Sensational: The Hidden History of America's “Girl Stunt Reporters”

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Release Date: 
April 13, 2021
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Kim Todd dedicates Sensational . . . [to] the women who broke multiple ‘glass ceilings’ not just by working in the men’s world of journalism in the late 1800s but also by making the news, not just reporting it . . .”

Kim Todd dedicates Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters” to “the ink stained Amazons,” the women who broke multiple “glass ceilings” not just by working in the men’s world of journalism in the late 1800s but also by making the news, not just reporting it. These stories make for high adventure although “some of these journalists could be quite self-mythologizing.”

Todd writes clearly, entertainingly, and, most of all honestly. Journalists covered in Sensational would approve. The author discusses background such as abortion, the labor movement, the false “yellow journalism,” and descriptions of a woman’s appearance to “create sympathy” or “to reflect sin.”

“Girl stunt reporters told the truth experienced by their bodies” writing about abortion, sexual harassment, female working conditions, and other subjects that other reporters avoided. Elizabeth Banks “chased stories into the hospital, the jail, the morgue, smelling salts at the ready.”

Often not “girls,” these crusading journalists’ “stunts” often served to grant them access to important information. “They adopted roles forbidden to them.” Nora Stackhouse, alias Nora Marks, even infiltrated a pornography ring.

Readers were appalled at the stories but could not stop reading! Often the “articles had real world effects” and “altered women’s lives.” Their stories gave a subtle but powerful public voice to situations otherwise kept invisible from the public. Unpopular issues like woman’s suffrage reminded female journalists that “their jobs depended on their spritely good nature, being one of the boys.”

The activist female journalists included African Americans such as Ida B. Wells and Victoria Erle Mathews. They wrote at a time when “concerns of Black citizens, Chinese immigrants, American Indian tribe members were almost entirely absent” in the newspapers.

One source implied that Matthews passed “as white to ferret out additional information in the South.” She wrote about discrimination, education, employment fraud, lynching, poverty, and prisons as she toured Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia.

Stunt reporters wore “disguises that allowed them to go deep into the lives of their subjects.” In 1887, down and out Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochran) had her first big story infiltrating Blackwell’s Insane Asylum for Women as a mental patient.

“Suddenly, everyone wanted to hire” a woman muckraker. “But while Bly is well-known, most of the women who followed in her wake are forgotten.” The identity of Chicago’s “Girl Reporter” remains unknown even now.

These women came from very different backgrounds. Well-to-do Eva Gay (Eva McDonald) exposed conditions in a factory leading to a strike that became a major story in itself. Established journalist Nell Nelson (born Helen Cusack) went undercover to expose a debt slavery scheme that exploited workers.

The competition, even within a newspaper, for women reporters doing stunts became fierce. Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland each raced around the world but in opposite directions! Nora Stackhouse worked with colleague Ada Sweet, alias Annie Myers, however, in exposing Chicago’s need for an ambulance.

Quality journalism was common among these women, but some achieved the status of not needing stunts. Elizabeth Jordan, for example, “aspired to become a nun” but instead eventually earned her way as a successful reporter for demanding publisher Joseph Pulitzer and his World.

“Respected and respectable” journalist Kate Swan McGuirk had the only interview with accused ax murderer Lizzie Borden. McGuirk exposed the falsehoods published about Borden. She still used stunts, however, as when she strapped into an electric chair to write about “facing death surrounded by men.”

“And as the popularity of stunt reporters grew, so did objections.” “Critics included women writers.” “Stunt Reporters” such as Nellie Bly and Helen Dare (born Elizabeth Tompkins) found their private lives reported in the newspapers.

The final chapters of Sensational include the author’s failed effort to discern the identity of Chicago’s mysterious “Girl Reporter” and information on the later careers of the book’s main characters. It also has annotation, illustrations, and a bibliography.