From 1890 to 1895, pioneering journalist Nellie Bly wrote eleven serial novels for a weekly publication. From that time to this, they have all been thought lost forever — until the announcement of their discovery on January 25, 2021.
The first of these lost novels is Eva the Adventuress, a gripping “ripped-from-the-headlines” tale of a red-headed vixen wronged by everyone and eager for revenge. With her signature move of stabbing men in the chest but failing to kill them, Eva Scarlett is clearly based on the real-life Eva Hamilton, whose scandalous trial filled breathless headlines in the fall of 1889.
New York state assemblyman Robert Ray Hamilton — great-grandson of founding father Alexander Hamilton — had been seeing Miss Eva Steele for two years when, in 1888, she told him she was expecting. When, after months in seclusion, she introduced him to his daughter, Hamilton did the honorable thing and married Eva. Leaving public life, the couple journeyed to California.
Eight months later Eva was charged with attempted murder of the baby’s nurse.
The story tumbled out. Eva Steele was really an “adventuress” named Eva Mann — aka Eva Parsons, aka Eva Brill. Already married to one Joshua Mann, she’d carried on with both men for years before convincing Robert Ray Hamilton that she was carrying his child.
There was no evidence, however, that she had ever been pregnant. She apparently purchased a child, who died. So she bought another, who also died. She bought a third, but that baby didn’t look enough like the first one, so she sent it back. She then bought a fourth child, and passed this off as Hamilton’s.
Once married, Eva supported Joshua Mann with her “pin money” of $6,000/year, a full third of her respectable husband’s income. In August of 1889, while staying at a resort in New Jersey, Hamilton tried to cut some of her pin money. The couple quarreled, and the child’s nurse intervened. Eva fired the nurse, who then got drunk and came back to tell Hamilton the truth about Eva and Mann. A fistfight broke out between the two women, and Eva was apparently badly beaten. Eva then snatched up a dagger and stabbed the nurse in the abdomen.
Eva was arrested and charged with attempted murder. Before the trial the story about the baby (babies) came out, and Robert Ray abandoned his defense of her. The nurse survived, so the charge became Aggravated Assault and Battery. Eva pled self-defense, but ended up convicted, with a maximum sentence of ten years. Given the fight, however, the judge sentenced her to two.
It is at this point that Nellie Bly enters the story.
When news of the Hamilton scandal broke in late August 1889, Bly was writing a dismal version of what might today be called a puff piece, a review of what to do in Newport (in typical Bly fashion, she asserts that Newport is fine, so long as you are rich). Returning to New York, she dove into the Hamilton case with gusto, writing three stories. Each one demonstrates a different aspect of Bly’s career: the undercover reporter, the friendly interviewer, and the describer of social conditions. Together, these three stories encapsulate Bly’s reporting in a nutshell.
The first story was the obvious one, given the Hamilton saga — Nellie Bly Buys A Baby. This story was also the perfect sequel to her 1887 piece, What Becomes of Babies, in which she’d posed as a young mother trying to dispose of an unwanted child (a story I made use of in my novella Charity Girl). Here, she plays a wealthy prospective buyer, and tracks down a woman who claims to have sold one of the babies to Hamilton.
Her second article was a blockbuster interview with Eva Hamilton herself. It was a major scoop, as up to that point no one had gotten a statement, much less an interview, out of Eva since her arrest.
Her third piece was a follow-up to the interview, with added details from the prison, painting a picture of prison life in general.
But she clearly had not finished with Hamilton. We know this because of the novel she wrote, and the speed with which she churned it out. Bly interviewed Eva Hamilton in early October, 1889. A month later she was on the high seas, making her dash around the globe. The novel had to have been completed by then, because it started appearing in the pages of the New York Family Story Paper in late December. One of her longest novels, Bly must have felt real inspiration — especially as this is the point when Bly began to complain of crippling headaches. One hopes that she found relief in penning the story, which tries to make Eva as sympathetic a figure as circumstances allow.
Most of the elements of Eva The Adventuress are taken from a lengthy account of Eva Hamilton’s life that appeared in the pages of the Sunday edition of The New York World on September 22, 1889. The factual elements Bly used were:
• Eva’s birth in a small mining town in Pennsylvania
• Her disabled brother
• Running away with a stranger, who then wronged her
• The living with and draining dry of a kindly older man
• Eva’s relationship with an unscrupulous man
• The secret marriage and the trip to California
• Eva’s purchase of a baby (just one)
• A trip to Europe with her lover
• Eva supporting her lover and his mother with her husband’s money
• The nurse revealing Eva’s tryst to the husband
• Eva stabbing the nurse
• Eva going to jail
• Reports of her husband wanting her back
In the novel, however, Bly turns all of these into things that happened to Eva, rather than things she planned. Even the buying of the baby is thrust upon her. Either for the sake of making her protagonist less reprehensible or from honest sympathy for Eva Hamilton, Bly sets out to offer the very best motives for Eva’s terrible behavior.
This is in complete opposition to the reporting of the Hamilton case. In the press Eva was slut-shamed and vilified as a scheming “adventuress” who played upon a good man’s “infatuation,” a word used constantly to describe the feelings of Robert Ray Hamilton, who comes off as a credulous dupe who left himself open to blackmail because he couldn’t control his libido. There seems to be agreement that he was fine when he had her as a mistress, but marrying “the woman” was tantamount to lunacy.
The story was front-page news from Chicago to Los Angeles, from St. Paul to Topeka. When the verdict was handed down, headlines reading “Jezebel’s Tears” and “A Siren’s Fall“ covered 5 o’clock extra! editions in Philadelphia and Boston. Someone was going to capitalize on the sensation — and it turned out to be Nellie Bly.
In the days before leaving for her race around the world — a stunt that she only had a few days’ notice of — Bly had probably been trying to shop the novel. But after the resounding thud her first piece of fiction, The Mystery Of Central Park, had created that fall, her publisher Norman Munro was likely wary of publishing it.
Things undoubtedly changed once her globe-girdling journey began. Suddenly Bly’s name was everywhere, blazoned across newspapers around the world. It was the kind of free advertising Munro would have been a fool not to utilize. Thus Eva The Adventuress started to run as a serial novel in the pages of the New York Family Story Paper just before Christmas. The first chapters, accompanied by art, appeared on December 22, 1889, with the headline: By Nellie Bly, Who is now attempting to make the circuit of the world in seventy-five days.
We have no exact sales figures, but based on the huge jump in circulation of the World, and the incredible timeliness of both Nellie Bly and Eva Hamilton, the two most notorious women in New York, one can only imagine the bounty Munro reaped. Munro himself said that her story had increased circulation of the Family Story Paper by 50,000. He later claimed she had doubled his circulation. Munro’s gambit had paid off. And when Bly returned, he offered her a contract for $40,000 dollars for more.
In writing her novel just after Eva’s trial, Bly had to invent an ending. Her story has Eva finding God and a kind of peace with a nice lawyer. Had Bly known how strange things would get, she probably would likely have kept her ending, as no one would have believed the truth.
In 1890 Hamilton was in process of annulling his marriage to his incarcerated wife when he was reported to have mysteriously drowned in Snake River in Wyoming. But was he truly dead? Rumors said he faked his own death to escape the scandal. Reports of him came in from Japan, Australia, and eventually from a raving pan-handler in Mexico. Then, almost a decade later, his former partner was charged with his murder.
The death of Robert Ray led to long legal court fights between the Hamilton family and Eva, who used the fact that the annulment had never been completed to extract money from the Hamiltons.
By this time Eva had been released early from prison, pardoned by the governor. She took to the stage, re-enacting her story for people’s entertainment, in a play cleverly entitled The Hammertons (a title that was changed before opening night). Her victim, the nurse, took up life in a freak show, displaying her scar from Eva’s dagger for money. Her ersatz husband, Josh Mann, sued for divorce, only to have the complaint withdrawn when he was committed to an insane asylum. Eva remarried yet again, this time to a fellow calling himself Frederick Hilton, who was in reality named — I kid you not — Duke Gaul. In 1895 she was part of another scandal when it was revealed she had been released from prison through a pardons-for-bribes scheme.
Meanwhile the Hamilton family disavowed the memory of Robert Ray, even to the point of opposing a memorial fountain in the district he had ably represented before his fall from grace. They wanted to erase him as if he had never existed. All because he had loved “not wisely, but too well.”
Yet the strangest part of this whole story by far is this line from the New York Times article quoting the annulment complaint:
“In the complaint, which is verified by Mr. Hamilton, it is stated that the marriage of Robert Ray Hamilton to Evangeline L. Steele was performed by the Rev. Edson W. Burr of Paterson, N.J., on Jan 7, 1889.”
A Hamilton got into a scandal over a woman, and it was a Burr that married them. Truth is far stranger than fiction.
Eva The Adventuress is part of the Lost Novels Of Nellie Bly, collected and edited by David Blixt (What Girls Are Good For, The Master Of Verona). The volume contains not only the novel itself, but all the articles surrounding the real-life Eva Hamilton. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon, and will go on sale everywhere March 16th.