Reality & a Family Legend
It's not unusual for a family to harbor a legend about a famous relative. Many of us grew up hearing stories of a famous or infamous person to whom we are supposedly related, no matter how distant.
I remember as a child hearing about Nellie Bly and her trip around the world. One story was that she was my great grandmother; another just called her an ancestor. My grandfather whose family she belonged to had died before I was born so the stories were all from the realm of "hearsay."
When I began doing genealogy it didn't take me long to discover I didn't even have an ancestor named Nellie Bly. My great grandmother was actually born Nellie Thayer. Her mother was born Sarah Bly and evidently someone mixed up or misremembered their names.
I just finished reading Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's history-making race around the world by Matthew Goodman. The book is a good read, and in my case, filled in a lot of blanks in what I knew about the real Nellie Bly.
There are some surprising similarities between my great grandmother and the subject of the book. First of all, the "real" Nellie Bly was not actually named Nellie Bly either. At age twenty in 1884, Elizabeth Jane Cochran applied for a reporter's job at the Pittsburgh Dispatch. The managing editor was impressed by the letter she wrote him and decided to give her a chance. The subject of a currently popular song by Stephen Foster was Nelly Bly. Women reporters at that time needed catchy names; hence Elizabeth's byline became Nellie Bly.
My great grandmother was born in Harmony, a farming town in rural western New York on April 7, 1863. Her father died in the Civil War the following October leaving her mother with three children but little else. In 1870 the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio where Nellie's brothers could find work.
Similarly the newspaper reporter was born on May 5, 1864 in Apollo, a coal mining town in rural western Pennsylvania. Her father was fairly wealthy but died suddenly without a will when she was six years old. Her mother was left nearly destitute with five children, and in 1880 moved the family to Pittsburgh.
The similarities between them end there, as my ancestor married in 1880. She was left with three children after her husband died of tuberculosis in 1891, and taught piano lessons to support her family. The reporter meanwhile moved to New York City in 1887 where she managed to get a job working for one of New York's largest newspapers, the World owned by Joseph Pulitzer.
Nellie Bly, the reporter was brash and adventurous and would do nearly anything to get her story. She even feigned insanity to get into Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum in New York's East River to expose the ill treatment of insane women, spending 10 days inside until the World's attorneys managed to get her out.
When Nellie conceived the idea of a trip around the world in 80 days, a la Jules Verne, her editor decided to go for it. She left with one small suitcase three days later on November 14, 1889 from Hoboken, New Jersey—destination Southampton, England. Traveling entirely by scheduled steamship routes except for a train across France to Italy and another across the U.S. at the end of her journey, she made it in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, 14 seconds.
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8 July 2013