In my story, A Woman of Love, Annabel is the abused wife of Lord Elliott Peters, but before her marriage she was a widow who successfully ran her late husband’s narrow boat business. (A narrow boat is a narrow barge used in the 19th century to transport goods on English canals and rivers.)
Is this realistic? Could a widow in this era legally run a business? Yes, this is seen in the extraordinary life of reporter Nellie Bly.
Nellie was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania on 5th May 1864. Her father, the founder of Cochran’s Mills, was a landowner, judge and businessman. Unfortunately, he died without a will, when Elizabeth was six years old, leaving the family destitute.
At the age of fifteen Elizabeth attended the Indiana Normal School. Her plan was to become a teacher and help support her mother, but she was forced to quit the school after a year due to lack of funds. She moved with her mother to Pittsburgh where the pair ran a boarding house.
Her lucky break came when she read an article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch written by Erasmus Wilson. The column stated that women belonged in the home employed in domestic tasks, such as sewing, cooking and raising children.
Elizabeth, who was never one to back down from a fight, wrote an angry letter to the newspaper. She understood that many women had to work to support themselves, and their families. Her rebuttal so impressed the paper's managing editor, George Madden, that he offered her a job, giving her the pen name – Nellie Bly
Nellie championed women’s issues. She posed as a sweatshop worker to expose poor working conditions. Then she wrote an article calling for a reform of the state’s divorce laws, but the newspaper editors did not appreciate her investigative, cutting-edge journalism and moved her to the newspaper’s women’s page where she was expected to write about fashion and flower shows.
Nellie left the Pittsburg Dispatch and headed to New York in search of a meaningful position. After a futile six months, she finally managed to get an interview with John Cockerill, editor of the New York World newspaper. He asked her to write a piece about the mentally ill housed at Blackwell’s Island, a large institution in New York City. (Now Roosevelt Island)
She accepted the challenge, going undercover as a woman with amnesia. She lived in the facility for ten days until lawyers for the New York World had her released. Her newspaper articles about her experiences included stories of cruel beatings, ice cold baths and forced meals of rancid food. Her story caused a sensation with the public and politicians alike. A grand jury was called to look into the conditions on Blackwell’s island, which quickly led to reforms.
In the years that followed she went on to expose corruption and injustice, revealing shady lobbyists, the way in which women prisoners were treated by police, and the inadequate medical care given to the poor. Given her upbringing it seemed natural for her to identify with the poor and the disenfranchised.
In 1889 she took a whirlwind trip around the world in an attempt to prove and beat Jules Verne’s 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Travelling by ship, train and burro she finished the journey in 72 days and was hailed as a celebrity.
At the age of 30 she married industrialist Robert Seaman, he was 70 years old at the time. She gave up journalism and devoted her life to him and his business, the Ironclad Manufacturing Company, until he died ten years later. After his death she took over running his business, and held several US patents; one for a milk can, and another for a stacking garbage can.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t a great businesswoman; the company went bankrupt due to financial mismanagement and embezzlement. Impoverished, she began writing for the New York Evening Journal. She travelled to Vienna in 1914 where she watched as World War I unfolded. She visited battlefields, and the trenches and sent back articles to the Evening Journal.
In 1919 she returned to New York and was forced to sue her mother and brother for the return of her house. She started writing for the New York Evening Journal again. This time she wrote an advice column. She was now in her fifties and perhaps she was happy to let someone else do the undercover work.
She died of heart disease and pneumonia in 1922, and was heralded as the best reporter in America.
Although Nelly wasn’t much of a businesswoman she was determined, and didn’t shirk the responsibility of running a business. She also tried to improve the lives of her workers, altering their pay from piecemeal to salary and providing them with recreation centers.
It is in her work as a journalist that she comes into her own. It is through the efforts of women like Nellie Bly that we enjoy the freedoms they have today.