One of the first things Nellie learned when she arrived in Mexico was this: She wasn’t going to be the first woman reporter to write about Mexico.
There were already a half dozen American women in Mexico, writing stories about the country and sending them to newspapers and magazines back home.
So Nellie decided that, if she couldn’t be the first, she would be the best.
And she didn’t mind being a bit rude about it.
”Journalists from the States are not regarded with much favor by the people of Mexico,” her first story began. “So many have come here who were unable to speak the language, and so careless of truth, that they misrepresented everything.”
Nellie went on to write disapprovingly of a woman reporter who was fooled by made-up stories people told her and who, Nellie insisted, did most of her “reporting” by sitting in her hotel room reading guide books.
The fact was, Nellie barely spoke any Spanish herself. But though she had been in the newsroom less than a year, she had already learned this important rule: If you don’t know something, find out who does.
She made friends with some American writers and editors who lived in Mexico City. They spoke the language, they knew the country and they were willing to share their knowledge with a young reporter from back in the States.
Then Nellie Bly did what she would always do best: She went out, she looked around and she wrote about what she saw.
She told readers what Mexican people looked like, what they wore, what kinds of houses they lived in and what kinds of food they ate.
She wrote about how they farmed the land, how they sold their produce and how they lived their lives. She didn’t always approve.
Today, travel writers often try to show how much alike people are, wherever you go: Even though they speak different languages, dress differently and live very different lives, they still care about the same things we care about.
But, in the days before movies and television and photographs in newspapers, reporters described foreign lands and foreign people as strange and very different, making their stories as unusual, exciting and memorable as they could.
Nellie had a very good talent for noticing details, like how the haystacks in Mexico were shaped or how burros loaded with fruits and vegetables followed their masters to the marketplace without reins or a lead rope.
Her sharp eye noticed, too, that some Mexican fruit sellers used the same tricks to cheat their customers that dishonest American fruit sellers used, like putting the best fruit on top, and even putting stones in the bottom of a basket instead of strawberries!
Mostly, Nellie wrote very kindly about the Mexican people, and there may have been a very good reason for that.
Mexico’s president at the time was Profirio Diaz. He had been president for several years, and he would be president for many more.
Though many American politicians and business leaders approved of Diaz, it turned out later that he had not been an honest politician. One important way he kept the outside world from knowing this was to censor the newspapers.
Nellie may not have realized this when she wrote an article about an editor who had been arrested for an editorial that criticized the government. But, when someone in the States sent the article back to Mexico, Nellie Bly suddenly found that government newspapers were attacking her for being disloyal, and suggesting that she, too, might be arrested for her negative views.
Nellie and her mother had planned to stay longer, but, a few weeks after these attacks began, they returned to the United States.
Once back in Pittsburgh, she continued to write about her trip, but now she wasn’t worried about whether President Diaz would like her stories.
Now Nellie Bly’s stories about Mexico were not as polite and approving.
It would be hard for Americans, used to free speech and a free press, to believe it, she wrote, but “the Mexican papers never publish one word against the government or officials, and the people who are at their mercy never dare breathe one word against them.”
Nellie was home, her series was a hit, and now she was ready to do exciting and important stories right there in Pittsburgh.
Her editors, however, assigned her to write about the theater and the arts, the same sorts of “women’s features” she’d been writing before she went to Mexico.
So Nellie Bly wrote about plays, and about paintings. She wrote about wedding rings. She wrote about hats. She wrote about famous actors who came to Pittsburgh.
And then one day, the editors found the last thing Nellie Bly wrote in Pittsburgh. It was a note that read:
“I am off for New York. Watch out for me! – Bly”