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In 1885, the Pittsburgh Dispatch ran an op-ed under the byline “The Quiet Observer” entitled “What Girls Are Good For.” In the view of Erasmus Wilson (owner of the pseudonym), the short answer was essentially staying home and making babies, where they could “play the part of angel.”
Elizabeth Jane Cochrane was having none of that. The 20-year-old, whose father died when she was six and who dropped out of college due to lack of funds, wrote a letter to the editor, signed “Lonely Orphan Girl.” She told the men in charge that they knew nothing of the plight of working-class women. It so impressed managing editor George Madden that he put out an ad seeking its author. When she appeared in the newsroom, he gave her a job and a new nom de plume: Nellie Bly, after an 1850 song by Stephen Foster (though they got the spelling wrong on the first name).
Bly’s intrepid reporter instincts took her from Pittsburgh to Mexico, where she spent six months as a foreign correspondent, and finally to New York, where she became a star for Joseph Pulitzer‘s New York World, going undercover as a patient to investigate the brutal conditions in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). Her 1887 book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, made her a household name and led to some (small) reforms in mental health treatment. She won further fame when she outdid Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg and traveled “around the world in 72 days,” as described in her 1890 book of that title.
David Blixt is a Chicago-based historical fiction writer (Lifeline Theatre adapted his 2013 Shakespearean spy thriller, Her Majesty’s Will, in 2017), and theater artist whose stage credits include acting at the Goodman and Michigan Shakespeare Festival (where his wife, Jan Blixt, is artistic director) and lots of fight direction. The latter is what led him indirectly to an obsession with Bly.
“I can pinpoint the exact moment. I was reading an article in April of 2016 in the Atlantic that was about how there were more female action stars in Hollywood a hundred years ago than there are today. And that fascinated me, and it’s right up my alley,” says Blixt. “So I started looking at the movies they were listing and you know, it’s all the Perils of Pauline, it’s all the silent films of the intrepid young woman discovering some dastardly deed or whatever. And looking at movie after movie, each one said ‘based loosely on the life of Nellie Bly.'”
Blixt started researching Bly, and ended up writing three fictional books based on Bly’s life: What Girls Are Good For, Charity Girl, and Clever Girl. But in the course of his research, he stumbled across a treasure trove of unpublished novels by Bly herself.
Bly published one novel in her lifetime: 1889’s The Mystery of Central Park. Says Blixt, “She wrote 11 more for a serial weekly newspaper published by her publisher, Norman Munro, whose brother George kind of popularized the dime novel. And so he and his brother split about a decade earlier and Norman went off on his own.
“He found huge success in publishing Nellie Bly and also the Allan Quartermain books and detective stories and romances. The New York Family Story Paper was his big engine. Every week you’d get eight pages of new stuff, and Bly ends up writing for them and getting an enormous salary. She got $40,000 over three years. And everyone just kind of figured, ‘Well, that was money that was thrown away’ because nobody knows about her novel.”
But Blixt found out that Munro did a knock-off of his paper overseas—the London Story Paper. And while only one issue of the New York edition exists in American archives, complete sets of the London version were stored on microfilm in London, Sydney, and Toronto. And that is where Bly’s unpublished novels lived on, hidden from public view for 125 years.
After spending “weeks and weeks” scanning through the Bly collection online (and spending New Year’s of 2020 in Toronto transcribing sections from the microfilm that weren’t legible), Blixt had a bundle of Bly books. He released ten of the previously unpublished works late last month, just in time for the anniversaries of the publication of her first story (January 25) and of her death at age 57 (January 27).
One of the novels Blixt decided to leave unpublished because “It leans hard into the same racist tropes as Gone With The Wind.” Notes Blixt, “She wasn’t any more racist than anybody at the time, but she certainly has Chinese characters speaking in dialect and it’s offensive, and Black characters sometimes speak in dialect and that’s offensive.”
The new novels, released as e-books, audio downloads, and print through Blixt’s Sordelet Ink publishing house, were mostly inspired by Bly’s reporting, and bear sensationalist titles such as Eva The Adventuress: A Romance of a Blighted Life (based on an interview Bly conducted with Eva Hamilton, the “scorned wife” of Alexander Hamilton’s great-grandson, while she awaited trial on charges of attempted murder). Each of the books comes with the original art from the London Story Paper and the news stories that inspired them. Blixt is also releasing the two-volume collection Nellie Bly’s World, bringing together all her New York World pieces from 1887-1890, and a new version of the book that first brought her fame, Into the Madhouse.
Blixt notes that, while Bly’s “stunt journalism” made her a household name, that portion of her career was short-lived.
“After the race around the world, she was having health problems, she was having migraines. The stress of it was too much. So when she comes back in ’93 to be a reporter again, she stops doing the stunt thing entirely. They hand that off to another woman named Meg Merrilies, and Bly is purely interviews and investigative journalism. No more stunt stuff. They still bill it as stunt stuff—’Nellie Bly and the elephant! Nellie Bly and the tiger!’—but she’s not undercover anymore.”
Though Bly has appeared in several incarnations in pop culture (including two episodes of Drunk History), Blixt found it difficult to get agents and publishers interested in his novels about Bly. “It’s one of those things where I was told that there was no hook, no one would be interested. And I kid you not, one agent suggested to me that I make her a vampire or a detective or even a man. ‘There’s no hook.’ I was told this again and again, nobody would be interested in a straight story of her life. And I’m like, ‘You’re kidding me. You’ve got to be kidding me.'”
Blixt thinks part of the issue is that Bly’s approach to undercover journalism itself is now seen as “trickery. And for some reason, we’ve eschewed trickery from journalism. People poo-poo it, but it was revolutionary at the time. And needed. People still do investigative journalism, but it didn’t exist back then in the way that we can think of it today.”
The 1978 month-long undercover “Mirage” series in the Sun-Times, exposing corruption among Chicago city inspectors, got heat from Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, among others, for its use of misrepresentation in pursuit of the story. And perhaps now “undercover investigation” makes us think more of James O’Keefe’s ethically dubious and politically motivated Project Veritas.
But for Blixt, the passion that motivated Bly to write that first letter to the editor is what held his interest throughout the past several years of research, writing, and editing. “What made me set aside everything and devote those five years to Nellie Bly was how she got her first job. How angry she was.”
She didn’t need to be a vampire, a detective, or a man to make her mark. Says Blixt, “Lois Lane is a direct analog to Nellie Bly. My tagline as I started researching her was ‘The Real Lois Lane Didn’t Need a Superman.'”
But in Blixt, she’s found a fan and ally. v