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Nellie Bly and Investigative Journalism for Kids
Mighty Muckrakers from the Golden Age to Today, with 21 Activities
By Ellen Mahoney
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Ellen Mahoney
All rights reserved.
BORN TO WRITE
"Dare to live the life you have dreamed for yourself. Go forward and make your dreams come true."
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
Although Nellie Bly was one of a kind, she was known by six different names throughout her lifetime. Her birth name was Elizabeth Jane Cochran, her nickname was Pink, her revised name was Elizabeth J. Cochrane, her pen name was Nellie Bly, her undercover name was Nellie Brown, and her married name was Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman. These six distinct names helped carve out her identity during her busy, tumultuous and adventurous life.
Elizabeth Jane Cochran was born on May 5, 1864, in the quaint farming town of Cochran's Mills in the southwest region of Pennsylvania. Although the Civil War (1861–1865) raged on and the bloody Battle of the Wilderness had erupted in Virginia on Elizabeth's birthday, "all was calm" in Cochran's Mills.
Elizabeth's father, Michael Cochran, and her mother, Mary Jane Cochran, were married in 1858. It was a second marriage for both Michael and Mary Jane, whose first spouses had died. Michael already had 10 children from his previous marriage when he married Mary Jane, and their first daughter together, Elizabeth Jane Cochran, aka Nellie Bly, became the 13th of 15 children in the large combined Cochran clan. In addition to five stepsisters and five stepbrothers, Elizabeth had two older brothers named Albert and Charles, a younger sister named Catherine May, and a younger brother named Harry.
Michael's father, Robert Cochran, was born in County Derry, Ireland, in the late 1700s. He emigrated from Ireland as a young man and moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he met and married Catherine Risher. Robert and Catherine Cochran then settled in southwestern Pennsylvania in the early 1800s.
Michael Cochran was born in 1810 and grew up in the small coal-mining town of Apollo in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. Apollo is located on the Kiskiminetas River, not far from what would later become Cochran's Mills. Robert Cochran died before Michael was five years old, and his mother, Catherine, played a key role in his upbringing, encouraging him to work hard and learn a trade.
During his early career Michael was an accomplished blacksmith and cutler, and he later became involved in local and state politics. A respected and prominent individual in Apollo, he was elected justice of the peace in 1840 when he was 30 years old.
In 1845, about 19 years before Elizabeth was born, Michael began to invest in real estate. He bought land and property in a hamlet of Armstrong County called Pitts' Mills that was located a few miles from Apollo and about 45 miles from Pittsburgh.
The landmark in Pitts' Mills was a large gristmill with a waterwheel situated on the town's winding waterway called Crooked Creek. Powered by the rushing currents of the creek, the waterwheel provided ample energy to grind a variety of locally grown grains into flour and livestock feed. Farmers would haul their wheat, corn, buckwheat, oats, and rye to the gristmill and would later sell the flour and feed to the surrounding communities.
Michael continued to invest in and improve Pitts' Mills, making smart business choices along the way. He opened a grocery store in town, which provided the small community with much-needed items such as food products and dry goods as well as shoes, boots, hats, caps, and notions (thread, needles, buttons). In time, Michael earned a reputation as a highly regarded, self-made businessman.
In 1850, at 40 years old, Michael was elected to be associate justice for Armstrong County. From then on, the townsfolk respectfully called him Judge. Five years later in 1855, the Pitts' Mills name was changed to Cochran's Mills, in honor of Elizabeth's father.
Cochran's Mills was a picturesque place to grow up. White clapboard farmhouses, dirt roads, covered bridges, horse-drawn carriages, and women wearing long skirts and carrying parasols were common sights. Ash, elm, and hemlock trees and a wide variety of herbs and flowers grew along the banks of Crooked Creek, which was home to many fish including small-mouth bass, pumpkinseed sunfish, and catfish.
The town of Cochran's Mills continued to flourish and eventually offered its residents a "doctor, a dentist, a school and a post office, as well as several small businesses."
During the years following the Civil War when Elizabeth was learning to walk, talk, run, and read, children wore clothing that was very different from today's outfits. Clothing was typically handmade or sewn on hand-cranked or foot-powered treadle sewing machines. Boys wore cotton or flannel shirts, jackets, bib overalls, and trousers or knee breeches (knickers) held up with suspenders. Toddlers and younger boys sometimes wore simple dresses.
Girls wore shirtwaist dresses that were either full-length or mid-calf. The dresses had fitted bodices, gathered sleeves, and flouncy skirts with petticoats or small hoops to make them wide and full. Bloomers and camisoles were used as undergarments, and pinafores were worn over dresses or skirts like aprons.
Clothes were often sewn using drab and muted fabric colors such as dark gray, black, brown, dark blue, or green. But Elizabeth's mother wanted a different, more colorful shade for her first-born daughter's clothes. Pink! It wasn't long before family members and friends were calling Elizabeth Jane Cochran "Pink" or "Pinkey," on behalf of this flashy, fun color.
The young Cochran girl with the unusual nickname was a bright sight to see. The vibrant, rosy color of her clothes made her stand out in a crowd, and she learned early on that getting attention could have positive results. Life seemed good, and grand adventures were on the horizon.
In 1869 when Pink was five, her father moved the family to his hometown of Apollo to live in an attractive and spacious two-and-a-half-story home he built for them. The home stood on a large lot that had plenty of room for Pink, her sister, her brothers, and their two dogs to run and play. And, there was ample pasture for the family cow that provided milk and the family horse that pulled their carriage.
Apollo had grown since Michael was a child and was now home to nearly 760 people. Young Pink seemed to have an idyllic life — loving parents, a large family to enjoy, a stately new home with a big yard, a picture-perfect hometown, and even a new baby brother named Harry.
FROM PINK TO BLUE
But in 1870, when Pink was six years old, everything turned upside down. Suddenly and very unexpectedly, Pink's beloved father died, which threw the family into a terrible tailspin and altered their lives forever.
When Judge Cochran died, Mary Jane learned he had not written a will for his large family. This meant there were no specifications on how his estate should be divided among all the heirs and where the Cochran family money should go. After about two months, the Armstrong County court intervened to sort out the inheritance, and Judge Cochran's property (including his land in Cochran's Mills and the brand-new home in Apollo), was auctioned off.
Dividing the estate was complicated. Under Pennsylvania law, Mary Jane was entitled to receive about one-third of the money from Judge Cochran's estate for the rest of her life. All of Mary Jane's children were to receive equal amounts of money from the remaining two-thirds of the estate. The town banker, Colonel Samuel Jackson, was appointed to watch over and distribute the children's trust funds, and the younger children would receive their funds when they were older.
Now, because their home had been auctioned off, Mary Jane needed to find a new place to live with Albert, Charles, Pink, Catherine, and baby Harry. Judge Cochran's older children from his first marriage now lived in their own homes, and his youngest son, William Worth Cochran, had died during the Civil War.
Mary Jane moved the family to a much smaller house a few streets over from the Apollo home. She was able to bring along their furniture and household items as well as the cow, the horse, and one of their dogs. It was a difficult time for Mary Jane, who was dealing with the sorrow of losing her husband, the grief her children felt missing their father, and the utter disruption in their lives. But life went on.
The Cochran children walked to school with neighborhood friends, and there were fun things to do in Apollo like sledding and skating in winter, and playing hide-and-seek and fishing in summer. Mary Jane made sure there was enough money for Pink to learn to play the piano and organ and take horseback riding lessons, which she loved to do.
In 1873 when Pink was nine years old, her mother married again. Mary Jane exchanged vows with John Jackson Ford, a Civil War veteran and widower, who preferred to be called Jack. Jack's wife had died six months earlier, and he had no children from his previous marriage. But he did come into this new marriage with debt and an angry temperament. He turned out to be "a mean and abusive drunk."
Over the next few years, as Pink entered the important years of adolescence, her life was a constant nightmare caused by Jack's drunken rages, his abusive and threatening behavior toward her mother, and his fights with her brother Albert.
In 1878, when Pink was 14, Mary Jane filed for divorce in Armstrong County Court. This took a lot of courage because divorce was not common or accepted at this time. Yet, many neighbors and friends, as well as Pink and Albert, went to court to provide crucial testimony on behalf of their mother's case and to convince the judge that John Jackson Ford was cruel and dangerous.
Pink's testimony was poignant. Referring to her stepfather as "Ford," she defended her mother with conviction: "My age is 14 years. I live with my mother. I was present when mother was married to J. J. Ford. I [had] seen them married about six years ago. Ford has been generally drunk since they were married. When drunk, he is very cross and cross when sober."
Pink went on. "[I have] seen mother vexed on account of his swearing and bad names and [I've] seen her cry. Ford threatened to do mother harm. Mother was afraid of him."
In 1879 the court granted Mary Jane a divorce. By now, John Jackson Ford had left town and was long gone. Mary Jane immediately dropped the last name Ford and starting using her Cochran surname once again.
Pink was understandably shaken and discouraged by the previous eight years of her life. Losing her father and her affluent lifestyle was heart-wrenching and difficult, but having to live with an abusive stepfather was devastating. In only a few short years Pink had experienced so much as a child. She learned that life could change from pleasant to painful in the blink of an eye, that loved ones could die and leave her, that there could be plenty of money or not enough, and that she could have a father she adored or a father figure she dreaded. But most important, she learned the importance of self-reliance. Pink wanted something better for her life, and she was determined to get it.
THE NEW NORMAL
Watching her mother struggle with finances and scrape by, Pink realized it would be a smart idea to get a job so she would be able to fend for herself. Going off to school and getting an education could be her ticket to success.
Pink heard about a new state-of-the-art school called the Indiana State Normal School located in Indiana, Pennsylvania, which was only 15 miles from her home in Apollo. The Normal School offered two- to three-year programs to train students in teaching or business. Pink decided to enroll in the school and become a teacher. To figure out how to pay for tuition, Pink met with her court-appointed guardian, Colonel Samuel Jackson. Jackson assured Pink she would have enough money to graduate in three years.
Feeling empowered and excited about this new direction in her life, 15-year-old Pink enrolled in the school for the fall semester of 1879. While filling out enrollment forms, she dropped her nickname and came up with the more sophisticated moniker of Elizabeth J. Cochrane, curiously adding an e to the end of her last name. Over time, Mary Jane and Elizabeth's siblings also began to spell their last name as Cochrane.
Elizabeth enjoyed staying in the John Sutton Hall dormitory at the Indiana State Normal School and attending classes in everything from writing to math to art. She was happy and filled with hope.
Samuel Jackson paid Elizabeth's expenses as promised, but it soon became apparent her money was running out. When Elizabeth returned to Apollo for a semester break, she was alarmed to find out there wasn't enough money for her to return to school the following spring semester. And no one, including Jackson, reached out to help her find a way to stay in school.
Elizabeth was angry and disappointed at Jackson for his perceived mismanagement of the money he promised would be there for her. She felt she had been treated unfairly, and by bitter surprise, Elizabeth realized her commendable attempts for a higher education had failed and her plans to become a teacher were over. She never returned to the Normal School to finish her exams.
Leaving the Indiana State Normal School after only one semester couldn't have been easy for Elizabeth. News of the event probably spread fast in her small hometown of Apollo, and Elizabeth was likely at the receiving end of many embarrassing questions. What happened at school? What went wrong? Were your courses too hard? Why did you leave? What will you do?
It was 1880 and Elizabeth was 16 years old. She needed a whole new plan.
ONWARD TO THE CITY OF BRIDGES
Albert and Charles had already left home and were trying to make a living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a manufacturing and shipping hub located about 30 miles south of Apollo. Often called the City of Bridges for its many bridges that crossed the town's three large Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers, Pittsburgh was an enormous metropolis compared to Apollo and offered new jobs and employment. Also known as the City of Steel for its burgeoning steel industry, Pittsburgh was overflowing with factories that sent blackish smoke and soot into the air and onto the city.
Wanting a fresh start, Mary Jane packed up a few family belongings and moved Elizabeth, Catherine, and Harry to Pittsburgh. She found a row house in a working-class neighborhood just north of Pittsburgh called Allegheny City, and Albert and Charles moved in with them. To help bring in extra money to meet costs over the following years, Mary Jane took in boarders. For the next five years, Elizabeth most likely earned money as a housekeeper, nanny, or tutor to help with household expenses.
In 1885 when Elizabeth was 21, her life changed dramatically, thanks to her city newspaper. Elizabeth had become an avid reader of the Pittsburgh Dispatch newspaper, and she took a particular interest in reading the highly popular columns of writer Erasmus Wilson, who penned the paper's Quiet Observer column. But one morning, Elizabeth became infuriated after reading one of Wilson's columns. Wilson had begun to write about women's roles in the world and expressed many opinions Elizabeth didn't like. At a time when many women were fighting for equal rights and the right to vote, Wilson wrote about how wives, mothers, and daughters should stay in the home and take pride and joy in their domestic role of cleaning and cooking. He wrote about how a woman who ventured outside her home and into the business world would be a "monstrosity" and added, "there is no greater abnormity than a woman in breeches, unless it is a man in petticoats."
Elizabeth fumed, thinking his words were sexist and wrong. She knew her own mother was miserable when she was married to John Jackson Ford, and Elizabeth had her own aspirations to work outside the home and have a career. So, she decided to take action. Elizabeth picked up a pen, a large sheet of paper, and wrote a letter to George Madden, who was editor of the Dispatch. Her honest, passionate letter to the editor challenged Wilson's opinions and provided real-life information to contradict the Quiet Observer's conservative point of view. Elizabeth signed her letter "Lonely Orphan Girl," gave no return address, and popped the missive in the mail.
When Madden received Elizabeth's letter, he was surprised. Written on oversized paper, the letter was riddled with poor grammar, bad spelling, and confusing punctuation. But Madden could hear the voice within the words. He knew the Lonely Orphan Girl had something to say, and from what he could tell, she had natural writing talent. He felt compelled to contact the unknown writer and posted a note in the Saturday, January 17, 1885, Dispatch that said, "If the writer of the communication signed 'Lonely Orphan Girl' will send her name and address to this office, merely as a guarantee of good faith, she will confer a favor and receive the information she desires."
When Elizabeth read the paper on Saturday, she saw Madden's note and knew it was for her. Elizabeth felt excited the editor had responded to her letter and probably shared the news with her mother and family. But instead of writing George Madden a letter in reply, Elizabeth decided to meet with him face-to-face.
Excerpted from Nellie Bly and Investigative Journalism for Kids by Ellen Mahoney. Copyright © 2015 Ellen Mahoney. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
ContentsFOREWORD BY BROOKE KROEGER,
INTRODUCTION: THE REMARKABLE NELLIE BLY,
1 Born to Write,
2 From Mexico to the Madhouse,
3 Going Global,
4 The Changing World of Journalism,
5 Jacob Riis,
6 Ida Tarbell,
7 Ida B. Wells,
8 Upton Sinclair,
9 Modern-Day Muckrakers,