- Tonya Mitchell
Ten MORE Little-Known Facts about Nellie Bly
As a continuation of my earlier post, here are ten MORE fun facts about Nellie Bly, the woman who dazzled America and the rest of the world with her daring stunt reporting (and a host of other things too).
1. A train Bly took narrowly missed crashing into a canyon
Just outside Gallup, New Mexico, flying at 50 miles an hour to bring Bly ever-closer to the finish line during her around-the-world race, the train sped over a bridge that was still under construction. In fact, its nails were only being held in place by jack screws. “The workmen heard the train coming too late to flag it,” writes Bly’s biographer Brooke Kroeger, “and only by a miracle did it traverse the ravine safely.”
2. She wrote a novel
Bly’s Mystery of Central Park debuted in 1888 and featured heroine Penelope Howard and her suitor Richard Treadwell, who is hopelessly in love with her. In order to win her hand, he must solve the mystery of a young woman the two find murdered in Central Park. Historians largely agree that Penelope, “fiercely independent,” with a “winsome smile” is a character Bly modeled after herself. The book did not perform well. Bly eventually returned to her strong suit—reporting.
3. Her jealous husband had her followed
The first year of Bly’s marriage to her only husband, Robert Seaman, was tumultuous. He was a millionaire forty years her senior. He also had a jealous streak. Seaman tasked one of his employees with following her every time she left the couples’ home. Bly was having none of it. She had the man, Henry Hansen, arrested, but Seaman soon posted bail. Fortunately, the two would eventually work out their problems.
4. Bly was the only female reporter at Joseph Pulitzer’s funeral
When Joseph Pulitzer died of congestive heart failure in the autumn of 1911, Bly attended his funeral to pay her respects to the publisher who is credited for giving Bly her first reporting job in New York. Of the thirty or so people the New York World listed as “prominent mourners,” Bly was the only woman.
5. She was gifted a brooch once owned by Queen Victoria
Just before departing for home after WWI, Bly’s dear Viennese friend Oscar Bondy gave her shares of stock from US companies, the dividends of which he put in her name. He also gave her Austrian currency, and a “magnificent brooch and earrings that had once belonged to Queen Victoria,” Kroeger writes. Bly never spent a dime of Bondy’s money, however, and bequeathed everything back to him in the will she made near the time of her death—including the Queen’s brooch and earrings.
6. Bly wrote to President Woodrow Wilson
Upon her return to the United States following her coverage of WWI, Bly penned two urgent letters to Woodrow Wilson asking for a personal interview with him. Her coverage of the war had made her somewhat of an expert in what she termed “creeping Bolshevism.” She believed an audience with the president would allow her to explain the conditions in Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and Germany. The president declined her requests, citing his heavy workload preparing for the coming peace conference.
7. She was arrested and had her brother arrested
Shortly after she arrived home following the war, Bly was arrested on an old 1914 charge of refusing to provide documents to the Commissioner on Bankruptcy in a case her company was embroiled in years before. The changes were eventually dropped. However, another legal quagmire soon developed. Bly had had a contentious relationship with her eldest brother, Albert, for years, but it all came to the fore in 1919 when she had Albert arrested for selling off her assets without permission while she was abroad. “In retaliation,” Kroeger writes, “Albert charged Bly with malicious mischief.” The following day, the magistrate “dropped the charges against Bly, despite her own mother’s testimony against her.” Albert escaped indictment from the grand jury. Sadly, Bly would never reconcile with her brother or her mother.
8. Bly witnessed an execution
In 1920, she accepted the invitation from her then editor, Arthur Brisbane, to be the first female in over two decades to witness an execution by electrocution. The man was Gordon Fawcett Hamby and the charge was murder. She described every detail of that day and wrote, “Horrible! Horrible! Horrible! Hamby is dead.” Days before the electrocution, Hamby sent her his Outja board with a note saying, “A slight remembrance (all I have at this time) for your infinite kindness and friendship.”
9. She hosted a picnic for 750 of New York City’s orphans
Bly’s passion for finding orphans good homes paid off in 1920. In June of that year, Bly had the pleasure of hosting over 700 orphans in a trip to Coney Island. Two taxi cab companies provided the transportation. The mayor himself greeted the orphans at City Hall, after which the children were driven to Brooklyn to partake in a picnic, complete with balloons. She would say later it was one of the best days of her life.
10. Sadly, Bly was buried in an unmarked grave for 50 years
Given her wondrous life, it is perhaps most surprising that Bly was buried with little ceremony. Her beloved niece, Beatrice, organized the funeral, and friends and those in the newspaper business attended. The New York World, the paper that had assigned her the madhouse story that caught the attention of so many 35 years before, dedicated ten paragraphs to her on its obituary page. Her long-time mentor, Erasmus Wilson (whom she affectionately called QO), died just two weeks before she did. She is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, a national historic landmark in the Bronx. It was not until 1978, however, that Bly received a proper headstone. Dedicated by the New York Press Club, it reads: “Nellie Bly, Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, a famous news reporter.”
Tonya Mitchell is the author of A Feigned Madness. For more on her and her book, visit her website. To order her book about Nellie Bly and her 10-day undercover stay in an insane asylum in 1887, click here.
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