Chap 01 - Nellie Bly

 

Chapter 1: A Girl Called Pink

It was a terrible letter. There was almost no punctuation, and the grammar was horrible.

Still, it was a wonderful letter. George Madden, managing editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, tossed it onto the desk of Erasmus Wilson, whose column about working women had so infuriated the writer who signed herself “Lonely Orphan Girl.”

“She isn’t much for style, but what she has to say, she says it right out regardless of paragraphs or punctuation,” he remarked.

Madden and Wilson decided they needed to meet this angry young woman who wrote so badly, and yet so well. With some careful editing and a bit of coaching, she might turn out to be a pretty fair writer after all.

But how to find her? She hadn’t signed her real name, or given an address.

Whoever she was, however, she was a newspaper reader. So on January 17, 1885, the following notice appeared in the Dispatch:

“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.”

Lonely Orphan Girl did more than send in the information. The day after the announcement appeared, a short, shy-looking young woman with dark eyes appeared in the Dispatch newsroom and asked for the editor.

A week later, her first story appeared in the pages of a newspaper. In less than five years, she would be the most famous newspaper reporter, maybe the most famous woman, in America.

And she quickly grew to like Erasmus Wilson, who became her friend, her adviser and her teacher at the Dispatch.

But for the rest of her life, she would become furious when anyone said that women didn’t need to work for a living, or that there were limits to what a woman could do.

“If you want to do it, you can do it. The question is, do you want to do it?” she wrote.

And she knew what it was like to want to find a job, and to need money.

•••

Her name was Elizabeth Jane Cochran, but her family and friends called her Pink.

The other little girls in Cochran’s Mills wore gray and brown dresses and dark black stockings.

Pink did not. She wore a pink dress, and bright white stockings.

The other little girls in Cochran’s Mills got good grades and always behaved in school.

Pink did not.

But maybe there were reasons Pink Cochran didn’t always concentrate on school.

Life should have been easy for a little girl named Cochran who was born May 5, 1864, in a town called Cochran’s Mills. Her father had mills, and he had a good job as a judge. And when Pink was five years old, he built a big, fancy house for his family.

But Judge Cochran had 13 other children besides Pink. Some of them were grown up, some of them were younger than she was when, just before she turned six years old, her father died.

It was a very big family, and, when all the Judge’s money was divided up, there wasn’t very much left. They had to sell the big house, and Pink and her mother and the five other children who were still living at home moved to a small, plain house. But there still wasn’t enough money.

Pink’s mother married a man, but he didn’t have any money either. Instead, he had a drinking problem. And a temper.

At 14 years old, Pink Cochran had to testify in court about her stepfather’s bad temper and bad language, so her mother could get a divorce.

And then there was even less money.

Pink went to the Normal School, a kind of college where you could learn to be a teacher. That was a good job for women, back in those days. Pink put an “E” on her name, “Cochrane,” to sound more like a lady.

But Pink only stayed in school one year, and then she had to come home again.

There wasn’t enough money for school.

Pink and her mother and the other children moved to Pittsburgh, where two of her grown-up brothers lived. Pink tried to find a job, but, even in a big city like Pittsburgh, there weren’t many jobs for a young girl. The few jobs there were didn’t pay very well.

There was never enough money.

And so, when she read a column that said the right thing for a woman to do was to stop worrying about working and, instead, stay in the home and make it “a little paradise, herself playing the part of an angel,” she wrote the columnist a letter that did not sound like it came from paradise, or from an angel.

•••

They tell every young writer to “write what you know.” George Madden gave Pink an assignment that let her write about what she knew: The hard life of a poor working girl.

In her opinion piece, Pink told of women who were “without talent, without beauty, without money.” There were few jobs, and little chance of earning enough to even buy warm clothes, never mind nice clothes.

Pink’s second story for the Dispatch was about something else she knew: Divorce. She said the divorce laws needed to be changed, but she went even further: There ought to be a law, she suggested, forbidding people to marry in the first place, if they were liars, if they refused to work or if they drank too much.

Pink Cochrane was writing what she knew, and Madden decided to give her a permanent job. But now she needed a permanent name.

Most newspaper writers didn’t use their real names in those days. So far, Madden had put “Orphan Girl” on Pink’s stories. But now she needed her own pen name.

He shouted out to the others in the newsroom for ideas, and someone shouted back the name of a popular song by Pittsburgh songwriter Stephen Foster.

The song was called “Nelly Bly,” but the first time they used it in the paper, somebody spelled the first name “Nellie.”

So that became her name.

Tuesday: Nellie Learns Her Trade

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