Nelly Bly, Nelly Bly, bring the broom along. We'll sweep the kitchen clean, my dear, and have a little song. Poke the wood, my lady love, and make the fire burn. And while I take the banjo down, just give the mush a turn.

Actually, it was more like muck than mush that Nelly Bly turned. And it wasn't the Nelly Bly of the 1850 Stephen Foster song. This Nelly Bly was really a young lady newspaper reporter named Elizabeth Cochrane. Many of us who know of her today are familiar with her most notorious exploit. In 1890 she beat Phileas T. Fogg at his own game. Fogg, French novelist Jules Verne's fictitious character, won a bet by traveling around the world in 80 days. He won only with the aid of the International Date Line. Many readers questioned the plausibility of accomplishing the feat in under three months. Nelly Bly was willing to bet it could be done. Her employer, the New York World, knew she had a hot story and agreed to pay her expenses. Wearing a long checkered traveling coat and a deerstalker cap she set out from New York. Traveling by a combination of cargo ships, tugboats, trains, rickshaws and a burro, she sped around the globe. Her paper kept printing her field dispatches and offered a reward for the reader who came closest to guessing her arrival time. They received over a million entries. Fogg's fictitious record fell when the real-life globe trotter arrived back in New York after 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.

Most of her stunts were much less elaborate. When a reporter from 60 Minutes knocks on your door today, and announces themself, many nefarious types suddenly find compelling reasons to be away from the office. Such as in Patagonia. Nelly Bly never announced herself. A sting artist extraordinaire, she would tunnel inside an institution, disguised as a purse snatcher or prostitute, or even a chorus girl. Then the exposés would flow and she would win one more round in her battle to show the world, especially the wealth-insulated upper classes, the abuses that women were forced to endure in society.

But her most important exploit was her first. She'd grown up as one of fifteen children in a family that had fallen on hard times when the father died, and had seen her mother suffer the abuses of a hard-drinking second husband. When her mother succeeded in obtaining a divorce, she lost all legal claim to her children, who still continued to live with her. Today we'd say Elizabeth Cochrane grew up to became a "sister", and decided to do what she could to better the lot of women. Incensed at a newspaper article that explained "What Girls are Good For" (the answer was a more gentle version of the barefoot-and-pregnant cliché), she set off to Gotham and the offices of the New York World. We'll meet her there next week.

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

© 1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte