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.

More Brains than Any Two Engineers

January 18, 1865 Washington Roebling, a colonel in the Union army and a trained engineer, married his sweetheart Emily Warren. Then when the war ended, the two went on a honeymoon tour of Europe with a slightly nerdy twist.

Emily Roebling
Emily did give birth to the couple’s only son in 1867 so I suppose engineering wasn’t the ONLY thing they did on their honeymoon. Carolus-Duran / Public domain

Washington’s father, John Augustus Roebling, had built a pretty big name for himself in the field of suspension bridge construction and his plan to span the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn had been given the green light by the State of New York. Washington and his new bride decided that while they were honeymooning, they might as well do some research into the newfangled caissons that were all the rage among European engineers.

In case, like me, you didn’t spend your honeymoon studying engineering, a caisson is a watertight container that allows work to be completed underwater by pumping in compressed air and keeping water out. It’s awfully useful for building the foundation of a bridge over a river.

While the newlyweds picked up some pointers, the elder Roebling worked on finishing up his measurements before construction could begin. Unfortunately, he sustained an injury in the process and required amputation of a foot. And that led to the tetanus infection that quickly killed him.

It also brought an end to a fairytale engineering tour of Europe. Washington rushed home to take his father’s place as head engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge project. He was great at it, too, leading his men by working alongside them, even taking his turn in the caissons, where he soon realized that working in compressed air can prove dangerous.

caisson
Inside views of the East River Bridge caisson, Brooklyn, N.Y. 1870. Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, PPOC, Library of Congress / Public domain

He suffered with what divers, and presumably also those in the bridge construction business, now know as the bends, or decompression sickness, in which your body doesn’t react particularly well to the large amount of nitrogen dissolved in your blood after breathing compressed air for a while.

Decompression sickness can be prevented, now that we know what it is and what causes it, but Washington didn’t have the benefit of that information and wound up partially paralyzed, most likely the victim of multiple strokes, and unable to fulfil his role as lead engineer on the project.

That left only one Roebling, armed with a pretty good education for a woman of her day (which still wasn’t a great deal of education) and what relevant bridge-building knowledge she had managed to pick up on her honeymoon, to take up the charge.

Emily accepted the challenge.

She became the chief engineer, allegedly relaying daily instructions from her husband to the job site, updating and schmoozing with politicians, defending her husband’s position from competing engineers angling to take the project over, and soaking in all the knowledge she could about stress analysis and cable construction.

rooster
Maybe the rooster was a lucky bridge-crossing companion because he already had so much experience crossing the road? via Pixabay

When the Brooklyn Bridge finally opened on May 24, 1883 the first carriage to cross it carried Emily Warren Roebling with a lucky rooster held on her lap. Though she never publicly claimed to be anything more than a mouthpiece for her husband, in a private letter to her son she wrote: “I have more brains, common sense, and know-how generally than any two engineers, civil or uncivil, that I have ever met.”

And she was probably right. In the years following the Brooklyn Bridge project, Emily Roebling earned a law degree and became active in numerous organizations, always seeking ways to promote women’s education and women’s equality.

tacoma bridge
A suspension bridge built by engineers not supervised by Emily Warren Roebling. Tacoma Narrows Bridge failure (1940).

But I came across her while researching the opening location of my novel Smoke Rose to Heaven, which occurs briefly in the shadow of a burgeoning bridge that would become, for a time, the longest structure of its kind in the world. I first met Emily Roebling as the Chief Not-Technically-An-Engineer who successfully completed the project begun by her father-in-law and who now has a street block in Brooklyn named in her honor.

She was my kind of woman—the kind who does what she needs to do to get done what needs to get done and doesn’t bother asking anyone whether or not she can. She’s the kind of woman I want to be and the kind I want to celebrate this upcoming Sunday March 8 when we recognize International Women’s Day. Fortunately, I know a lot of women like her.