Fall 2019

Undercover girls

Illustration by JOHANNA GOODMAN

Kim Todd, associate professor in the U’s Department of English and head of the creative writing program, has been studying “stunt reporters”—female newspaper writers in the 1880s and 1890s who went undercover to expose societal ills. The most famous of these was Nellie Bly, who feigned insanity to report from inside New York’s notorious Blackwell’s Island Asylum. Todd focuses on them in her upcoming book, Undercover: The Hidden History of America’s Girl Stunt Reporters.

What prompted your interest in stunt reporters? 

Smithsonian magazine asked me to write a piece. I was curious about how stunt reporters navigated their very public roles. Also, my field is literary nonfiction, so I’m interested in how the genre came about. It seems to me it had its origins in these women. They revealed the truth in the form of stories that read like serialized novels. 

How did they change journalism?

They pioneered undercover investigative journalism. Their exposés brought factory conditions, child labor, unscrupulous doctors, and scams to light, helping create awareness and change laws.

How did the Talle Faculty Research Award help?

I received the award in 2018. It lightened my teaching load and funded research for my book. For example, I went to see the papers of Elizabeth Jordan, an editor at Pulitzer’s World, who sought out the work of stunt reporters. As a writer, she was famous for her coverage of the Lizzie Borden trial.