The Wild West of Yester-Year

Polly Pry
By Rachel Kovaciny

Feistier than a Mexican revolutionary! More powerful than a labor union! Able to stop gunfights at a single bound! Look back in history: it’s a gossip columnist... it’s a newspaperwoman... it’s... Polly Pry!

“Polly Pry” is the pen name of one of the most famous newspaperwomen of the nineteenth century. Born Leonel “Nell” Campbell to wealthy Mississippians in 1857, she got sent off to boarding school in St. Louis in her early teens. She left school at age 15 when she eloped with rich railroad industrialist George Anthony. The couple moved to Mexico so George could oversee the construction of the Mexico Central Railway. For a while, Nell found her new life exciting, if not exactly adventurous. But, by the time she was twenty, she had tired of her husband and of Mexico. She moved to New York City alone, though it appears she and George did not divorce.

Once in New York City, Nell sought work writing for newspapers. Since her father knew an editor for the New York World, and Nell convinced him to let her try being a reporter. He tasked Nell with writing about a recent fire in the slums. Nell turned in an article so good he hired her full-time. Her success at convincing reluctant sources to talk soon earned her the nickname “Polly Pry” because she could pry a statement or information out of just about anyone. Nell liked the name so much she adopted it as her pen name. Nell wrote under the name Polly Pry for the New York World for twenty years and became one of their most popular reporters. The paper even sent her to Panama to see if the United States was really going to build a canal there. Nell confirmed it was not only possible, but probable, thanks to an exclusive interview she got in Panama. She well-earned her reputation for prying information from even the most recalcitrant sources!

In 1898, Nell moved to Denver, Colorado, to be with her aging parents. She didn’t even have to wait to arrive to find a new job; while on the train heading west, she met Frederick Bonfils, one of the Denver Post owners. By the time the train arrived in Colorado, Bonfils had hired Nell as a reporter. She kept writing under the name Polly Pry, and her dramatic, amusing, and sensational stories made her one of the most popular newspaper writers in Colorado. Nell’s most famous series of newspaper stories concerned Alferd Packer, also known as “the Colorado Cannibal.” The courts had convicted Packer of killing and cannibalizing some companions during a terrible winter years earlier. He insisted he had not murdered the men, though he admitted to using their remains to keep himself from starving to death. Nell believed he had told the truth, and the articles she wrote about him convinced the authorities to reopen his case. Eventually cleared of his murder charges, Alferd Packer got released from prison.

The excitement surrounding the Packer case doesn’t end there. The Denver Post had hired an attorney, W. W. Anderson, to help defend Packer. After the trial, the newspaper’s owners discovered Anderson had also charged Packer for defending him, even though the newspaper had paid him. Frederick Bonfils and the other owner of the Post, H. H. Tammen, confronted W. W. Anderson about this in their offices, and demanded he return the money to Packer. Instead of agreeing, Anderson pulled out a gun and shot Bonfils and Tammen, wounding them both. Nell witnessed the scene and jumped in front of her bosses before Anderson could shoot them again. He threatened to shoot her, but Nell told him she was Polly Pry, the most popular writer in Colorado, and if he even wounded her, they would hang him. She used fabric ripped from her petticoats to stanch the bleeding of her bosses’ wounds while shielding them from Anderson until the police could arrive and arrest him.

You’d think such bravery would endear Nell to the owners of the Denver Post forever, but she got fired not long after because she wrote a series of articles exposing corruption in a labor union the Post owners supported. Nell started a newspaper, calling it the Polly Pry. It was a combination tabloid, gossip magazine, and sensationalist journal, and specialized in news that promoted women’s suffrage. Along with celebrity news and outrageous stories, Nell included investigative journalism whenever she could. Her more serious pieces gained her a lot of enemies. One night, an enraged reader showed up at her home, shot at her several times through her front door, then ran away when the police arrived. Though left unhurt, the experience frightened her. Nell closed the Polly Pry and returned to New York City.

The Denver Post asked Nell to return and sent her to Mexico to get an interview with Pancho Villa, the notorious Mexican revolutionary and bandit. Villa refused to talk to any American reporters. When Nell showed up to ask for an interview, he threatened to have her shot if she didn’t leave. She responded by telling jokes and funny stories to him and his aides until Villa finally relented and granted her an interview. Polly Pry was still living up to her name. Her success at interviewing Pancho Villa convinced Nell Anthony to return to newspaper reporting full time. When she was in her sixties, she served as a war correspondent in Europe during World War I. She continued to be an active writer and campaigner for her favorite causes, women’s suffrage and free speech, until her death at age 81. Polly Pry may not have been super-human, but she certainly was extraordinary!