A Free American Girl
Nellie bly was born elizabeth jane cochran in western pennsyl-vania on May 5, 1864, though confusion about her exact age would persist throughout her life—a good deal of that confusion engineered by Bly herself, for she was never quite as young as she claimed to be. When she began her race around the world, in November of 1889, Bly was twenty-five years old, but estimates of her age among the nation’s newspapers ranged from twenty to twenty-four; according to her own newspaper, The World, she was “about twenty-three.”
The town in which she grew up, Apollo, Pennsylvania, was a small, nondescript sort of place, not much different from countless other mill towns carved out of hemlock and spruce, unassuming enough that even the author of a history of Apollo felt obliged to explain in the book’s foreword, “It is not necessary to be a city of the first class to fill the niche in the hearts of the people or the history of the state. Besides it is our town.” On its main street stood a general store (where one could buy everything from penny candy to plowshares), a drugstore, a slaughterhouse, a blacksmith shop, and several taverns; the town would not have a bank until 1871. In the winters there was sledding and skating, and when the warmer weather came the children of the town liked to roll barrel hoops down the hill to the canal bridge and to fish the Kiskiminetas River, which had not yet been contaminated by runoff from the coal mines and iron mills being built nearby.
Elizabeth was born to Michael and Mary Jane Cochran, the third of five children and the elder of two daughters. She was known to everyone in town as “Pink”; it was a nickname she came by early on, arising from her mother’s predilection to dress her in pink clothing, in sharp contrast to the drab browns and grays worn by the other local children. Pink seems to have been a high-spirited, rather headstrong girl, though much of what is known of her early years comes from her own recollections in publicity stories written after she became famous, at least some of which seem designed mainly to burnish the already developing legend of the intrepid young journalist. One story published in The World, for instance (the headline of which claimed to provide her “authentic biography”), told how she was an insatiable reader as a girl, and how she herself wrote scores of stories, scribbling them in the flyleaves of books and on whatever scraps of paper she could find. Nights she lay awake in bed, her mind aflame with imagined stories of heroes and heroines, fairy tales and romances: “So active was the child’s brain and so strongly her faculties eluded sleep that her condition became alarming and she had to be placed under the care of physicians.” The World ’s professions of Bly’s childhood love for reading and writing, though, are not to be found in other accounts, and in the family history, Chronicles of the Cochrans: Being a Series of Historical Events and Narratives in Which the Members of This Family Have Played a Prominent Part, one of her relatives commented somewhat tartly that among the teachers in Apollo’s sole schoolhouse, Pink Cochran “acquired more conspicuous notice for riotous conduct than profound scholarship.”
Pink’s father, Michael Cochran, had become wealthy as a grist mill proprietor and real estate speculator, and he was prominent enough to have been elected an associate justice of the county, after which he was always known by the honorific “Judge.” (The nearby hamlet of Coch- ran’s Mills, where Pink lived for her first five years, was named after him.) When Pink was six years old, though, Judge Cochran suddenly fell ill and died, without having left behind a will; according to Pennsylvania law, a wife was not entitled to an inheritance without being specifically named in a husband’s will, and by the time his fortune had been parceled out among his heirs (including nine grown children from a previous marriage), Pink’s mother, Mary Jane, ended up with little more than the household furniture, a horse and carriage, and a small weekly stipend. Now raising five children on her own, she embarked on an ill-conceived marriage to a man who turned out to be a drunkard and an abuser. After five miserable years Mary Jane took the highly unusual step of filing for divorce; Pink herself testified on her mother’s behalf, recounting for the court an awful litany of her stepfather’s offenses against her mother. At only fourteen years of age, she had learned all she needed to know about what could befall a woman who was not financially independent.
Pink was determined that one day she would support her mother and herself, and the next year she was sent to a nearby boarding school that specialized in training young women to be teachers. For the fifteen-year-old, the school must have been a welcome opportunity to create a new identity for herself—it was there that Pink Cochran added the silent e to the end of her surname—but unfortunately her mother was forced to withdraw her after only a single semester; the family simply did not have enough money for Pink to continue her schooling. This fact seems to have been embarrassing to Nellie Bly, and she omitted it from her own stories about herself. That “authentic” biographical story in The World, presumably based on information provided by Bly, asserted instead that she had left “on account of threatening heart disease”: even one more year of studies, her physician was said to have advised her, could come at the cost of her life. “She was anxious to continue her studies,” The World solemnly explained, “but she didn’t want to die.”
In 1880, when Pink was sixteen, Mary Jane Cochran moved with her children to Pittsburgh, some thirty-five miles away. She was hoping to leave behind the death and divorce with which she had come to be associated in Apollo, but Pittsburgh must at times have seemed a hard bargain. Anthony Trollope once called Pittsburgh “without exception, the blackest place which I ever saw.” It was a city given over almost entirely to manufacture, where within a few dozen square miles nearly five hundred factories turned out the steel, iron, brass, copper, cotton, oil, and glass hungrily consumed by an industrializing nation. On the horizon, in every direction, smoke poured from unseen furnaces. At night the sky burned yellow and red. The city’s wind carried flecks of graphite; the air smelled of sulfur, and a long walk brought a taste of metal on the tongue. There were unexpected showers of soot. In a neighborhood with a skyline of steeples and onion domes, where railroad tracks wound through backyards, Mary Jane bought a small row house for her family; eventually, like many of the city’s homeowners, she earned a bit of extra income by renting out a room to boarders. For the next four years Pink helped support the family by taking whatever positions she could find, including as a kitchen girl; she may also have found work as a nanny, a housekeeper, and a private tutor. (Her older brothers, having even less education than she, found jobs as a corresponding clerk and the manager of a rubber company.)
Though Pittsburgh’s population at the time was only about 150,000, the city was able to support ten daily newspapers, more than any other American city of its size. Pink Cochrane was a regular reader of one of them, the Pittsburg Dispatch, where the most popular columnist was Erasmus Wilson, who wrote under the name “The Quiet Observer,” or simply “Q. O.” Wilson was a courtly older gentleman, and in his “Quiet Observations” he liked to espouse what he saw as traditional Victorian values. In one column he took to task modern women “who think they are out of their spheres and go around giving everybody fits for not helping them to find them.” A “woman’s sphere,” he bluntly concluded, “is defined and located by a single word—home.”
The column, with its high-flown disregard for the realities of women’s lives, outraged Pink Cochrane, and she sat down and composed a long letter to the editor of the Dispatch. As was then the custom among those who wrote letters to newspapers, she signed it with a pseudonym: “Lonely Orphan Girl.” (It was perhaps an odd choice of name—her mother, after all, was still alive—but it was a poignant reminder of the impact of her father’s death, a blow from which the family had never recovered.) The letter caught the attention of the paper’s new managing editor, George A. Madden, who placed a notice in the next issue of the Dispatch asking “Orphan Girl” to send him her name and address.
The very next afternoon the writer herself unexpectedly arrived at the Dispatch office. She was twenty years old but looked even younger; Erasmus Wilson would recall her from that morning as “a shy little girl.” She was slimly built, of medium height, with large, somewhat mournful-looking gray eyes and a broad mouth above a square-set chin. She wore a long black cloak and a simple fur hat; her hair, which she had not yet taken to wearing up, fell in auburn curls around the shoulders of her coat. The young woman was plainly uncomfortable in her surroundings, intimidated by her first visit to a city newsroom. In a voice that barely rose above a whisper, she asked an office boy where she might find the editor.
“That is the gentleman,” the boy said, and he pointed toward Madden sitting a few feet away.
Seeing the dapperly mustached young editor, she broke into a smile, revealing a physical detail often remarked upon by those who met her: a dazzlingly white set of teeth. “Oh, is it?” she exclaimed. “I expected to see an old, cross man.”
George Madden told her that he was not going to print her letter; instead, he said, he wanted her to write an article of her own on the question of “the woman’s sphere.” Neither Bly nor Madden ever recorded her immediate reaction to his request, but the prospect of actually writing for a newspaper, after four years of tramping Pittsburgh’s soot-darkened streets in pursuit of menial work with little hope of ever finding anything better, must have meant everything to her; within the week she had turned the article in to Madden. Her grammar was rough, her punctuation erratic (for years George Madden was heard to complain about the amount of blue pencil he had expended on her pieces), but the writing was forceful and her voice clear and strong. She had chosen to address the question from the perspective of those women who did not have the privileges “Q. O.” had summarily granted them: poor women who needed to work to support their families. It was an impassioned plea for understanding and sympathy, into which she must have poured some of her own despair at the conditions of her life and that of her mother:
Can they that have full and plenty of this world’s goods realize what it is to be a poor working woman, abiding in one or two bare rooms, without fire enough to keep warm, while her threadbare clothes refuse to protect her from the wind and cold, and denying herself the necessary food that her little ones may not go hungry; fearing the landlord’s frown and threat to cast her out and sell what little she has, begging for employment of any kind that she may earn enough to pay for the bare rooms she calls home, no one to speak kindly to or encourage her, nothing to make life worth the living?
So Elizabeth Cochrane came to be hired as a reporter for the Dispatch, at a salary of five dollars a week. Before her next article was published (this one on divorced women, another subject close to her heart), George Madden called her into his office and informed her that she needed a pen name. At the time, it was considered uncouth for a woman to sign her own name to a news story. The Dispatch’s own Elizabeth Wilkinson Wade wrote as “Bessie Bramble”; in New York, Sara Payson Willis was “Fanny Fern”; in Boston, Sally Joy (which itself sounded like a pen name) was known instead as “Penelope Penfeather.” He was looking for a name, George Madden said, that was “neat and catchy.” Together the two considered several possibilities, but none seemed quite right. It was late in the afternoon; the light from the gas lamps cast flickering shadows on the wallpaper. From upstairs an editor called for his copy. An office boy walked by whistling a popular tune of the day, written by the local songwriter Stephen Foster:
Nelly Bly! Nelly Bly! Bring de broom along,
We’ll sweep de kitchen clean, my dear,
And hab a little song.
The name was short, it was catchy, and best of all, the public already liked it. Madden instructed the typesetter to give the story the byline “Nelly Bly”—but the typesetter misspelled the first name, and as a result of the erratum she was forever after Nellie Bly.