Who was Eliza Jane?
(Pearl River County and Picayune history)
Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson (1849-96) was a 19th century poet and publisher. She became the first woman publisher of an important daily newspaper, the Picayune. In honor of Eliza Jane, we have named our On-Line Catalog System after her.
The Story of
Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson
Compiled from the
Local History Files & Collections of the
Margaret Reed Crosby Memorial Library & Cultural Center
Eliza Jane Nicholson was the first woman publisher of a major daily newspaper in the United States. Her story is as fascinating as any for a woman of her time: a time when it was “not quite nice” for a Southern lady to write at all; to write for publication was distasteful; to write for money was unthinkable.
Over the protests of her family, Eliza Jane did all three. But even she did not dare to use her own name. She wrote under the pseudonym of “Pearl Rivers” – adopted from the tranquil stream flowing near her home.
Eliza Jane Poitevent was born near Pearlington, Miss., in 1849, one of a large family whose mother was too ill to care for her. Eliza was reared by relatives in Hobolochitto, Miss. In the country atmosphere she discovered an affinity for nature and an ability to attract wildlife that was mirrored in her poetry.
A number of national publications accepted her poems. So did The Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper. The newspaper’s publisher, Col. Alva Morris Holbrook, was so impressed that he asked her to accept the post of literary editor. The Picayune was named for a small Spanish coin worth about 6 1/4 cents. The paper’s purchase price was one picayune. The Picayune later merged with another local paper, The Daily Times, and became The Times~Picayune we all know so well today.
Holbrook was divorced, dashing and in his 50’s. Eliza was barely 4 feet tall, with round blue eyes, a snub nose and a deceptively fragile expression. In March 1872, the colonel married the slip of a girl, about 40 years his junior.
Fours years later in 1876, the paper was $80,000 in debt and beset by lawsuits when Holbrook died. Her family urged the young widow to give up the paper and come home. George Nicholson, the business manager, offered to see her through with money he had saved. After several months Eliza agreed.
Within a few years, Eliza had paid off the debt, established The Picayune as a leading paper, and married George Nicholson, who was 57 to her 29. They had two sons, Yorke Poitevent and Leonard Kimball Nicholson.
Under her supervision, more illustrations brightened the pages. The “weather frog” was introduced as forecaster, and the “Society Bee” made his debut. The Picayune supported every good cause, from a society for the protection of animals (forerunner of the city’s current S.P.C.A.) to the establishment of night schools.
In 1877, when problems developed which threatened the completion of a railroad line into the city of New Orleans, Eliza, argued that women must “put the wheels in motion.” She was active in founding the Ladies New Orleans Pacific Railroad Aid Association which was designed to encourage private subscriptions to complete the line. For her work in promoting the new railway, Eliza was given the privilege of naming two spurs on the line in 1883-84. One she named Nicholson for her husband, and the other, close to her home at Hobolochitto, she named Picayune for her newspaper.
In early 1896, both Nicholsons were stricken with influenza. George died on Feb. 4, at the age of 86, and Eliza survived her husband by only eleven days. She was 47.