5 lesser known facts about Nellie Bly for #InternationalWomensDay

I’m on a mission to let the world know that there was so much more to Nellie Bly than her asylum expose and her round the world adventure – amazing as those things were!

So in honour of International Women’s Day, here are 5 facts/stories about the wonderful Nellie that you may not know already. If you knew them all, or knew none of them, I’d love to hear from you.

1. She famously interviewed Susan B. Anthony

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Susan B. Anthony

In February 1896, as the women’s suffrage movement blossomed in America, Nellie Bly interviewed Susan B. Anthony, eliciting some of the most personal answers to questions ever given by Anthony, then in her seventies. Here’s an exchange from Nellie’s report in The World:

“Were you ever in love?”

“In love?” she laughed merrily. “Bless you, Nellie, I’ve been in love a thousand times!”

“Really?” I gasped, taken aback by this startling confession.

“Yes, really!…. When I was young, if a girl married poor she became a housekeeper and a drudge. If she married wealth, she became a pet and a doll. Just think, had I married at 20, I would have been either a drudge or a doll for 55 years. Think of it!”

2. She was the first woman to witness an execution in 21 years

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Sing Sing 1915

In January 1920, Nellie Bly reported on the execution by electrocution of Gordon Fawcett Hamby at Sing Sing prison.

Hamby, who had confessed to killing two bank officials during a robbery in Brooklyn, communicated with Nellie Bly in the run up to his death, and even sent her his Ouija board as, “a slight remembrance (all I have at this time) for your infinite kindness and friendship”.

Nellie was vehemently anti-capital punishment, writing, “I shall never cease to work to abolish this premeditated killing.”

3. She fundraised for Austrian widows and orphans during WWI

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The Wehrmann in Eisen

During World War I, Nellie Bly travelled to Austria to report for the New York Journal, but she became very engaged in supporting the Austrian cause and in particular widows and orphans. Throwing herself into war relief efforts in Vienna, she asked her readers back home in America to send quarters to her fund. Contributors would be rewarded by having their name inscribed in a gold book and a nail driven into a wooden statue in their honour. The Wehrmann in Eisen, (Iron Man for Austria) was one of many popular fundraising symbols in Austria made in this way, and in May 1916, Bly reported to her readers in the Journal that she had personally hammered one nail into the Wehrmann statue, for every person who had sent her a donation.

4. She always faced stiff competition from other aspiring women journalists

Elizabeth_Bisland_circa1891
Elizabeth Bisland

Famous as she undoubtedly was in her hey-day, Nellie Bly always had competition to deal with. Although one of the first female journalists, she wasn’t the first by any means. Even at The Pittsburg Dispatch, where her career began, there was already a well respected female journalist, Elizabeth Wilkinson Wade, who wrote under the pseudonym Bessie Brambles. At The World in 1887, no sooner had Bly had her hard-won success with her asylum expose, than another female journalist, Fannie Merrill, was vying for a slot in the Sunday edition with a similar style of reports to Nellie’s. Merrill’s article, Skilful Cigarette Girls came out on November 20th 1887, only a month after Nellie’s reports from the asylum. When she set of around the world in 1889, Nellie Bly had no idea that another woman journalist was running against her. Elizabeth Bisland set off heading west on a train from New York on the same day that Nellie sailed east from the city on a steamship and the two women circumnavigated the globe in the opposite direction. And at one point in the 1890’s, Nellie even faced competition from a conglomerate of female journalists, all publishing under the shared pseudonym, Meg Merillies.

5. She ran an informal adoption agency from a New York Hotel

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The Sun, Dec 19th, 1919

When she returned to New York journalism after World War I, Nellie Bly wrote an opinion column in The Journal and publicly offered to help find homes for orphaned children.

In December 1919, a baby was found at Grand Central Station with a note that read – “To Somebody – for the love of Mike, take this kid… give him to Nellie Bly… he is seven months old and as healthy as they make them.”

The baby was taken to Bellevue Hospital where Nellie Bly rushed to visit him. But this was a story with several twists and turns. The baby, dubbed Love o’ Mike by the newspapers, was first claimed by the wrong family, the Wenzes, whose son had been kidnapped a few months earlier. When that story was publicized by Nellie Bly, the real mother came forward to reclaim her son, saying she’d hoped Nellie Bly would find him a better home than his family could offer, but that the Wentzes were barely any better off than she was.


For more about Love o’ Mike and Nellie Bly’s story,  take a look at The Girl Puzzle, available to pre-order now from Crooked Cat books. (publication May 5th, 2019)

3d girl puzzle coverHer published story is well known. But did she tell the whole truth about her ten days in the madhouse?

Down to her last dime and offered the chance of a job of a lifetime at The New York World, twenty-three-year old Elizabeth Cochrane agrees to get herself admitted to Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum and report on conditions from the inside. But what happened to her poor friend, Tilly Mayard? Was there more to her high praise of Dr Frank Ingram than everyone knew?

Thirty years later, Elizabeth, known as Nellie Bly, is no longer a celebrated trailblazer and the toast of Newspaper Row. Instead, she lives in a suite in the Hotel McAlpin, writes a column for The New York Journal and runs an informal adoption agency for the city’s orphans.

Beatrice Alexander is her secretary, fascinated by Miss Bly and her causes and crusades. Asked to type up a manuscript revisiting her employer’s experiences in the asylum in 1887, Beatrice believes she’s been given the key to understanding one of the most innovative and daring figures of the age.

#otd 1885, Nellie Bly’s first byline

“Mad Marriages” was the title of Elizabeth Cochrane’s second article for The Pittsburg Dispatch. Marriage and divorce was a topic Elizabeth had strong views on, and in her article she weighed in on divorce law reform as well as her concern that both parties to a marriage really knew each other, warts and all.

Nellie Bly

Her own family history – her father died when she was six and her mother remarried but then divorced in 1879 – was clearly at the forefront of her mind as she wrote. So, most likely, was her brother Albert with whom she would have a contentious relationship throughout her life. The article was opinionated, strident and intended to provoke debate. It was also published under a new byline.

Nelly Bly songGeorge Madden, recognising Elizabeth’s great potential, didn’t want to publish “Mad Marriages” with the Lonely Orphan byline. She needed a name, but as was customary at the time, it couldn’t be her own.

220px-Stephen_FosterHe called into the newsroom for suggestions and, from among the replies, picked out Nelly Bly. The name came from a popular song, written in 1850 by Stephen Foster, known as ‘the father of American music’, and a Pittsburgh native.

Madden misspelled Nelly, as Nellie and Nellie Bly was born.

 

#otd 1885 – The Girl Puzzle is published

nellie undatedOn January 25th, 1885, The Pittsburg Dispatch published its first article by a new employee. In the week leading up to this date, a young woman called Elizabeth Cochrane had answered George Madden and Erasmus Wilson’s advertisement, seeking the author of a letter they’d received, signed only by a ‘Lonely Orphan Girl.’

Much later, both Wilson and Nellie Bly would reflect on this first meeting. Wilson recalled the young woman arriving, breathless from climbing the stairs. She appeared to him to be shy, but when she smiled her whole face brightened and he remembered she had beautiful teeth. For her part, Nellie was surprised by both Wilson and Madden. Wilson, author of the provoking Q.O. column whose views on a ‘women’s sphere’ had enraged her so much she’d put pen to paper, was not at all the cross old man of her imagination. Instead he was ‘a great big good-natured fellow who wouldn’t even kill the nasty roaches that crawled over his desk.’ maddenAnd Madden, the editor, was a ‘mild-mannered, pleasant-faced boy,’ not at all the fierce, bushy-bearded man she’d imagined him to be.

Best of all, Madden didn’t simply want to publish the girl’s letter. He wanted more of her views and opinions. The result? Her first published article, The Girl Puzzle.

The article, staunch in its view that girls are just as good, if not smarter than boys, calls out for women’s working opportunities to be expanded, and sympathy and assistance offered to struggling women, instead of scorn or unconcern.

Aged 20, Elizabeth (or Nellie as she would become) held firm views that did not change as she grew older. She called for action, not just words, from advocates for women, directly suggesting that leaders of the women’s movement, ‘forgo their lecturing and writing and go to work; more work and less talk.’ No wonder George Madden found something he could not pass up in her first letter to the paper. As Wilson later recalled Madden saying:

‘She isn’t much for style, but what she has to say she says it right out regardless of paragraphs or punctuation. She knocks it off and it is just right too.’

A week later, with his editorial guidance, the Lonely Orphan had her first piece in the newspaper.

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Elizabeth Cochrane was not yet Nellie Bly. But she was on her way.

#otd Looking for the “Lonely Orphan Girl”

On Saturday January 17th, 1885, George Madden and Erasmus Wilson of the Pittsburg Dispatch decided to do what they could to find the author of a letter they’d received from someone calling themselves ‘Lonely Orphan Girl.’

In the ‘Mail Pouch’ column of the paper, where they featured letters to the editor, the following note appeared:

if the writer of the communiation

Why did they follow up with this particular letter writer? Erasmus Wilson later recalled the paper’s editor George Madden saying this:

“She isn’t much for style, but what she has to say she says right out regardless of paragraphs or punctuation. She knocks it off and is just right too.”

The Lonely Orphan Girl would go on to become a world famous journalist. Here is Nellie Bly’s biographer, Brooke Kroeger’s introduction to Nellie’s life story:

“Nellie Bly was one of the most rousing characters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries… She feigned insanity and engineered her own commitment to a mental institution, then exposed its horrid conditions. She circled the globe faster than any living or fictional soul. She designed, manufactured, and marketed the first successful steel barrel produced in the United States. She owned and operated factories as a model of social welfare for her 1,500 employees. She was the first woman to report from the Eastern Front in World War 1. She journeyed to Paris to argue the case of a defeated nation. She wrote a widely read advice column while devoting herself to the plight of the unfortunate, most notably unwed and indigent mothers and their offspring.” (Brooke Kroeger, Nellie Bly – Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist)

But on January 17th, 1885, neither Madden or Wilson had any idea of what was about to unfold.

Would the Lonely Orphan Girl even see their advertisement?

And if she did, would she answer?

 

 

#otd The Nellie Bly story begins…

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 10.41.45 amOn January 14th, 1885, The Pittsburg Dispatch (yes, Pittsburgh was Pittsburg back then) published a column replying to a letter from an “Anxious Father.” The columnist was Erasmus Wilson, a kindly, avuncular gentleman, who wrote under the pseudonym of Q.O. (The Quiet Observer). Wilson’s “Quiet Observations”, in early 1885, were focused on the role of women and his views were strictly traditional. Women’s place was in the home.

In mid January, he received a letter from an ‘Anxious Father’, seeking advice on what to do with his unmarried daughters, aged between eighteen and twenty-six.  “I have five of them on hand,” wrote their father, “and am at a loss how to get them off or what use to make of them.”

Wilson did not hold back.

screen-shot-2017-08-28-at-3.53.10-pmIn his column, published alongside the letter, Wilson said he could not help the father. It was the parents’ responsibility to prepare their daughters to run households, he said. Women should be able to spin, sew, cook and clean. If women were not fit to run a home, then who knew, in the future, America might need to adopt the Chinese policy of killing baby girls or selling them as slaves! In the following week or two, as the ‘Anxious Father’ wrote to the paper again, Wilson went even further. Any woman ‘outside her sphere’ was a ‘monstrosity’, he declared, adding that ‘There is no greater abnormality than a woman in breeches, unless it is a man in petticoats.’

Wilson was being deliberately provocative. And the women of Pittsburgh were certainly provoked into responding.

photo posted on post-gazette.comBessie Bramble was one. The sole female columnist at the Dispatch, Bramble was a passionate writer and one of the few women journalists working at the time. She hit back at Wilson, defending women and rejecting his argument that ‘girls were only good for’ domestic drudgery.

Wilson’s column brought in letters too, including one from a twenty year-old girl called Elizabeth Cochrane. She lived in an Allegheny row house with her mother, siblings and some boarders the family took in, in order to make ends meet. After reading Wilson’s column on January 24th, Cochrane wrote a passionate letter to the paper. She did not include her address or her real name, but signed it “Lonely Orphan Girl.”

Wilson and the Dispatch’s editor George Madden, were intrigued, impressed even, by her response.

But how could they find the letter writer when they didn’t know her address, far less her real name?

 

Dec 14th: The Anatomy Murders by Lisa Rosner

“On Halloween night 1828, in the West Port district of Edinburgh, Scotland, a woman sometimes known as Madgy Docherty was last seen in the company of William Burke and William Hare. Days later, police discovered her remains in the surgery of the prominent anatomist Dr. Robert Knox. Docherty was the final victim of the most atrocious murder spree of the century, outflanking even Jack the Ripper’s. Together with their accomplices, Burke and Hare would be accused of killing sixteen people over the course of twelve months in order to sell the corpses as “subjects” for dissection. The ensuing criminal investigation into the “Anatomy Murders” raised troubling questions about the common practices by which medical men obtained cadavers, the lives of the poor in Edinburgh’s back alleys, and the ability of the police to protect the public from cold-blooded murder.

Famous among true crime aficionados, Burke and Hare were the first serial killers to capture media attention, yet The Anatomy Murders is the first book to situate their story against the social and cultural forces that were bringing early nineteenth-century Britain into modernity. In Lisa Rosner’s deft treatment, each of the murder victims, from the beautiful, doomed Mary Paterson to the unfortunate “Daft Jamie,” opens a window on a different aspect of this world in transition. Tapping into a wealth of unpublished materials, Rosner meticulously portrays the aspirations of doctors and anatomists, the makeshift existence of the so-called dangerous classes, the rudimentary police apparatus, and the half-fiction, half-journalism of the popular press.

The Anatomy Murders resurrects a tale of murder and medicine in a city whose grand Georgian squares and crescents stood beside a maze of slums, a place in which a dead body was far more valuable than a living laborer.” (Amazon blurb)

Why read The Anatomy Murders?

anatomy murdersIt’s not possible to grow up in Edinburgh without knowing certain stories. These include the murder of Lord Darnley, the story of Greyfriar’s Bobby and the body-snatching activities of Burke and Hare. I’ve been looking this afternoon for fictional retellings of their nasty little story but coming up empty handed so far. And this book by Lisa Rosner published in 2009 looks like the best non-fiction summary to be read. Of course there also the trials – I do love a primary source – and so if I do take the plunge with this book, I’ll certainly be reading the trial documents too.

Dec 12th: The Butchering Art by Lindsay Fitzharris

“In The Butchering Art, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery and shows how it was transformed by advances made in germ theory and antiseptics between 1860 and 1875. She conjures up early operating theaters—no place for the squeamish—and surgeons, who, working before anesthesia, were lauded for their speed and brute strength. These pioneers knew that the aftermath of surgery was often more dangerous than patients’ afflictions, and they were baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high. At a time when surgery couldn’t have been more hazardous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon named Joseph Lister, who would solve the riddle and change the course of history.

Fitzharris dramatically reconstructs Lister’s career path to his audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection and could be countered by a sterilizing agent applied to wounds. She introduces us to Lister’s contemporaries—some of them brilliant, some outright criminal—and leads us through the grimy schools and squalid hospitals where they learned their art, the dead houses where they studied, and the cemeteries they ransacked for cadavers.

Eerie and illuminating, The Butchering Art celebrates the triumph of a visionary surgeon whose quest to unite science and medicine delivered us into the modern world.” (Amazon blurb)

Why read The Butchering Art?

butchering artHmm. Why do I want to read this book? I’m drawn to some of the gruesome stuff in history, I’ll admit. I’ve read some pretty grim stuff about torture and executions that I’ve used in my novels. But I think this appeals because of my roots in Edinburgh and growing up on stories of Burke and Hare grave-robbing and murdering to supply the anatomist, Robert Knox.

Lindsay Harris is someone I follow on twitter and her book has received some great reviews and prizes since it came out last year. Definitely on my Christmas list.

Day 10: The History of Underclothes

“Underwear — practical garments with a utilitarian function or body coverings that serve an erotic purpose? As this fascinating and intelligently written study shows, the role played by underclothing over the last several centuries has been a varied one.
In a well-documented, profusely illustrated volume combining impressive scholarship with an entertaining, often humorous style, two distinguished clothing historians consider undergarments worn by the English over the past 600 years. Beginning with the Middle Ages, the authors cover centuries of clothing history, including the Tudor period, the Restoration, the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and the twentieth century up to the eve of World War II. Drawing on extensive, research, the Cunningtons illuminate the role and function of underwear: it protected the wearer against the elements, supported costume shapes, served as an erotic stimulus, symbolized class distinctions, and fulfilled other social, sanitary, and economic functions.
Enhancing the detailed, comprehensive text are more than 100 period illustrations and photographs depicting a laced-up bodice of the twelfth century, embroidered linen drawers of the sixteenth century, a hooped petticoat support in bentwood (c. 1750), footed long drawers (1795), nineteenth-century bustles, early nineteenth-century corsets for men, “Frillies for the Tiny Lady” (1939), and much more. A bibliography, appendix, and index complete a valuable reference work that will appeal to costume historians, sociologists, and other readers.” (Amazon blurb)

Why read The History of Underclothes?

history of underclothesDo I even need to answer that? I can’t wait to read this book. Even if I’m not planning on mentioning my character’s underwear, I really think I ought to know what’s going on (or not) in this department. I’ve recently ‘jumped’ period and been writing a novel set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries so I’ve had a lot of new stuff to learn. One of the things I like about this new book is that the two time periods – although only thirty years apart – are quite different. Think cars, the telephone, electric light. But also think goodbye corsets and hello bras. I’ve had a lot of ground to cover and definitely think I could do with this book to make sure I’m not making any major gaffes. Plus what if I jump period again? Maybe back in time, I’m thinking. Way back. Watch this space…

Dec 6th: Inseparable: the original Siamese twins and their rendezvous with American History

“In this “excellent” portrait of America’s famed nineteenth-century Siamese twins, celebrated biographer Yunte Huang discovers in the conjoined lives of Chang and Eng Bunker (1811–1874) a trenchant “comment on the times in which we live” (Wall Street Journal). “Uncovering ironies, paradoxes and examples of how Chang and Eng subverted what Leslie Fiedler called ‘the tyranny of the normal’ ” (BBC), Huang depicts the twins’ implausible route to assimilation after their “discovery” in Siam by a British merchant in 1824 and arrival in Boston as sideshow curiosities in 1829. Their climb from subhuman, freak-show celebrities to rich, southern gentry who profited from entertaining the Jacksonian mobs; their marriage to two white sisters, resulting in twenty-one children; and their owning of slaves, is here not just another sensational biography but an “extraordinary” (New York Times), Hawthorne-like excavation of America’s historical penchant for tyrannizing the other―a tradition that, as Huang reveals, becomes inseparable from American history itself.” (Amazon blurb)

changandengWhy read Inseparable?

I’ve a big interest in anything to do with P.T. Barnum and his American Museum where Chang and Eng were ‘exhibited’ in the 1860’s. I’ve also had the dubious pleasure of seeing their conjoined liver on display in the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. The Mütter is the museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and is well worth a visit. Where else could you go to see slices of Einstein’s brain?

Theirs is an extraordinary story by anyone’s reckoning. Born in Thailand in 1811, Chang and Eng came to America when they were in their late twenties. In 1843 they married two sisters, Sarah and Adelaide Yates, and between them they had twenty one children. According to wikipedia (of course I need to read the book to see if this is confirmed) they each had a house which they lived in for three days at a time. During each man’s three days in his own home the other would remain silent and allow his brother to make every choice about how they spent their time.

There is a novel about them Chang and Eng that I also want to read. Not enough hours in the day.