#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 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?