Farmer Truby aids a widow & gives Nellie Bly a home
Most of us who’ve lived and loved in the western Pennsylvania town of Apollo have heard that the daring, world-famous journalist Nellie Bly (1864-1922) grew up in a mansion on the 500 block of Terrace Avenue—a fact attested to by the historic marker on that block. But you may not know that Nellie Bly lived for only a couple of years in that mansion. Her mom and siblings were forced to vacate mere months after the death of Nellie’s father, Judge Michael Cochran, in 1870.
In fact, Nellie Bly spent the majority of her 11 years in Apollo, from ages 6 to 16, living in a more modest 2-story frame house on N. 6th Street with her 4 siblings, their widowed mother, and for a while an abusive, drunken stepdad. And it’s a safe bet that practically no one alive today realizes—except perhaps for you and other faithful blog readers—that the modest property on N. 6th Street was sold to Nellie Bly’s mom by none other than Apollo’s farmer Simon Truby and his wife Betsy (Elizabeth). In other words, for most of Nellie’s childhood, she resided on land that had once been a part of Simon Truby’s farm. As mentioned in a previous post (Location, Location, Location), in the late 1850s Simon Truby had divided part of the southern end of his farm into more than 35 residential lots, which he began selling off shortly before the Civil War. He’d sold more than a dozen of those properties to single women, including Nellie Bly’s mom, the widow Mary Jane Cochran.
“For most of Nellie Bly’s childhood, she resided on land that had once been a part of Simon Truby’s farm.”
This is an abbreviated tale of Nellie Bly, her family, and the history of the house where Nellie spent most of her time in Apollo—at 511 N. 6th Street. Hometown Civil War hero General Samuel M. Jackson (1833-1907) makes brief appearances in this saga and—depending on your perspective—his benevolence toward widows may be a bit lacking, according to some evidence.
Nellie Bly’s Brief Move to a Mansion
For those unfamiliar with Nellie Bly, she was a pioneering journalist who rose to international fame in the late 1800s, when women were much more likely to be homemakers than be out in the working world. Among her triumphs: a record-breaking trip around the world in less than 80 days and an undercover investigative account of having herself committed to a mental institution, so she could report on mistreatment of patients. Entire books and documentaries have been produced about Nellie Bly’s life and achievements (e.g., PBS’s Around the World in 72 Days). Journalism students learn about her daring do. She’s even been featured in two episodes of Comedy Central’s Drunk History (Journalism and New York), a quirky comedy series that may not be everyone’s cup of tea (hats off to author Sarah Schmelling for informing us of this series).
Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864, in the town of Cochran Mills, PA, about 10 miles northeast of Apollo. The village is named after her prosperous father, associate Armstrong County judge Hon. Michael Cochran (1810-1870), who owned extensive lands along with the town’s general store and gristmill. Michael had moved to the village from Apollo with his first wife Catherine Murphy, with whom he had 10 children. Shortly after Catherine’s death in 1857, Michael married Mary Jane Kennedy Cummings, who was a childless widow. Michael and Mary Jane Cochran then proceeded to have 5 children of their own, including Eliza Jane, who would later adopt the pen name Nellie Bly.
In 1867, Judge Cochran decided to move his family closer to his hometown of Apollo, PA. He purchased 3 acres of land for $310 in Kiskiminitas Twp, adjacent to Apollo borough. The property was sold by Adam Maxwell and his wife Maria of Washington Twp. There, directly east of today’s Terrace Ave, Cochran built a 2.5-story mansion for Mary Jane and their 5 young children. The Cochrans likely moved into their new home in 1868 or 1869. The retired judge, it seems, had some clout with Apollo’s municipal leaders. That same year (1869), the boundary lines for Apollo borough were “extended to take in the lands of Michael Cochran” (per Dr. T.J. Henry’s History of Apollo, 1916).
The 1870 census, taken in the spring, shows that the Cochran household in Apollo included Michael, age 60, wife Mary Jane, age 40, and their children: Albert Paul Cochran, 10; Charles M. Cochran, 8; Eliza Jane Cochran (aka Nellie Bly), 6; Catharine May Cochran, 3; and Harry Cummins Cochran, 3 mos. Also living with them was Josephine Evington, 24, possibly a domestic servant.
Sadly, less than a month after the census was recorded—and only 2 or 3 years after moving into the Apollo mansion—Michael Cochran suffered a brief paralyzing illness and died on July 11, 1870. (Note: Although Michael Cochran’s tombstone says he died in 1871, estate records in the Armstrong County Courthouse indicate that he died in 1870. Tombstones are sometimes incorrect.)
Despite his judicial background, Cochran left behind no will … but plenty of children. Most were grown with families of their own. These many heirs were anxious to get a fair share of their father’s estate, whose value lay mostly in land holdings. Just 2 months after Michael Cochran’s death, the oldest son from his first marriage petitioned the court to begin selling off the judge’s properties, including the Apollo mansion where Michael’s widow and minor children still lived. Land values in Apollo had been skyrocketing, as local industries like the rolling mill were launching and expanding.
On June 13, 1871, the 3 acres of land and mansion built by Michael Cochran expressly for his family were sold to the highest bidder, who happened to be General Samuel McCartney Jackson and his brother James Y. Jackson. At that time, the deed notes, both Jacksons were residents of Kiski Twp. The 1870 census suggests that Gen S M Jackson had been living in a rural part of Kiski Twp, southeast of Apollo, with his second wife Mary E Jackson, as several of their neighbors listed their occupations as “farmer.” These rural neighbors included the general’s relatives William J and James Y Jackson, as well as local farmers David Hildebrand, Robert Smith, and Solomon Hilty.
Gen Jackson and his brother purchased the judge’s 3 acres and mansion for $2,650, a bargain compared to its appraised value of $3,000 (Kroeger, 1994). Translated to today’s money, the cost savings would be the equivalent to about $10,000—a tidy sum. This was only the first time that Gen Jackson would acquire single-mom Mary Jane Cochran’s property below market value at auction.
In late 1871, Samuel M Jackson, his wife, and their 3 children moved into the Cochran mansion, where their family grew larger as the general began planning and building an adjacent grand mansion to his own specifications. That same year, Gen Jackson helped to found the Apollo Trust Company along with local real estate magnate J B Chambers. That local bank still exists, 125 years later. Jackson had been appointed financial administrator for the Cochran estate and served as guardian and fiscal manager to Mary Jane’s 5 minor children. The children received a total of about $400 a year, which helped their mom cover expenses. In addition, Mary Jane Cochran received a widow’s dower of about $400 to $500 a year (Kroeger, 1994).
S M Jackson’s glorious new home was completed in 1883 and still stands today at 411 Terrace Ave in Apollo. (Read more about the historic Jackson house here.)
Ensconced in his opulent new dwelling, Gen Jackson sold portions of the old 3-acre Cochran property to his sons-in-law Armand C Hammitt and Eden A Townsend, who had married Jackson’s eldest daughters. The two young couples built large houses of their own on the 500 block of Terrace Ave.
Nellie’s Mom Downsizes
Recognizing that her days in the Cochran mansion were numbered, widow Mary Jane Cochran had purchased a 4,800-square-foot plot of land from Simon and Betsy Truby for $200 on October 15, 1870, a mere 3 months after her husband’s death (here’s a PDF of the deed). Known as Lot 6 in the Simon Truby Addition to Apollo, the property was just a half block away from the grand mansion her family relinquished. On Lot 6—located at the corner of First Street (today’s N 6th Street) and an alley (today’s Jamison Way), Mary Jane commenced to building a modest 16-by-32-foot two-story frame house with 5 rooms and 4 stone fireplaces. An attached 16-by-16-foot frame kitchen had a water well near the door. The add-on kitchen gave the house an L-shape when viewed from above.
This property was a tiny fraction of the 3 acres the family had enjoyed while Judge Cochran was still alive. Still, the yard had enough room to house the family’s cow and dog, along with a horse and carriage.
In this more modest home, Mary Jane Cochran raised her 5 young children. Eliza Jane and her siblings frolicked with friends, playing with marbles or rag dolls, rolling hoops, and sledding in the winter. On weekends, the Cochran kids walked to Sunday School at the Methodist Episcopal Church on today’s N 2nd Street. Elizabeth Jane took lessons in piano playing and horseback riding.
“It’s a safe bet that practically no one alive today realizes—except perhaps for you & other faithful blog readers—that the modest property on N. 6th Street was sold to Nellie Bly’s mom by Apollo’s farmer Simon Truby.”
Newly Married with Children
Then as now, single moms had it rough. Mary Jane Cochran had no known profession or income source, besides the widow’s dower and estate funds distributed to her minor children. Perhaps hoping that life would be better with a partner, in January 1873, Mary Jane married Civil War veteran John Jackson Ford (no relation to Gen S M Jackson). Ford, known to all as Jack or J.J., was a widower with no children and burgeoning financial problems. The two were joined in matrimony in Mary Jane’s home by Justice of the Peace William Henry.
Though Ford had property of his own in Apollo at the corner of today’s N 5th Street and Pennsylvania Ave, he immediately moved into his new wife’s home. Three months later, In April 1873, the couple sold their side yard, or half of Mary Jane’s “Lot 6,” for a price of $800 to John B Chambers & R O Hunter. No more room for a cow or horse on their property.
Ford became an immediate problem for the family. His drunkenness and fits of anger led to violent outbursts. After just 5 years of marriage, the first significant breaking point came at a church-organized celebration on New Year’s Day in 1878. As recounted in the 1994 Nellie Bly biography by Brooke Kroeger: “As neighbors in festive mood chatted happily, Jack Ford, drunk and muttering, burst into the hall, stomped up behind Mary Jane, jerked a loaded pistol out of his pocket, and announced that he would kill her if she were ‘the last women on earth.’ ” Attendees restrained Ford while Mary Jane fled. She and her children stayed with friends for a few days but then found themselves back at home with Ford.
The final straw came on September 30, 1878. As described by Kroeger (1994):
“That evening, the family sat down to dinner and an argument erupted. Ford went wild. He swore at Mary Jane and the children, broke furniture, slammed into the plaster walls until they cracked, knocked down and broke the hanging baskets, and kicked a hole in a rocking chair. His rage continued into the next day, when he came home shouting and carrying on. … At the table, Ford flung his coffee to the floor, then carved the meat. He picked up the bone and hurled it at Mary Jane. She threw it back. Ford jumped up, took a loaded pistol out of his pocked, and lunged at his wife. [Her children Eliza Jane and Albert] jumped between them and blocked [Ford] while Mary Jane escaped out the front door.”
Ford kept the family from re-entering the house for a week. He eventually left town, leaving Mary Jane’s house at 511 N 6th Street in a shambles.
Divorce and Other Transitions
On October 14, 1878, Mary Jane took the unusual step of suing Jack Ford for divorce. At age 14, Eliza Jane/Nellie Bly testified before the judge, along with 11 of Ford’s acquaintances. All described Ford’s violence and drunkenness, especially his threats and abuse toward his wife Mary Jane.
The divorce was granted on June 3, 1879, and Mary Jane Ford resumed use of her previous name, Mary Jane Cochran. Around this time, at Eliza Jane’s urging, the family began adding an “e” to the end, adopting the surname Cochrane. You can read more about Nellie Bly’s early life in Apollo and the family’s difficulties in the book Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist by Brooke Kroeger, published in 1994. Buy a copy from the Apollo Area Historical Society.
The book recounts Nellie Bly’s contention that S M Jackson had encouraged her to attend the Indiana Normal School (now Indiana University of Pennsylvania) in 1879, and assured her that the family had sufficient funds for the 3-year curriculum that might lead to a career as a teacher. But before the end of the first semester, she had to drop out due to lack of funds. Nellie Bly later sued Jackson, in 1886, for mismanaging her trust fund.
In 1880, census records show that the family was still living at 511 N 6th Street with mother M. J. Cochran, age 50, keeping house with 3 of her children: Eliza Jane (who’s listed under her nickname “Pink”), age 15; Kate M Cochran, age 13; and Harry C Cochran, 10. A black 5-year-old named Charles Ash was listed as a boarder.
Within a year, though, the Cochrane family had moved to the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where older brother Albert worked in a series of jobs, and Mary Jane took in boarders. Eliza Jane eventually began writing for the Pittsburgh newspapers. And so her new career had launched.
Nellie Bly’s Childhood Home Changes Hands
After a decade, Mary Jane Cochran’s home in Apollo—at 511 N 6th Street, or half of Lot 6 in the Simon Truby Addition—was repossessed by the county sheriff and sold at auction on December 3, 1889. The highest bidder for the property, containing 2,400 square feet of land and a two-story frame dwelling, was Gen Samuel M Jackson, who’d offered the low-ball price of $300. It’s not clear what Jackson did with the property, since he was already living in the palatial mansion at 411 Terrace Ave. The house may have been rented out.
In 1912, five years after Gen Jackson’s death, his heirs sold the house at 511 N 6th Street to Howard H Clepper for $900. The next census, in 1920, shows that 32-year-old Clepper was a catcher in the steel sheet mill. He lived in the home with his wife Louisa, age 30, and their children Ralph, 8; Woodrow, 6; Hellen, 4; Harold, 2; and Millicent, age 1. Ten years later, in 1930, an additional child—Leland H Clepper—had been added to the family.
The house at 511 N 6th Street remained in the Clepper family until 1986.
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Look for upcoming articles about the Simon Truby Addition to Apollo Borough and about Simon’s brother Capt Henry Truby of Gilpin Twp near Leechburg.
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Thanks for reading!
– by Vicki Contie