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March 19, 2024 9 mins

Sometimes it takes a writer to get a curious tale in front of the public, as these two stories demonstrate for us today.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild. Our world is full of
the unexplainable, and if history is an open book, all
of these amazing tales are right there on display, just
waiting for us to explore. Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities.

History is full of stories brought to us by undercover journalists,
intrepid reporters who risk their life, limb and freedom to
get the ungettable scoop. Their reporting has spark reform and
changed the world, but few can boast a career to rival.
Nellie Bly born in eighteen sixty four as Elizabeth Jane Cochrane.

She began writing under the pen name Nellie Bly when
she was just fifteen years old. Despite her obvious instincts
for investigative work, Nellie's first newspaper, the Pittsburgh Dispatch, relegated
her topics they associated with female readers. She was stuck
writing about fashion, garden parties, and society gossip, which frustrated

her to no end. So at twenty two, she quit
her job and headed to New York City. She hoped
to launch a career in writing hard hitting articles for
a serious newspaper. Now in eighteen eighty seven, there were
few papers as serious or respected as Joseph Pulitzer's New
York World. Nellie managed to get a meeting with a
company's managing editor, then pitched him her idea for a

piece on the immigrant experience. The editor, though, wasn't interested
in her story, but he was impressed by Nellie's tenacity,
so he offered her another assignment. If she could get
into the mental health asylum on Blackwell's Island, spend a
week there, and then write about what she saw, he
would publish the story and give her a job. Nellie
accepted the challenge and immediately got to work formulating a plan.

Her first step was to check into a temporary boarding house.
After staying up all night so that her eyes were
rimmed with shadows, she started going around the building, accusing
the other tenants of being insane. She made such a
disturbance that the police were called. The next morning. When
she was hauled in front of a judge, Nellie feigned amnesia,
claiming I don't remember, I don't remember, over and over again.

She was examined by several doctors who quickly concluded that
she was quote positively demented and undoubtedly insane. Within days
of her arrest, Nellie boarded a tiny boat bound for
Blackwell's Island. The conditions that the asylum turned out to
be far worse than she had expected. The facility was
crawling with rats, the food barely edible, the drinking water filthy.

Patients were tied together with rope, made to sit on
hard benches for hours, and taken for walks in the
cold while wearing thin clothing. Worst of all, the nurses
insulted and beat the patience when they stepped out of line.
After her week was complete, Nellie tried to convince the
hospital staff to let her go, but they ignored her. Eventually,
her editor arrived and convinced them to release her, explaining

that she was a reporter on assignment. Nellie had spent
ten days on Blackwell's Island. She wrote a series of
six articles about her experience, which were published that October.
The story stunned the public, which had never before gotten
such a clear look at the inner workings of a
mental health facility. An investigation into the asylum's practices was launched,

eventually leading to increased funding for mental health patients, and
Nellie became a star. She kept working as a journalist
for The New York World, covering subjects from corrupt lobbying
practices to the women's suffrage movement. Her groundbreaking work inspired
a surge and female investigative journalists derisively termed stunt girl journalists.

The implication was that these women were simply after attention,
not capable of real reporting. But for Nellie Bly, it
was hardly a gimmick. From the first day of her
career to the last, her fearlessness and dogged pursuit of
the truth were second to none. She did whatever it
took to get her story, and in the process, she
became one herself. The rangers at the Grand Canyon had

a problem. Their park was crawling with an invasive species,
and they had been tasked with getting rid of the animals.
After reviewing their options, it was determined that relocating the
critters would be prohibitively expensive. Their best option was to
hunt them down one by one and purge them from
the park. The animal in question wasn't a type of
rat or snake, or even an insect. It wasn't a bear, coyote,

fox or other animal typical of American parks. The creatures
causing all the fuss were burrows. Burrow is Spanish for donkey.
The terms are interchangeable, but in the Western US, burrow
is commonly used to signify wild members of the species,
and that's exactly what the Canyon burroughs were. After being
brought to Arizona from Spain in the fifteen hundreds, many

of the hardy animals had gotten loose and multiplied. Eventually
they become a common sight at the Grand Canyon, where
they were occasionally caught and used as pack animals. While
the burroughs were popular with tourists, they presented a very
real problem for the park. They destroyed natural vegetation, they
drove out native species, and defecated in local streams, so

as early as the nineteen twenties, rangers started hunting them down,
mostly without the awareness of the public. But that changed
in nineteen fifty three when children's author Marguerite Henry published
Brightly of the Grand Canyon. The novel told a fictionalized
story of a very real wild burrow who lived in
the park for thirty years between eighteen ninety two and

nineteen twenty two. When he was alive, Brightley was beloved
by tourists and park staff alike. He made a name
for himself as a stubborn, friendly guy who loved pancakes
and hated hard work like most of us. Right, he
made an exception for a boy named Bob McKee, whose
parents managed a tourist facility on the North Rim. Bob

could always get Bridy to help him collect fresh water
from a nearby spring, and they spent countless hours together
wandering through the terrain. Unsurprisingly, the children's book skirted how
the real Bridie died. One winter, he got snowed in
with a pair of cowboys during a blizzard. When they
ran out of food, they resorted to eating the port donkey.

It was a sad ending, but far from the conclusion
of Bridie's story. The children's books soon became a movie,
turning him into a minor celebrity. A bronze statue of
Bridy was commissioned to promote the movie. It was later
gifted to the Grand Canyon National Park and placed at
South Rim Visitor Center. This was a bit of a
problem for the park rangers, though, who were still trying

to deal with their own borough problem. In nineteen seventy six,
they ramped up efforts to wipe the invasive species from
the park. This time, when the public found out that
the rangers were killing the boroughs, they immediately thought of Brdy.
Protests were held, Scathing editorials were written. Politicians received thousands
of letters from kids begging them to save the boroughs.

The park responded by putting Brdy's statue in storage, which
just angered people more. Pretty soon they had a serious
pr crisis on their hands. Luckily, by this point, Brdy's
cause had generated some serious donations, almost half a million dollars.
The money was used to airlift over five hundred boroughs
from the Grand Canyon by helicopter, relocating them to a

ranch in Texas. Afterwards, the park rangers quietly hunted down
the remaining boroughs, then put up a fence to keep
any more from getting in. At the urging of the
public look, Brdy's statue was taken out of storage and
put back on display. Today, he can be found in
the Grand Canyon Lodge, knows shiny from thousands of hands
touching it. His current spot is near the place where

Bob McKee's family lived back when he and Bridy collected
water together. He'd been through quite the journey, become a
movie star and the focal point for a battle between
environmentalists and animal rights activists. But in the end, the
faral Donkey found his way back home. I hope you've

enjoyed today's guided tour of the Cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe
for free on Apple Podcasts, or learn more about the
show by visiting Curiosities podcast dot com. The show was
created by me Aaron Mankey in partnership with how Stuff Works.
I make another award winning show called Lore, which is
a podcast, book series, and television show, and you can

learn all about it over at the Worldolore dot com.
And until next time, stay curious.

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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