Category Archives: Nellie Bly

Women’s History Through New Yes

History Through New Eyes

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

“The last I saw of him he was passing the back of his hand slowly up and down his side…I picked myself up from the opposite side of the foyer where he’d sent me, the place all buckling around me like seen through a sheet of water.” ~ Angel Face” by William Irish, circa 1937

As recently as four decades ago, romanticism ran rampant about girls in trouble. History, both fictional and real, tell us that women were often not respected as a whole, that the public felt any woman foolish enough to get herself in trouble deserved what she got. The plights of widows, the infirm, prostitutes or any other lady sans family were hardly taken seriously. And so, while the gentler sex was often regarded as such, the same were expected to make their way in the world without fuss or fight.

A great many single women in turn worked hard to maintain some sort of lifestyle for themselves, as well as their children. But the possibilities of employment were extremely narrow by today’s standards. Cooks, nurses, maids, milliners, laundresses, prostitutes, teachers, wives – all were low paying jobs which offered no advancement and some inherent dangers. The combination of low income with a lack of government services made for a hard and thankless life, especially in an abusive household.

Strength in the female spirit served to alleviate some women and push them to better themselves. The woman’s wall of will constantly found itself up against the barrier of suppression, but somehow it persevered. Nellie Bly, the first female journalist to really make a name for herself, grew up in a broken home. When her twice-widowed mother married a third time to an abusive drunk, Nellie’s young world turned upside down. Ultimately the young girl had to testify at her mother’s divorce trial. Nellie’s testimony was stirring. “I have heard him scold mother often and heard him use profane language towards her often and call her names: a whore and a bitch…The first time I seen [sic] Ford take hold of mother in an angry manner, he attempted to choke her.”

Despite the testimony of Nellie, her brother, and eleven other witnesses, divorce in the 1870’s was neither fashionable nor acceptable no matter what the circumstances. Only by immediately resuming her station as a widow and quickly erasing the memory her third husband did Nellie’s mother escape persecution. Nellie Bly learned to be a caretaker during her mother’s abusive marriage, and she used her experiences to pursue the most sought after profession of journalist.

Another feminist who managed to burst through the wall of suppression around her was English travel-writer Isabella Bird. In 1873, Bird arrived in Colorado to have a look around. What made her trip notable was the fact that Isabella traveled alone and was unarmed – most extraordinary for a woman of her time. Among her companions and hosts were the wealthy and the poor, landlords, desperados and ranchers. The majority of these were men.

After climbing Long’s Peak and traversing the front range, Bird ultimately favored Estes Park. There she succumbed only slightly to the wiles of “Rocky Mountain Jim” Nugent, an emotionally and physically scarred ruffian who balanced his affections for her with drunken fits of rage. Considering the vulnerability of a “woman alone”, Isabella Bird managed to deal with her experiences in a forthright manner, and without falling victim to the perils of her time.

It is unfortunate that the prevailing accomplishments of Nellie Bly and Isabella Bird do not surface more often. Many women were easy prey for greedy landlords, pimps, and other unkind men who saw them as weak and helpless. The man who did not support his family was rarely chastised for it. And in the days before social security, telephones and state identification, non-supporting fathers went unreported.

Emily French was one of many women who suffered at the hands of an unresponsive husband. When she found herself divorced from Marsena French at the age of forty seven in 1890, Emily began relating her experiences in a diary. She described Marsena as “…an awful mean old fellow, I never knew so until now, I used to think even he was good.”

Indeed, two years before the divorce Emily and her sister made new wills, relieving Marsena as beneficiary. Emily later wrote that Marsena had cheated she and her sister out of $1,000 each. Left penniless by the divorce, Emily was forced to do housework in order to support her disabled sister and two children. Sometimes food was scarce. Other times, Emily ached so badly from the cold she could hardly perform her duties. Despite an educated background, Emily could find no other work.

Ultimately, Emily moved to Denver in an effort to better her situation. Using what little money she had left to buy property, Emily attempted to build a house but could not get a job. After seeking employment in the mountains and another brief stay in Denver, Emily returned to the prairie town of Elbert, and eventually remarried. Emily’s marriage voided her rights to her homestead, which fell back into the hands of Marsena French. Despite Marsena’s non-support of his children and many court battles with Emily both during and after their marriage, he was never held responsible for his actions.

In reality of the day, Emily French had it easy in that her husband never beat her. Such were grounds for the few divorces there were in Victorian times. The man who beat his wife was never publicized, although he occasionally might be told to stop by a relative, neighbor or police officer. Because the wealthy worked hard to cover such sensitive issues as spouse abuse, the poor were left to face the brunt of disapproving gossip.

Of course the lowest form of poverty often fell to prostitutes, and their complaints of abuse often fell on deaf ears. A 1901 issue of the Colorado Springs Gazette, for instance, reported on the trial of Joe Huser: “The complaining witness was Cora Wheeler, a colored woman of Myers Avenue [the red light district in Cripple Creek [Colorado], who alleged that Huser struck her in the face with a hatchet.” Beyond this tiny tidbit of information, nothing was ever mentioned of the case again. The fate of Joe Huser is unknown. Perhaps police officials failed to miss the large scar which certainly must have appeared on Cora’s face. More likely, the papers chose to have as little to say as possible about this horrible act. Prostitutes like Cora Wheeler were hardly worth worrying over, since they “chose” their profession and knew of the consequences that accompanied it.

As late as 1952 and even today, the plight of prostitutes as victims is still taken lightly. Long after prostitution was outlawed in the United States, ladies of the night became personified by actresses dressed in frilly clothes with lots of lipstick. The old dance hall days were portrayed by gay songs and silly skits, with little remembrance of what these women really experienced. It was perhaps easier to make a mockery of the profession rather than to point out its ugliness.

The Westerners Brand Book of 1952 makes an interesting account of Cripple Creek Sheriff Henry Von Phul, who pursued prostitute Mexican Jennie for murder. How Von Phul accomplished this is noted as “one of the finest pieces of detective work in the annals of these gold camps.” That this sheriff broke the law and ignored the reality of Jenny’s plight is of little consequence to the author. But Mexican Jennie, prostitute and battered woman, deserves to have her side of the story told.

By 1909, Jennie had married twice and had taken up with Philip Roberts Jr., a blacksmith. When Roberts moved into Jennie’s cabin at Poverty Gulch he became her pimp, drinking constantly and beating her when she didn’t make enough money to suit him. On Christmas night of 1913, Roberts knocked Jennie to the floor for the last time. This time, Jennie answered his abuse with a fatal gunshot. Jennie left for Mexico that night, leaving Roberts’ body in the cabin.

Three days later, Sheriff Von Phul left Cripple Creek in pursuit of Mexican Jennie. Had it not been for a delay in train service to Juarez, Jennie might have escaped. As it was, she had to travel to El Paso and swim across the Rio Grande River into Mexico. The effort took up a lot of needed time. Jennie likely offered her services to men in a group of army camp followers to get to Chihuahua City, 250 miles from El Paso.

Von Phul heard of celebrations going on in Chihuahua City and successfully apprehended Jennie. When he encountered her at the Capital Hotel, Jennie greeted Von Phul cordially. She did not resist when he took her into custody. When legal problems arose concerning taking a prisoner across the border, Jennie volunteered to walk across herself. Von Phul bribed no less than two people, one of them a criminal from his hometown of Cripple Creek, to accomplish his mission.

At no time did Jennie attempt to escape. Rather, she seemed eager to return to Cripple Creek to plead innocent by self defense. Mug shots of Jennie portray a smiling, stout Mexican woman with shiny black hair and modest earrings. At the top of the photograph are the words “Charged with murder.” After spending six years of a life sentence, Jennie was released due to poor health. She returned to Mexico, where she probably resumed her profession. In 1924, she died of tuberculosis.

Mexican Jennie suffered the unkind fate of being born into an unfair world. The public misjudged her and the authorities denied her rights. Like so many of her kind Jennie’s circumstances decided her destiny, but society rule decided her fate.