Nellie Bly (1864-1922) – Journalist, Feminist
When we reads about Nellie Bly, we tend to focus on her adventurous, pioneering spirit, and the advantages for all women for which she fought so valiantly. We may think of her as tough-as-nails, making her way in a man’s world of newspaper reporting. However, there was a softer, gentler side to her personality, in her unceasing devotion to her mother, as well as her extended family. From the time she was young, Nellie’s life and work were all for the purpose of caring for her mother.
Nellie’s mother, Mary Jane, found herself widowed with five young children when Nellie was just 6 years old. Her husband had died without a will, and his ten adult children from his first marriage all clamored for their share of his inheritance. This left Mary Jane and her five children nearly destitute. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania only allotted widows sixteen dollars per month, and this was her sole income. As a result of this, she and the children were forced to leave their comfortable home, move to a small cottage, and to eventually sell all of their animals and their carriage to try to earn some income. These circumstances deeply affected Nellie’s mind, and drove her to support and help her mother once she reached adulthood.
When Nellie was nine, out of desperation, Mary Jane married a mean, nasty drunk, Jack Ford. Unfortunately, Nelly was often witness to Jack’s temper, and to the abuse of her mother. Mary Jane was married to Jack for five years. Witnessing violence at such a young age left an indelible impression on young Nellie. At the time, women had few rights. If a husband gave a wife a black eye, she was likely to be asked what she did to anger him. The thought of divorce was scandalous, and Mary Jane was stuck married to someone who verbally and physically abused her. This abuse, coupled with the lack of rights for women, inspired Nellie’s later work championing for the downtrodden in society and exposing injustices.
Jack Ford showed his temper both in public and in private. On one occasion, Mary Jane had brought her children to a New Year’s Eve party at the local Old Fellow Lodge, apparently without Jack’s approval. Jack eventually showed up waving a loaded pistol and screaming that he would kill Mary Jane if she was the last woman on Earth. He had to be restrained by other men at the party. After this incident, Mary Jane separated from Jack, but went back to him after several months.
Things did not improve after Mary Jane and the children came back to live in the family home. Jack went on a rant at the dinner table. He broke furniture, put holes in the plaster walls with his fists and boots, and broke dishes. The following night, he tore down all the clean laundry from the clothesline, and threw the clothing all over the wet backyard. That same night, when he was carving the meat for dinner, he threw the meat bone at his wife. After she threw it back at him, he produced a loaded pistol from his pocket and again threatened to kill Mary Jane. Nelly and one of her brothers formed a human wall so that their mother could escape without Jack shooting her. After this incident, Mary Jane finally had enough and filed for divorce.
Nelly was called upon to give testimony at her mother’s divorce trial. She testified that her stepfather regularly called her mother disgusting names, and that he had been drunk since they were married. She also testified that her stepfather had tried to choke her mother on several occasions.
Facing scandal and humiliation, Mary Jane moved the family from the small town of Apollo, PA to the booming, bustling city of Pittsburgh, PA. It was here that her older sons could find work in a variety of mills that dotted the city. But Pittsburgh was crowded and smokey, a far cry from Nellie’s formative years in rural western PA, with fresh air and open space. Nellie disliked the crowds and smog that went along with living in the city.
After the divorce, Nelly took it upon herself to make sure that her mother had food, shelter, and was defended. She had seen firsthand that having a husband was no guarantee for a life of security. She worked from the time she was fourteen as a nanny, a kitchen maid, and other menial jobs in order to help support her family. She even dropped out of Indiana State Normal School’s teachers college when it became apparent that there was not enough money to keep her there, due to the executor of her father’s estate mismanaging her money. Nellie knew that she had to make money in order to support her family, and with its ten newspapers, Pittsburgh was a great place to begin a career as a writer. She found a job at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, but wanted to go to a bigger city to earn more money and write even more interesting stories.
When Nellie eventually left for New York City, her goal was to earn enough money to be able to bring her mother to join her. Nellie was determined to be successful, and accepted frightening and dangerous assignments, such as being committed to an insane asylum, in order to make herself a success and be able to take care of her mother. Finally, she was able to move her mother to New York, and take her out to shows and other public places to enjoy what New York had to offer. Her reunion with her mother after taking an assignment from the New York World to circumnavigate the globe in under eighty days was emotional and loving. Mary Jane got to accompany Nellie on the last hundred miles of her journey, and was with her when she shattered the goal set originally by the main character Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days.
Not only did she show devotion to her mother, but to her siblings as well. After earning a considerable amount of money writing for the New York World, she was supporting not only her mother but her sister Kate, and Kate’s daughter Beatrice. Eventually, after she married a millionaire named Robert Livingston Seaman, Nellie moved her mother, her brothers and their wives, Beatrice, and two other teenage nephews into her husband’s four-story brownstone home in Manhattan. Nellie had even insisted that her new husband write her mother and family into their marriage agreement.
One can plainly see how the death of Nellie’s father at such a young age, witnessing the abuse of her mother by her stepfather and their subsequent divorce, and then testifying at their divorce trial played a big role in Nellie’s quest for success, and championship for women’s rights. From the time she was six years old until she was twenty-five, Nellie saw her mother’s struggle without the benefit of a supportive husband. She witnessed her mother having to work petty jobs and take in boarders in order to support their family. Surely, this influenced her writing, and the causes that she wanted to support. Nellie used her pen to defend the rights of the less priviledged, humanize those who were unaccepted by society, and champion for the rights of women. Nellie’s devotion to her family, especially her mother, is undeniable.
- Nellie Bly:: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist by Brooke Kroeger, Crown, 1994
- Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018
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