Newspaper publishers were early converts to the feminist movement inasmuch as lady journalists were good with words and related easily to pathos which boosted circulation.
The first sob sister was Elizabeth Cochran. In 1884 she responded to an article titled, "What Girls Are Good For" published in a Pittsburgh newspaper. The article expressed the usual male sentiments of that day – not any too flattering to aspiring womanhood.
The next day, Editor George Madden received a stinging – but well written – rebuttal from Miss Cochran. He was impressed and asked her to do an article on girls and their purpose in life.
Elizabeth wrote the article right away and was invited to drop around for a visit. Madden hired her as a reporter at $ 5 per week, a handsome sum for a woman in Victorian America.
Miss Cochran was an imaginative and persuasive writer. She was the prototype of all women reporters who came to known in the newspaper business as "sob sisters."
As was the fashion in those days, Elizabeth chose a penname for her byline.
The famous French authoress Amadine Luci used the male pseudonym of "George Sand" to gain acceptance. Elizabeth determined to use a feminine name. She chose "Nellie Bly" from a Stephen Foster song.
Right away, people began to ask questions about Nellie Bly. "Is the writer really a woman? Who ever heard of a woman reporter? Good grief! What next?"
Nellie had a "nose for news." Sympathetic to problems of the poor, she went into the slums to find stories. She was a genius at wringing tears from her readers over the plight of the unfortunate. The result was a half-admiring, half derisive description for her special type of journalism.
After establishing a reputation, Nellie headed for New York City. It was then the era of newspaper publishing giants such a Horace Greeley, Charles Dana and Joseph Pulitzer.
The "World" was Pulitzers flagship. It was setting the pace for dynamic journalism. Nellie went there to seek a job.
"Name one idea the World might possibly be interested in," challenged Pulitzer.
She replied, "I want to pretend I'm insane and get myself committed to the asylum on Blackwell's Island and live there as an inmate. I have always wanted to find out how the insane poor are really treated and to tell the story.
This was the kind of thing Pulitzer couldn't resist. He gave her $ 25 for expenses and told her to go ahead.
Nellie convinced a policeman, a judge and a succession of doctors that she had gone mad. They locked her up!
Ten days later she came out with a sensational story: "Behind Asylum Bars." It launched a major reform of institutional care. Nellie Bly became Pulitzer's star reporter and was given free rein as a crusader.
* * *
The story that fired the imagination of the world and made Nellie a celebrity, was her pioneer, record-breaking trip around the world in 1889. Jules Verne had stirred public interest with his fictional "Around The World In Eighty Days."
Nellie set out to better this imaginary race against time. She left New York City on Nov. 14, 1889, and completed her trip in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds. She filed long telegrams to Pulitzer at every stop.
Readers of the World were invited to guess the time it would take Nellie to complete the trip. More than a million people entered the contest.
Songwriter Joe Hart, the most popular composer of his day, wrote "Globe Trotting Nellie Bly" about her. A board game was created that traced her journey.
Everyone was asking: "What next for Nellie Bly?"
There were not any more trips, but she augmented her salary as a lecturer and syndicated columnist. Her income for the next several years averaged $ 25,000 – a substantial sum in those days of no radio, TV, movies, income taxes or inflation.
Nellie retired from journalism when she married Robert Seaman in 1895. After his death ten years later she took over his failing factories and restored them to profitability.
She ran her plants in enlightened fashion – establishing physical-fitness gymnasiums, bowling alleys, health care nurses, teachers and libraries for her employees. While vacationing in Europe at the start of the first World War she was trapped behind the Eastern Front. Whereupon, she filed war stories to various newspapers. She died in 1922.
Every newspaper, of course, then had to have its own sob sister, Usually she was one of the best paid reporters and adopted colorful manners that went with notoriety.
The last of the old-time sob sisters was Vera Brown who wrote a front-page column "Our Times" of human interest stories for Randolph Hearst's "Detroit Times." She began her career by taking flying lessons and reporting her progress. She went on to other things after crashing her plane into the Detroit River during her solo flight.
Vera had a heart as big as all outdoors which she attempted to disguise by a steady stream of epithets which made stevedores blush.
As a Navy Yeoman press liaison at Detroit, Mich., In the early years of World War II, I helped arrange a fly- in by movie star Cary Grant on a new B-28 bomber. The event was a benefit for the Army-Navy Relief Fund. Vera Brown covered the story for the Times.
The plane was late and Vera demanded of the general in charge, "When is that gd dm bomber going to get here?"
The general was taken aback and related the remark to Vera's editor. The editor, accustomed to his sob sister's blue language, teased Vera about offending a general.
Vera, then a gray-haired grandmotherly type, had removed her dress to type her story –as was her custom on warm days before air conditioning. She never took off her hat, and always had a cigarette dangling from her lips.
Indignantly she rose to her feet, straightened her slip and shouted to the crowded newsroom, "I did NOT say gd dm bomber. What I SAID was, gd dm B-26.
Having defended her professional accuracy, Vera sat down, lighted a new cigarette and turned out a masterpiece of needs by the widows and orphans of our service men.
After the war, I worked for awhile as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Our "sob sister" was a guy. Jimmy Pooler – a superb wordsmith I tried to emulate – who penned a daily, front-page column "Sunny Side."
Today, sob sisters like Nellie, and Vera, and Jimmy have been liberated to the "beats" and editors' chairs. Too bad. A lot of sensitivity and soul has gone out of newspaper.
September 10, 2000