Who Wants to Be a Girl Stunt Reporter?

by Tori Telfer

"Girl Stunt Reporter" is high on my list of Underratedly Cool Careers, right above "Avant-Garde Glass Blower" and just below "Opera Choreographer." The phrase may sound like a circus sideshow today, but being girl stunt reporter was an actual career circa 1880-1930. These lady journalists galloped around the city, fearlessly undercover, in an era when women didn't even have the vote. In Ladies of the Press, Ishbel Ross describes the phenomenon of girl stunt reporters as "a wild out-cropping of girls who freely risked their lives and reputations in order to crash the papers…. They posed with equal nonchalance as beggars, balloonists, streetwomen, servants, steel workers, lunatics, shop girls and Salvation Army lassies. They bothered the preachers and stampeded the town."

And of all the girl stunt reporters of that era, Nellie Bly was probably the famous. In 1887, Bly faked insanity and had herself committed to the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island, then spent a nasty ten days experiencing the many horrors and abuses that the Asylum doled out onto its patients. But once she emerged, investigative story firmly in hand, she was famous.

Being a girl stunt reporter wasn't all cool assignments and breaking journalism, though. Despite the fact that women like Nellie were fearless, clever, and fiercely intelligent, there was a limit to how seriously the world ever took them. As Howard Good writes in Girl Reporter:

Ironically, the very characteristics that qualified women for stunt-girl... reporting disqualified them from more serious journalism.… Stunt-girl reporting was founded upon the…idea that strong, independent women were amusing oddities, freaks. In the eyes of most of the world, women journalists were women first, and journalists second, and suspect always.

But be as it may, Nellie Bly was pretty freaking cool. And this year, in honor of her 150th birthday, a new collection of her writings is being released: Nellie Bly: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings. Before you delve into her wild pieces, here are 9 facts about her career that may have you longing to "crash the papers" afterward.

1. Her journalism career began with an anonymous response to a misogynist newspaper editorial.

In 1885, Bly penned an infuriated response to an editorial in The Pittsburgh Dispatch called "What Girls are Good For." The editor at the Dispatch was so impressed that he ended up giving Bly a full-time job at the paper. What girls are good for, indeed.

2. She terrorized a women's boarding house by pretending to be insane.

In order to get herself checked into the Women's Lunatic Asylum, Bly practiced her best vacant stare, wrecked her clothes, and checked herself into a boarding house only to spend the entire night ranting like a crazy person. (She wanted someone to call the police so that she would eventually get committed — which is exactly what happened.) Apparently Bly had a flair for the stage, too, because she later wrote that it was "the greatest night of my life."

3. Her undercover stint at the asylum paid off.

After Bly revealed the atrocities that went on in the Women's Lunatic Asylum — think rats, rotting food, and ice-cold "baths" — the city increased the budget for asylums, and on a later trip to Blackwell, Bly reported that the conditions were far better. The story may have been sensational, but its effects were tangible.

4. She beat Jules Vernes' fictional around-the-world record — as well as a Cosmopolitan reporter's.

When Bly set off to see if she could make it around the world in less than 80 days — an attempt to beat the fictionalized trip in Jules Vernes' Around the World in 80 Days — Cosmopolitan caught wind of the idea and sent a reporter of their own, Elizabeth Bisland, to try and beat Bly.

Nellie made the trip in 72 days; Bisland finished four days later.

5. She posed as a woman who wanted to "buy a baby."

In her article for the New York World, "What Becomes of Babies," she set out to expose the baby-buying trade, a creepy industry based on "regular traffic of new-born babes."

6. She moonlighted as a woman in search of a husband.

In a hilarious piece of journalism, Bly turned to New York's "matrimonial agencies" to procure a man. The piece, called "Wanted — A Few Husbands," includes amazing lines such as, "Husband-hunting did not appear to be a very congenial pursuit, as I waded through the mud to a Broadway car that stopped half a block above where I signaled for it."

7. She joined a chorus line.

Bly tried out for — and got — a part in the dancing chorus line for "The Amazon March." The subtitle of her resulting piece read, "She wears a scant costume and marches with the Amazons."

8. She exposed a number of cheaters, swindlers, and scandals.

Lest you think that Bly was all "scant costumes" and husband-hunting, her exposés frequently had real-world reverberations, and she wasn't afraid to go after the black market set. In "The King of the Lobby," Bly caught a professional briber, a "Lobby King" who, as the piece goes, "Contracts to Kill Bills for Cash...Furnishes 'The World' with a List of Assembly Commissioners Who Are Bribable." She also exposed a swindle involving worthless washing machines and the dirty workings of a diamond shop in NYC, among other scandals.

9. She was an inspiring, fearless writer.

In her book Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, Bly wrote:

I always have a comfortable feeling that nothing is impossible if one applies a certain amount of energy in the right direction. When I want things done, which is always at the last moment, and I am met with such an answer: "It's too late. I hardly think it can be done;" I simply say: "Nonsense! If you want to do it, you can do it. The question is, do you want to do it?"

Images: Wikimedia Commons