Tom Henderson: 'Nevertheless, she persisted'
Journalists everywhere are the children of Nellie Bly
With March celebrating Women’s History Month, my thoughts turn to two old newspaper buddies who died within 13 days of one another in 1922.
Erasmus Wilson, known as “The Quiet Observer” to readers of his column in the Pittsburgh Gazette, died at the age 80 Jan. 14. His old colleague, Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, was much younger when she died Jan. 27.
At 57, she was young enough to be his daughter. And in an odd sort of way, she was. Erasmus Wilson (who went by the initials Q.O.) was as much responsible for Elizabeth’s life as her biological father. He was definitely the father of the woman we know today as Nellie Bly.
Nellie went down in history for going undercover in a women’s insane asylum and writing “10 Days in a Madhouse,” one of the more prominent works of early investigative reporting. She also captured global attention by circling the world in 72 days in 1889, beating the fictional benchmark Jules Verne set 16 years earlier in his novel “Around the World in 80 Days.”
Her true greatness, however, is that she never accepted the limitations her era set on women. It could be truly said of her, as Sen. Mitch McConnell noted of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Q.O., in contrast, was very much a creature of his era. His column reflected the popular prejudices of his day, a day when women were little more than the chattel of their husbands and fathers. It would be another 40 years before women could vote when he wrote a column in 1880 declaring that working women were “an abomination.”
Oh, did he pick a fight with the wrong 17-year-old girl.
Elizabeth’s mother had recently escaped an abusive second marriage and was struggling to feed Elizabeth and her siblings without the benefit of a husband. Teenage Elizabeth knew that work, for many women, was not a rebellion. It was life or death.
Writing a letter to the editor under the name “Lonely Orphan Girl,” she ripped into Q.O.’s column. It was not a graceful critique, but it caught the eye of Gazette Editor James Madden, who realized the girl’s passion could be harnessed into something greater. He offered her a job and the pen name “Nellie Bly.”
Poor Q.O. You have to pity him. Just a little. He was a fairly prominent and well-respected newspaperman in his day. His views regarding women were all-but-universal in the 1880s. Now Q.O. is only a footnote. He rarely shows up in history books at all, except in association with Nellie Bly — always with adjectives like “vile,” “hateful,” “chauvinistic” and “misogynistic.”
Nellie would feel bad about that. Misogynistic though he may have been in 1880, his views toward women apparently softened as he grew to old age. Or maybe Nellie was just an incredibly forgiving soul. The two visited throughout their lives and exchanged tender letters. One such affectionate letter from Nellie to Q.O., in 1915, is signed: “Your kid, Nellie Bly.”
That she was. She was the child of the injustice she witnessed around her. However, in testament to her spirit, she hated the oppression and loved the oppressors — at least in the form of her beloved Q.O.. It is something to remember in the 21st century when debate so often degenerates into rancor.
We should think of Nellie often. Think of her, for example, when phrases “lamestream media” and “media elites” are bandied about. Journalism is still a noble, romantic and worthwhile calling. People like Nellie made it that way.
After being hired by Madden, Nellie amassed an impressive portfolio of what newspaper people used to call “clips.” One day in 1887, the staff of the Dispatch came to the newroom to find a note on Nellie’s desk. “I’m off to New York,” it said simply. “Look out for me. BLY.”
Yet every door at every newspaper along New York’s famous Park Row slammed in her face. No one wanted to hire a girl reporter. After four months of unemployment, she was running out of money if not pluck. She marched past the security guards at the New York World and into the office of Col. John Cockerill, the paper’s managing editor.
He gave her a $25 retainer to keep her fed until he could hire her. It didn’t take long. Cockerill sent her undercover to the insane aslym on Blackwell’s Island. Her expose was more than a sensation. Its reports of the horrors of the asylum led to numerous reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill and cemented Nellie’s reputation as a champion of the underdog.
Working Girls Beware! Worked by the Hindoo Idol! What Becomes of Babies! Trying to be a Servant! Some Ladies Who Fence! Our Workshop Girls! Our Wickedest Summer Resort! Nellie Bly on the Wing! Homeless, Helpless! Cruelties at the Zoo!
Nellie’s stories were often sensational, but always aimed at righting wrongs. It was the era of the “stunt girl,” the era Nellie ushered in with her madhouse exposé. She and her fellow stunt girls went to the most outrageous lengths to sell newspapers — but always with an eye toward reform.
Toward the end of her life, she fell into depression and confided in her old sparring partner, Q.O. “I mean to die,” she said in a 1919 letter. “I would have killed myself at once, but I have a duty to my dear brother Harry to perform, and until that is completed, I must live.”
She lived for a little more than two years, fighting the good fight until she died of pneumonia. She thought Wilson might actually get a chance to have the final word on the career he inspired. “You may write of the kid who wrote an orphan girl letter and got work which enabled her to care for her family and how at last, betrayed by her mother, she died,” she wrote in the same 1919 letter.”
It was signed, as always, “Your kid, Nellie Bly.”
The kid is now the parent. Journalists in the 21 century are finding their way out of the madhouse. Nellie has been showing us the way for more than 130 years. Everyone who works in journalism owes her a debt.
We are the children of Nellie Bly.
(Historian and author Bill Thiefelder lectures on “The Audacious Adventures of Nellie Bly” at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, March 18, in the U.S. Bank Room of the Multnomah Country Central Library, 801 S.W. 10th Ave., Portland.)