She was the first woman to edit a British national newspaper, two in fact. Yet Rachel Beer’s (1858-1927) headstone failed to note her remarkable career as editor of both The Sunday Times and The Observer at the end of the nineteenth century. Her neglected marker in Tunbridge Wells Municipal cemetery defined this convention-busting journalist only as the daughter of David Sassoon.
Across the ocean in America, Rachel Beer’s contemporary and pioneer of investigative journalism Nellie Bly (1864-1922) laid in an unmarked ‘pauper’s’ grave until 1978.
Now thanks to WIJ founding member Ann Treneman and funding from The Observer and The Sunday Times, Rachel Beer’s legacy is engraved on a marker on a newly-restored grave. More than 90 years after her death, Beer’s astonishing role is at last recorded. Nellie Bly laid in obscurity for 56 years when the New York Press Club eventually erected a headstone calling her a ‘famous reporter.’ But like Beer’s former epitaph, it is a considerable understatement.
It was Nellie Bly who inspired investigative journalism after exposing atrocities at the women’s insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York by going undercover. Her accounts, later compiled in a book called Ten Days in a Mad-House, brought about massive reforms.
Although I most admire Bly for her investigative journalism, she is best known for racing around the world in 72 days in 1889-90 – alone with just a Gladstone bag – to beat Phileas Fogg’s fictional 80-day record. To pay tribute to her, endorsed by WIJ, I followed in Nellie Bly’s global footsteps 125 years later. At the end of the journey, I made a pilgrimage to her grave in New York City’s Woodlawn Cemetery where I learned that like Beer, she laid in obscurity for decades.
A chapter of my forthcoming book Following Nellie Bly: Her Record-Breaking Race Around the World is devoted to visiting her modest grave. But there is a happy end to this story. Nellie Bly will be commemorated next year when an inspirational memorial celebrating her life is completed on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). I like to think that just as Ann Treneman has honoured Rachel Beer, I have played a part gaining recognition for Nellie Bly.
Here’s to Rachel and Nellie – and all the women who have challenged the status quo and paved the way for women in journalism.