Bly in Blackwell's Island Madhouse (Before, During & After)
On May 5, 1864, in the western Pennsylvania hamlet of Cochran's Mills, Mary Jane Cochran gave birth to the daughter the world would one day know as Nellie Bly.
Mary Jane was the second wife of judge Michael Cochran, and Bly was his thirteenth child. He was a man of great standing in Armstrong County, born into a family of its early-nineteenth-century Irish settlers. Still, he made his own way to prominence and financial success. From the age of four, after his own father's death, he lived in the town of Apollo, bound out by his mother to learn the trade of blacksmith and cutler. By the time he was nineteen, he had a shop on Main Street, taking in his own indentured apprentices.
He married Catherine Murphy, and they started their family in a log house at what is now 217 South Second Street, having ten children in all, one about every two years. Michael was active in county politics. An avowed Democrat, he was elected justice of the peace in 1840, but three years later, his bitter campaign for the Pennsylvania State Assembly failed.
By 1845, he was buying up the property known as Pitts' Mills on the banks of Crooked Creek, eight miles from Apollo. There, he established a general store and took over a four-story gristmill, powered by the creek and modernized at his expense. He prospered quickly, augmenting his fortune with the profits of real estate speculation. In 1850, he was elected to the esteemed position of associate justice of Armstrong County. In his honor, Pitts' Mills became Cochran's Mills in 1855, at the end of his five-year term of office. After that, Michael Cochran would always be known as Judge. . . .
Catherine died in 1857, and a year later, Michael Cochran married the widow Mary Jane Cummings. She had been born a Kennedy in nearby Somerset, Pennsylvania, the great-granddaughter of that county's first sheriff, Thomas Kennedy, a saddler and innkeeper by trade. Already fifty when the Civil War broke out, the judge was too old to join the Pennsylvania volunteers, although two of his sons by Catherine, John Michael and George Washington, mustered into Company C of the I03rd Regiment on September 16, 1861. Both were back home with honorable discharges before Bly was born or the war had ended. John reached the rank of captain. . . .
Bly came along in the early spring of 1864, the day the Battle of the Wilderness began 300 miles south in the dense northern Virginia woods. But in western Pennsylvania, all was calm. . . .
The Reverend J. S. Lemon at the local Methodist Episcopal Church christened the scrawny Cochran daughter Elizabeth Jane, but the name never took. While the other mothers of Cochran's Mills dressed their daughters in traditional gray calico and, drab brown merino cloth, Mary Jane chose a starched, stand-out pink for her little girl, set off by frilly white challis and long white stockings instead of the standard utilitarian black.
The soft colors brought blush to the child's pale cheeks, gave definition to the wishy-washy hazel of her eyes, and probably occasioned the nickname Pink, which stuck. From the very start, Mary Jane groomed her daughter to know how to attract attention and revel in it. The lessons would never be lost. . . .
". . . 'I expected to see an old, cross man.'" Later, Bly herself recalled that first meeting. [The Pittsburg Dispatch managing editor George] Madden, she had imagined as a "great big man with a bushy beard who would look over the top of his specs and snap, 'What do you want?'"
Instead she found a "mild-mannered, pleasant-faced boy." Q.O.[Quiet Observer columnist Erasmus Wilson], she said, turned out to be "a great big good-natured fellow who wouldn't even kill the nasty roaches that crawled over his desk. There wasn't an old cross man about the place."
Madden did not print her letter [signed "Lonely Orphan Girl'] but instead asked her to compose an article on "the woman's sphere." He edited it personally, paid her for it, and asked for a second piece. The next subject she picked was divorce. Again, Madden edited the story himself. Although her grammar was still "rocky," Wilson recalled, she did manage to get her facts straight.
Her first piece was "The Girl Puzzle," published on January 25, and prominently placed at the top of page 11 of the paper's new and successful Sunday edition. In it, she asked the reader to consider Anxious Father's question [about the future faced by five unmarried daughters] carefully, not in terms of privileged women, such as Bessie Bramble or the late revered writer Jane Grey Swisshelm, but with respect to those "without talent, without beauty, without money." . . . .
She had suggestions as to what could be done. Ambitious young men could start as errand boys and work their way up to good positions. Why not girls? "Just as smart and a great deal quicker to learn; why, then, can they not do the same?" She proposed allowing young girls to be employed as messengers or office "boys" instead of as workers in airless factories. Better yet, she suggested, how about making a girl a conductor on the Pullman Palace car?
She had advice for leaders of the women's rights movement, too: "Here would be a good field for believers in women's rights. Let them forego their lecturing and writing and go to work; more work and less talk. Take some girls that have the ability, procure for them situations, start them on their way and by so doing accomplish more than by years of talking."
"Orphan Girl" was the signature Madden affixed to the polemic. . .
[Her next] article, published under the headline "Mad Marriages," was controversial enough to attract wide attention, and, according to Bly's own later recollection, even "contributed to causing the salutary change which was made shortly after in the marriage laws of Pennsylvania," although this could not be documented. . . .
When she proposed her next idea, a series on the factory girls of Pittsburgh, Madden decided to make her a permanent member of The Dispatch staff. Starting salary: five dollars a week -- slightly higher than that of the factory girls she would be interviewing.
As he edited the divorce piece, Madden decided to choose a byline for his newest staff member. Orphan Girl had served well enough for her Anxious Father rebuttal, but now he wanted a name "neat and catchy." Her own name was out of the question since the custom in this period was for ladies who deigned to write for newspapers to do so without making their true identities public.
He called out to the newsroom for suggestions. Several writers and editors offered up ideas, "Nelly Bly" among them. Madden pondered for a moment, Wilson recalled, but cut his deliberations short with "the howl from above for copy." Without further consideration, Nellie Bly it became.
In his haste, Madden had not been faithful to the spelling of that name made famous thirty-five years earlier in a song written by one of Pittsburgh's favorite sons, Stephen Collins Foster. . . .
Nelly Bly, Nelly Bly,
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