A Lot of Nerve

In March of 1903 the city of Buffalo, New York was intrigued by the recent murder of successful businessman Edwin L. Burdick. Rumors suggested that Burdick and his social circle were embroiled in activities of questionable morality that had led to several divorces, including Burdick’s own. The story included plenty of soap-opera worthy subplots and culminated in a bloody head bashing-in with a golf club by a never definitively identified angry woman with one heck of a follow-through. The public couldn’t get enough of the whole lurid circus and photographers ended up banned from the inquest.

But this wasn’t much of an obstacle to hobbyist-turned-professional photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals, who had been hired by both the Buffalo Inquirer and The Buffalo Courier, making her the world’s first female photojournalist. Disallowed from the room, Beals boldly shoved a bookcase into position so that she could climb up and snap a few photos through a transom window.

Jessie Tarbox Beals at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, 1904. Taking great photos. On a ladder. In a skirt. Bold. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was this kind of tenacity that brought her success at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, where copious amounts of iced tea were consumed, ice cream cones were almost certainly not invented, and possibly history’s most disorganized marathon took place.

Beal arrived in St. Louis with her husband (who served as her assistant) in time to beg her way onto the pre-exposition grounds after initially being denied any press credentials by fair officials. Once there she absolutely wowed the skeptical officials with her incredible eye for candid images that captured the essence of the fair more than they could have imagined and unfolded a story that sparked imagination and drew people to the exposition.

Of course, she also drove them kind of crazy. She thought nothing of scurrying up a commandeered twenty-foot ladder in her heavy skirt or recruiting fairgrounds employees to hold it steady for her while she grabbed shots of parades and crowds of fairgoers. When her request to take aerial pictures from a hot air balloon was denied because she was far too delicate for such a risky activity, she did it anyway.

She also snapped many beautiful photographs of the subjects of ethnographic exhibits, displaying a universal humanity that didn’t entirely support the tale of racial superiority the fair’s organizers had expected to tell.

Jessie Tarbox Beals: A female photographer with a lot of nerve. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And when President Theodore Roosevelt arrived at the fair and the male photographers respectfully hung back to await their chances, she didn’t hesitate to approach him to ask for a photo op. Then she pursued him relentlessly throughout the day to snap at least thirty more photographs of the president and his entourage. She was one bold lady.

I came across Jessie Tarbox Beals while doing some research for my newest novel project. She won’t be in the book, or really even tangential to it outside of sharing an era, but she leapt out at me anyway as someone I wouldn’t mind knowing more about.

Every new historical novel I write begins with a bit of trepidation. The task of immersing myself into a time and place different than my own is daunting, as is making those many tiny decisions about when to cling tightly to known historical facts and when to play a little fast and loose for the benefit of shaping a story. Then there’s the balance to consider between historically representative attitudes and remarkably different modern sensibilities. I often find myself questioning just what and how much I am really allowed to do.

And I think that’s why the story of Jessie Tarbox Beals appeals to me so much. This week, when we have just marked International Women’s Day and as I take those first careful steps onto the blank page, I am trying to take a lesson from the tenacious lady photojournalist who climbed a bookcase, hopped into a hot air balloon, and chased down a president.

She told great stories with her photos and when asked whether the male-dominated profession of photography was really a good place for a woman she answered that as long as that woman had “a good supply of nerve, good health, and the ability to pick out interesting subjects and handle them in an interesting manner” that she saw no reason why it shouldn’t be. She was one bold lady. With a lot of nerve.

8 thoughts on “A Lot of Nerve

  1. What a fabulous revelation to me! And I loved her name of Tarbox! I agree with you on “there’s the balance to consider between historically representative attitudes and remarkably different modern sensibilities”. I used to write plays for the theatre and it was the most common criticism: That character was a racist. That character was sexist. Why would you do that?

    1. It’s becoming increasingly unpopular to depict the warts of history, but it’s awfully disingenuous not to, and maybe even irresponsible. It’s a tough line to walk. But you know, sometimes characters are racist and sexist. Sometimes they learn and grow. Sometimes the reader learns and grows.

      1. So true. A fascinating lady, and a fascinating post. I’ve only once tried writing historical fiction myself, and that was only a short story set in colonial India, and I got so bogged down in these questions I gave up. Good luck with your book !

  2. Superb story – I’d not heard of Jessie Tarbox Beals before. What a character – and, of course, it is character that makes history. Yeah, the general social bias of the day was embedded in ways that were ubiquitous and invisible – it was global. And hard to write about today. As you say, we can’t ignore the realities of the past. But we can, I think, try to understand them – hopefully gaining insight along the way that prevents anybody repeating past mistakes in the future.

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