sjhstrangetales

NELLIE BLY’S TRAVEL BAG

Posted on: December 26, 2018

Nellie Bly deserves to be much better known these days.  She was a fearless, crusading journalist in an era when most women were probably limited to writing about the latest fashions, or how to cope with one’s domestic servants.    She was spunky, good-humoured, level-headed, and up for anything.   I admire her not only for her crusading journalism, but also for the fact that she went on a solo, record-breaking trip around the world armed only with a small leather handbag!

She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, at Cochrane’s Mills, Pennsylvania, in May 1864.   The town had been founded by her father, Judge Cochrane, a self-made man.   Her father died when Elizabeth was only a child, which led to a sharp downturn in the family fortunes.  Elizabeth was pulled out of her private boarding-school due to lack of funds, and the family moved to Pittsburgh.  Elizabeth got her break in journalism when she wrote a strongly-worded letter to a pompous male journalist who had written a piece arguing that women were only fit for having children and keeping house.  The editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch was so impressed by her fire that he gave her a job.

It was customary at the time for female journalists to write under a pseudonym, and Elizabeth adopted the name Nellie Bly after a popular song of the time.   Somehow it suits her better than Elizabeth Jane Cochrane.   Over the next few years Nellie got a reputation for being up for anything, there wasn’t an assignment she wouldn’t try.  First in Pittsburgh, and then moving to New York, where there was a story, she was there.  She travelled to Mexico to report on life south of the border.  She went down in a deep-sea diving-bell, and she went up in a hot-air balloon.

One of her most commendable assignments was in exposing the barbaric treatment being meted out to female patients at The Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.  Nellie got the job by faking insanity.  She said she managed this by staying up all night, giving herself a vacant, dreamy expression, and coming out with paranoid statements about the other women in her lodging-house.   Somehow Nellie managed to convince a policeman, a doctor and a judge that she was ready for the asylum.   She spent 10 days inside, before her newspaper managed to spring her out.   Nellie exposed the terrible conditions, with patients being served rotten meat, and dirty drinking water.  The treatment included having buckets of ice cold water poured over their heads, and being made to sit for most of the day on hard benches in unheated, rat-infested rooms.  On one occasion she witnessed the guards dragging a distressed elderly woman out of a room by her hair.   Nellie’s shocking expose of this place led to a public investigation and a substantial increase in funding.   Nellie wrote about her experiences in a book Ten Days In A Mad-House, which is now available on Kindle.

Nellie’s most famous assignment though was when she emulated Phineas Fogg and took up the challenge (decades before Michael Palin did it with a BBC film crew) of going around the world in 80 days.   Nellie’s adventure became a huge source of publicity for her newspaper, and at the same time another female journalist, Elizabeth Bisland, also attempted the stunt, but going round in the opposite direction.  The two ladies captured the public’s imagination.  One (Nellie) was a no-nonsense Yankee girl, the other (Elizabeth) was a more genteel Southern lass, who had once written that a woman was finished when her looks were gone.

Nellie travelled from England down to Brindisi, through the Suez Canal, onto Ceylon (Sri Lanka), then China and Japan, and finally back to the United States.  She adopted her own unique travel outfit, wearing a Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker hat, a Scotch Ulster coat over a 2-piece dark blue suit, and carrying a small leather bag.   This travel bag – which in illustrations looks about the size of an old-fashioned doctor’s medical bag – must have been like Doctor Who’s Tardis, in that it astonishes me how much she was able to cram into it.  Contents as follows:

  • 2 travelling caps
  • 3 veils
  • a silk blouse*
  • a pair of slippers
  • a bar of soap
  • an ink stand [that must have been precarious, to say the least]
  • pens and pencils
  • a supply of writing paper
  • needle and thread
  • pins
  • a dressing-gown
  • a tennis blazer
  • hankies
  • a small flask and drinking cup
  • several changes of underwear [& think of how voluminous Victorian ladies undergarments usually were]
  • a pot of cold cream

She carried all her money in cash in a drawstring bag around her neck.

Both ladies completed their challenge within time, but Nellie beat Elizabeth by 4 days, largely because Elizabeth had had to return to New York across the Atlantic on a slow-moving vessel.  Nellie completed the journey – to much fanfare – in 72 days 6 hours and 11 minutes.  Elizabeth completed hers in 76 and-a-half days.  Both beat Phineas Fogg’s fictional record of 80 days.   I can only say that it’s about time the adventures of both of them were filmed.

In 1895 Nellie married Robert L Seaman, President of the America Steel Barrel Company, and 40 years older than her.  When he passed away in 1910, Nellie took charge of the business, but embezzlement by employees and bankruptcy swallowed up her fortune.  She went back to what she knew best, journalism, and when War broke out in 1914, Nellie went to Europe to report from the front line as a war correspondent, sending home harrowing accounts of the wounded and the dead on the battlefields.

Nellie died at the age of only 57, from pneumonia, in 1922.  She was a remarkable woman, and for more on her astonishingly versatile travel bag visit the brainpickings website, and their article “How To Pack Like Pioneering Journalist Nellie Bly, Who Circumnavigated The Globe In 1889 With Only A Small Duffle Bag”.

*I once read a memoir by a woman who had cycled alone around the world, and she wrote that she packed a silk dress for special occasions, on the grounds that silk is very light, folds up easily and barely takes up any room.

For the record, I once tried an experiment, to see if I could emulate Nellie’s packing arrangements, substituting my computer bag for her leather bag.  I think I would have been going round the world with stuff spewing out all over the place.

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