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The unexpected delights of old letters

I always love looking through the various letters that we’ve digitized because I always find something interesting and/or exciting about these snapshots of life in a time gone by. Today’s historical encounter: Nellie Bly. She was a late-19th/early-20th-century reporter, best known for going undercover to expose the awful conditions of insane asylums and travelling around the world to recreate Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and attempt to beat Phileas Fogg’s 80-day record.

So when I found a reference to Nellie Bly in a letter while researching a separate blog post, I was quite excited. In the snippet of letter posted below, Ellie Sherman Thackara writes to her father: “Too bad about Miss Bisland’s being beaten, but Nellie Bly’s friends are rejoicing.” (In Nellie’s around-the-world adventure, she was actually competing against another reporter, Elizabeth Bisland.)

This one-line snippet is the only mention of Bly in the letter—just a quick remark on current events that Ellie included in a letter to her father. And that’s another interesting thing: this really was a current event, hot off the presses. Ellie’s letter is dated only Jan. 25th, no year, but an archivist later added an uncertain “[1890?]” at the top of the letter. In fact, this casual mention of Nellie Bly beating “Miss Bisland” gives a remarkably specific timeframe for the letter: Nellie Bly returned to Hoboken, NJ (her original point-of-departure) on January 25, 1890 at 3:51pm. The very same day that Ellie’s letter is dated! From this, we can imagine that Ellie read the news in an evening paper and was still thinking of it while composing a letter to her father later that same evening.

This letter is part of the Sherman-Thackara Collection. You can find more letters throughout our Digital Library Collections—and do let us know if you find anything exciting!

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Last Modified: August 21, 2011