Apollo Historical Society will honor Nellie Bly at 151st birthday celebration
Nellie Bly is Apollo's favorite famous person, and her legacy and life still capture interest a century-and-a-half after her birth.
For Apollo-Ridge High School seniors Hannah Thompson and Victor Valco, Bly still has that cool factor that attracts the adventurous, the dreamers and those who appreciate a willful spirit.
“She was able to do things no one else did or even attempted,” Valco says. “She did things that others dreamed of. Coming from a small town, she really did a lot.”
Bly was a groundbreaking investigative reporter and later became an industrialist, inventor and charity worker.
The Apollo Historical Society will sponsor a 151st birthday celebration for Bly, which is free and open to the public, at 6:30 p.m. May 3 at the Women's Christian Temperance Union building. The event will honor Bly and detail some of her later-in-life accomplishments.
“I find it intriguing how powerful she was and how interesting her life was,” says Thompson, who will portray an older Bly at the event. “I have seen what she looked like. I've done some research about her and her travel.”
Ellen Mahoney, author of the new book “Nellie Bly and Investigative Journalism for Kids,” says students in her journalism class at Metro State University of Denver would “would sit up and listen” when she discussed Bly. “Hands would go up with questions, and students were seriously interested in her life and work.”
“I think people continue to be interested in Nellie Bly because she represents the power of journalism to create positive change in our world,” Mahoney says.
Bly became a national celebrity for traveling around the world in 72 days, beating the record set by the fictional Phileas Fogg from Jules Verne's 1873 book “Around the World in 80 Days.”
While Thompson brings Bly back to life for the day, Valco will be dressing the part of Fogg, whose image grew with the 1956 movie adaptation of Verne's book.
“He was a funny character,” says Valco, who also played the part of Fogg at last year's event. “He had a lot of adventures. He had problems in Africa. He went on train rides and rode in a hot-air balloon. It's intriguing and cool.”
Valco says he admires the choices Bly made and how her history connects the town.
“It's cool to see how the community comes together to see Apollo's most amazing person,” Valco says.
The two students, who will dress in period costumes loaned from the Apollo-Ridge High School drama club, will present a skit on the travels of Bly and Fogg.
“We're going to do a comparison between them,” Thompson says. “It's a competition.”
“It's us comparing our travels,” Valco says. “(Bly) beat the record. She shaved off time, and I'll have to say how I had to do this and this in my travel and compare it to hers.”
Christine Kostiuk, a member of the Apollo Historical Society and in charge of community engagement at Apollo-Ridge, invites students to get involved with the society.
“I try to get kids involved with the museum,” Kostiuk says. “The kids enjoy doing it.”
Bly was born Elizabeth Cochran on May 5, 1864, in Cochran's Mills, a town named after her father, who was a judge.
“Cochran's Mills is mostly under Crooked Creek,” says Sue Ott, vice president of Apollo Historical Society. “The historical marker for the Cochran home on Terrace Avenue was placed quite a while ago. She spent her formative years here.”
Under the pen name Bly, she became famous after many years of hardship, including the death of her father when she was a young child and testifying in court against her mother's second husband, who was abusive.
At the age of 15, she enrolled at Indiana State Normal School, now known as Indiana University of Pennsylvania, to become a teacher and dropped out because of financial hardship.
She later became an investigative reporter, exposing the horrible working conditions for women in Pittsburgh factories. She also lived in New York City and worked for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, gaining fame by going undercover in Blackwell's Island insane asylum to expose inhumane treatment of the insane.
Her work led to increased funding and other changes at that institution. She wrote about poor treatment of people in jails and factories, corruption in state legislature and articles on prominent people, including Susan B. Anthony.
Kostiuk will present videos on Bly, and Ott will give a presentation on Bly's life. The focus will be on Bly's later years, after she married millionaire manufacturer Robert Seaman. After Seaman's death, she became president of Iron Clad Manufacturing and received several patents, including the 55-gallon steel drum.
Ott says Bly's life is still relevant, and what she accomplished is worth retelling.
“She wasn't afraid of anything — one suitcase, and off she went,” Ott says.
“After Nellie's father died, her life became quite horrific,” Ott says. “Watching her mother being abused by her husband and having to testify against him in court could have broken her spirit, but, instead, encouraged her to speak out against all types of abuses.”
Bly's industrialist years brought her more success, although employee embezzlement led to near financial ruin.
She died of pneumonia at the age of 57.
“Even at the end of her life, when she was almost completely financially ruined, she still spoke out for orphaned children and left whatever money she had to various orphanages and children's causes.”
The society has had celebrations in honor of Bly since before Ott became involved 15 years ago.
“We've tried to do something every year for Nellie's birthday, but some years, we just haven't had the time or energy to put a program together,” Ott says. “We have a very small, active membership.”
Ott says the society is open for new members.
Debbie Black is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
Other Nellie Bly projects
Mighty muckrakers: A new book, “Nellie Bly and Investigative Journalism for Kids,” tells the story of Bly's life and exploits, along with detailing other “Mighty Muckrakers” from the Golden Age to Today.”
The book by Ellen Mahoney, a faculty member at Metro State University of Denver, includes historic pictures of Bly and her times. It also has 21 activities for kids, such as “Find the 5Ws,” the who, what, where, when and why used by all journalists, or “Personalize a reporter's notebook.”
Mahoney says, “Nellie Bly was inherently curious. She had a nose for news and knew a good story when she saw one. And, she cared about the underdog.”
In addition to Bly, the book spotlights her contemporary Ida Tarbell, who was from near Erie and was one of the first women to graduate from Allegheny College in Meadville. She's best known for a series of articles about John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Co. for McClure's magazine.
“Nellie Bly's willingness to work exceedingly hard and fight against stereotypes paved the way for future female muckrakers such as Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells,” Mahoney says.
Her book and the activities inside are geared toward ages 9 and up.
“10 Days In A Madhouse”: A new movie about Bly's undercover time at the Blackwell's Island insane asylum will have its U.S. festival premiere May 5 at the Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas and will be shown out of competition May 17 at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
The movie “10 Days in a Madhouse” is a true story adapted from the book by Bly. It will star newcomer Caroline Barry as Bly and Christopher Lambert (“Highlander,” “Tarzan”) as the superintendent of Blackwell's, E.C. Dent.
It will have its U.S. theatrical debut on the anniversary of the day Bly went into the madhouse, Sept. 25, 2015.
TV adventures: In March, Deadline.com reported that a television series is being developed based on the book “Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World” by Matthew Goodman. The book relates the 1889-90 competition between Bly and Cosmopolitan magazine's Bisland for the fastest trip around the world.
Bly's exploits have been fodder for film before. In 1981, Linda Purl starred as the journalist in the TV movie, “The Adventures of Nellie Bly,” and a documentary, “Around the World in 72 Days,” first aired on PBS' “American Experience” in 1997.
Historic meeting: Bly famously detoured from her trip around the world to meet with Jules Verne in France.
The true-life meeting was dramatized in a new theatrical production, “Jules Verne: From the Earth to the Moon,” by the Ensemble for the Romantic Century in Brooklyn, N.Y. Bly was played by Samantha Hill, who was Cosette in Broadway's “Les Misérables.”
The multimedia production, which wrapped up in April, received a positive review from The New York Times.