- Lyrics (1873)
- first woman publisher and editor of major American newspaper, the Picayune
Biography of Pearl Rivers (Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson)
by Don Wicks (2007) Used by permission
Pearl Rivers is the pen name of poet Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson. Eliza took the pen name from the Pearl River, which was near her childhood home. She became the owner and publisher of the Times Picayune in New Orleans from 1876 to 1896.
Born in Gainesville, Mississippi, twenty miles south of Picayune on March 11, 1843 (some sources say 1849), to William J. Poitevent and Mary A. Russ Poitevent. She was reported to be a quiet child and a daydreamer who had a sickly mother, a very busy father, and two older brothers that taunted her.
When Eliza was nine, Eliza’s aunt, Jane Kimball, visited the family and entreated her sister Mary to let Eliza Jane come live with her and her husband, Leonard Kimball, in Hobolochitto (the early name for Picayune) where Leonard managed a plantation (now called the Hermitage) and a store. Leonard Kimball and Jane Potter Russ had been married in Gainesville around 1840. Jane was in her early teens, and Leonard was in his late thirties. They were childless in 1852 when Eliza Jane Nicholson came to live with them. When Eliza moved to Picayune, she had older brothers by three and six years, a younger brother by two years, and younger sisters by seven, five and 2 ½ years. It is not known whether or not Eliza Jane exhibited the wild nature she exhibited in later life. She may have been sent away because she was difficult to control as the family was well off with servants and slaves. Her father William James Poitevent was reported to be a spirited man, and she may have taken after him. At any rate, the change of homes was beneficial for Eliza.
The trip from Gainesville to Hobolochitto was long whether by steamship or by buggy. At first, Eliza must have had mixed emotions about the move. Shortly after she arrived and settled in with the Kimballs she began revealing herself in poems. In Myself she wrote
With windows low and narrow too,
Where birds came peeping in
To wake me up at early morn
And oft I used to win
The Cherokees to climb the sill,
The gossip loving bee,
To come so near that he would pause
And buzz a word to me.
Leonard, who worked for Moses Cook, operated a trading post and post office, and tended the toll bridge across the creek. He also managed the slaves and servants that planted and harvested the crops on the plantation. It was a busy place with travelers passing through and locals coming to buy supplies and pick up their mail. The Kimballs also offered rooms and meals to travelers. Eliza may have had duties helping to tend the store and toll bridge; but when she was free, she roamed the piney woods. Much of Eliza’s poetry reflects the animals, birds, and flora she observed. She seemed to change into an enchanted princess, using her newly possessed charms to manipulate the adults around her. That personality is reflected in Myself:
“My teacher was a dear old man,
Who took me on his knee,
And better far than vexing books,
He held a kiss from me.”
That was and still is a curious phrase. She kissed her teacher? Looking at it from Eliza’s innocent eyes, it might have meant that she had wrapped her teacher around her little finger, who put aside the vexing books for a kiss and taught her things that interested Eliza–maybe about nature and folklore. That type of candidness was carried with her in her later life. The teacher was Moses Cook, owner of the plantation, who shared the double penned log house with the Kimballs.
With access to the mail, Eliza had the opportunity to read newspapers and magazines where she developed her love for poetry and fashion. She never threw away anything because everything to her had life, even pencil stubs.
She is known to have lied about her age and other aspects of her life. Her brothers had told her she was ugly and no man would ever love her or want to marry her. Her vanity was the sort that tendered the preoccupation with always trying to look her best rather than the sort of believing one’s self beautiful. In later life, she even missed an audience with Queen Victoria because she felt she wouldn’t look good in the presentation gown. This vanity, however, was not strong enough to curtail her wild and kindred nature. In a poem written on one of her first visits to New Orleans, she writes about braving the city’s bustle to give a tired man the berries she picked in spite of her torn clothing and unkempt hair. She writes:
With my fingers stained and purple,
Torn dress, and rumpled hair,
I would have braved proud fashion’s eye
To place my berries there.
Again in her poem Myself she writes:
No other child grew on the place,
A merry roughish elf,
I played “keep house” in shady nooks
All by my little self.
I leaped the brook,
I climbed the bars,
I rode upon the hay;
To swing upon the old barn gate
To me was merry play.
I waded in the shallow stream
To break the lilies sweet,
And laughed to see the minnows swim,
So near my rosy feet.
I rode the pony down to drink,
He played some pranks with me,
But I had learned to hold on tight
And was as wild as he.
I could not keep my bonnet on,
The briars tore the frill,
The wind untied the knotted strings
And tossed it at their will.
My dress and apron bore the sign
Of frolic wild and free,
The brambles caught my yellow hair,
And braided it for me.
Leonard, Eliza’s uncle, was depicted as a frugal but generous man, but when it came to young love, Leonard was ruthless in protecting her. Eliza was sent to the Amite Female Seminary in Liberty, Mississippi, from which she graduated in 1859. An album in the Nicholson Collection at the Williams Research Center in New Orleans has many poems and well wishes to Eliza at graduation. She was depicted in a publication of women writers in the South as the “Wildest girl in school,” apparently her own designation.
At the Female Seminary, Eliza experienced her first love with a young man named William Cole Harrison. The romance, however, was thwarted by her uncle Leonard and the headmaster Rev. Shirk, who came upon one of her love letters and demanded them all. Eliza Jane refused but did give up the cards and a memento given to her by William. When she moved back to Hobolochitto, she was kept captive by her uncle who, according to William, had spies out to prevent the romance. Eliza spent three weeks on her brother’s steamship after graduation and asked Willie to send his letters to Gainesville. In desperation, she secreted one more visit with him on her brother’s boat at the dock on Lake Pontchartrain. They briefly met, and she gave him a ring. A third person, Bec, a friend of Eliza’s, was instrumental in fostering the romance. The correspondence ended in the latter part of 1859, but the friendship continued after Eliza moved to New Orleans and married Holbrook until William moved to California. In 1861, William joined the Civil Was as a Confederate soldier and later became a pharmacist and medical doctor. He eventually became a Confederate General. Eliza’s letters show the practical side of her trying to accept the futility of the relationship, and she vowed to wait for him and love him forever.
What she did during the Civil War is not known. A group of poems written for the New Orleans Times in 1866 reflect a romance with a Civil War soldier. There’s a story by Elise Farr, secretary for Lamont Rowland, a one time owner of the Hermitage. Farr wrote extensively about the place and Eliza. She gives an account of a girl living at the Hermitage who fell in love with a Civil War soldier (reported in one manuscript as Union) and mourned his death by sitting on the porch playing sad music on her violin. When the slaves heard the music, they would stop their work to listen.
There are poems about lost love and rejection. If her poems are in any way biographical, she intimately knew a woman’s heart in love, lost love, and in rejection before she decided to marry Holbrook, co-owner of the Daily Picayune.
The earliest poem in the Daily Picayune attributed to her is “A Little Bunch of Roses,” published October 17, 1866. However, a delightful poem published a day earlier called “Wouldn’t you like to know” is most likely also hers. On January 28, 1866, she wrote, I Miss Thee for the New Orleans Times, followed by five other poems– all sad poems about her dead soldier fiance’.
Eliza Jane’s first known trip to New Orleans was in the latter months of 1868, when she visited her Grandfather Russ. There were trips back and forth to New Orleans until she met Alva M. Holbrook, who asked her to become literary editor of that paper. She accepted and later married him, a man 29 years her senior. She began writing for the New Orleans Times in January 1866, but by 1867, she wrote exclusively for the Daily Picayune. Most likely since she had known love and lost love, she married Holbrook for status and security. However, instead of security, she encountered trauma and scandal that affected her deeply until she met and fell in love with George Nicholson, the business manager of the Picayune.
A month after the wedding to Holbrook, Jennie Bronson, Holbrook’s divorced wife, a crazed woman with a Latin temperament, entered Eliza’s home. Brandishing a seven shooter, she shot twice at Eliza but missed. Eliza wrestled the gun away and yelled for the police. Jennie then began to beat Eliza over the head with a bay rum bottle causing deep wounds. Eliza called for the Irish laundry woman, who with the cook, freed Eliza and took her next door, then across the street, where she was attended to by a doctor. Meanwhile, Jennie found an ax and began to destroy the furniture. A legal mess that lasted almost two years resulted from the assault. During reconstruction most government administrations were controlled by carpet beggars, and corruption and incompetence were rampant. Amazingly, in October of 1873, Jennie Bronson was found not guilty of assault. Through some manipulation, Jennie moved into Eliza’s house using a court document filed by another judge and stayed there for a long time before she could be evicted. Eliza was living in the St. Charles hotel and wrote William asking him to help her retrieve her home. She mentioned that all her correspondence (and poetry) was in the house. William contacted her after the assault by Jennie Bronson and wanted to renew the relationship, but Eliza would not since she and William were both married to others. However, in one of her letters to William, she confided that Holbrook did not love her, “never did, and never will.”
Eliza had felt rejected by her family when she left Gainesville, when she fell in love with Willie, when she began publishing poetry, when she accepted the literary editorship of the Daily Picayune and when she married a divorced man, but the incident with Jennie Bronson was a public scandal with accusations of an affair before marriage and was a devastating attack on her life.
During Eliza’s recuperation from Bronson’s attack, with friends rallying by her side, she published her only book of poetry, Lyrics, containing 43 of her poems, under the pen name Pearl Rivers. She struggled to lift her spirits as she wrote an article and poem in the Daily Picayune in September of 1874 about the trials of gallant women and the tribulations of the Poesy. The poem had been published earlier in the Times but was reprinted to reflect another trauma in her life.
Before their marriage in 1872, A. M. Holbrook had sold the paper. When the paper lapsed into financial trouble under its new owner, Holbrook was made president by the company that bought it. Holbrook later bought the paper back. During that period Eliza and Holbrook traveled to Chicago, New York, and Canada. Eliza’s account of the trip was published in the Daily Picayune on two occasions. The narrative shows a free spirited girl on her first real vacation. She writes of magnificent architecture, museums, and famous people. She was being exposed to a culture different from the South, and she loved all of it but the bustiers which were in fashion at the time.
Before Holbrook could turn around the indebted newspaper, he died in bankruptcy, leaving Eliza with the choice of retaining ownership of the indebted newspaper or accepting the $1000 dollars the state offered to bankrupt widows. At the urging of the business manager and editor, she kept the paper– much to the chagrin of her family. It was not proper for a genteel Southern woman to enter business, especially with cigar smoking men in a newsroom . She defied her family once again. Having made the decision three months after Holbrook’s death keep the paper, the editor, Jose Quintero, a flamboyant Spaniard and expert duelist, challenged anyone who wished ill of the new female editor to do it at the risk of death in a duel with him.
About this time the business manager George Nicholson invested his own savings in the paper and acquired 1/4 ownership. George was married with children at the time, but there was an apparent relationship between Eliza and Nicholson as noted in a group of romantic and coquettish letters written by Eliza Jane to “Uncle” Nick. These letters, not usually ones that would appear in a family collection, were given to Eliza’s granddaughter by a Poitevent relative. The letters provide an invaluable insight to Eliza’s nature and personality. When she was a widow (in a note written by Eliza to her sons) was a letter written by her to their father, showing she was not at all ashamed of the letter. The letters are in the Nicholson Collection at the Williams Research Center. They show a young girl in love, struggling with how to express it to a married man.
In 1877, a year after George Nicholson’s first wife died,, Eliza Jane and George Nicholson married. This time Eliza married for love and faced a very insecure financial future. During those times, scandalous activities were not promulgated in print, but rumors abounded in New Orleans. Eliza apparently got along well with George’s first family. Annie, the oldest daughter actually raised the two Nicholson boys after their parents died.
George Nicholson, a brilliant business man, and his ingenious female editor wife managed to make the paper financially profitable. At first, a managing editor was hired, so Eliza’s input came about gradually. However, in 1880, after the paper was awarded the state publishing contract, the editor was released, and Eliza took on the responsibility. She began the Society Bee, a local gossip column and published the first weekly issue of a serial novel, A Dead Life. The Daily Picayune became one of the leading newspapers in the South during the Reconstruction. Eliza added woman and children and animal issues to the newspaper at a time when Southern women were shedding the bondage of being of a lower genteel class. Her innovations were unprecedented in the South. She fought against the corrupt regimes in local and state government. She supported building jetties to clear the Mississippi River and opposed the continued dredging proposed by the Corps of Engineers. She supported Democratic takeover of the corrupt Republican regimes. She supported public selling of bonds to build the railroad that now passes through Picayune. She was undoubtedly responsible for naming the stops of Picayune and Nicholson. She also hired many women writers, including Catherine Cole and Dorothy Dix, the infamous Dear Abby of her time.
Even when Holbrook took back the paper as president, the newspaper was changing, but now its innovations were numerous, It offered more poetry, literary and romantic stories,when Eliza was literary editor after her marriage. While her innovations boosted circulation, it was George’s ability to sell ads, Eliza’s genius, and the new state contract which helped turn the paper around.
Physically Eliza Jane was short– barely over four feet tall with tiny hands and feet, a somewhat large nose and ears, blue-green or green-gray hazel eyes, and beautiful auburn red hair (blonde from the sun in her earlier years). she looked younger looking her age. She was of fair complexion and probably had freckles. She was an attractive child/woman, but it was not her appearance, but her presence that marked her. She not only impressed men but women and children also. She was sensitive and had a stern will but was not domineering. She was honest to a fault and a free spirit who could live comfortably in her imagination, but she also enjoyed others. She was amiable but not outgoing. She was basically shy and hated to appear before groups of people, sending someone else when duties called her to appear. She loved life and found joy in her children. There appear to be times when she went underground. Perhaps she was away on trips or perhaps she was sick or in a state of depression. She taught her children nature lore. She knew things that others couldn’t comprehend even with experience, so she may have been psychic. As a child, she strikingly resembles an Indago or Chrystal child, two of the Psychic personalities defined by that group. “Did you know she could levitate?” her granddaughter, Elizabeth once said in an interview… “and bend spoons!”
Eliza Jane had participated in several interviews and was written about in journals and articles in magazines. Many short histories are available, and there is a lengthy history of the Daily Picayune during her reign. Who she was is revealed in her poetry and the various articles she wrote when she was editor. She was a gifted writer whose sincerity and general knowledge of the world comes through. Every article is a journey, and every poem has a message. She reveals the depth of her pain and the height of her joy. She questions herself and the world constantly through her newspaper and fostered many causes. She did not promote woman suffrage but suggested that women be ready when it comes. Her view on slavery is not known, nor her view on freed slaves. There may have been resentment because freed blacks were considered responsible for voting in the corrupt government. Her husband George, in a letter to her, suggested a change in their position on the issue, saying that perhaps the blacks should not have been given the right to vote. Many felt as he did and what followed were the poll taxes and the literacy test. However, the histories of the newspaper during Eliza’s reign do not site any editorial opinion. Her principals were never based on public sentiment or cultural norms.
To date, over 200 of her poems have been found. She wrote mostly verse, some portions with genius, some mediocre, which is typical even with famous poets. During her time she was probably the most famous poet in the South. After her marriage to Holbrook and the attack by his ex wife, her poetry suffered. When she took over the newspaper, she had little time to write. There were, however, several serial novels with no by-line. They have been hers. Her writing was not revived until the birth of her first son Leonard when she began to write children’s verse and newspaper articles about her life and children. Later in life, her poetic skills were rejuvenated with two narrative poems: Hagar and Leah. The poems defend the two women who were given a bad rap in the Bible. Both, especially Hagar, received national acclaim.
Eliza Jane died February 15th, 1896, two weeks after George’s death. Both died of influenza during an epidemic in New Orleans. They are buried in Metairie Cemetery. They left two sons, Leonard Kimball Nicholson, age fifteen and York Poitevent Nicholson, age twelve. Aunt Annie, the oldest of George’s daughters, took over care of the boys while the editor, Rapier took over their financial interest. Leonard became the editor of the Times Picayune. York worked for the paper but was sickly and worked only when he felt up to it. Both boys graduated from VMI and were best friends. Eleanor, a deceased granddaughter, had said York never talked about his mother, but he did tell her stories of English folklore that George had told him. Elizabeth, the granddaughter that I interviewed, said he did talk about both his mother and father but not too frequently. She remembers sitting with her father on the front porch sharing their personal lives. Jerry, Leonard Nicholson’s adopted son said his father never talked about his mother or father. Leonard may never got over his parent’s death and compensated for it by being a mentor for his brother. After Leonard’s first wife Mary died in childbirth, he married his Poitevent cousin. His grave was moved from Gainesville to Picayune when the Test Site was constructed.
In 1932, the Iris Society of Louisiana dedicated a Rainbow Memorial to Eliza, a lagoon in City Park.
Don Wicks, Pearl River Historical Society Meeting, 5/21/2007
- Ole Miss site has photo only of Pearl Rivers.
- A Boston site toasts Pearl Rivers and includes brief biography.
- “A Family Newspaper”: Pearl Rivers and the Rebirth of the New Orleans Daily Picayune
- KnowLa article about Eliza Jane Nicholson (1843-1896) as the first woman publisher of a daily metropolitan newspaper.