April 2, 2012

Nellie Bly: a startling revelation

Edward R. Phelps began by calling the writer in question a "smart female confidence correspondent" and "champion story-teller," but that the accusations against him were "groundless statements" written by a "blackmailer or a newspaper imposter." His letter, printed in the New York-based World newspaper on April 2, 1888, defended himself against the charge that he bribed local politicians to swing their votes. His accuser was Nellie Bly.

The day before, Bly had reported on her findings in the same newspaper. She had disguised herself as the wife of a patent medicine manufacturer who wanted to block proposed legislation that would make her husband lose money. Phelps told her that it would take $1,000 to get six assemblymen (whom he named) to vote against the bill (with an additional $250 for his services). He was so confident in his bribery abilities that claimed he could pass or kill any bill that he wanted and bragged that he sometimes earned $10,000 for the effort. Bly never showed up for a pre-arranged meeting to offer payment.

Most people were already suspicious of Phelps's activities, but Bly was the first to publish evidence of it. Her story took up the entire front page of the World, and Phelps's response had to be written quickly, within a few hours of publication. In printing his letter, however, the newspaper editors made it clear where they stood:

The remarkable narrative that Nellie Bly presented to the readers of The World yesterday of her visit to the headquarters of Ed Phelps, the "King of the Albany Lobby" and her exposure of how legislation is promoted or destroyed was a startling revelation to the honest citizens of New York. From time to time, The World has heard rumors of an organized lobby at Albany, but tangible proof of its existence has been difficult to secure.

The editors noted that Bly had been entrusted with a difficult task but that "this mission... [was] carried through with success at every point." Phelps was shocked and told the editors that Bly was concocting "a sensational romance such as you seem to suppose that your readers relish." Most importantly, he noted that Bly was a known liar, calling her a "bogus lunatic." In another letter to a different local newspaper, he called her "a female scribbler, signing herself Nellie Bly" (by then, the world knew it was a pen-name; her real name was Elizabeth Jane Cochran). It was too late: within a few days, a grand jury was called to investigate and Bly herself was called as a witness. What surprised investigators the most was how young (and pretty) she was — but the investigation was a joke (particularly problematic was that Bly had destroyed all her notes from that meeting). Even so, Phelps was discredited and left Albany.

*For the information in this post, I turned to Brooke Kroeger's biography Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (1994).

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