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  • Sympathy, Madness, and Crime: How Four 19th Century Journalists Made the Newspaper Women's Business by Karen Roggenkamp
  • Teri Finneman (bio)
Sympathy, Madness, and Crime: How Four 19th Century Journalists Made the Newspaper Women's Business. By Karen Roggenkamp. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2016. 168 pp. $34.95 (cloth).

Karen Roggenkamp's Sympathy, Madness, and Crime explores the strategies used by four early women journalists as they negotiated the challenges of working in news-rooms and societies dominated by men who were unconvinced of their abilities.

Spanning the 1840s to the 1890s, the book highlights the careers of Margaret Fuller of the New York Tribune, Fanny Fern of the New York Ledger, Nellie Bly of the New York World, and Elizabeth Jordan of the New York World. Although the number of women journalists increased throughout the century, there remained widespread belief that "women's inherently emotional and refined natures rendered them useless for the newsroom" (5). The goal of these journalists—also shared by Roggenkamp—was to illustrate how the "rhetoric of sympathy" could make an impact and carve a place for women in the newspaper world.

The book focuses on coverage of insanity and criminality and how these journalists used the private sphere qualities of morality, emotion, and sympathy to create effective writing that benefited their newspapers and their careers. Although much has been written on most of these journalists already, Roggenkamp seeks to provide "fresh insights into larger concerns about women's professionalism, the rhetoric of sympathy, and periodical representations of asylums and prisons" (12).

The focus on asylums and prisons in this book aligns with nineteenth-century interests; magazines and newspapers frequently covered these facilities in the penny press and yellow journalism eras. The author points out that the US had only eighteen asylums in 1840, a number that exploded to 300 by the end of the century and even launched an "asylum tourism" industry that permitted the public to tour these facilities and gawk at occupants. Roggenkamp's narrative explores how immigrants and abused women too often found themselves unjustly locked up, and so moves beyond a journalistic focus to provide a history of the repercussions of gender inequality and a problematic judicial system. [End Page 187]

Bringing these stories to light with a more sympathetic framing than "the dehumanized and sensational frames" (20) used by men helped create the journalism careers of Fuller, Fern, Bly, and Jordan.

Fuller, who was hired by notable editor Horace Greeley, avoided the condescending framing of asylum patients and believed readers needed to have sympathy for them in order for reform to be possible. She transformed "a mode of writing primarily associated with female sentimental fiction and [sold] it in a medium primarily associated with men—newspapers" (49).

Fern, who became one of the most successful reporters of her time, used a blunt approach: she believed readers who lacked sympathy were part of the reason there were so many social problems. Through her writing, she "require[d] readers to reflect on their own inaction in addressing the conditions she lays before them" (59).

In later decades, Jordan took a different approach to sympathy by promoting the need for women reporters, arguing that only they could get true stories due to their ability to sympathize with and better understand sources.

In short, Roggenkamp illustrates how these women journalists used the power of the pen in various ways but still ultimately relied on sympathy as their core concept.

Perhaps the book's most interesting angle, however, is Roggenkamp's more critical take on the famous Nellie Bly, often highlighted as a gold standard in journalism history lore. Roggenkamp suggests that Bly was more interested in her professional status than in her predecessors' focus on sympathetic framing as a means for reform.

Best known for her work Ten Days in a Madhouse, Bly "was not necessarily a sympathetic observer of pathetic scenes but an active participant" (76), the author argues. In other words, gaining attention for herself to build her career was an important focus—one that tied into the yellow journalism era, which stressed profits and sensation. Unlike Fuller and Fern who were interested in fully understanding their...


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pp. 187-189
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