Elizabeth Jane Cochran originally wanted to be a teacher, but after she ran out of money to finish her training, she instead went to work helping her mother run a boarding house in Pittsburgh. One day, she happened to read a newspaper column by a man who insisted that women should stick to domestic tasks such as cooking, sewing and raising children and not work outside the home. She penned an angry letter in response—the editor liked her writing so much that he hired her as a reporter for the women's pages and gave her the pen name Nellie Bly.
But Bly wouldn't settle for writing about flower shows and fashion. She went to New York where a newspaper editor offered her an assignment to write about the mentally ill housed at an asylum on Blackwell's Island. Bly daringly feigned mental illness to get inside, and then spent 10 days observing the cruel mistreatment, including beatings and ice cold baths, to which patients were subjected. Her shocking account in the New York World stirred up public outrage, and led to much-needed reforms at the institution.
In the process, Bly also invented a new style of undercover investigative journalism, which would be emulated by generations of reporters [source: PBS].