Adventuress

05 05 nellie bly 1Today is the birthday of Nellie Bly, who was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran near Pittsburgh in 1864. She was a pioneer in the field of investigative journalism at a time when women did not even have the right to vote.

When Elizabeth was sixteen, an article appeared in her local newspaper, the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled ‘What Girls Are Good For’. Its author felt that women should not even attempt to have an education or a career. She was so incensed that she wrote an angry rebuttal to the editor. Her own mother worked to support herself after her second marriage ended in divorce so she had some pretty strong opinions to share. The Editor was so impressed that he asked her to write an article for the newspaper and then he offered her a full time job. She wrote under the pen name of Nellie Bly. Many of her early pieces highlighted the plight of working women and the poor factory conditions that they had to endure. She spent six months in Mexico, reporting on the lives and customs of the people there and also wrote scathingly about the Mexican government. Mostly though, she found herself relegated to the so-called ‘women’s pages’ writing about fashion and gardening and she left in 1887.

Nellie moved to New York and, after four months of unemployment, managed to land a job at ‘New York World’, a newspaper belonging to Joseph Pulitzer. She was given an undercover assignment which involved feigning insanity in order to have herself admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. There had been reports of neglect and mistreatment of patients and Nellie would be able to find out if they were true. She checked herself into a boardinghouse where she kicked up a massive fuss. She said she was afraid of the other boarders because they looked crazy and she refused to go to bed. By 05 05 an insanity expert at workthe next morning everyone was afraid that she was crazy and the police were called. Nellie was examined by several doctors who all pronounced her insane and she was taken to Blackwell’s Island. At first she was afraid of being found out as a fraud, but she soon began to think that the doctors were incompetent.

On the island she found out that patients were given terrible food, insufficient clothing and made to sit in silence for long hours. They were given cold baths in filthy water and were often punished by being beaten and strangled by the nurses. Once there, Nellie found that convincing people of her sanity was impossible. Furthermore she doubted the insanity of her fellow inmates. Some women were there because English was not their first language and simply hadn’t been able to make themselves understood. One lady had asked for help from the authorities because she was poor and, when she found herself in the asylum, she had assumed that this was where all poor people went. Nellie was released only with the help of her employers after ten days. The articles she wrote led to an official investigation into the care of patients at Blackwell’s Island and also an $850,000 dollar increase in the budget for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. Nellie’s investigative journalism made her famous and were later reprinted as a book called ‘Ten Days in a Madhouse’. Her experiences inspired the TV series ‘American Horror Story: Asylum’. But that is not all she did.

05 05 nellie bly 2In 1888 she suggested to her editor that she make a journey around the world in order to see if she could make the fictional story ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ into a reality. A year later, at 9:40 am on November 14, 1889 she set off on a steamer across the Atlantic, All she took were the dress she was wearing, an overcoat, one small case and £200 in a bag tied around her neck. She travelled to England, across to France, where she met Jules Verne (the author of Around the World in Eighty Days) to Egypt, Ceylon and Singapore. When she arrived in Hong Kong she discovered that a rival newspaper, ‘Cosmopolitan’, had sent another journalist, named Elizabeth Bisland, on a similar journey but in the opposite direction. She was now in a competition to see who would arrive home first. Nellie arrived in San Francisco behind schedule due to storms in the Pacific. Her employer, Pulitzer, chartered a special train and she arrived in back in New Jersey at 3.51 pm on January 25 1890. The journey had taken less that 73 days. Her rival had also been delayed, crossing the Atlantic, and arrived four and a half days later. For a little while, Nellie Bly held the record for the fastest journey around the world. Her trip also inspired this board game…

05 05 nellie bly game

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Pants

12 29 emma snodgrassWhat with reality television, docusoaps and twitter we’re all familiar with the way people rise to prominence in the media for a time only to disappear into obscurity a few months later. Stories come and go so quickly it seems as though Andy Warhol’s prediction that in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes might be true. But this is not a purely modern phenomenon. From late 1852 until the summer of the following year, people all over the United States were terribly interested in the antics of a seventeen-year-old girl called Emma Snodgrass. People were very shocked by her behaviour. The thing she did that upset everyone so much was to dress in man’s clothes. She was arrested for wearing pants. It’s hard to understand now why this should have been such a problem but it really was.

Emma was from New York where her father was a respected city official. On December 29th 1852, she was arrested in Boston for the crime of wearing pants. This was not the first time this had happened, nor was it the last. Some time in November, calling herself George Green, she had got a job as a clerk in a clothing store. When her cover was blown, she was arrested, given more appropriate attire and packed off back to her father in New York in the company of her brother. It was an unusual story which soon made it into the local paper. A few weeks later, she was back again. She took lodgings in a coffee house. She left her lodgings in women’s clothes but returned wearing a frock coat, cap, vest and pants. Her landlord recognised her and informed the police. She was again returned to her father. No one was able to understand why she persisted in wearing men’s clothing and one begins to wonder whether anyone ever asked her.

Several stories concerning her behaviour appeared in December. She was once again, caught wearing pants. She attracted the attention of romantic young men. She visited Portsmouth. N.H. Where she caused a ‘profound sensation’. Then on December 29th she was arrested again. This time she was in the company of another, similarly disguised young woman called Harriet French. According to the newspaper report “it was with great difficulty that the friends could be separated”. Eventually Emma was returned yet again to New York in the company of a police officer whilst Harriet was given a day’s grace to leave town or else face two months imprisonment at Blackwell’s Island. While Emma came from a well-off family, Harriet did not. That, said one newspaper, “is the difference between breeches without money, and breeches with”.

Apart from the trousers thing, no one seems to have adequately put their finger on what the problem with her was. On one hand she appeared in court charged with vagrancy but, as she had always paid her way, never begged or misbehaved herself she was released. Yet, another report says that she frequented drinking houses “made several violent attempts to talk ‘horse,’ and do other things for which ‘fast’ boys are noted.” What it means to talk horse, who the fast boys were and what else they got up to, I have been unable to find out. In the spring of the following year she was spotted in Albany calling herself Henry Lewis. She said she was on her way to California or Australia. Over the following months, she was reported in Louisville, in Buffalo, in Cleveland. Then in July a story appeared claiming that she had given up all her nonsense and gone home. Maybe she did, maybe she made it to Australia or maybe she just got really good at disguising her self.

Although no one seems to have found out  why Emma chose to dress as a man, a few years later another young woman, called Charley, was arrested in New York whilst wearing men’s clothes. She claimed to have been with Emma Snodgrass in Boston, but had not been found out. Charley was asked about her own choice. She said that it was just easier, she could get better work for more money as a man. She had worked for a long time as a cabin boy on a Mississippi steamboat and then as a bar tender in the city. She had started to dress as a boy at fifteen, she said: “I acted wrong once, I don’t deny it; but I didn’t like to, and it was to prevent the necessity of continuing to act bad that I put on boy’s clothes.”