Nicholson, Eliza Jane (1849–1896)

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Nicholson, Eliza Jane (1849–1896)

American newspaper publisher, journalist and poet. Name variations: Eliza Jane Poitevent; Eliza Jane Holbrook; (pseudonym) Pearl Rivers. Born Eliza Jane Poitevent on March 11, 1849, in Hancock County, Mississippi; died on February 15, 1896, in New Orleans, Louisiana; daughter of William James Poitevent (a lumberman and shipbuilder) and Mary Amelia (Russ) Poitevent; graduated from the Female Seminary of Amite, Louisiana, 1867; married Alva M. Holbrook (an editor and newspaper publisher), on May 18, 1872 (died 1876); married George Nicholson (a newspaper business manager), on June 27, 1878 (died 1896); children: (second marriage) Leonard Kimball (b. 1881); Yorke Poitevent Tucker (b. 1883).

Published poetry in writing anthology (1869); became literary editor of the New Orleans Picayune (1870); became publisher of the Picayune after husband's death (1876); elected president of the Women's National Press Association (1884); became first honorary member of the New York Woman's Press Club.

Born into a large family in Hancock County, Mississippi, in 1849, Eliza Jane Nicholson was raised by her aunt and uncle on their farm, due to her mother's weak health. She started writing poetry in her early teens, and at 18, after graduating from the Amite Female Seminary in Louisiana, began submitting poetry to magazines and newspapers. These poems were signed "Pearl Rivers," a pen name taken from the river that ran by her parents' property. Nicholson's work soon appeared in the New York Home Journal, the New Orleans Times, and what would become the focus of her career, the New Orleans Picayune. (The paper had been named by its founders after a Spanish coin worth 6¼ cents to underscore the fact that it cost less than its competitors.) By the time she was 20, she had been featured in an anthology of Southern authors.

The editor and owner of the Picayune was a transplanted Northerner named Alva Morris Holbrook, whom Nicholson met while on a visit to her grandfather in New Orleans. Holbrook, who was 41 years her elder, soon offered her the job of literary editor for the newspaper, which she accepted around 1870 despite opposition from her family. She lived with her grandfather and was paid $25 per week for work which included preparing the Sunday paper's literary section and choosing which poems would be published in the daily editions. Despite their age difference, Nicholson and Holbrook established a personal as well as a professional relationship. They were married in 1872, shortly after Holbrook had sold the Picayune to allow Nicholson to pursue her poetry.

However, she had time only to publish a collection of her poems, Lyrics (1873), before the paper reverted to Holbrook, because the new owners were unable to keep it afloat. Nicholson and her husband returned to newspaper work, and a little more than a year later, when she was 26, Holbrook died. She inherited ownership of the Picayune as well as its $80,000 debt. Once again ignoring the wishes of her parents, she rejected their advice to liquidate and instead took control of the newspaper.

Now the first woman in the Deep South to be publisher of a major newspaper, Nicholson set the paper's course in her opening editorial: the Picayune would be an independent, anti-Reconstruction newspaper for the whole family. With the paper's editor José Quintero and its business manager George Nicholson, who became co-owner when she married him in 1878, she added special departments for women and children, and in 1879 began running a column of society news. (This innovation was at first resisted in conservative New Orleans, but later became quite popular.) The paper's contents grew to include fashion, household hints, theater gossip, medical advice, a complaint department and comics, and Sunday editions frequently published fiction by noted writers, including Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and Frank Stockton. Nicholson also used the paper to champion such causes as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the free night school run by Sophie B. Wright (1866–1912). Although her new husband was 30 years her senior, they seem to have had both a good marriage and a good working relationship; with Nicholson overseeing editorial content and George supervising business matters, the paper paid off all its debt and more than tripled its circulation.

Although Nicholson apparently was not an advocate for women's suffrage, she believed that women should be self-sufficient, and was a strong supporter of women in the newspaper business. Among those whom she hired were Martha R. Field , who became a special correspondent to Washington, D.C., and other cities, and Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer , who was working at the Picayune when she began writing the advice column that would later make her a national figure as Dorothy Dix. In 1884, Nicholson was elected president of the Women's National Press Association and was the first honorary member of the New York Woman's Press Club. (Also in the 1880s, apparently, residents in a small community newly joined to the railroad asked her to rename their town; she did so, and Picayune, Mississippi, now a small city some 35 miles from New Orleans, is believed to be the first town in America named after a newspaper.)

As the Picayune grew increasingly successful, she spent more of her time at her summer home in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, with her husband and two young sons. She also resumed writing poetry. She was in the midst of preparing a collected edition of her work when her husband died of influenza. Ten days later, on February 15, 1896, Nicholson died in New Orleans of the same disease. She was 46. Renamed the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1914 after a series of mergers, the newspaper continues to publish daily. Arrangements Nicholson made prior to her death ensured that her sons would gain control of the paper when they came of age, and her eldest, Leonard K. Nicholson, served as publisher from 1922 to 1952.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day: A Daybook of Women's Words. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Jacqueline Mitchell , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan

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Nicholson, Eliza Jane (1849–1896)

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