This Week in History: American Journalist Nellie Bly Was Born


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“I was too impatient to work at the usual duties assigned women on newspapers.”

—Nellie Bly, Six Months In Mexico, 1888

At a time when women who worked at newspapers were writing articles on fashion, gardening, or society, intrepid American journalist Nellie Bly was traveling the world, reporting from the front lines, going undercover, and gaining fame for her daredevil feats and bold exposés in what was then considered a “man’s job.” A pioneer of investigative journalism, Bly wrote for several newspapers on many controversial issues, often focusing on the plight of the poor, immigrants, and women in America.

Nellie Bly was the pen name of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman. She was born on May 5, 1864, in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. The town was named for her father, Judge Michael Cochran. Her birth name was Elizabeth Cochran, but she later added an e to her last name. Judge Cochran died when Elizabeth was 3 years old. Her mother later remarried an abusive man whom she divorced. In 1880, Elizabeth moved with her family to Pittsburgh.

At the age of 20, Elizabeth read an editorial in The Pittsburgh Dispatch entitled “What Girls Are Good For.” The article admonished women for attempting to pursue an education or a career and suggested that a woman’s place was in the home. This so infuriated Elizabeth that she wrote a letter to the paper’s editor in support of women’s rights. She signed it “Little Orphan Girl.” The Dispatch’s editor, George Madden, was so impressed by the letter that he placed an ad for the Little Orphan Girl to visit the newspaper. When Elizabeth introduced herself to Madden, he offered her an opportunity to write a rebuttal piece to be published. Elizabeth’s first newspaper article was “The Girl Puzzle.” Madden offered Elizabeth a full-time job as a reporter. He gave her the pen name “Nellie Bly” a misspelling of the song “Nelly Bly” by the American composer Stephen Foster. While at the Dispatch, Nellie Bly wrote a series of stories about the lives of women who worked in Pittsburgh’s bottle factories. Although the stories captivated readers, they drew ire from the business community. Bly was then assigned to a gardening story. She turned in the article, along with her resignation.

Bly then traveled to Mexico, where she spent nearly half a year reporting on the lives and customs of the country’s people. Her dispatches were later published in book form as Six Months in Mexico. In one report, she protested the imprisonment of a local journalist for criticizing the country’s dictatorship government. When Mexican authorities learned of Bly’s report, they threatened her with arrest and she left the country.

In 1887, Bly, penniless, arrived in New York City, New York, where she talked her way into a job at the New York World. Later that year, she pretended to be insane to get inside a New York City mental hospital. Her articles “Behind Asylum Bars” and “Inside The Mad-House” caused an uproar in New York. Her reports of cruelty to patients brought reforms. In February 1889, Bly pretended to be a thief and got arrested so that she could learn how the police treated women prisoners.

Sometimes Bly herself made headlines for her daring feats. In November 1889, Bly sailed from New York City on a trip around the world. The New York World sent her to outdo Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days. She made the trip—by ship, train, jinrikisha (handcart), and burro—in a record 72 days 6 hours 11 minutes.

In 1895, Bly married industrialist Robert Seaman. When he died in 1904, Bly took over the company and became the world’s leading female industrialist. However, a decade later, the company was forced into bankruptcy. Around this time Bly began working for the New York Evening Journal, where she became America’s first female war correspondent, writing articles on her experiences from the front lines during World War I (1914-1918). Bly wrote a column for the Journal until her death on Jan. 27, 1922, from pneumonia. The next day, the Journal carried a tribute to Bly, declaring her “The best reporter in America.”

This Week in History: Romulus and Remus Founded Rome in 753 B.C.


Relief on a Roman altar (A.D. 124); Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome (photo by Raymond V. Schoder)

According to legend, the twin brothers Romulus and Remus founded the city of Rome on April 21, 753 B.C., near the Tiber River in central Italy. Romulus and Remus were born in the ancient Italian city of Alba Longa. Their parents were Rhea Silvia, a human woman, and the god Mars. When Romulus and Remus were babies, their great uncle Amulius, the ruler of Alba Longa, had them thrown into the Tiber River so they could not threaten his rule. The twins washed ashore and were nursed by a female wolf. Wolves are associated with the god Mars. The twins later were discovered and raised by a shepherd named Faustulus and his wife. Romulus and Remus eventually set out to establish their own city at the place where the wolf had found them. A quarrel between the brothers led to Remus’s death, and Romulus named the new city Rome, after himself. Romulus became the first of seven legendary kings who ruled Rome until the founding of the Roman Republic in 509 B.C. He was a wise and popular ruler and a fine military leader. Under Romulus’s leadership, Rome expanded and became the most powerful city in the region. At the end of his reign, Romulus disappeared mysteriously in a storm. A later story tells that he became the god Quirinus.

Ancient Romans celebrated an important religious festival called Lupercalia every February near the Lupercal, a cave in the Palatine Hill. This cave was associated with the wolf that nursed Romulus and Remus. The Palatine Hill is one of seven historic hills east of the Tiber River in Rome. They form the heart of the ancient city. The other six hills are the Aveline, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Quirinal, and Viminal hills. Lupercalia included banquets, dancing, and the sacrificing of goats. Teams of young men called Luperci raced naked around the Palatine Hill with whips made from goats’ hides. Women who hoped to have children stood near the runners’ path to be struck by the whips. They believed this would make them fertile.

There is little evidence that Romulus and the six kings who succeeded him existed. Some scholars think the kings originated as gods whom the Romans converted into historical figures. The kings and gods have many similarities. For example, Romulus resembles the god Jupiter. The seventh king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, resembles Mars. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of houses built about 900 B.C.—approximately 150 years before the legendary founding date—on the Palatine Hill. The earliest settlers in the area were a people called the Latins who inhabited neighboring towns in Latium, the region around Rome. The seven hills that comprised ancient Rome were steep and easily defended. The valleys between them were fertile, with a good water supply, and provided necessary building materials. The Tiber River provided a convenient route to the Mediterranean Sea, allowing for trade with other communities. These geographical features helped the young city prosper and eventually develop as the center of a great empire. Whether or not Romulus and Remus had any part in this history, they remain a prominent part of Roman mythology. A famous bronze sculpture at the Capitoline Museums in Rome shows a she-wolf nursing the brothers. The sculpture is thought to have been created in the 400’s B.C. or in the Middle Ages (from about the 400’s through the 1400’s A.D.).


This week in history: Cuban exiles attacked the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961


Cuban leader Fidel Castro, lower right, sits inside a tank near Playa Giron, Cuba, during the Bay of Pigs invasion, in this April 17, 1961 photo provided by Granma, the Cuban government newspaper. About 1,500 Cuban exiles, supported by the CIA, landed in Cuba in the Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) on April 17, 1961 with the purpose of sparking a popular uprising and ousting the government of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Most rebels were quickly captured or killed by the Cuban armed forces (©CP Photo/AP Photo)

On April 17-19, 1961, Cuban exiles supported by the United States government invaded Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in an effort to overthrow Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government. This historical event is in sharp contrast with a recent visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuba on March 20-22, 2016, nearly 55 years later. Obama met with Cuban President Raúl Castro and with dissident leaders and even attended a baseball game. The visit marked slowly warming relations between the two countries. Such a scenario would have been unimaginable in 1961!

Preparation for the Bay of Pigs invasion began in 1960, when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) set up camps to train Cuban exiles in Guatemala. The exiles planned to land on Cuba’s southern coast, advance into Cuban territory, and establish a non-Communist provisional government. They anticipated support from Cuba’s people and members of its military. The original plan also included two air strikes by disguised B-26 bomber planes to destroy Cuban air bases, and the landing in eastern Cuba of a smaller invading force to confuse the Cubans. The U.S. government tried to conceal the plan, but news of the imminent attack circulated among Cuban exiles in Miami. Fidel Castro learned of the existence of the Guatemalan training camps through Cuban intelligence. In addition, U.S. media reported on the training camps in Guatemala, compromising the secrecy of the operation.

On April 17, 1961, about 1,400 Cuban exiles comprising Brigade 2506 landed at Playa Girón and Playa Larga, two beaches on Cuba’s southern coast near the Bay of Pigs. The area around the landing sites was swampy, which made it difficult for them to establish a foothold. Bad weather and soggy equipment presented further obstacles. In addition, the landing site was over 80 miles (130 kilometers) from Cuba’s Escambray Mountains, a potential refuge should the operation go awry. The invaders soon came under attack by Cuban planes and about 20,000 Cuban troops. The invasion ended on April 19, after more than 1,100 members of Brigade 2506 were captured. More than 100 members died in battle. Some escaped to Cuba’s interior to join anti-Castro guerrilla groups. The Cuban government never has revealed exactly how many Cuban troops died in the invasion. After the exiles’ capture, the United States began negotiations with Cuba to secure their release. In December 1962, the Cuban government freed the exiles in return for baby food and medicine worth $53 million.

The Bay of Pigs invasion is regarded as one of the worst foreign policy blunders of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s administration. It led to a widespread crackdown on political opponents of Cuba’s government and solidified Castro’s control of the nation. Historians believe that poor planning and the U.S. government’s failure to provide air support for the rebels led to their defeat. For example, on April 15, exile pilots flying B-26 bombers provided by the CIA failed in an attempt to destroy the Cuban air force. Photos of the attacking bombers revealed that they were American, and President Kennedy canceled the second planned air strike on Cuban air bases. An attempt on April 19 by unmarked U.S. fighter planes to help the exile brigade’s B-26 bombers also failed. In addition, Castro’s government had arrested many of its opponents in Cuba so they would not be able to join the attack.

This Week in History: Booker T. Washington Was Born in 1856


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Booker T. Washington was the most influential African American leader and educator in the United States during his time. He is best known as the founder of what is now Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Booker Taliaferro Washington was born a slave on April 5, 1856, on a small plantation in Hales Ford, Virginia, near Roanoke. His father was a white man, whom Washington never knew, and his mother, Jane, was a cook for the plantation owner. After the boy’s birth, Jane married Washington Ferguson, another slave, and her son later took his stepfather’s first name as his last name.

In 1865, Washington was 9 years old when the U.S. government freed all the slaves in the United States. Soon after, he, his mother, and two siblings moved to Malden, West Virginia, to join his stepfather, who had gone there to work in the salt mines. The family set up their first home as free people. Although Washington was still a child, he went to work in the salt and coal mines instead of going to school. But in his spare time, he taught himself to read and write.

Washington went to work as a houseboy for the wife of the coal mine owner. She allowed him to attend school, but only for an hour a day during the winter months. Washington left home at the age of 16 and walked some 500 miles to attend an industrial school for blacks—the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University)—in Hampton, Virginia. He graduated with high marks from Hampton in 1875 and was given the honor of speaking at his commencement. He returned to Hampton as a teacher in 1879. Washington based many of his theories about education, moral values, and hard work on his training at Hampton.

In 1881, Washington founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, a vocational school for blacks, in an old, abandoned shanty. He ran Tuskegee for the rest of his life. He traveled throughout the United Sates to promote and raise money for the school. The school’s name was later changed to Tuskegee Institute, and finally, to Tuskegee University. Tuskegee educated students in carpentry, farming, and mechanics. The school also trained teachers. Washington believed that blacks needed a practical, vocational education rather than a college education. He felt blacks should learn skills, work hard, and acquire property. This, he believed, could lead blacks out of poverty into economic prosperity.

Under Washington’s leadership, Tuskegee rose to national prominence, and Washington rose in prominence as a national spokesman for black people. Washington became the first black person to dine at the White House. He advised both U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft on racial issues and policies, as well as on political appointments for blacks in a time of rigid segregation and discrimination in much of the United States, especially the South.

Washington advised blacks to stop demanding equal rights and to just get along with whites in order to benefit economically. He believed that blacks should be subordinate to whites and that if they were patient, worked hard, and became financially independent, they would eventually win acceptance and respect from whites. His beliefs and practices created a firestorm in the black community. His strongest critic was the historian and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, who believed that blacks could benefit from a college education. Du Bois attacked Washington’s views about making compromises and his acceptance of inequality and segregation to achieve economic gain. Du Bois outlined his criticisms in his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903).

Washington wrote many books, including his best-selling autobiography, Up from Slavery (1901). He died on Nov. 14, 1915, of congestive heart failure and exhaustion at age 59. Nearly 8,000 people attended his funeral at Tuskegee. Washington was laid to rest in a brick tomb built by students on a hill overlooking the campus. At the time of his death, Tuskegee had expanded to more than 100 buildings, where a faculty of 200 taught dozens of trades. The school had built up a $2-million endowment and enrolled more than 1,500 students.

This Week in History: Baseball Star Pitcher Cy Young Was Born


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Baseball star pitcher Cy Young was born on March 29, 1867. Young holds the one major American sports record that is likely never to be broken or even challenged. In a career that straddled two centuries, Young won 511 games in the major leagues. Only one other pitcher, Walter Johnson, has won as many as 400 games.

Young pitched in the major leagues for 22 seasons, from 1890 to 1911. He pitched in the first modern World Series in 1903, winning two games. Young pitched three no-hitters, one of them a perfect game. Throughout his career, Young demonstrated remarkable endurance. He pitched an astounding 7,356 innings. He won more than 20 games in 15 of his 22 seasons. Young won 30 or more games five times, from 1892 to 1902. He also lost 316 games, a major league career record that also is never likely to be approached.

Denton True Young was born outside Gilmore, Ohio. Young grew up on the family farm, where through hard work he developed strong arms, broad shoulders, a thick chest, and muscular legs. Young’s father wanted his son to become a farmer, but the young man started playing baseball in 1890 at the age of 23. Young picked up his nickname while trying out for the Canton, Ohio, minor league team. A catcher called him “as fast as a cyclone.” A sportswriter shortened it to “Cy” and the name lasted a lifetime and beyond.

After only half a season of minor league baseball, Young was pitching in the major leagues for the Cleveland Spiders of the National League. Young pitched for Cleveland for 9 years, winning 239 games. He played for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1899 and 1900 before moving to the newly established American League. He pitched for the Boston Pilgrims (later the Boston Red Sox) until 1909, when he joined the Cleveland Indians. His pitching career ended in 1911.

Young was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937. In 1956, major league baseball established the Cy Young Award, at first given annually to the single best pitcher in the major leagues. In 1967, the award was split to honor the best two pitchers in the National League and the American League. Young died at the age of 88 on Nov. 4, 1955.

This Week in History: Wilhelm Roentgen, discoverer of X rays, was born March 27, 1845


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In 1895, the German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered an invisible form of energy that he called X rays. Roentgen did not quite understand what these mysterious rays were—hence the mysterious-sounding “X” in their name—but scientists soon learned that they are a form of electromagnetic radiation. Such radiation includes the light we see with our eyes, as well as invisible radio waves. Roentgen’s discovery earned him a Nobel Prize in physics in 1901 and revolutionized the practice of medicine. Today, scientists use X rays to “see” the hidden forms of the universe, ranging from the structure of microscopic atoms to the energy streaming out from the centers of distant galaxies.

Roentgen was born on March 27, 1845, in Lennep (now Remscheid), Germany. He discovered X rays while working as a professor at the University of Wurzburg. Roentgen was experimenting with a Crookes tube, an early electric device that passes a current through an airless glass tube. Roentgen covered the tube with black paper. When he turned on the current, an image formed on a nearby photographic plate. He concluded that some kind of energy—X rays—must have come from the tube, passed straight through the black paper, and formed the photograph. X rays pass easily through flesh and clothing, but are blocked by bone and metal. Roentgen later used this property of X rays to photograph the bones in his wife’s hand.

Electromagnetic radiation takes the form of waves. Like water waves, electromagnetic waves have a wavelength—the distance between two wave “crests.” The longer the wavelength, the less energy the waves carry. Radio waves have the longest wavelength, followed by infrared waves, visible light, and ultraviolet waves. X rays have shorter wavelengths—and thus more energy—than ultraviolet waves. In fact, X rays have so much energy that they are dangerous. They can ionize atoms, stripping away their electrons. Ionization can cause a great deal of damage to structures inside the living cells. For this reason, X rays are used sparingly, and people exposed to X rays usually shield themselves with lead covering, which absorbs most of the rays’ energy.

Today, doctors use X rays in much the same way that Roentgen did—to take pictures of structures inside human bodies. Airport security professionals also use X rays to look inside luggage for dangerous objects. But X rays also shed light—albeit invisible—on structures far too small to see, such as the arrangement of atoms in crystals and the shape of molecules inside living cells. For example, the twisting-ladder shape of DNA—a complex molecule that encodes hereditary information—was first shown via X rays in 1951 by the British chemist Rosalind Franklin. On a much larger scale, astronomers study the X rays given off by stars and black holes give during violent cosmic events. The Chandra X ray observatory, a telescope launched into space in 1999, has provided some of the clearest pictures of the otherwise invisible X rays that flow throughout the universe.

This Week In History: Matthew Flinders, Explorer of Australia, Was Born in 1774


State Library of South Australia (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Matthew Flinders was a British navigator who explored and charted large areas of the Australian coastline. With fellow explorer George Bass, Flinders sailed around what is now Tasmania, proving that it was an island. Flinders was also one of the first people to circumnavigate (sail entirely around) the continent of Australia, surveying much of the uncharted coastline.

Flinders was born on March 16, 1774, in Donington, Lincolnshire, England. He began his seafaring career when he joined the navy in 1789. In 1791, he sailed with Captain William Bligh on a voyage to Tahiti. In 1795, he sailed from England to New South Wales, the first British colony in Australia. During this voyage, he met Bass. After arriving in Sydney, the pair set out to explore in a small sailboat named the Tom Thumb. They sailed down the coast and explored Botany Bay and the George’s River. In 1796, Bass and Flinders set out in a larger boat, also called the Tom Thumb. On this voyage, they entered Port Hacking and sailed past the present site of Wollongong until they reached Lake Illawara.

In 1798, Bass and Flinders set out to test their theory that Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) was an island. They passed through the strait between Van Diemen’s Land and the mainland. This strait was later named Bass Strait in Bass’s honor. They sailed completely around Van Diemen’s Land, completing their voyage in 1799. They proved that Van Diemen’s Land was an island, and the discovery of Bass Strait helped shorten the voyage to and from England.

Flinders returned to Britain in 1800. There he met Lord Spencer, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Lord Spencer gave Flinders command of the brig Investigator to find out if a large strait separated eastern and western Australia. Flinders returned to Australia, beginning his exploration at Cape Leeuwin, at the southwestern tip of what is now Western Australia. He sailed along Australia’s southern coast, exploring Spencer Gulf, Gulf St. Vincent, and Kangaroo Island. Flinders landed in Sydney in May 1802. There, he restocked his supplies and refitted his ship. Flinders then sailed north to Cape York and through the Torres Strait. While he was surveying the Gulf of Carpentaria, he discovered that his ship was in a dangerously rotten condition. He decided to complete the journey around Australia’s coast as quickly as possible. He reached Sydney again in July 1803.

Flinders then set out to return to the United Kingdom. During the voyage, he landed at Ile de France, a French colony that is now the independent nation of Mauritius. At the time, France and the United Kingdom were at war. The governor of Ile de France suspected Flinders was a spy and had him imprisoned. Flinders was released from prison in 1810, but the years in confinement had left him in poor health. He spent the last years of his life writing his book, A Voyage to Terra Australis. Flinders died on July 19, 1814, the day the book was published.