History Book: Stunt journalism and a mining disaster

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, November 11th. 

Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. 

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD Radio History Book. One hundred ten years ago, a disastrous fire inside a mine in Illinois. Plus, a bold journalist who pioneered a new kind of reporting. Here’s Paul Butler.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: We begin today in the late 19th century with journalist Elizabeth Cochrane, known by her pen name: Nellie Bly. She is remembered most for two daring stories. 

The first required convincing doctors she was insane. She gained admittance to the New York’s Women’s Lunatic Asylum … and spent 10 days inside the facility.

FITZPATRICK: This is actually a brilliant strategy. Because it allows the reporter to say: “I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. You can believe me.” 

Historian Ellen Fitzpatrick from a 19-97 American Experience documentary. 

Nellie Bly’s expose led to immediate reforms. It had the added effect of launching her career. Nellie Bly was one of the first of a new breed of investigative reporters—what became known as “stunt journalism.” Once she posed as an uneducated temporary worker. Another time, as an unwed mother trying to sell a baby, then writing about her experiences. Bly Biographer Brooke Kroeger. 

KROEGER: Used a million avenues like this that really were about social reform—which of course was such an important part of what was happening in the 1880s and 1890s. 

Nellie Bly’s most publicized stunt began on November 14th, 18-89. Wearing a cap and her signature checkered jacket, she boarded the Augusta Victoria steamship headed for South Hampton, England—her first stop in a bid to travel around the world. The stunt? To do so in less time than Phileas Fogg, the fictitious character from Around the World in Eighty Days. After reaching England she took a quick train to France to meet with Jules Verne before continuing on. 

Readers all across the country followed her progress in the New York World newspaper. She returned home on January 25th, 1890. Her trip lasted 72 days, six hours and 11 minutes—setting a new world record.    

While many other female stunt reporters sprang up at papers all across the country, Nellie Bly is credited as one of the first. Her success also paved the way for  women to become serious reporters and journalists.  

Next, we head to Cherry, Illinois, 20 years after Nellie Bly’s round-the-world trip.

SONG: CHERRY MINE SONG by KEITH CLARK [LYRIC] “On November 13, in 1909, there was an explosion in the Saint Paul mines…

When the Saint Paul Mine opened in North Central Illinois, it was promoted as one of the safest mines in the country because it used electric light. The mine featured three veins of coal, the deepest was about 500 feet below ground. The coal there was of the highest grade. 

In the fall of 19-09, the electrical system stopped working. While awaiting repairs, mine operators reverted to kerosene lanterns to light the tunnels. 

On November 13th, one of the boys loaded the elevator with hay to feed the more than 50 mules that lived underground. Cherry Mine Disaster Museum Curator DeAnn Pozzi continues the story:

PIZZOLI: He put the hay in the wagon, went down in the elevator. When it got down there he just shoved that cart of hay. He turned around and went back upstairs. But what he shoved it under was a burning lantern with the oil dripping out of it… 

Soon the hay was smoldering and eventually started a raging fire. The flames trapped nearly 300 men below ground. Many died in the fire, burned beyond physical recognition. DeAnn Pozzi says loved ones had to identify the victims in other ways:

PIZZOLI: These were the watches. The women knew each watch their husband had…they had to go by the buttons on their shirts, and the hems on the shirts they were wearing…

One group of miners found a pocket of good air and buried themselves in. About 24 hours after the fire broke out, one of the men took out a pencil and wrote a letter to his wife:

Dear Erminia and Son: 

My last hour has struck and never will leave this grave. I have nothing more to say, only that to educate my dear child the best you can, and when he grows you may tell him that he had an honest father. 

Hoping to see you again. But must say goodbye, forever.

He and 20 others remained in their hole for more than a week without food or clean water. On the eighth day they decided to try to find a way out and came across a rescue party.

Two-hundred-sixty-two men and boys died in the Cherry Mine Disaster. The tragedy led to many new safety regulations to prevent similar disasters. The financial support extended to the widows and families became a model for future workmen compensation programs.

SONG: THE CHERRY MINE by BEN BEDFORD [LYRIC] “Ooh, swing that pick axe boys. Sink that shovel in the rock of Northern Illinois. Ooh, hear an echo soft, in the earth below, and the hopeful sky above. Ooh, hear an echo soft.

That’s this week’s WORLD Radio History Book. I’m Paul Butler.

Nellie Bly (Library of Congress)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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