Great woman of his­tory

Smith Journal - - Opinion - Writer James Shack­ell Il­lus­tra­tor An­jana Jain

SHE SPOKE TRUTH TO POWER, CONNED HER WAY INTO AN IN­SANE ASY­LUM AND CIR­CLED THE GLOBE JUST TO PROVE SHE COULD. MEET NEL­LIE BLY, THE MOST TENA­CIOUS

IN­VES­TIGA­TIVE RE­PORTER IN HIS­TORY.

BORN: May 5, 1864, Penn­syl­va­nia, U.S.A. DIED: Jan­uary 27, 1922, New York, U.S.A.

............................................

GE­ORGE MAD­DEN SIGHED WHEN HE SAW THE LET­TER. IT WAS JAN­UARY 1885, ONE WEEK AF­TER HIS NEWS­PA­PER, THE PITTS­BURGH DISPATCH, HAD PUB­LISHED A FIERY CRI­TIQUE OF MOD­ERN WORK­ING WOMEN TI­TLED

‘WHAT GIRLS ARE GOOD FOR.’

The women of Pitts­burgh hadn’t en­joyed read­ing that their proper place was in the kitchen, and the an­gry let­ters had been land­ing on his desk all week. This one looked dif­fer­ent, though: a plain pa­per en­ve­lope signed sim­ply ‘Lonely Or­phan Girl’. Mad­den rolled his eyes as he opened it. The next day he pub­lished an ad in the Pitts­burgh Dispatch ask­ing ‘Lonely Or­phan Girl’ to come for­ward and iden­tify her­self. “She’s got no gram­mar,” Mad­den re­port­edly told one col­league. “She’s got no spell­ing. Let’s bring her in.” This was the be­gin­ning of the leg­end of Nel­lie Bly: a fem­i­nist, lob­by­ist, ad­ven­turer, in­dus­tri­al­ist and pi­o­neer­ing in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter whose by-line – by the age of 25 – would grace the tea-stained break­fast ta­bles of nearly ev­ery home in Amer­ica.

Bly’s story starts among the green pas­tures of west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, where she was born El­iz­a­beth Cochrane in 1864. The 13th of 15 chil­dren, Cochrane har­boured dreams of be­ing a writer from a young age. But af­ter her fa­ther died sud­denly, the fam­ily ran out of money be­fore she could fin­ish school. Des­ti­tute, the clan packed up and headed for Pitts­burgh to run a board­ing house.

And that might have been Cochrane’s life, clean­ing be­d­rooms and cook­ing food for trav­ellers, if she hadn’t stum­bled on ‘What Girls Are Good For’ in The Pitts­burgh Dispatch, felt a slug of cor­ti­sol surge through her veins, and reached for a pen.

Cochrane’s anony­mous re­sponse was a white-hot polemic that smacked the pub­lisher be­tween the eyes. The au­thor was a mys­tery, but Mad­den knew good writ­ing when he read it. When a ner­vous Cochrane showed up the next day, he of­fered her a job on the spot. Her first col­umn, a scathing re­but­tal ti­tled ‘The Girl Puzzle’, was pub­lished un­der the pen name ‘Nel­lie Bly’. She was just 20 years old. “Let a youth start as er­rand boy and he will work his way up un­til he is one of the firm,” Bly wrote. “Girls are just as smart, a great deal quicker to learn; why, then, can they not do the same?” The ques­tion was ad­dressed to so­ci­ety in gen­eral, though Mad­den must have re­alised how well it ap­plied to his own in­dus­try. The news in­dus­try in the 1800s was ba­si­cally a boys’ club full of cigars, sus­penders and bristling mous­taches. The few women writ­ing at the time were con­signed to what they called the ‘Pink Ghetto’ – gar­den­ing, fash­ion, so­ci­ety pages, maybe a lit­tle knit­ting. Bly was hav­ing none of that.

From the very be­gin­ning she wrote about the things that mat­tered to her: namely, the poor and op­pressed. When anx­ious com­pa­nies threat­ened to pull their ads from the newly pro­gres­sive Dispatch, Bly found her­self rel­e­gated to the gar­den­ing beat. She handed in her ar­ti­cle and her res­ig­na­tion on the same day. Be­fore she left, she penned a quick note and left it on the edi­tor’s desk: “I’m off to New York. Look out for me.”

For four months Bly stomped the city’s streets, at­tend­ing in­ter­views and send­ing off sam­ples of her work. Even­tu­ally she el­bowed her way into the of­fice of John Cock­er­ill, New York World’s manag­ing edi­tor. When Cock­er­ill asked her what she wanted to write about, she told him plainly: she wanted to go in­sane. Bly’s plan was to con her way in­side Black­well’s Is­land, a lu­natic asy­lum staffed by in­mates of a nearby pen­i­ten­tiary and de­scribed by its own war­dens as “a mis­er­able refuge… un­de­serv­ing of the name Asy­lum.” (You know an in­sti­tu­tion is du­bi­ous when it gives asy­lums a bad name.)

SHE STOPPED BATHING

AND PRAC­TISED “FAR­AWAY EX­PRES­SIONS”. DOC­TORS HAD HER COM­MIT­TED AT ONCE.

To get in­side, Bly needed to con­vince a judge and sev­eral doc­tors she was cer­ti­fi­ably crazy. She stopped bathing and brush­ing her teeth, dressed in tat­tered rags, and prac­tised “far­away ex­pres­sions” in front of the mir­ror – a pretty re­li­able barom­e­ter of san­ity by 19th-cen­tury med­i­cal stan­dards. Re­mark­ably, the ruse worked. Doc­tors de­clared Bly “pos­i­tively de­mented”, and had her com­mit­ted at once. “From the mo­ment I en­tered the in­sane ward on the Is­land, I made no at­tempt to keep up the as­sumed role of in­san­ity,” she later wrote. “I talked and acted just as I do in or­di­nary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the cra­zier I was thought to be.”

Af­ter 10 days, Cock­er­ill sent an at­tor­ney to re­trieve their ‘pa­tient’. Shortly af­ter,

New York World pub­lished ‘Be­hind

Asy­lum Bars’, the most ground­break­ing ex­posé a news­pa­per had ever at­tempted. Bly’s gonzo-style re­port re­vealed shock­ing abuses. In­mates (some of whom were merely down-and-out mi­grants whose strong ac­cents were mis­taken for gib­ber­ish) were rou­tinely beaten, choked and bul­lied, made to take ice baths and fed ran­cid but­ter. “What, ex­cept­ing tor­ture, would pro­duce in­san­ity quicker than this treat­ment?”

Bly wrote. The pub­lic clearly agreed. A grand jury was es­tab­lished, and rec­om­mended a mil­lion-dol­lar in­crease in the state bud­get for the care of “poor un­for­tu­nates”, and the re­lease of im­prop­erly com­mit­ted for­eign pa­tients.

Al­most overnight Bly went from be­ing a ju­nior re­porter to a na­tional su­per-sleuth. She spent the next few years bust­ing crooked bu­reau­crats, ex­pos­ing an­i­mal cru­elty, pos­ing as an un­em­ployed maid, and a mother try­ing to sell her own child. The scoops kept com­ing, and news­pa­per cir­cu­la­tion soared – as did Bly’s am­bi­tions.

In 1889, Bly pitched some­thing au­da­cious even by her stan­dards: a solo cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of the globe. She wanted to beat Phileas Fogg’s fic­tional record in Around the World in 80 Days. Her ed­i­tors liked the idea, but felt more com­fort­able send­ing a man. “Very well,” she shot back, “Start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other news­pa­per and beat him.” As usual, she got her way. On Novem­ber 14, 1889, Bly set sail for the At­lantic.

She filed dis­patches when­ever she could, writ­ing about every­thing from Ital­ian cui­sine to Egyp­tian al­li­ga­tor hunt­ing. She met

Jules Verne in France, bought a mon­key in Sin­ga­pore, and vis­ited leper colonies in China. Her writ­ing was sharp, witty and in­tel­li­gent, though mod­ern read­ers will no doubt re­coil at Bly’s of-the-time racism – a trait ren­dered all the more sur­pris­ing given her pre­vi­ously demon­strated ca­pac­ity for em­pa­thy.

Seventy-two days, six hours, 11 min­utes and 14 sec­onds af­ter she be­gan her trip, Bly ar­rived back in New York. She’d trav­elled 40,000 kilo­me­tres, beaten Phileas Fogg and es­tab­lished her­self as an in­ter­na­tional celebrity. The mar­keters were quick to pounce: soon there were Nel­lie Bly postage stamps, Nel­lie Bly play­ing cards, even a Nel­lie Bly board game. Her book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, was an in­ter­na­tional best­seller.

Over the next 20 years, Bly’s ca­reer slalomed from one un­likely ad­ven­ture to an­other. At 31 she mar­ried mil­lion­aire steel ty­coon Robert Sea­man, 42 years her se­nior. Sea­man made his for­tune build­ing milk crates and boil­ers, and Bly helped run the com­pany as his health de­te­ri­o­rated, even pa­tent­ing her own stack­able milk can in 1901. When Sea­man died in 1904, the com­pany passed to Bly, and she be­came the world’s lead­ing fe­male in­dus­tri­al­ist. Un­for­tu­nately it didn’t last – a man­ager’s em­bez­zle­ment bankrupted the com­pany.

By now it was 1914 and, newly un­em­ployed, Bly found her­self in Aus­tria at the out­break of WWI. She spent the next four years as Amer­ica’s first fe­male war cor­re­spon­dent, fil­ing from the muddy trenches of the East­ern Front. Three years be­fore Amer­ica joined the War, U.S. fam­i­lies could sit at the din­ner ta­ble and read lean, Hem­ing­way-es­que prose, straight from the front lines: “The day is done. We en­ter our wag­ons for our re­turn. I glance sadly at the dark, cold trenches. I say farewell to those I know. And the ter­ri­ble boom­ing and slaugh­ter keep on cease­lessly.” Her writ­ing be­came the tem­plate for 20th-cen­tury con­flict re­port­ing.

In fact, Bly con­tin­ued to write columns and file sto­ries right up till 1922, when she caught pneu­mo­nia and passed away in her bed. She was 57 years old.

Al­though she lived such a well-doc­u­mented life, the source of Bly’s un­shake­able self­as­sur­ance re­mains some­thing of a mys­tery. With so­ci­ety’s deck stacked so firmly against her, she never doubted the house would lose: that with enough de­ter­mi­na­tion, bril­liance, grit and wit, she could prove them all wrong. “I’ve al­ways had the feel­ing that noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble if one ap­plies a cer­tain amount of en­ergy in the right di­rec­tion,” she once wrote. “If you want to do it, you can do it. The ques­tion is, ‘Do you want to do it?’”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.