our perception of distance and what constitutes “travel.” I was struck by the irony of the fact that this short trip was the furthest I had ventured for a project about travelling the world. However, I believe that the peculiarity and irony of this project reveals potential paths forward for museums in a transformed world. We can only grow by embracing the contradictions.