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The Written Word ~ New Orleans Gilded Age Newspapers & Editor Eliza J. Nicholson

By Ana Brazil
March 19, 2020

I really enjoyed Kathryn’s March 3rd post about Victorian Women’s Periodicals and I wanted to compliment her research with information that is near and dear to my heart—Gilded Age New Orleans newspapers.

 

The newspapers of New Orleans are also dear to my heroine Fanny Newcomb, a twenty-five year old spinster who lives and works at the Wisdom Hall Settlement House in New Orleans’ Irish Channel. Fanny is intelligent, inquisitive, and—to be honest—a little bored with her job as a typewriter teacher. She reads as many newspapers as she can.

 

Fortunately for Fanny—and her news-loving employer Sylvia Giddings and Sylvia’s sister Dr. Olive—in 1889, New Orleanians had multiple newspaper options.

There was The Weekly Louisiana Review, The Daily City Item, The Times-Democrat, and The Daily Picayune. In addition, Fanny, Sylvia, and Olive often read the French language edition of L’Abeille de la Nouvelle-Orleans (The New Orleans Bee). Since Fanny was not fluent in German, however, only Sylvia and Olive read the city’s Deutscher Zeitung.

 

New Orleans had one other newspaper of note in 1889—The New Orleans Crusader. Founded by politician and journalist Louis André Martinet, the Crusader was published for the city’s black citizens and featured news on racial injustice and inequality. I’m sure that Thomas Giddeons—Olive’s infirmary assistant—read the Crusader, but I doubt he shared his copy with Olive, Sylvia, or Fanny.

 

When one of Fanny’s students is murdered and Jack the Ripper is the most obvious suspect, Fanny’s newspaper obsession takes a serious turn. Can the pages of New Orleans’ newspaper—and the detailed photograph-like illustrations displayed in The Picayune—provide clues about the real murderer, the Irish Channel Ripper?

As amateur female sleuths in the urban south, Fanny, Sylvia, and Olive’s ability to seek out clues is limited. And just as they turn to newspapers for murder clues, they also turn to (real-life) The Picayune newspaper editor Eliza J. Nicholson for the facts behind the newspaper story.

Although the Eliza Nicholson in my novel is a very minor character, I’m very glad to introduce you to the real-life Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson, the only woman in the world who owned and managed a metropolitan newspaper in Gilded Age America.

Eliza Poitevent was born in Mississippi in the late 1840’s. By all accounts, she was fascinated with the natural world around her. As many well-off young southern women did at the time, Eliza expressed her love of nature by writing poetry. But unlike most southern women, Eliza sought publication for her writing. After the war—writing under the pseudonym Pearl Rivers (which ran through her part of Mississippi)—Eliza was soon published in papers in both New York and New Orleans.

Following the publication of her poetry in The Picayune, Eliza was hired as the newspaper’s literary editor at a salary of $25.00 a week. She eventually married the newspaper’s owner and when Mr. Holbrook (thirty-four years her senior)) died in 1876, twenty-seven year old Eliza inherited both the newspaper and her husband’s massive $80,000.00 debt.

As her rival newspaper The Times-Democrat wrote in Eliza’s obituary twenty years later:

“Mrs. Holbrook went to work with a vim. She worked early and late, and finally as the result of her energy and enterprise overcame all difficulties and saw the paper free of encumbrances and well on the road to fortune.”

Eliza’s fortunes changed once more (and for the better!) when she married George Nicholson, the newspaper’s business manager.

Eliza Nicholson flourished as the editor of a large metropolitan newspaper and The Picayune flourished under her. She teased the limits of propriety and encouraged stories about women, sports, children, animal welfare, and even—within fashionable limits—gossip. She began a Society Bee column in 1879 and added chalk plate drawings to provide illustrations on every page. Between 1880 and 1890, The Picayune circulation more than tripled.

 

Even as she edited the newspaper, Eliza continued to write poetry as Pearl Rivers and was published in Cosmopolitan in 1890s. (Yes, the same Cosmopolitan published today, although in the 1890s it was an illustrated literary magazine.)

Respect for Eliza’s work went far beyond New Orleans. She was a member of the New York Women’s Press Club and served as the first president of the National Woman’s Press Association in 1884.

Eliza died in 1896, from influenza (or as it was called in New Orleans, la grippe). Her death came just a few days after her husband’s death, also from influenza.

As former New Orleans Mayor Shakspeare said of her:

“She is a most extraordinary woman; while in many respects essentially feminine, in business matters she is as shrewd and masterful as any man…she is a pronounced type of the unusual woman of the present day, and is from many points of view one of the most interesting and admirable characters I ever met.”

 As her own paper stated in her obituary:

“it was a red letter day in the history of southern womanhood when Eliza Poitevent broke through the shackles of conventionality and sent up her first copy in the Picayune office. She was both economical and enterprising, and after years of struggle, won her battle, and made her paper a foremost power in the south, yielding her a handsome, steady income.”

I’ll close with one more tribute from her rival newspaper, which stated in their obituary headline that Eliza was “an Ornament in the Literary and Journalistic Fields” who had an “interesting and successful career”.

 

About this post:

I used four sources of information to create this sketch of Eliza:

  • the (full-page, six-column) obituary in her own The Daily-Picayune
  • the two-column obituary in her rival The Times-Democrat newspaper
  • Eliza’s Wikipedia bio, which categorizes her under her Pearl Rivers writer’s pseudonym.
  • Joy Jackson, New Orleans in the Gilded Age, (Louisiana State University Press, 1969).

Cover art: Carl Vilhelm Holsøe, Woman Reading the Newspaper.

Ana Brazil
Written by Ana Brazil

Ana Brazil writes historical crime fiction celebrating bodacious American heroines. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Historical Novel Society, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers.
Ana’s latest historical mystery is THE RED-HOT BLUES CHANTEUSE, which features murder, mayhem, and music in 1919 San Francisco. Her award-winning historical mystery FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER is set in Gilded Age New Orleans.

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