Bly’s Spirit – Frank McNally on a trailblazing journalist with an Irish subplot

It appears to have been removed from the recent remake of the TV series Around the World in Eighty Days, but Jules Verne’s original novel has a crucial subplot involving Ireland.

Passing the Fastnet lighthouse on his ship from New York, Phileas Fogg realizes that the sea route to Liverpool will take too long. He landed in Queenstown (now Cobh) instead, from where an express train took him to Dublin and a transfer to the fast mail boats. Thanks to the 12 hours saved on the sluggish transatlantic liner, he finally won his bet in London.

In another departure from the original, the new TV version of Fogg was accompanied on his journey by an intrepid reporter. It must have been a nod to the extraordinary Nellie Bly (1864-1922), a real journalist who, a few years after the novel, had really traveled the world, and was world famous at the time of her death, he 100 years ago on January 27. .

Bly was American. But like Verne’s novel, it too had an Irish subplot. His paternal grandfather was an émigré from Derry, Robert Cochran, whose American-born son Michael lived the American dream, starting as a blacksmith and ending as a judge.

Cochran jnr was also the owner of a mill and founder of a township in Pennsylvania, Cochran’s Mill, which he greatly contributed to populate, with 15 children from two marriages, respectively with a Catherine Murphy and a Mary Jane Kennedy.

One of the latter’s descendants became Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, losing her father at an early age but gaining an ‘e’ in her surname at one point.

A young woman in a hurry, reduced to misery after the disappearance of the patriarch, she burst into journalism by responding with enthusiasm to the article by a chauvinist columnist entitled “What are girls used for”.

Intrigued by the letter, the editor of the Pittsburgh Gazette hired her, giving her a pseudonym – common practice then – taken from a song by Stephen Foster.

After some investigative work, the newly baptized Nellie Bly found herself for a time condemned to the women’s pages, but escaped to become a correspondent in Mexico – long enough to annoy the government there – before being again confined to news reporting and artistic coverage. Impatient with her fate, she left Pittsburgh in 1887 to try to establish herself in New York.

His big breakthrough there required something more dramatic than a letter. For a talk about the dire conditions in mental health asylums, she first had to pose as a potential patient herself: wearing tattered clothes, neglecting her personal hygiene, having psychotic episodes and practicing “a distant gaze. The act ended up getting her committed.

It was then a risky ploy, especially for a woman. There was no guarantee that she would be released again. But her new employer, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, pushed her to successfully write a series of damning articles, which became a book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, and led to great changes in the how the asylums were run.

An assured New York celebrity, she has now convinced her publisher to support a trip around the world in which she would impersonate the fictional Fogg while turning Verne’s fantasy into reality. She set off in November 1889, 16 years after the novel, and anticipating Ryanair by more than a century, traveled with only hand luggage.

The huge interest in her trip was further boosted by a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match” in which the newspaper encouraged readers to estimate her time of return, for a prize of their own trip to Europe.

As it happens, she surpassed Fogg to circumnavigate the globe in 72 days, meeting the real Jules Verne along the way.

Now internationally acclaimed, she then ventured into popular fiction, writing a series of novels.

Then she married Robert Seaman, a wealthy industrialist more than twice her age.

When her health deteriorated, she quit journalism to run the business.

Unfortunately, his discerning treatment of employees – offering health benefits and recreational facilities including gyms and libraries – was not matched by traditional business acumen.

In the end, according to her biographer, she “lost everything”.

Returning to journalism, she covered the eastern front of the First World War and was arrested in Austria for espionage.

After the war, working for another New York newspaper, she reported on topics such as the women’s suffrage movement.

Bly was still only 57 when she died of pneumonia on January 27, 1922.

Among many accolades, she is now commemorated with the New York Press Club’s annual award for Best Young Journalist.

About Cody E. Vaughn

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