I hated history in school. In American schools, (at least the one I attended) the curriculum alternated between American and World history every other year. World History went something like this: Egypt, Rome, Columbus, the American Revolution, World War II (translation: Pearl Harbor, and hey, what happened to WW1?), let’s gloss over Hiroshima and go straight to ‘America, the beautiful’.
Granted, things may have changed, but all I remember is a long succession of dates and the founding fathers of America. In fact, I was so sick of reading about George Washington that I asked my teacher if I could study another country’s history… like Switzerland. She smiled and said it wasn’t part of the curriculum, but that I could study it on my own time and write a report on the country for extra credit—no direction, no excitement, no encouragement.
At any rate, I was firmly rooted in Fantasy, but that all changed when I began to read and write historical mysteries. Slowly but surely, I developed a love for research—not of dates and battle formations, but of personal stories—the amazing individuals and minute details that get churned and swallowed in the Tsunami of historical text books.
While researching A Bitter Draught (Ravenwood Detective Agency #2), I came across three remarkable people.
Elizabeth Jane Cochrane “Nellie Bly”
In 1885, Elizabeth Jane Cochrane read a misogynistic article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch entitled What Girls Are Good For. (I’m sure you can imagine what the writer thought girls were good for.) The advice columnist, Mr. Quiet Observations (if only he’d have lived up to his name and kept quiet), was writing in response to a worried father with five unmarried daughters, and went so far as to say: “In China they kill girl babies. Who knows but that this country may have to resort to this sometime. Would it not be well, as in some cases it would save a life of misery and sin and many a lost soul?” To Which, the then 20 year-old Elizabeth wrote a furious rebuke. The editor was so taken by her reply that he asked her to identify herself, and when she did, he offered her a job. Her first article for the newspaper was entitled The Girl Puzzle. Unlike Mr. Quiet Observations’ tirade, Elizabeth’s response to the worried father was supremely logical.
Afterwards, Nellie Bly (the pen name she used) resisted editorial pressure to limit her reporting to what was known as ‘women’s pages’: society, weddings, fashions, and gardening. Instead, she reported on the plight of the working woman in a series of investigative articles surrounding work houses, spoke with homeless women and the destitute, and traveled to Mexico as a foreign corespondent where she was nearly arrested for her unflinching frankness.
Tiring of constant editorial pressure to confine herself to women’s pages, she later left the Pittsburgh Dispatch and talked her way into the New York World newspaper. Soon after, she feigned insanity and went undercover to report on conditions in Blackwell’s Island Asylum. Her efforts are recorded in Ten Days in a Madhouse. The serial made her famous and sparked reformations in American asylums.
Inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, Nellie Bly suggested to her editor that she turn fiction into fact, and embarked on a journey around the world—alone. She made the journey in seventy-two days. You can read about her journey in Around the World in Seventy-Two days.
At the age of thirty (what was then considered an ‘old maid’), she eventually married a millionaire (aged 73), and although she retired from journalism, Nellie Bly continued to be an outspoken supporter of women’s rights. At the outbreak of WWI, she took up her pen once again to report from the Eastern Front.
There is a whole slew of articles and books written by and about Nellie Bly, as well as the original articles that she penned. She even has her own Google Doodle.
Nellie Bly is one of the first investigative newswomen in history, a determined young woman who spoke her mind and was not about to be hemmed in by a male dominated society. Her tale of Ten Days in a Madhouse is insightful, fearless, and touching all at once. Some notable quotes from her report:
“They (the women) were being driven to a prison, through no fault of their own, in all probability for life. In comparison, how much easier it would be to walk to the gallows than to this tomb of living horrors!”
“But here was a woman taken without her own consent from the free world to an asylum and there given no chance to prove her sanity. Confined most probably for life behind asylum bars, without even being told in her language the why and wherefore. Compare this with a criminal, who is given every chance to prove his innocence.”
“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”
“I have watched patients stand and gaze longingly towards the city they in all likelihood will never enter again. It means liberty and life; it seems so near, and yet heaven is not further from hell.”
To be continued… (I’ll post Pt. 2 tomorrow)