Saturday, March 4, 2000
F A C T   F I L E

Elizabeth Cochrane
By Illa Vij

Women on the beat

THE girl who rocked the nation’s conscience, helped women come out of their homes, who set aflame the fire of women’s liberation, was Elizabeth Cochrane, known to the world as Nellie Bly.

Born in 1863 (exact date of birth not traceable), Elizabeth grew up to be a pretty, grey-eyed girl. When Elizabeth was 18 years old, she came across an article that stated that a respected girl stayed at home until someone married her. If she remained a spinster then she would have to live with her parents or relatives, serving as an unpaid housekeeper or a nurse to younger children. Furious, Elizabeth wrote a letter to the editor. She insisted that the country was wasting the brains and skills of half of its citizens. She demanded that women citizens should be given a rightful place in society, parallel to men. Since such letters were unheard of, Elizabeth timidly left the letter unsigned and it was the last timid act of her life.

  George Madden, Editor of Dispatch, was so impressed that he advertised that the man (obviously he thought that a woman could never write such a letter) who had written this letter should come and meet him. When Elizabeth met the editor, the much-shocked man employed her under a man’s name —Nellie Bly.

Nellie Bly worked towards a remarkable career. She did many things that were unheard of. She visited sweatshops, factories, mental asylums, hospitals and work-houses. She worked in a factory as a worker with other women, not revealing her identity. She gained the women’s sympathy who poured their hearts out to her. Nellie wrote an article that exposed the atrocities inflicted on women workers. The write-up rocked Pittsburgh.

When Elizabeth was 19 she went to Mexico for Dispatch. She wrote about poverty, drugs and also about the corruption in government. Her articles were daring and exposed many evils in society. One of her stories disturbed the government and she was asked to leave. She returned to Pittsburgh and soon left for New York. Here she worked for The World, one of the leading newspapers of the country. She was determined to write about a place called the Blackwell’s Island, an institution for the poor insane in New York’s East River. With the consent of the editor, she pretended to be insane. She shrieked and gave glazed glares and took up a cheap room and declared herself a Cuban heiress. She wept, ordered and called for her peons and pistols! Soon she was hurried to the hospital and then to Blackwell’s Island. Here she studied the place, the callous nurses, indifferent doctors and the harsh treatment meted out to patients. Some inmates were not even insane, but were beaten up, choked and locked in cupboards. After 10 days, a lawyer from The World came to the asylum and ordered for her release. Nellie went home and wrote articles that led to investigations and finally the improvement of the asylum. Similarly she worked in a sweatshop, exposed the inhumane working conditions which also led to reforms in the working conditions. The workers who were locked in a small gas-lit dingy room from seven in the morning until six in the evening were given some relief.

In 1872 Jules Verne wrote a book, Around the World in Eighty Days. The hero, Phileas Fogg, circles the globe in less than three months. Nellie was determined to do this in a lesser time. The world supported her and on November 14, she set off. She covered the journey by sea and train. At every stop, she was greeted by cheering crowds, applauding and shouting her name. Seventytwo days, six hours and eleven minutes after she had begun, she had returned. Songs were written about her and even flowers and trains were named after her. She was recognised as an able and an independent woman. She had opened the gateway to women’s liberation.

In 1895, Elizabeth married Robert Seaman, a hardware manufacturer and a millionaire. Nellie was 28 years old and Robert was 72 years old. After Robert died, Elizabeth took over the business and by 1912, she was one of the leading women industrialists of America. Later lawsuits and thefts left her bankrupt. In 1919 she returned to New York and began working for Evening Journal. In 1920 women in America got their right to vote and no girl was forced to stay at home unless she wanted to. Nellie died of pneumonia in 1922.


Women on the beat

WHILE most women journalists of the 19th century penned delicate, innocous prose for newspaper society sections, a bold few chose to enter the rough-and-tumble, male-dominated world of reporting "hard news." These pioneers overcame gender biases to deliver sizzling copy to papers across America that challenged perceptions and pushed for societal reform. Here is the story of three who dared.

Margaret Fuller

A brilliant literary critic, tenacious reporter, and passionate social revolutionary, Margaret Fuller broke new ground for women in every way that she could. Born in 1810 in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, Fuller spent her childhood in a gruelling course of study prescribed by her father. She read English at age two and Latin at six. By the time she reached her teens, she could discuss classic literary and philosophical works with ease.

Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, brought Fuller onto his staff to write literary criticism in 1844, making her the first woman in America to hold such a position. But Fuller wasn’t content with life as a reviewer and made it her business to dig through the city’s dark corners, producing stunning reformist exposÚs.

Ida B. Wells

A militant, one-woman, anti-lynching crusade, Ida B. Wells endured death threats, the destruction of her business, and a hostile legal system as she fought for justice for African-Americans.

Ida B. Wells’ career as an activist began in 1884. Just 22, she sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad for failing to provide separate but equal facilities for Blacks, winning an initial award of $500 that was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

After gaining prominence as a writer for Black church newspapers, Wells took part ownership in a Memphis paper, the Free Speech and Headlight, in 1889. Under her leadership, the Free Speech prospered, delivering an equal rights message to Blacks throughout the Mississippi delta.

Annie Laurie

From society murders to tidal waves, sex scandals to suffering orphans, the front pages of the William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers sold sensation from coast to coast. And on front page after front page, story after story, the byline attached was that of Annie Laurie.

Born on October 14, 1863, in Chilton, Wisconsin, Martha Winifred Sweet began her professional life as an actress. On a trip West in 1889, she bluffed her way onto the staff of Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, adopted the pen name Annie Laurie, and took her first assignment — covering a flower show. But Annie Laurie would not settle for life on the society page.

Like Nellie Bly before her, Laurie discovered that shocking stories sold papers and brought acclaim. Annie Laurie covered some of the most important stories in the nation’s history.