For the 61st episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Ken Ward spoke to Carolina Velloso about the career of sports reporter, photojournalist and national magazine writer Sadie Kneller Miller, a trailblazing journalist at the turn of the 20th century whose story had been lost to history.
Carolina Velloso is a doctoral student in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Velloso won the AEJMC History Division’s 2020 Diversity in Journalism History Research Award and the Top Student Paper Award for “‘A True Newspaper Woman’: The Career of Sadie Kneller Miller.”
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Carolina Velloso: She was never afraid to chase a story. She was really the embodiment of a fearless reporter. It’s also important to ponder the ways her career both challenged and conformed to norms and expectations of women journalists at the, the turn of the 20th century.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, and together we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
One of the best parts of journalism history research is its constant rediscovery of enterprising, innovative journalists who are lost to time. One such journalist is Sadie Kneller Miller, who was a woman sports reporter in the late 1800s, itself a rarity, before rising to national prominence as a photojournalist and writer for Leslie’s magazine. Hers is a complicated story, one that exposes the conflict some women journalists experienced in that era as they attempted to make room for themselves in male-dominated professional spaces by using their gender, the very trait that pushed them out. Joining me to tell this story is Carolina Velloso, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland. Velloso’s work on Sadie Kneller Miller won her the 2020 Diversity in Journalism History Research Award from AEJMC’s History Division. All right, Carolina, welcome to the show. So, first of all, Sadie Kneller Miller. Why did you choose to study her, why should the rest of us be interested in her, and, and why do you think that she’s been overlooked uh –
in earlier historical research?
Carolina Velloso: Hello. Well, first I would like to say just what a pleasure it is to be on the podcast, and thank you so much for having me on.
Ken Ward: Of course.
Carolina Velloso: [Laughs] I decided to study Sadie because I was doing some work for my master’s thesis on early women sports journalists, and I kept seeing her name pop up in anthologies about really early women sports journalists. And there isn’t a lot about, about women who, who, who did sports journalism before 1920, and so I, and I had never heard of her, but I went looking and I couldn’t find anything that had been written about her in a scholarly manner outside of these one-sentence mentions in these books. And I discovered that she was an alumna of a college about 50 miles –
north of where I live in Westminster, Maryland, which is her hometown, and an English professor there had started researching her and had compiled all of her written material, and unfortunately passed away before he had time to really write the research on her that he wanted to. And so I went up there to look at this collection, and I discovered that she was so much more than just a sports journalist. She – that was actually the very beginning of her career. But for the 20 years of her career that, that were really her most important, she was a photojournalist and a national and international correspondent for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, which was one of the most popular and widely circulated periodicals of the time, and she left such an extensive written record. I mean hundreds –
of articles, hundreds of photographs. And so I was just hooked, and I knew I had to finish the work that this professor had started. And, uh –
Ken Ward: Sure.
Carolina Velloso: – I was really excited to write this paper, and, and she is really important to study not just because of the extensive record that she left of journalism, but she also recorded so many important moments in history all over the world, which I can get into later. But she photographed, you know, the construction of the Panama Canal. She took the last known photo of Susan B. Anthony. Um, she photographed Serbian concentration camps in the leadup to World War I. I mean she just left so much rich material for us to study today.
Ken Ward: Sure. So, so help us, help us –
Carolina Velloso: Yeah.
Ken Ward: – understand how she got there. Like, like walk us through, give, give us a little hint of where her life started, and then help us through that career. Where did she work and, and –
Carolina Velloso: Uh –
Ken Ward: – what sort of work was she doing?
Carolina Velloso: Sure. Well, I’ll try to, I’ll try to give her life and career overview as best I can. So in 1867 she was born in Westminster, Maryland, as Sadie Kneller. And Westminster as I said, is, is in northern Maryland about 50 miles north of D.C. She grew up there and went to Western Maryland College, which is now McDaniel College, and that’s when she really got her start in journalism. She started to contribute articles to her local paper, the Westminster Democratic Advocate, and she started writing about a subject that was a particular passion of hers, which was baseball. And she ended up marrying the second baseman of the local team she covered, Charles Robert –
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Carolina Velloso: – Miller, yeah, who was also a student at Western Maryland College. So they got married and they –
moved to Baltimore, and that’s when she got sort of her first real journalism job. She began covering the Baltimore Orioles, which is the city’s professional baseball team, for the Baltimore Telegram, and she did that for three years between 1894 and 1897. And the story goes that she wrote under the byline SKM, purportedly to disguise her gender, and supposedly towards the end of her time at the Telegram her identity was revealed and the readers found out that their favorite local baseball reporter was in fact a woman. So she was probably one of the first women to ever have a, a so-called beat, a sports beat, which is when you, you know, cover one particular team for the most part.
Ken Ward: Sure.
Carolina Velloso: And so she already, that’s already started her career kind of as a trailblazer.
And then it was also during her time at the Telegram that she took up photojournalism because she thought that if she took photos to go along with her stories that, that it would make the stories more appealing, and so that’s how she picked up a camera. And in 1898, so a year after that, she photographed three soldiers that had been captured in Cuba. This was during the Spanish-American War, and they were being brought back to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and so she took a picture of these three soldiers coming into port, and she sent them to Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, and then Leslie’s decided to publish the photographs, and that’s really how that relationship started. And so they brought her on to this Leslie’s staff in 1900 as a reporter and as a photojournalist.
And that’s where she spent the next 18 years of her career, first as a national correspondent with Leslie’s, and then as an international correspondent. And it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that she literally visited every corner of the U.S. She did tours of Hawaii, Alaska, you know, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, Texas and the Southwest Florida, her native Mid-Atlantic, the Northeast. I mean she really covered it all and got some fantastic stories along the way. And then as an international correspondent, she reported from she went several times to Cuba to report on what life was like there. She took pictures of the construction of the Panama Canal, which garnered a full-page spread in Leslie’s when they published it. She was on the Spanish-Moroccan firing line when the Spaniards were having a conflict with the –
the native Riffian tribes there in the leadup to World War I. And then she also had probably two of her greatest achievements during her time as an international correspondent. In 1912 she was detained on a small German island in the North Sea under suspicion of being an English spy, and she was released when she said she was proudly American and not English, and promised –
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Carolina Velloso: – not – yeah [laughs] – and promised not to take anymore photographs, but of a naval base that the Germans had there. But — and although she wasn’t able to keep photographing the base, she did manage to sneak some pictures of the main island’s harbor, which were then published with her story. And then in 1914 she interviewed the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in Mexico during the height of the Mexican revolution, and she took portraits of him and his wife to go with the story, so that probably –
her most successful and popular story. So she really just had an extraordinary career.
Ken Ward: Absolutely, yeah. And so I have lots of questions about her ’cause she seems like a really interesting person. Before, before we dive into a little bit more about her, I have a more of a sort of a research-oriented question for you. In reading through your research, it looks like you found an archive, like you said, that there had been this earlier researcher who had done some of the legwork for you in, in collecting some materials, which I know in my own research is always really exciting, right, because there’s, there’s sort of a treasure chest waiting for you to, to open it. So were there any surprises that you found when you dug into that research or, you know, was there anything that, that particularly caught your eye as you started learning more about who, who Miller was?
Carolina Velloso: Oh, my gosh. Um, I was just surprised first at just the volume of it. I never expected to find so many articles. I had some idea that –
that she had written for Leslie’s but I just didn’t know that, that she was turning in literally dozens of articles a year. I mean it, it was the, just the massive volume I think of the journalism she left behind was, was probably my biggest surprise. Um, I was also just really surprised at, at the variety of different types of stories that she wrote. She did, you know, more human interest and, and travel pieces, and perhaps those were supposed to be catered more to, towards the women audience of the magazine, but she also wrote some really hard-hitting pieces on, especially when she interviewed these prominent figures such as –
Pancho Villa, and she really, she was very intrepid and didn’t shy away from, from asking tough questions. And, and I think her, her versatility really was, was really shocking to me.
Ken Ward: Sure. Well, so one of the, I think, very interesting things about, about her deals with both her status as a trailblazer for women in journalism, but also her complicated relationship with like the women’s suffrage movement and feminism more broadly. So can you, can you talk a little bit about that, like where, where did that conflict lie and, and how did it impact sort of her standing, you know, or, or the way that we should look at her as historians?
Carolina Velloso: Right. I think, you know, Miller had definitely had a complicated relationship with the suffrage movement which, the crux of which coincided with the height of her own career. Right? She –
She was quite wary of it. She said in interviews that she thought that if women obtained the rights that they were asking for, that it would make her job as a reporter harder because she thought that men’s chivalrous impulses to help her out would disappear.
Ken Ward: Mm.
Carolina Velloso: And so she was afraid that any, any gains attained as part of the suffrage movement would limit actually her access to some of the sources that she cultivated and to some of the privileges that she had learned to gain on account of her gender, and in many ways she also didn’t embody some of the characteristics of the, quote, unquote, new woman that was growing out of the suffrage movement. She, for the entirety of her career at Leslie’s, she wrote under the byline Mrs. Charles R. Miller, or Mrs. C.R. Miller, so –
so never with her given name. She traveled on assignment often by herself. Her husband did go with her frequently, but she also traveled alone frequently, and when she did she would plan her husband’s meals out in advance when she was away so she –
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Carolina Velloso: For the household staff to know exactly what to feed him when she was gone.
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Carolina Velloso: So she also really enjoyed that domestic aspect, and she saw it sometimes as incompatible with the suffrage movement.
Ken Ward: Interesting. Interesting. Okay. So her rise and, and, and her career, right, her upward trajectory, as you noted, seems to coincide with the rise in photojournalism in particular and her adoption of photojournalism early in her career really seems to have propelled her forward. So how important was, was her, her adoption of this technology and embracing this sort of –
disruptive technology? I think when we talk about journalism today, we often talk about disruption because of the technologies that have, have entered the fore in the past 20 or so years. Can we see parallels in her own career and the way that she sort of catapulted up to, to these high-profile magazines?
Carolina Velloso: Yeah. I think there, there can be a case to say that photojournalism was not only really important, but perhaps vital to the trajectory of her career because, you know, she was a fine writer when she was writing for, for the Telegram when she was writing baseball stories for them, but taking pictures to go along with the articles is really what made her stand out, and it’s quite literally what led to her job at Leslie’s. If she hadn’t sent in those photos in 1898 to Leslie’s, who knows if she would have ever gotten that job or any other journalism job that would have come with the –
the prominence of being a staff writer for Leslie’s. So I think photojournalism really gave her a unique skill set that, to go along with her reporting, that probably, you know, helped her career out immensely. And, and she did catch it just as it was emerging. I think, you know, Jessie Tarbox Beals was also coming up right around this time so it was definitely, I would say definitely crucial to her career.
Ken Ward: Sure. One of the other complicated things in relation to her and her, her sort of status as a trailblazer is the way that she sometimes referred to other, you know, other groups in her writing because as she’s traveling around the United States a lot of what she — if I understood correctly — a lot of what she’s writing on is like indigenous populations. She’s going to events related to some of what these indigenous Americans are doing.
So her tone sounded a little complicated, and can you share a little bit about how she tended to refer to those marginalized populations and how that might change the way that we consider her work in the broader scope of journalism history?
Carolina Velloso: Right. Yeah. You definitely can’t ignore some of the language that she uses in her articles to deal with not only Native American tribes in the U.S. but also populations outside of the U.S. that, in countries that the U.S. had some sort of relationship to. So she definitely used, you know, imperialistic or, you know, colonial language and expressed those opinions. Um, she, when she wrote about Native Americans, which she did a few times in Hawaii and also in the western United States, she characterized –
their traditions as spectacles sometimes. She called them savages and, and clowns. And that does complicate, I guess, the way we look at her because she did participate in the perpetuation of the stereotyping and the hostility towards the indigenous that was particularly pronounced in the early 20th century.
Ken Ward: Sure. Turning back to her gender so how did she, how did she use her gender to her advantage? As you noted, you know, she clearly saw it as advantageous to her to be a woman in certain situations. So expand on that a little bit. How did she use her gender to her advantage as a journalist?
Carolina Velloso: Well, she often said in interviews that she was able to obtain special access to certain people or events on account of her gender that a lot of times –
men saw her as non-threatening and so that they would allow her to see something or enter somewhere and, and that would allow her to, to get the stories that she wanted. She really counted on being just underestimated to get, to get her stories.
Ken Ward: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. How, how did others use her gender, then? If, if she –
Carolina Velloso: Mm-hmm.
Ken Ward: – saw it as something that she could use at times to her advantage, I get the sense that others, especially the editors above her, sometimes tried to use her gender to their advantage as well.
Carolina Velloso: Oh, sure. Uh, you know, Leslie’s certainly did. Right? When she, when she had obtained a certain degree of prominence they began prefacing her stories with editors’ notes that advertised her as a woman correspondent or a woman war correspondent. So –
they definitely began to use her gender as a, almost like a selling point for the magazine. So she herself kind of became a novelty figure on account of her gender.
Ken Ward: Mm. Mm. So what can we take away from her career? And I’m thinking both as historians, but also just as, as people, right, who are, who are interested in how her career progressed and how her life progressed. What can we take away from this life and career of Sadie Kneller Miller?
Carolina Velloso: Well, I think what I took away, for the most part, was how intrepid and adventurous she was. Right? She was never afraid to chase a story. She was really the embodiment of a fearless reporter. And she left such an extensive written and pictorial record for us, so we can, we can learn so much from, you know, how she th- –
the way she thought and, and the world as she saw it in the first two decades of the 20th century from analyzing these articles, and, and like we talked about, it’s also important to ponder the ways her career both challenged and conformed to norms and expectations of women journalists at the, the turn of the 20th century, and especially with the hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment this year it’s important to think about the place of women journalists in the canon of American history. Right? Do they need more room? And, and also I think we should all, you know, both media historians and, and the general public, we should all think about how to continue recovering the voices of, of women journalists whose careers have been, been lost to posterity.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Excellent. Uh, one last question for you.
Carolina Velloso: Mm-hmm.
Ken Ward: And this is a question that we ask all of our guests. Why does journalism history matter?
Carolina Velloso: Wow. Well, I, you know, I think journalism history is absolutely crucial because journalism really is the first written record of the past. Right? You, learning about the past tells you not only, you know, who a society or country of people were, but, but who we are now and, and how we got here, and understanding the context of what happened in the past offers so much insight into where we are now. And, and so journalism history is particularly important because journalists are often the first to document what is happening at any moment in time and, and looking back on what was written, it gives us a chance to reflect upon what was important to us at, at that point in time. So, you know, what did we –
write down and what didn’t we write down? And so, you know, that’s why I think journalism history is just absolutely critical. It’s, it’s the material manifestation of our collective history and our values.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Well, thank you very much, Carolina. I appreciate –
Carolina Velloso: Thank you.
Ken Ward: – you being on the show.
Carolina Velloso: Absolutely.
Ken Ward: Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Journalism History podcast. If you like our podcast, please consider leaving us a rating and a review on the Podcasts app, or wherever you listen to us. Until next time, I’m your host, Ken Ward, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night, and good luck.