1860: As the clash between the states rolls slowly to a boil, Elizabeth Packard, housewife and mother of six, is facing her own battle. The enemy sits across the table and sleeps in the next room. Her husband of twenty-one years is plotting against her because he feels increasingly threatened—by Elizabeth’s intellect, independence, and unwillingness to stifle her own thoughts. So he makes a plan to put his wife back in her place. One summer morning, he has her committed to an insane asylum.
The horrific conditions inside the Illinois State Hospital in Jacksonville, Illinois, are overseen by Dr. Andrew McFarland, a man who will prove to be even more dangerous to Elizabeth than her traitorous husband. But most disturbing is that Elizabeth is not the only sane woman confined to the institution. There are many rational women on her ward who tell the same story: they’ve been committed not because they need medical treatment, but to keep them in line—conveniently labeled “crazy” so their voices are ignored.
No one is willing to fight for their freedom and, disenfranchised both by gender and the stigma of their supposed madness, they cannot possibly fight for themselves. But Elizabeth is about to discover that the merit of losing everything is that you then have nothing to lose…
There are plenty of comparisons to be made between Elizabeth Packard and Nellie Bly. Both brave. Both resolute. Both grounded in self-belief. Both seeking change and better circumstances for women. Both building relationships with the doctors responsible for their care. But there are also key differences.
Nellie Bly entered the Blackwell’s Island Asylum of her own free will. She did so at great personal risk, yes, but with some confidence that her incarceration would be of a reasonably short duration. She also had a goal in mind – the promise of a job at the New York World newspaper. Elizabeth Packard didn’t have a choice. The wrongful imprisonment and mistreatment of women was important to both, but while Nellie moved on to other issues and causes, Elizabeth Packard’s whole live became devoted to women’s legal rights.
In some ways, Elizabeth Packard is who I imagined Nellie Bly was before I learned her whole story. Although Nellie gets a lot of credit for changing the way asylums were viewed and funded, for me her achievements are in the field of work for women, and succeeding in a man’s world. Elizabeth Packard not only survived her incarceration, she fought to change the system that put her there.
The Woman They Could Not Silence is a fabulous read. Definitely my top non-fiction book of the year. If you enjoyed The Girl Puzzle, you should definitely read this book!
It’s a pleasure to share news of another author who has brought the amazing Nellie Bly to life in historical fiction. Tonya Mitchell’s A Feigned Madness was released earlier this month and I couldn’t wait to compare notes with her and see what what made of the incomparable Ms Bly. Here’s our Q&A:
When did you first hear of Nellie Bly and when did you know you wanted to write a novel about her?
Waaaay back in 2014, I stumbled on Nellie’s asylum story online. It was a blog I think, and it caught my attention right away because the title was about ‘badass historical women.’ Nellie was one of the women featured. The piece had only a paragraph or two describing the harrowing ordeal at the asylum she underwent for the New York World, but I was immediately intrigued. Who was this remarkable woman? Why hadn’t I ever heard of her?I then read her own account of what she experienced, Ten Days in a Mad-House. It was great reading, but as it was a reproduction of her newspaper story, it didn’t reveal anything about her background. How did she get to do this story? What kind of woman would take such a risk? Who really was Nellie Bly? I then looked for the fictionalized novel about her stay at Blackwell’s. To my astonishment, it didn’t exist (again, this was back in 2014). I decided to write the story myself. I’ve always been a fan of dark, twisty, Gothic literature, and so it seemed the right story just fell into my lap. I spent many months reading up on everything I could get my hands on about her, and took two trips, one to Pittsburgh and another to New York City, to visit her old stomping grounds. I wasn’t disappointed with what I found. Nellie Bly is one of the most fascinating women I’ve ever read about, and it was a thrill to bring her to life, once again, in A Feigned Madness.
Describe her character in 10 words.…
What’s your favorite scene in A Feigned Madness?
There’s a chapter where her first installment of the asylum exposé has hit the streets to great effect. It’s the story everyone on Newspaper Row is talking about. Her second and last installment is due to run in just days—and it’s the meaty one where the story picks up when she lands by ferry on the island and goes into the asylum. So she’s in this very happy place waiting for the rest of her story to drop, but then a fellow reporter arrives and tells her Something Very Bad has happened and she heads for the World office at once. There’s a lot of drama, a lot of tension, and she’s wondering if her dreams will be dashed. I can’t really say anything more, except once you’re there, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
Tell me something you learned about Nellie Bly that didn’t make it into the novel.
There is so much to tell about this woman and what she accomplished in her lifetime. Her asylum exposé was really just the tip of the iceberg. Nellie was just getting started! What I kept out are the many things she would go on to do that are out of the frame of the story because they happened later.
If you could meet Nellie Bly and ask her 3 questions, what would they be?
What about your life do you regret the most?
2. What really happened between you and __________ (he’ll be revealed in the novel, I promise!)
3. Did I do you justice?
What are you writing next?
I’m just beginning the research on a story that also takes place in the 19th century, this time in England. It’s got a lot of dark, Gothic elements including England’s body snatchers, the so-called Resurrection Men who dug up recently buried corpses and sold them to anatomy schools (I told you I liked dark and twisty!)
Tonya has a great quiz all about Nellie Bly on her website. You can find it here. Full disclosure – I did not get 20/20…. much to my chagrin!! LOL. Please do check it out, and more importantly, take a look at A Feigned Madness which you can find on Amazon in States here, in the UK here and in Canada here. Oh, and signed copies can be ordered here.
Susan B. Anthony has been in the news lately. This year is the centenary of women (well, white women) getting the vote in America and then there has been a little bit of extra controversy about a presidential pardon. In 1872, Susan B. Anthony set out to cast a ballot in a presidential election. Firm in her belief that the Fourteenth Amendment gave her – as a US Citizen – the right to vote, she entered a barbershop in Rochester, New York, and persuaded the men working there as registrars, to register her and three of her sisters and allow them to vote in the election.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1.
As a citizen, she declared, she had the privilege of voting, and she cast her vote for the Republican incumbent, President Ulysses S. Grant. (He won.) But Susan B. Anthony’s action, as she probably expected, did not go unnoticed. She ended up being arrested some days after the election and was charged with knowingly, wrongfully, and unlawfully voting. She was tried, found guilty and fined $100 – a fine, it should be noted, that she never paid. Her actions brought national attention to the question of equality.
Twenty four years later, Susan B. Anthony was interviewed by the journalist Nellie Bly. In early February, 1896, Anthony was just days away from her seventy-sixth birthday and Bly was thirty-one. Anthony had spent her life devoted to women’s rights. Here’s Bly’s first impression:
She sat in a low rocking-chair, an image of repose and restfulness. Her well-shaped head, with its silken snowy hair combed smoothly over her ears, rested against the back of the chair. Her shawl had half-fallen from her shoulders and her soft black silk gown lay in gentle folds about her. Her slender hands lay folded idly in her lap, and her feet, crossed, just peeped from beneath the edge of her skirt. If she had been posed for a picture, it could not have been done more artistically or perfectly.
Nellie Bly, The World, February 2nd, 1896
In typical Nellie Bly style, the interview is wide-ranging and moves seamlessly from the serious to the personal and back again. Read it and you will learn how Anthony came by her middle name (Brownell), what she liked to eat for breakfast (fruit, grain and coffee), and how many times she had fallen in love. You’ll discover a sharp intellect – she begins by asking her interviewer her own question about current events in Cuba – and a keen memory, as she describes with great good humor her years as a teacher. She lays out how she came to see that voting rights was the battle that had to be won before all others. In her own words:
I had barked up the temperance tree, and I had barked up the teachers’ tree and I couldn’t do anything. I had learned where our only hope rested.
Susan B. Anthony, The World, February 2nd, 1896
Susan B. Anthony looks very serious in this portrait, but Bly brings her to smiling life in her seven column interview. Anthony comes across as approachable, humorous, and intelligent, but also very human, rooted in her family, relentlessly committed to her cause, and full of optimism for the future. From her views on flowers, bicycles and bloomers, to her committed temperance (she never tasted alcohol in her life), Susan B. Anthony fully comes to life in this interview. As such, it is also a tribute to Nellie Bly’s skills as a journalist, her readiness to ask questions big and small, and her ability to bring her subject’s voice and character to her readers’ attention. In Nellie’s own words, “Miss Anthony enjoys a good joke and can tell one. She never fails to see the funny side of things though it be at her own expense.”
Anyone curious to quickly know Susan B. Anthony, beyond the standard biographical record, could do a lot worse than read this whole interview. It’s available on line as a pdf here, and photographed for slightly easier reading here. But as internet resources come and go, and as has been my habit during my research for The Girl Puzzle, I’ve also transcribed the whole thing and you can read it here. I hope you will!
As a reader and writer of historical fiction, I always love the real history behind the stories and often read ‘around’ the novels I’ve enjoyed. No surprise then, that this post from Bookbub was right up my street:
If you click on the photo, you can read the article and see 9 well-known historical novels paired with a non-fiction counterpart. You’ll see The Paris Wife on there, a book I really enjoyed a few years ago. It’s paired with Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I did read that after finishing The Paris Wife, as well as The Sun Also Rises and as I’d never read Hemingway before, I’m happy to say I got an extra benefit from picking up Paula McLain’s novel.
Of course this got me thinking about my own book pairings. I have a shelf of research books for each novel so choosing just one is not easy, but if I had to do it, here’s how I’d pair each of my 3 books to date:
Find out more about Charlatan here, and The Affair of the Poisons here.
And about The Road to Newgate here and The Strange Death of Edmund Godfrey here.
And finally take a look at The Girl Puzzle here and Nellie Bly, Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist here.
I’m SO tempted now to post a photo of the main non-fiction source for my current work in progress…. but I’m holding that back, at least for now 😉
I’ll be honest… I’ve always read as a form of escapism. It’s the quickest and easiest way to get out of the day-to-day and forget any worries – major or minor – that I might have.
So I was thrilled that my publisher Darkstroke/Crooked Cat wanted to make lots of our titles free to download over the Easter weekend.
The Girl Puzzle and The Road to Newgate are therefore FREE to download this weekend. Please grab them for free and know that when you read them, Amazon will pay me royalties (double win!). If you already have them, tell your friends! The more the merrier!
And if historical fiction is not your thing, please do look at all the other books that are FREE this weekend. I’m tweeting as many as I can at HERE.
I’ve loaded a few on the kindle myself for the long, quiet weeks ahead.
Nellie Bly had a lot to say for herself over the years, priding herself on her frankness. Here’s some fine examples…
“The Mexicans surveyed myself and my chaperone in amazement. But I defied their gaze and showed them that a free American girl can accommodate herself to circumstances without the aid of a man.”
Pittsburg Dispatch, June 20th, 1886
Take some girls that have the ability, procure for them situations, start them on their way, and by doing so accomplish more than by years of talking.”
The Girl Puzzle, Pittsburg Dispatch, January 25th 1885
Re-visiting her madhouse story:
“Energy applied rightly and directed will accomplish anything.”
Among the Mad, Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1889
And one of my favorites:
“That women should work is necessary. That they should be treated with equality for their labor is just and right. There should be no difference in the recompense for work, whether done by a man or a woman, so long as it is done equally well.”
Nelly Bly. As consistent in her support for women’s rights and equality for women in her 50’s as she was in her 20’s. Who wouldn’t want to read a novel about her?
“a well-researched and engrossing tale that focuses on female empowerment,” – Kirkus Reviews
“Grounded in historical research, brought to life by a novelist’s imagination, here is Nellie Bly in all her fascinating complexity: outspoken, courageous, kind, clever, sometimes headstrong, other times self-doubting. “Grounded in historical research, brought to life by a novelist’s imagination, here is Nellie Bly in all her fascinating complexity: outspoken, courageous, kind, clever, sometimes headstrong, other times self-doubting. In The Girl Puzzle Kate Braithwaite has created a character who is not easily forgotten.” – Matthew Goodman, bestselling author of Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World
“Everything a historical novel should be – illuminating, intriguing and intelligent. Kate Braithwaite has woven a fascinating and atmospheric story from what is known about the pioneering feminist journalist Nellie Bly (née Elizabeth Cochrane). Braithwaite skillfully blends Bly’s early and later career to give a new insight into a remarkable and complex woman.” – Olga Wojtas, author of Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar
Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum – a pivotal location in The Girl Puzzle – was designed in 1834 by famous American architect Alexander Jackson Davis. His plan was for a U-shaped building near the tip of Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island looking across toward Manhattan, roughly level with Seventy-Ninth and Eightieth Street, but only a portion of the building was ever erected, with two wings stretching out at right angles from a central octagonal tower.
There was already a prison on the island, opened in 1832, and the addition of the asylum was part of a policy decision to locate institutions on ‘quiet islands’, including Blackwell’s, Ward, Hart, Randalls and Long Island. With more construction on Blackwell’s Island – including a Penitentiary Hospital, a Charity Hospital, an almshouse, a Smallpox Hospital and more – by 1872 there were eleven institutions operating on the Island. It’s not hard to imagine that these islands were a convenient place to confine undesirable elements of society, notwithstanding the grand and costly architecture.
This 1853 illustration appears tranquil at first glance. The scene is pastoral with a dog frolicking and a couple sitting under a tree. The asylum looks like a museum more than anything else. But what about that building on the left of the picture? What is that?? Is that the Lodge? Or the Retreat? – gentle, caring names for buildings that were anything but those things. As Stacy Horn writes in “Damnation Island – poor, sick, mad and criminal in 19th Century New York”, things at the lunatic asylum “went south almost immediately.” On the day that it opened, June 10th 1839, 116 men and 81 women were transferred there from Bellevue. That’s 197 patients from day 1. The place was only supposed to house 200. Additional structures were added. Horn describes the Lodge, built in 1848, and the Retreat:
“The Retreat was built to house chronic cases, those who were suicidal and generally too “noisy” and unhinged for the main Asylum, but not as violent as the people sent to the Lodge.”
By 1868, 190 women were housed in the Lodge (and there would still have been male inmates too). The building’s capacity was 66. (2)
Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in the Madhouse
When a new asylum for the insane was built on Ward Island in 1872, Blackwell’s Asylum became an all-female establishment. Nellie Bly carried out her undercover work there in September and October of 1887 and brave though she was, Nellie was not fool enough to get herself sent to either the Lodge or the Retreat. Here’s one of her descriptions:
“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out. I had intended to have myself committed to the violent wards, the Lodge and Retreat, but when I got the testimony of two sane women and could give it, I decided not to risk my health – and hair – so I did not get violent.”
Nellie’s expose, detailing cold baths, dreadful food and the violent conduct of some staff had immediate effects. Doctors and nurses in the asylum read her articles and improvements were made, even before a Grand Jury was summoned to visit the Island and inspect the premises.
Entertainments in the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum
In her 1887 expose, Nellie Bly described hours of tedium with women confined to hard benches with little to occupy them. Mild patients, according to her report, could work in a scrub-brush factory, a mat factory, and the laundry. Patients were expected to do housework, including keeping the wards and nurses bedrooms tidy. An important component of the daily routine was a walk in the asylum grounds but this was wholly weather dependent and strictly monitored by staff. Unruly patients walked roped together to keep them under control.
Other entertainments included dancing and a carousel. Nellie Bly reports that staffed danced with patients and both Halls she was placed in during her stay had a piano. This excellent post by Ephemeral New York, describes an annual Lunatic’s Ball reported by Harper’s Weekly:
The one entertainment that Nellie Bly reports she heard much about, although never experienced due to poor weather, was a carousel. The following image is of the Central Park Carousel, built in 1871, so perhaps the Blackwell’s Island one looked something like this:
It’s hard to imagine a group of grown women in their ill-fitting striped asylum dresses, shawls and battered hats riding round and round, but that’s what they did.
Closing Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum
Following Nellie Bly’s expose, changes were made in the asylum. Improvements were made to food and bathing arrangements as funding increases were approved. But in 1894, the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum was closed and its patients dispersed into other facilities, particularly the on Ward Island where space became available after the opening of immigration facilities on Ellis Island.
The building, after significant renovation, became the Metropolitan Hospital, specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis. The hospital operated until 1955 but afterwards the building fell into disrepair. Today, only the original Octagon remains, but it has been restored. The building is an apartment complex and can be toured. More information here. If only the walls had words… imagine what stories they could tell.
Roosevelt Island today – The Octagon
I visited the Octagon in October 2018, and although the inside was closed so I didn’t get to see the spiral staircase, just being on Roosevelt Island and seeing the building in person was wonderful. There are scenes in The Girl Puzzle that definitely benefited from that research trip. Here’s my then & now photos of the asylum:
My photo, October 1918
Jacob Riis, 1880s (approx)
Sources & further reading:
“Images of America – Roosevelt Island”, Judith Berdy and the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.
“Damnation Island – poor, sick, mad and criminal in 19th Century New York”, Stacy Horn
It’s Nellie Bly’s birthday this weekend and in her honor, not only is The Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly being unleashed on the reading world, but I’m also gathering all my Nellie Bly knowledge and sharing it on my blog. In March I wrote my first 5 lesser known facts about Nellie post but I could have easily kept going. Here are 5 more facts about the amazing Miss Bly that I’m excited to share…
1. Nellie Bly was hoping for a female president of the United States as long ago as 1913
March 4th 1913 was inauguration day for a new president – Woodrow Wilson. Nellie Bly, in D.C. for the Women’s Suffrage Parade the day before (she rode in horseback in the parade AND reported on the event for the New York Journal) slipped up onto the inauguration platform just minutes before the new president was sworn in. In her newspaper report the following day she described her thoughts. “Will you and I,” she wondered, “ever see a woman stand there and take the oath of office?”
2. She organized a day trip/picnic to Coney Island Luna Park for 750 New York orphans on June 1st, 1920.
“Bly said the day was perfect.” That’s biographer Brooke Kroeger’s account of Bly’s characteristically confident self-appraisal of this feat of organization and planning. A feat it certainly was – involving the donated transport services of The Twentieth Century Brown and White Taxicab Association and the Manhattan Tourist Company to transport 750 children, and presumably some supervising staff, from Manhattan to Coney Island. Food was supplied by The Nedick Company and Mayor Hylan waved the 750 orphans off on their day trip from City Hall.
3. She was an early fan of motoring and even got caught speeding
Here’s clipping from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on October 5th 1909. The report details how Nellie and her chauffeur Albert were pulled over for speeding on their way to a stock-holders’ meeting. Although arrested for traveling at 40 miles an hour, it later seemed that the arresting officer had ‘bungled’ the job, and the car was in reality only going at 21 miles an hour. This change in the story may well have had something to do with the status of Albert’s passenger. In the article, Nellie is described as “a business woman clear through… she can give spade and clubs to many men of financial astuteness and beat them at their game.” It is also noted that “she is extremely comely and was the center of considerable attention in court today.”
4. Nellie Bly admired her fellow feminists most – when they were well-dressed
In January 1896, Bly reported on the National Women’s Suffrage Convention and did not pull her punches when describing how poorly she felt the women were dressed. As well as the quote above, she wrote: “I never could see any reason for a woman to neglect her appearance merely because she is intellectually inclined. It certainly does not show any strength of mind. I take it rather as a weakness.”
Still, she was happier some twenty-four years later when reporting on the Republican Convention in Chicago of 1920. She greatly enthused at the involvement of women in politics, but was as keen as ever to stress the importance of keeping up appearances. Of the women she saw there she wrote: “They are the cleverest and brainiest of their kind. That is why they have not neglected their appearance. For while they have fought and won the battle for equal rights with men, they did not forget that man is a creature of his eyes.”
5. Her love life remains something of a mystery
Nellie Bly’s private life is much less easy to follow than her professional one. She did marry, but her choice was surprising to some, and she was also romantically linked to several other men, including one of the doctors she encountered during her daring stay in the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum in 1887. Here are a few of the key men in her life:
From left to right – Arthur Brisbane, James Stetson Metcalf, Dr Frank Ingram and Robert Seaman.
So The Girl Puzzle is due to be foisted upon an unsuspecting world one month from today. It’s a date chosen carefully – May 5th was Nellie Bly’s birthday, 155 years ago.
If Nellie were in my shoes, she’d be a lot more upbeat. She was a go-getter – as I’m sure the book will show – although her life, like everyone else’s, wasn’t all success and accolades. Even as she achieved her ambition and got a much coveted job at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper, she faced stiff competition to keep her column in the Sunday edition. And although she changed the face of women’s journalism by feigning madness and reporting from inside the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum, her stunt reporting wasn’t always serious or hard-hitting. Only a few months after her breakthrough articles about the madhouse took the newspaper industry by storm, Nellie was making her own dance costume and taking ballet lessons. On December 18th, 1887, The World published Learning Ballet Dancing – Nellie Bly in Short Gauze Skirts Kicks at the Mark. Here’s my favourite section from that article:
Dressed at last in a ballet costume I looked at myself and marvelled at the change. There is everything in dress after all. I had entered a quiet, staid-looking spinster, and presto! I now looked like a sixteen-year-old girl and quite flippant and pert. I did not feel as I looked, however. All at once I grew painfully modest. It is not so bad to wear a bathing suit when everybody else around has one on, but when everybody is in full dress one would feel awfully short in a bathing costume. That was my position. I felt as if I had forgotten and gone to a full-dress reception in a bathing suit.
For an instant I was inclined to put on my street dress, and pleading sudden indisposition, take my leave, but I looked so healthy and there was no powder-puff around, so I was afraid the statement would not bear out. Several times I got up and started and my heart failed. I went back and sat down. I pulled at my skirts, but they would not lengthen. I began to fear the Professor would soon think I had fainted or committed suicide. “It’s a go,” I said mentally, and I opened the door and closed it rather quickly behind me, lest I should grow faint-hearted and go back in.”
The illustrations demonstrate that Nellie did get out of the changing room and take her best shot at learning to ballet dance. Of course she did! “I never in my life turned back from a course I had started upon,” she wrote in Among the Mad, in 1889. She went on: “I always say energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”
I guess where I’m going with this, is that with 30 days to go until The Girl Puzzle is out, I think I need to channel some of my own character’s confidence and determination.
I need to re-write that opening sentence to this post and not think that the story is being ‘foisted’ on the world, but that its ready to be shared. And if the world is unsuspecting, then it’s on me to get the word out about the book, to believe in it, and in Nellie Bly, and do the right thing by her and by The Girl Puzzle.
It’s available to pre-order now, on Amazon. You could have Nellie Bly arrive in all her glory on your kindle on May 5th. She’s just a click or two away… The Girl Puzzle is “a go”.
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
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
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
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
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
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)
Her 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.