Eliza Jane the On-Line Catalog
Who was Eliza Jane?
(Pearl River County and Picayune history)
Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson (1843-96) was a 19th century poet and publisher. She became the first woman publisher of an important daily newspaper, the Daily Picayune in New Orleans. 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 research of Mike Fitzwilliam, 2017.
Eliza Jane Nicholson was the first female 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, and 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 “Pearl Rivers” – adopted from the tranquil stream flowing near her home.
Eliza Jane Poitevent was born near Gainesville, Miss., in 1843, one of a large family whose mother was too ill to care for her. Eliza was reared by her aunt and uncle, Leonard and Jane Kimball, 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, including the Gainesville (Miss.) Star, the New Orleans Times, and the Daily Picayune, another New Orleans newspaper. The Picayune’s publisher, Col. Alva Morris Holbrook, was so impressed that he asked her to accept the post of literary editor of its Sunday edition. The Picayune (the newspaper’s original name) was named for a small Spanish coin worth about 6 1/4 cents, the paper’s purchase price in 1837. In 1914, the Daily Picayune merged with The Times–Democrat to became the Times-Picayune we all know so well today.
In January, 1872, Holbrook was divorced, dashing, and 63 years old. Eliza was barely 4 feet tall, with round blue eyes, a snub nose and a deceptively fragile expression. The Daily Picayune was deeply in debt and Holbrook sold the newspaper to a syndicate of New Orleans businessmen known as The New Orleans Printing and Publishing Association. In May, 1872, Holbrook and Eliza Jane married, she being only 29 at the time.
By late 1873, the syndicate was failing and sold the Daily Picayune back to Holbrook for about 20 cents on the dollar. In January, 1876, the paper was reportedly $80,000 in debt and beset by lawsuits when Holbrook died. Eliza Jane inherited the newspaper but her family urged the young widow to give up the paper and come home. George Nicholson, a native of Leeds, England and the business manager of the newspaper, offered to see her through with money he had saved. After several months Eliza agreed and George bought a 25% interest.
George and Eliza Jane were married in June, 1878; he was 58, Eliza Jane 35. They set about removing the debt and the lawsuits, although it would take years. The union established the Daily Picayune as a leading paper and its circulation tripled. They had two sons, Leonard Kimball (1881) and Yorke Poitevent (1883).
Under her supervision, more illustrations brightened the pages. The “weather frog” was introduced as forecaster, and the “Society Bee” made his debut. The Daily 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 the secretary of the Ladies’ New Orleans Pacific Railroad Aid Association which was designed to encourage private subscriptions to complete the line between Shreveport and New Orleans. Local legend has it that the railroad’s appreciation for her efforts resulted in her naming Picayune for her newspaper and Nicholson for her husband.
However, the New Orleans Pacific and the line constructed between Meridian and New Orleans (the New Orleans & Northeastern), were not owned by the same companies. The New Orleans Pacific line was completed before the NO&NE line was begun. Her advocacy for the NOP line would not have influenced the executives of the NO&NE line to permit her to name the two depots. While she may have had some influence over the naming of Picayune and Nicholson, that influence may have come more from the residents than the newspaper. Ironically, the name of the Chief Engineer in charge of the construction of the NO&NE line from Poplarville to New Orleans was George Benson Nicholson and he was from Cheltenham, England.
In February, 1896, both George and Eliza Jane were struck with influenza. George died on Feb. 4, at the age of 75. Eliza survived her husband by only eleven days. She was 52.