Chapter 12: Challenges and Changes
Monday: Nellie returned from her trip around the world to find fame and applause everywhere but at her own workplace. So she quit and signed a contract to write serial stories for young readers.
Just because you can play the trumpet, that doesn’t mean you can play the clarinet. And the best tennis player in the world may not be very good at baseball.
Nellie was a great reporter, that didn’t mean she could write good fiction.
Maybe she should have known; Back in 1888, she had written a novel, “The Mystery of Central Park,” which didn’t sell very many copies despite her fame.
There don’t seem to be any issues in libraries of the paper with her serialized adventure stories, so we don’t know how good they were.
But however entertaining they may have been, they weren’t the beginning of a career in fiction writing for Nellie. At the end of three years, when her contract with the New York Family Story Paper ended, she came back to The World.
But not to exactly the same job as before. When Nellie had been the first of the “girl stunt reporters,” every story was a new adventure. But now every paper had stunt reporters, and they were running out of good, new ideas.
Besides, stunt reporting was for cub reporters, and Nellie Bly was no cub.
Instead, she went back to her first interest: Writing about poor working people.
There was plenty for her to write about: 1893 was a bad year for workers and for businesses.
Some companies were closing down completely, and others had to fire some of their workers because they didn’t have enough for them to do.
And some companies would just announce that they weren’t going to pay their workers as much anymore, even the ones that already worked there. This made the workers mad, of course. Sometimes, they would go on strike, refusing to work until things changed the way they wanted them to.
There weren’t many laws then about how workers should be treated, or what was fair and legal during a strike. Some business owners would just hire other workers. Then it could become violent, because the strikers would beat up those workers.
And sometimes the business owners would hire people to keep the strikers away from the mines or the factory, and that became very violent, too. Sometimes, people died in the violence around these strikes.
It was a scary time, but a very interesting time to be a reporter.
Nellie’s first story ran on the front page under the headline: “Nellie Bly Again.” In it, she interviewed Emma Goldman, a young woman who had been put in jail for making speeches the police said encouraged strikers to be violent.
Nellie’s interview didn’t try to show who was right or wrong, but she did ask Goldman questions about her beliefs, and she tried to let readers see what Goldman was like and to let them read her opinions for themselves. That was more than many other reporters had done in covering Goldman.
But Nellie was still Nellie, and she didn’t mind putting opinions in her writing. In fact, people looked forward to her stories for just that reason, and she had come back to The World to do that kind of writing.
So when she did a story about the Salvation Army and felt they were not spending money wisely to help the poor, she said so, and gave readers tips on how they could help poor and homeless people themselves.
And when a man named Jacob Coxey organized a march of unemployed people on Washington, Nellie joined other newspaper writers in criticizing “Coxey’s Army.”
“My whole heart has been with the working man and woman,” she wrote, “but I believe in justice and right. I do not think workmen should make a circus of themselves, and I do believe they are strong and powerful enough to right their wrongs in a dignified way and without the aid of selfish and greedy schemers.”
When Nellie traveled to Illinois to write about the Pullman strike, she expected to speak out against the strikers in that same way.
By inventing comfortable railroad cars, George Pullman made it easier for people to travel long distances, and that helped the railroads. Better railroads meant there could be more factories all around the country and more jobs.
Pullman built a town near his factory, with houses, schools, churches and parks for the workers. It was hard to understand why they would go on strike, even though their wages had been cut by 25 percent.
But they were on strike, and other railroad workers were refusing to work with any train that had Pullman cars on it. The railroad owners refused to take the Pullman cars off, because they didn’t want to help the strikers. And President Cleveland insisted that the trains must run, because otherwise, the mail would not get through.
It was a very bad situation, and Nellie was prepared to write about the ungrateful strikers and how they were hurting America.
Like all good reporters, though, Nellie listened. And when she spoke with the strikers’ families, they explained that, when Pullman cut their pay, he didn’t cut the rent on their company houses. In the nearby towns, rent was lower, but if you moved out of Pullman, Illinois, you would lose your job at the Pullman factory. Most of the people she talked to didn’t want to strike. But they didn’t want to lose their homes or go hungry, either.
Nellie changed her mind about the Pullman strike, and she wasn’t afraid to say so. “What I had seen and heard in Pullman had not only converted me into a striker, but had left me very despondent as to the ultimate fate of the employed, men and women.”
In the coming months, however, it was Nellie’s own fate that would take some unexpected turns.
Wednesday: Nellie Bly, Businesswoman