A Free American Girl
Nellie bly was born elizabeth jane cochran in western pennsylvania on May 5, 1864, though confusion about her exact age would persist throughout her lifea good deal of that confusion engineered by Bly herself, for she was never quite as young as she claimed to be. When she began her race around the world, in November of 1889, Bly was twenty-five years old, but estimates of her age among the nation's newspapers ranged from twenty to twenty-four; according to her own newspaper, The World, she was "about twenty-three."
The town in which she grew up, Apollo, Pennsylvania, was a small, nondescript sort of place, not much different from countless other mill towns carved out of hemlock and spruce, unassuming enough that even the author of a history of Apollo felt obliged to explain in the book's foreword, "It is not necessary to be a city of the first class to fill the niche in the hearts of the people or the history of the state. Besides it is our town." On its main street stood a general store (where one could buy everything from penny candy to plowshares), a drugstore, a slaughterhouse, a blacksmith shop, and several taverns; the town would not have a bank until 1871. In the winters there was sledding and skating, and when the warmer weather came the children of the town liked to roll barrel hoops down the hill to the canal bridge and to fish the Kiskiminetas River, which had not yet been contaminated by runoff from the coal mines and iron mills being built nearby.
Elizabeth was born to Michael and Mary Jane Cochran, the third of five children and the elder of two daughters. She was known to everyone in town as "Pink"; it was a nickname she came by early on, arising from her mother's predilection to dress her in pink clothing, in sharp contrast to the drab browns and grays worn by the other local children. Pink seems to have been a high-spirited, rather headstrong girl, though much of what is known of her early years comes from her own recollections in publicity stories written after she became famous, at least some of which seem designed mainly to burnish the already developing legend of the intrepid young journalist. One story published in The World, for instance (the headline of which claimed to provide her "authentic biography"), told how she was an insatiable reader as a girl, and how she herself wrote scores of stories, scribbling them in the flyleaves of books and on whatever scraps of paper she could find. Nights she lay awake in bed, her mind aflame with imagined stories of heroes and heroines, fairy tales and romances: "So active was the child's brain and so strongly her faculties eluded sleep that her condition became alarming and she had to be placed under the care of physicians." The World?'s professions of Bly's childhood love for reading and writing, though, are not to be found in other accounts, and in the family history, Chronicles of the Cochrans: Being a Series of Historical Events and Narratives in Which the Members of This Family Have Played a Prominent Part, one of her relatives commented somewhat tartly that among the teachers in Apollo's sole schoolhouse, Pink Cochran "acquired more conspicuous notice for riotous conduct than profound scholarship."
Pink's father, Michael Cochran, had become wealthy as a grist mill proprietor and real estate speculator, and he was prominent enough to have been elected an associate justice of the county, after which he was always known by the honorific "Judge." (The nearby hamlet of Coch- ran's Mills, where Pink lived for her first five years, was named after him.) When Pink was six years old, though, Judge Cochran suddenly fell ill and died, without having left behind a will; according to Pennsylvania law, a wife was not entitled to an inheritance without being specifically named in a husband's will, and by the time his fortune had been parceled out among his heirs (including nine grown children from a previous marriage), Pink's mother, Mary Jane, ended up with little more than the household furniture, a horse and carriage, and a small weekly stipend. Now raising five children on her own, she embarked on an ill-conceived marriage to a man who turned out to be a drunkard and an abuser. After five miserable years Mary Jane took the highly unusual step of filing for divorce; Pink herself testified on her mother's behalf, recounting for the court an awful litany of her stepfather's offenses against her mother. At only fourteen years of age, she had learned all she needed to know about what could befall a woman who was not financially independent.
Excerpted from Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman. Copyright © 2013 by Matthew Goodman. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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From NYT bestselling author Ann Leary
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