Emily Warren Roebling, the Woman Who Helped Build the Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By all accounts, Emily Roebling had an exceptional mind. Born Emily Warren on September 23, 1843, in Cold Spring, New York, she graduated with top honors from the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C., where she excelled in science and algebra. But in the mid-19th century, a woman entering those fields was almost unheard of—the more acceptable path for her would have been settling into the standard life of raising children in the tiny Hudson Valley community where she was born. Thankfully for the sake of New York City's iconic skyline, Emily was anything but standard.

The Warren family had been part of the Cold Spring community for generations. Its most famous member was Emily's brother, who found a place in history books as General Gouverneur Warren, a prominent Civil War figure who also helped create some of the best maps of the land west of the Mississippi River for the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

It was while Emily was visiting her brother during the war that she met Washington Roebling. The son of John Roebling—an engineer responsible for a number of prominent suspension bridges in Niagara Falls, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh—Washington himself was a civil engineer serving underneath Gouverneur at the time. He and Emily soon began a feverish courtship that ended with their marriage in January 1865, less than a year after they first met, and just months before the war's end.

It was only a few years later that John Roebling took on the biggest job of his career: the creation of a suspension bridge that would unite Brooklyn and Manhattan. Originally called the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, the project would eventually just be known as the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the great engineering marvels of the late 19th century.

Washington and Emily were involved in the project from the start. In 1867, John Roebling sent the young couple to Europe so Washington could study the techniques used on some of the most notable bridges in France, England, and Germany, including the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, and the Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales.

Most importantly, Washington was to study the caisson technique, which had originated in Europe decades earlier. These pressurized chambers were the future of bridge construction—built so that water could be kept out of them to provide a dry working environment, they gave engineers the ability to build underwater on sites that were once totally inaccessible.

Sadly, John Roebling's work on the Brooklyn Bridge would be short-lived: An injury sustained while scouting construction locations in 1869 proved fatal, leaving the project in Washington's hands. Luckily, the time spent in Europe had prepared him well.

As with any construction process, Washington knew he had to focus on the foundations—the caissons, which would become the base of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge towers. These took the form of mammoth, bottomless boxes of wood and iron that were piled with large granite blocks to sink them through the muddy ground toward bedrock. As the caissons slowly sunk to their destination, workers entered through a shaft at the top and excavated the riverbed until they hit stable ground. Each caisson was pumped full of compressed air to allow the workers to remove the mud and gravel, and when it settled into its final location, it was filled with concrete. The men who built the caissons worked around the clock in hideous conditions, with most of them earning around $2 a day.

In 1872, as construction on the bridge was well underway, tragedy again struck the Roebling family. Many of the men working in the highly pressurized caissons were becoming cripplingly ill, and even dying, due to an ailment that wasn't yet understood. It was known as "caisson disease," soon to be called "the bends," a potentially deadly reaction to changes in pressure. This was a time before the principles of decompression were fully fleshed out, and Washington's penchant for appearing deep underground with his workers—sometimes staying inside for longer than a typical shift—led him to come down with the affliction. It eventually induced cramps, hindered his eyesight, and threw off his equilibrium, leaving him in near-constant pain. Though he would live for another 50 years, he would never recover (although the extent to which the bends were to blame for all of his troubles is debated).

Portrait of Washington Roebling
Washington Roebling
Théobald Chartran, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Washington stayed on the project, but during the rest of the construction he observed progress through a telescope from his bedroom window on Brooklyn's Columbia Street. To communicate orders to his assistant engineers, Emily would write down detailed notes from her husband and give them to the various departments. She was his eyes and ears at the site, while doubling as nurse and confidant.

Soon enough, there were rumblings that Emily was doing much more than simply parroting information given by her husband. She was gaining a keen understanding of the engineering of the bridge and was able to speak to Roebling's assistant engineers on their level. As historian David McCullough says in his book The Great Bridge, "In truth she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved. She had a quick and retentive mind, a natural gift for mathematics, and she had been a diligent student during the long years he had been incapacitated."

McCullough stresses that Emily never took over for Washington as the bridge's chief engineer, but the rumors at the time said otherwise [PDF]. A New York Times article published in 1883 quoted a source close to the family as saying, "Since her husband's unfortunate illness, Mrs. Roebling has filled his position as chief in engineering staff."

While the news about a woman at the helm of one of the most significant construction projects in New York history must have sold newspapers, according to McCullough, it also led to whisperings about the mental condition of her husband. Washington's illness was still a mystery to most, and it led to speculation he'd given Emily a larger role in the construction only because he was losing his mind. But while people on the outside were worrying, those closest to the project knew Emily's worth was immeasurable, despite not having the formal education of her husband or father-in-law. She was even becoming an "idolized figure" among assistant engineers, McCullough writes.

Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge
Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge
George Bradford Brainerd, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Histories of the Brooklyn Bridge are filled with anecdotes highlighting the importance of Emily during this time. One of the most well-known took place when representatives of a steel mill appeared on the Roeblings' doorstep to ask Washington a question about how a part of the superstructure should be formed. Only they didn't get to see Washington; instead, Emily invited them inside and sketched out the specs herself. Her quick decision-making had, according to the Times, "cleared away difficulties that had for weeks been puzzling their brains."

But Emily's job stretched far beyond her burgeoning engineering know-how. She was heavily involved in the politics of the bridge, at one point successfully lobbying for her husband when the bridge company was to vote on his ouster due to absence. And when rumors emerged that one contractor was trying to renegotiate their contract, the company sent a letter of reassurance addressed to Emily Roebling, not Washington.

For all her work on the bridge, Emily was still a doting wife, and stayed vigilant about protecting her husband's health and privacy. She made sure that visitors were rare, including Washington's own assistant engineers, and that no interviews were conducted from the bed where he was so vulnerable.

After 14 years of construction, the Brooklyn Bridge was nearly ready for its unveiling in May 1883. A week and a half before the official opening, the engineers wanted to test the new structure with an inaugural carriage ride. Everyone agreed the first rider to cross the bridge should be Emily—and she did so with a rooster on her lap, a symbol of victory, as the workers and other onlookers removed their hats and cheered her on.

At the official unveiling ceremonies on May 24, hundreds of thousands of people rushed over to celebrate the completion of the bridge that would forever alter Manhattan and Brooklyn, two separate cities on the path to becoming one. President Chester A. Arthur was among the guests, as was the governor of New York (and future president) Grover Cleveland. There was music and fireworks so dazzling they could be seen in New Jersey. Though Emily stayed for a few of the speeches, she enjoyed much of the opening day at the home her husband had been confined to for years.

It's possible that Washington Roebling never stepped foot on the bridge that he dedicated his life to. It was the bridge that killed his father and left him in constant pain, but that also helped Emily Roebling contribute to a world of engineering otherwise inaccessible to her. Today, her contributions are far from forgotten, and, along with her husband and father-in-law, she is immortalized on a plaque on the Brooklyn-side tower, which reads:

THE BUILDERS OF THE BRIDGE
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF
EMILY WARREN ROEBLING
1843 - 1903
WHOSE FAITH AND COURAGE HELPED HER STRICKEN HUSBAND
COL. WASHINGTON A. ROEBLING, C.E.
1837 - 1926
COMPLETE THE CONSTRUCTION OF THIS BRIDGE
FROM THE PLANS OF HIS FATHER
JOHN A. ROEBLING, C.E.
1805 - 1869
WHO GAVE HIS LIFE TO THE BRIDGE

“BACK OF EVERY GREAT WORK WE CAN FIND
THE SELF-SACRIFICING DEVOTION OF A WOMAN"

Dorothy Thompson, the Journalist Who Warned the World About Adolf Hitler

American writer, journalist, and feminist Dorothy Thompson in London in 1941
American writer, journalist, and feminist Dorothy Thompson in London in 1941
J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

As a crusading journalist, Dorothy Thompson made plenty of enemies—but her most formidable foe was Adolf Hitler. Thompson spent well over a decade agitating against the Nazis in print and on the radio, warning Americans of the threat of fascism years before the official U.S. entry into World War II. Her efforts made her one of the most famous women in the United States—and the first American correspondent Hitler expelled from Germany.

Stumping for Suffrage

Born on July 9, 1893, in Lancaster, New York, to British immigrants, Thompson grew up in a religious household. Her father was a Methodist minister, and he frequently took his eldest daughter on visits to parishioners across the suburbs of upstate New York. When Thompson was just 7 years old, her mother died of sepsis rumored to have been brought on by a botched abortion. Thompson's father, eager to provide his three children with a maternal figure, soon remarried. But Thompson did not get along with her stepmother, whom she claimed had "an allergy to children." A few years later, she went to live with her aunts in Chicago, where she attended a junior college called the Lewis Institute.

Thompson was a bright student who showed a passion for literature and discourse. She continued her education at Syracuse University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1914.

Upon graduation, Thompson devoted herself to feminist pursuits. Her first job out of college involved stuffing envelopes for the Woman Suffrage Party in Buffalo, though Thompson soon convinced her bosses to put her in the field. As Jack Alexander would later write in the Saturday Evening Post, “Stumping for suffrage consisted largely in starting arguments in public places, which was, of course, Dorothy's dish." She spent the next few years fighting for women's right to vote and other progressive pursuits, working in New York City and Cincinnati as well as upstate. But activism didn't pay well, so she also dabbled in advertising and publicity work to help support her younger siblings through college.

Yet Dorothy also nourished dreams of being a journalist. She already had the names and numbers of several editors, after penning op-eds on social justice for the major New York newspapers. She also had a suffragist friend, Barbara De Porte, who was itching to go to Europe in search of stories and adventure. Once they had saved up enough money, the pair boarded a ship to London in 1920, where they embarked upon careers as foreign correspondents.

Hitler: "A Man Whose Countenance Is a Caricature"

Thompson and De Porte both immediately sought freelance work at the International News Service, an American agency with bureaus all over Europe. The I.N.S. assignments suited Thompson, a workhorse who also had incredible luck. In one early success, she landed the last interview with Terence MacSwiney, a leader of the Sinn Fein movement who died in prison on a hunger strike, while visiting relatives in Ireland. She later snagged an exclusive with Karl I, the deposed former king of Hungary, by sneaking into a castle dressed as a Red Cross nurse. After this string of scoops, Thompson landed a job in Vienna as a foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

Through this post, she developed a deep understanding of central European politics—bolstered by her fluency in German and 1923 marriage to Hungarian writer Josef Bard—that catapulted her to bureau chief of both the Public Ledger and the New York Evening Post, which shared foreign services. She was, as her biographer Peter Kurth put it, “the first woman to head a foreign news bureau of any importance.”

But a period of change was ahead. Tired of her husband's many affairs, Thompson filed for divorce in 1927; that same year, she met Sinclair Lewis, the successful novelist of Elmer Gantry and Main Street. He was instantly smitten. In 1928, Thompson accepted one of Lewis's many proposals and resigned her post to marry him, leaving Germany to start a new life with him in Vermont.

Life in the country did not dull her interest in international affairs, however. Thompson continued to report on foreign politics as a freelancer, making several months-long trips back to Germany in the early 1930s to chronicle the crumbling Weimar Republic. She had been following Hitler's rise to power since at least 1923, when she attempted to interview the future dictator following the Beer Hall Putsch, a failed government takeover that put Hitler in prison. Her interview request was finally approved in 1931 under strict conditions: She could only ask him three questions, which were to be submitted a full day in advance.

Thompson came away from the interview less than impressed. "When I finally walked into Adolf Hitler's salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany," she wrote. "In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. … He is formless, almost faceless: a man whose countenance is a caricature; a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequential and voluble, ill-poised, insecure—the very prototype of the Little Man."

While Thompson misjudged Hitler's appeal (he would be chancellor of Germany in just two years), her biting character assessment stayed with the Führer. He did not initially retaliate, even as the interview circulated among Cosmopolitan readers and the mass paperback market through Thompson's 1932 book I Saw Hitler!. But in the late summer of 1934, the Nazi government expelled Thompson from the country, informing her that they were "unable to extend to [her] a further right of hospitality." It served as one of the first significant warnings to foreign journalists in Germany: Criticism of Hitler would no longer be tolerated.

"My offense was to think that Hitler is just an ordinary man, after all," Thompson wrote shortly afterward in The New York Times. "That is a crime against the reigning cult in Germany, which says Mr. Hitler is a Messiah sent by God to save the German people—an old Jewish idea. To question this mystic mission is so heinous that, if you are a German, you can be sent to jail. I, fortunately, am an American, so I merely was sent to Paris."

A Woman on a Mission

Dorothy Thompson chats to an ambulance driver on a London bench in 1941.
Dorothy Thompson chats to an ambulance driver on a London bench in 1941.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Back in the United States, Thompson mounted a one-woman crusade against the Nazis. She denounced the German government frequently and vigorously in her syndicated column, "On the Record," which ran in 170 newspapers and reached roughly 8 million readers. She also spread her message through regular radio broadcasts for NBC, and a monthly column in Ladies' Home Journal. In one of her most memorable (and dangerous) stands against Hitler's movement, she attended a 1939 rally for the German American Bund at Madison Square Garden. Seated among 20,000 Nazi supporters, she loudly ridiculed the speaker, even as uniformed men attempted to escort her out of the arena.

These actions brought Thompson incredible fame and adoration. In 1937, she was invited back to her alma mater to serve as Syracuse University's first female commencement speaker. She picked up honorary degrees from Columbia, Tufts, and Dartmouth, among others, and became a frequent honored guest at charity dinners and women's club gatherings. When moviegoers lined up to see the 1942 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy Woman of the Year, they instantly recognized Thompson in Hepburn's accomplished, internationally renowned journalist.

But even as Thompson's popularity continued into World War II, she had already attracted critics. In February 1941, Pacifist mothers paraded her effigy outside the gates of the White House, denouncing her role in "a million boys' lives in blood and pain." Other detractors dismissed Thompson's "perpetual emotion," a complaint that would pick up steam in her postwar career, as she shifted her focus to anti-Zionism and lost many followers in the process. (That included her editors at The New York Post, who dropped her column in 1947.) Her star had significantly faded by 1961, when she died of a heart attack in Lisbon at the age of 67.

The Grimmest Party Game

In the years that followed, Thompson's life was often overshadowed by or absorbed in stories of her more celebrated second husband. Her marriage to Lewis, which lasted from 1928 to 1942, coincided with some of Thompson's busiest and most successful years, and it also inspired one of Lewis's most enduring (and recently resurgent) novels, It Can't Happen Here, a dystopian fantasy about a fascist dictator who takes over the United States.

But unlike Lewis's work, Thompson’s books are now scattered and often difficult to find. As acclaimed as she once was, her name has largely faded in modern times, and frequently appears as a footnote in the wider anti-Nazi cause. One of Thompson's articles, however, has lasted long past her death, and even gained renewed attention in recent years.

The 1941 Harper's story "Who Goes Nazi?" found Thompson playing the grimmest party game: Which person in a room would, if it came down to it, support Hitler's brand of fascism? Drawing on her years of observation, Thompson argued with chilling specificity that the distinction had nothing to do with class, race, or profession. Nazism, she insisted, had to do with something more innate. "Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi," Thompson wrote. But those driven by fear, resentment, insecurity, or self-loathing? They would always fall for fascism. "It's an amusing game," she concluded. "Try it at the next big party you go to."

Remembering Nellie Bly, Rabblerouser and Pioneer of Investigative Journalism

H.J. Meyers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
H.J. Meyers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Elizabeth Jane Cochran came into the world on May 5, 1864. Mrs. Cochran delighted in the baby, her first daughter, dressing Elizabeth in a pink gown for her christening.

The fun was not to last. When Elizabeth was only six, her father died without warning and without a will, plunging Elizabeth and her family into dire financial straits. Several years later, Mrs. Cochran remarried, to a man who was often drunken and abusive. As soon as she was old enough to work, Elizabeth left home to train as a teacher, but ran out of tuition money after only one semester. With no money and no other ideas, she and her mother moved to Pittsburgh, where Elizabeth helped run a boarding house.

What girls are good for

It was in Pittsburgh that Elizabeth found her calling. The city's Dispatch ran a weekly column by a self-important man named Erasmus Wilson, who called himself the “Quiet Observer.” One week in 1885, Wilson published an op-ed entitled “What Girls Are Good For.” The answer, according to him, was housework. It was unseemly and ugly for ladies to work, he wrote, describing working women as a "monstrosity."

Elizabeth was having none of this. She penned an angry letter to the editor, signing it, provocatively, “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The letter was no work of art—Elizabeth had left school at 15, after all—but editor George Madden was impressed by its writer’s fervor. He placed an advertisement in the next issue of the Dispatch, inviting the Lonely Orphan Girl to come forward. She did, and he offered her a job. To protect her identity and her reputation, Madden soon recommended she select a pen name. The two settled upon Nellie Bly, after a popular song by Stephen Foster.

Bly came out with guns blazing. From the very beginning, she was determined to write stories that mattered. She had no experience, no education, and little polish, but she had a fire in her belly that few newspapers had ever seen. She wrote about women’s labor laws. She wrote about sexist divorce laws. She convinced Madden to send her to Mexico, but before long she was expelled for exposing government corruption.

The Dispatch editors were not pleased. They attempted to rein her in by assigning her stories about flower shows and fashion. Nellie Bly would have none of that. She quit, but not before leaving a spectacularly frosty message on the desk of the Quiet Observer: “Dear Q.O.: I’m off to New York. Look out for me.”

“Who is this insane girl?”

The year was 1887, and Nellie Bly had just talked her way into a job at the New York World. For her very first story, Bly agreed to feign insanity in order to gain entry to the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum.

After checking herself into a women’s boarding house under yet another fake name, Bly began acting erratically, peppering her speech with Spanish nouns and claiming she had lost her memory. That night she asked for a pistol. This was apparently all it took; the proprietress called the police, who hauled Bly off to court.

Reporters in the courtroom were instantly captivated by “Nellie Brown.” On the stand, Bly spun a sensational tale of neglect, abuse, and abandonment. A physician who had examined her declared her “demented.”

That weekend, the New York Sun (a World competitor) carried breathless descriptions [PDF] of the enigmatic woman, from the contents of her pockets to the sound of her voice. “WHO IS THIS INSANE GIRL? SHE IS PRETTY, WELL DRESSED, AND SPEAKS SPANISH.”

Bly spent 10 days in the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum, during which time she saw and was the victim of horrific treatment. The asylum’s residents were mostly poor and immigrant women, some of whom were locked up simply because they could not speak English. The women were beaten, starved, and forced into ice-cold baths—a fate from which even Bly’s nice clothes could not save her.

Upon her release (arranged by an attorney for the newspaper), Bly recorded every single awful thing she had seen. She detailed the conditions in which her fellow residents were forced to live, and the punishment they endured: “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”

The paper published "Ten Days in a Madhouse" in serial form. By the time the last installment hit newsstands, New York was paying attention.

Bly’s fearless reporting paid off. A grand jury investigation of the asylum confirmed many of her observations, and the institution was eventually shut down.

Still, Bly was just getting started.

Nellie Bly buys a baby

Bly became a sort of journalistic Robin Hood, exposing the darkest corners of New York City society. Wherever women, children, or the poor were being mistreated, you’d find Nellie Bly. She went undercover as a poor clinic patient and narrowly escaped [PDF] having her tonsils removed. For her story “The Girls Who Make Boxes,” she joined the ranks of young women working in a factory. She visited seven different doctors and got seven different diagnoses and an “extraordinary variety” of prescriptions.

She visited a home for “unfortunate women.” She lived for two days in one of New York’s poorest tenements in the hottest part of the summer. She bought a baby on the black market. No, really: she bought a baby.

"I bought a baby last week, to learn how baby slaves are bought and sold in the city of New York. Think of it! An immortal soul bartered for $10! Fathers-mothers-ministers-missionaries, I bought an immortal soul last week for $10!"

What could possibly top that?

Bly decided to conquer the world.

Around the world in 72 days

Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days, first published in 1873, was all the rage in 1889. Eighty days was pretty impressive given the transportation options at that time, but Bly thought she could do better. After convincing her editors to finance the whole thing, Bly bought a sensible dress and set off.

The rest, of course, is legend. Bly made it home in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes. She even had time to stop in France for tea with Jules Verne. The story made her a household name.

Inspired by Bly’s work, other women began to follow in her daring footsteps. Because these undercover stories were the province of “girls,” their brave work was dismissed as “stunt reporting.” Today we’d call it investigative journalism.

A second career

Bly met industrialist Robert Seaman in 1895 and married him a few days later, leaving the newspaper life behind. Seaman was 40 years older than his bride, but neither seemed particularly fussed by the age difference. Their marriage lasted nearly ten years, until Seaman’s death in 1904.

Elizabeth Cochrane (she later changed her name to add the e) Seaman inherited all of her late husband’s holdings, including his Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. Another widow might have handed the company over. Bly decided to run it herself.

Bly had no experience in this arena, but that had never stopped her before. By 1902, she was filing patents for new types of oil barrels.

As an employer, Bly embodied all the principles she had championed in her stories. She paid her workers fairly and offered them access to gymnasiums, libraries, and healthcare. This was unheard of.

Unfortunately, there was a reason for that. Treating employees like human beings was expensive, and before too long her businesses went under.

Bly returned to the newsroom during World War I. She was still working in 1922, when she died of pneumonia at the age of 58.

Nellie Bly was an unwavering advocate for social change, a journalistic dynamo, and a force of nature. She wasn’t the first woman of her time to join a newsroom, but she was certainly the most ferocious.

This article has been updated for 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER