1889 One Hundred Years Ago

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The number of states in the Union grew to forty-two in November with the addition of four Western states. President Benjamin Harrison, who as a Republican senator in 1888 had fought for the new states, signed the legislation admitting North and South Dakota on November 2, Montana on November 8, and Washington on November 11.

With the congressional balance between Democrats and Republicans at a stalemate throughout the 1880s, admission for any single state was impossible. But the Western territories were growing too fast for either party to continue to put off their demands for statehood. The Helena (Montana) Herald spoke for the Western viewpoint in 1879: “Our Territorial governments are false in theory, and are rendered worse by the vicious practice of making the places under those governments a sort of lying-in hospital for political tramps. With every appropriation the government nominally makes for our benefit, a dozen hungry wolves are sent with it to devour all and still more of our substance.”

Both parties campaigned in 1888 for admission of the Montana, Washington, and Dakota territories. Democrats in Congress fought the idea of splitting the heavily Republican Dakota Territory into two states, but after the Republicans had gained strong majorities in both houses in the 1888 election, the lame-duck Fiftieth Congress decided to try to take credit for what was already inevitable. In February of 1889 it passed the omnibus bill enabling North and South Dakota to enter the Union with Washington and Montana.

On November 14 the New York World journalist Nellie Bly began her attempt to circle the world, challenging the eighty-day voyage undertaken by Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg. An early master of the new journalism, in which the reporter becomes a part of the story, Bly began her journey on a steamship bound for Europe. In Amiens, France, she briefly met with Verne, shrugging off the author’s judgment that she would never make it on time. She completed the trip in only seventy-two days, six hours, and eleven minutes.

The nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Cochrane had begun her career in journalism with the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885, taking the by-line Nellie Bly from a Stephen Foster song. In 1887 she went to New York and, as a reporter for Joseph Pulitzer, frequently went undercover to write inside stories on society’s injustices: she had herself committed to an insane asylum in order to expose the mistreatment of the mentally ill, she took a job in a sweatshop to show the exploitation of female workers, and she had herself arrested in order to write of the abuses women suffered in prison.

The irony of Nellie Ely’s career was that she became famous for a story that was completely theatrical. With the World highlighting her progress reports on its front page, Bly’s accounts of hopping from steamer to train to burro to rickshaw electrified the country. EVEN IMAGINATION’S RECORD PALES BEFORE THE PERFORMANCE OF THE WORLD ’S GLOBE-CIRCLER , trumpeted her paper upon her return. Nellie Bly’s feat was the perfect Pulitzer story: morally uplifting, long-running, and exclusive to his paper.

Upon her return Bly returned to her original work in investigative reporting, but she would always be remembered most for having traveled around the world. She married in 1895 and retired from journalism, returning only briefly in the few years before her death in 1922.