Pearl Rivers, the pen name of Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson, began public life as a poet but achieved prominence by becoming the first woman in the United States to own and publish an important daily newspaper, the New Orleans Picayune. Born in Gainesville, Mississippi, on 11 March 1843 (some sources say 1849), Eliza Jane Poitevent was one of eight children born to William J. Poitevent and Mary A. Russ Poitevent. In 1852 she went to live with an aunt and uncle on the banks of the Hobolochitto River, twenty-five miles away. With no playmates on the estate, Poitevent made friends with the birds and animals that populated the surrounding Piney Woods.
At age fifteen Poitevent went to the Amite Female Seminary in Liberty, Mississippi. When she graduated in July 1859, she had already taken Pearl Rivers as her pseudonym and embarked on a career as a poet. By 1869 she had two poems published in a southern anthology, and more began regularly appearing in the New York Home Journal, the New York Ledger, the New Orleans Times, and the New Orleans Picayune.
While visiting her maternal grandfather, Samuel Potter Russ, in New Orleans, Poitevent met the owner of the Picayune, Col. Alva Morris Holbrook. A short time later Holbrook invited her to join his staff as a literary editor for a salary of twenty-five dollars a week. Despite her family’s objections that such work was not proper for a lady of her social standing, Poitevent accepted the position. She became the first woman in New Orleans and one of the first in the South to earn a living working on a newspaper.
In January 1872 Holbrook sold the paper to a group of New Orleans businessmen. The following May, the recently divorced Holbrook, age sixty-four, married the twenty-three-year-old Poitevent at her grandparents’ home. When the Picayune began to fail under its new management, Holbrook reinvested, regaining control by 1874. However, he died on 4 January 1876, leaving Eliza Holbrook the Daily Picayune, its eighty thousand dollars in debt, and two hundred thousand dollars in lawsuits against the paper. She could declare bankruptcy and take the one thousand dollars the law allowed her as a widow, or she could attempt to restore the paper. Her family urged her to return to Mississippi, and for more than two months she weighed her options. But when the paper’s longtime business manager, Englishman George Nicholson, promised his help, she decided to stay. In March 1876 Eliza announced the change of management and set forth her policies. While the Picayune would remain an independent journal free of political influence, it would seek to reach beyond its limited male readership to become a family paper. In June, Nicholson furthered his support by assuming a quarter interest in the paper.
In 1877, following the death of his first wife, George Nicholson and Eliza Holbrook, nearly thirty years his junior, married. With George overseeing business matters and Eliza in charge of content, the paper became a success, and by 1887 it was debt-free and turning a profit.
During the two decades the Picayune was under her direction, Eliza Nicholson inaugurated many features that became standard. Among the most significant was an expanded Sunday edition intended to appeal to a wide range of readers. In 1879 she introduced New Orleans’s first society column, the Society Bee, which reported the week’s social events. Other regular Sunday attractions included Woman’s World and Work, Lilliput Land (for children), sports coverage, and comics.
The Picayune also regularly featured fashion, household hints, political commentary and cartoons, theater gossip, and reviews of books and art. Both the number of pictures and the amount of advertising increased. Beginning in 1894 the paper featured the “weather prophet”—a cartoon sketch of a dapper frog who would carry an umbrella or a fan to suggest the day’s forecast. That year Eliza Nicholson also hired Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, who was soon famous as advice columnist Dorothy Dix. Nicholson also used the Picayune to campaign for social and governmental reform. The strong stand she took against mistreating animals in editorials and in a section, “Nature’s Dumb Nobility,” so influenced public opinion that in October 1888 New Orleans residents founded a chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
In 1873 Pearl Rivers published Lyrics, a collection of short poetry. Her next publications—two long dramatic monologues, “Hagar” and “Leah” that appeared in Cosmopolitan in 1883 and 1884—differed in tone and outlook from the early work. The change was not surprising: a decade in journalism had made Rivers a shrewd and capable businesswoman who wrote with passion and intensity.
George Nicholson died on 4 February 1896 from complications following an influenza outbreak; eleven days later, his wife, too, succumbed. During their time at the helm, the New Orleans Picayune had more than doubled in circulation and had become a newspaper with national importance.
- Lamar Whitlow Bridges, Journalism History (Winter 1975–76)
- Thomas Ewing Dabney, One Hundred Great Years: The Story of the Times-Picayune from Its Founding to 1940 (1944)
- Elsie S. Farr, Pearl Rivers (1951)
- James Henry Harrison, Pearl Rivers: Publisher of the Picayune (1932)
- Kenneth W. Holditch, Louisiana Literature (Spring 1987)
- Kenneth W. Holditch, in Mississippi’s Piney Woods: A Human Perspective, ed. Noel Polk (1986)
- Kenneth W. Holditch, Southern Quarterly (Winter 1982)