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