Why New York City needs a tribute to Nellie Bly, the original ‘Fearless Girl’ (She Built NYC! campaign)

The She Built NYC! campaign, a new program from the Mayor’s Office and the Department of Cultural Affairs, seeks to commission “a public monument or artwork on city property with a focus on women’s history.” The Bowery Boys would like to influence this debate and we’ve recently presented five nominees for this honor.

Throughout the month, we will shed a little light on a few of these choices. And we’d love to hear yours! Leave a choice in the comments section and we will compile them in a couple weeks in a dedicated article. At the end of the month, we’ll send all the choices — both yours and ours — to the nomination committee.

Of the sorry number of statues dedicated to females in New York City, the most popular (outside of Lady Liberty, of course) is easily the Fearless Girl, the bronze embodiment of female power sculpted by Kristen Visbal that faces down the Charging Bull in Bowling Green.

If you’re looking for an historical example of the Fearless Girl’s fierceness and resolve, look no further than the late 19th century journalist and travel writer Nellie Bly (1864-1922), our suggestion to the She Built NYC campaign for public tribute.

Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane) was no ordinary journalist. When she moved to New York City in 1887 to become a writer, she had few contacts, little money but bottomless verve. She managed to impress Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and was immediately assigned to a dangerous undercover job.

Since the 1830s Blackwell’s Island had been the destination for New York’s public institutions of an undesirable nature — hospitals for grave diseases, a penitentiary, an almshouse, even a quarantine for smallpox. There was also a mental institution — an insane or lunatic asylum — rumored to treat its patients most cruelly.

For ten days, Bly went undercover in the madhouse, risking her life and well-being to expose the institution’s shameful conditions and widespread corruption. Her newspaper series — and subsequent book Ten Days In A Mad-House — would not only help rescue the lives of thousands of people trapped in the system. Nellie Bly would also transform investigative journalism.

In subsequent exploits, she went undercover to expose a New York baby trafficking ring, revealed shoddy work conditions in an all-women sweatshop, cracked down on a Albany vote rigging scheme and even uncovered the identity of a Central Park pervert by disguising herself as a “country girl.”

And all of it, before the age of 25.

ca. 1900 — Here is a formal portrait of Nellie Bly (1867-1922), an American journalist and around the world traveler. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Her most famous journalistic stunt — her career foreshadows the development of both investigative journalism and reality television — was a trip around the world in precisely 80 days. On November 14, 1889, Bly began her quest to beat Phileas Fogg, boarding a steamer for England on her way around the globe. (I won’t spoil the ending; read Matthew Goodman’s fantastic book on the subject for more information.)

After marriage in 1895, Bly stopped writing for a time but she didn’t stop dreaming. She actually holds two patents for a milk can and a garbage can. She even headed her husband’s Iron Clad Manufacturing Company after his death. Near the end of her life, she returned to writing, focusing on the cause of women’s rights. She died on January 27, 1922, and she’s buried at Woodlawn Cemetery.

A public commemoration for Nellie Bly would not only honor her life, but would capture a bit of that ‘Fearless Girl’ magic, recognizing the accomplishments of those who have bucked Gilded Age society’s strict norms for the greater good. 

“Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did.” — Nellie Bly, Ten Days in a Mad-House

For more information on Bly’s extraordinary life, check out our podcast Nellie Bly: Undercover in the Madhouse: