A Race Around the World

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A Race Around the World


In 1890, inspired by Jules Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days, one of the first woman reporters set out to make the trip even faster. Elizabeth Cochrane, who went by the pen name Nellie Bly (1867-1922), was traveling for over a month before she found out that another reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, had been dispatched by a rival publication in the hope of getting around the world first. Beating out both the fictional Phileas Fogg and her real-life competitor, Nellie Bly completed the journey in 72 days, a record that would not be bested until the days of air travel.


In the 1880s, women reporters were all but unknown. There was one female writer in a New York City newspaper office, J.C. Crody, who used the name Jennie June. A young woman named Sally Joy worked for the Boston Post. Elizabeth Cochrane, a Pennsylvania teenager, got her first newspaper job at the Pittsburgh Dispatch because she didn't like an essay the paper ran.

The opinion piece in question, "What Girls Are Good For," railed against the employment of women, who were beginning to get jobs in business. Cochrane wrote a letter to the editor opposing the essay, but didn't sign her own name. In the Victorian era, young ladies weren't expected to write letters to newspapers. So she signed it "A Lonely Orphan Girl."

The editor, George Madden, was impressed by the letter. He assumed it was written by an enterprising young man who wanted a job at the newspaper. Taking the "wrong side" of the issue, he reasoned, was simply a way to stand out from the crowd. He advertised for the writer to contact him, and was startled when Elizabeth appeared. Still, after he bought a few of her articles, including a controversial piece on unfair divorce laws, she persuaded him to give her a regular job on the staff. He liked her work, and besides, controversy sold newspapers. The mores of the time argued against an 18-year-old girl writing under her own name, so Elizabeth Cochrane became Nellie Bly, after a girl in a popular song by Stephen Foster.

Bly often used her writing to expose social injustice. She did stories on deplorable working conditions in Pittsburgh factories, and children living in slums. She was not afraid to name names of factory owners and landlords. Before long, businessmen threatened to pull their advertising from the Dispatch. Madden was on the horns of a dilemma, which he attempted to resolve by giving Bly a raise and hiding her away for a year in the society section. There she was to write about parties held by rich matrons. Bored and restless, she eventually persuaded him to let her go back to writing serious articles, including a series on conditions in the Pennsylvania jails. Soon she went undercover to write about women working on assembly lines, and the factory owners' protests against Bly recommenced. Back to the society page she went, with another raise.

After seeing pictures of Aztec ruins in an art gallery, Bly came up with the idea of traveling to Mexico and writing about the sights to be seen there, as well as the Mexican people and the way they lived. Surely the factory owners could not object to that. Her stories ran in the Dispatch, and were picked up by other newspapers all over the country. Bly herself was picked up by the newspaper she most wanted to write for, the prestigious New York World, published by Joseph Pulitzer.


Like Bly, Pulitzer was reform-minded. Unlike Madden, he had the resources to stand up to business interests. Bly was able to go back to writing undercover exposes. In one famous case, she arranged to be committed to the notorious Blackwell's Island insane asylum in order to write about the abuses there. Disguised as the wife of a businessman, she laid a trap for a lobbyist who was bribing politicians.

Meanwhile, the success of the Mexican trip was still in the back of her mind. According to family legend, her mother's uncle had taken a three-year trip around the world. In 1872, the French novelist Jules Verne had published a story about a traveler named Phileas Fogg, who raced around the globe in 80 days. If she made the trip even faster, Bly realized, not only would she be able to write fascinating stories, but it would be great publicity for the World. On this basis, she pitched her idea to Pulitzer.

Pulitzer, concerned about the size of the undertaking and the danger to a woman traveling alone, considered it for almost a year. Then he decided to go ahead with it, but to send a man instead. Bly threatened to quit, finance her own trip, and beat out the World reporter. Finally Pulitzer agreed to let her go, but insisted that she leave within a few days. If she took any longer, word might get out and someone else could try to make the trip first.

In fact, that is exactly what happened. On November 14, 1889, the same day that Nellie Bly sailed east from Jersey City, Elizabeth Bisland of Cosmopolitan magazine had taken a train west from New York. Traveling in the opposite direction, her aim was to beat Bly around the world and make the first triumphant return to New York. But Bly was already a celebrity, and railroad companies and steamship crews made special efforts on her behalf. She was also extremely resourceful and persistent in her own right, valuable qualities for anyone, particularly a woman, circling the globe alone in her day.

When Bly made her trip, not only were there no automobiles or airplanes, but telecommunications was in its infancy. Telephones had been recently invented, but the first inter-city lines, between Boston, Providence Rhode Island, and New York, had opened only a few years before. Bly was able to send telegraph messages back to the World, via coast-to-coast and trans-Atlantic cables laid in the 1860s. But this required being within range of a telegraph office.

Marconi's invention of wireless communication would come five years after Nellie Bly's journey. Frequently during her trip her newspaper office had no idea where she was.

Bly set off with two small bags, wearing a fashionable plaid coat that would become her trademark. Her first stories did not arrive back at the World until 17 days later, when she had crossed the ocean and arrived in London. After crossing the English Channel, she risked a detour for what was to be one of the high points of her trip: a visit to the aged Jules Verne at his home in Amiens, France.

Next Bly caught a mail train across Europe to Brindisi, Italy. There she picked up a ship that steamed through the Suez Canal and into the Indian Ocean to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Other ships took her to Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and across the Pacific to San Francisco. While in Asia, she tried other methods of travel, including mule cart and sampan, and acquired a pet monkey. A large crowd awaited her in San Francisco, along with a special train, re-routed to avoid a blizzard that might have delayed her homecoming. There was a brief layover in Chicago, where Nellie Bly became the first woman reporter ever admitted into the Chicago Press Club building.

Bly's train pulled into Jersey City on January 25, 1890, marking the end of a round-the-world journey that had taken 72 days, six hours, and 11 minutes. Not only had Nellie Bly beaten the fictional milestone of 80 days, her real-life competitor, Elizabeth Bisland, was still on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic, having missed connections and experienced bad weather. Four days later, Bisland's ship steamed into the New York harbor. She too had beaten the 80-day mark. But the crowds had gone home, and the dignitaries were done with their speeches.

Nellie Bly became a national hero. Her book about the trip was a bestseller. Fast trains and racehorses were named after her, and songs were written about her. Internationally famous, she commanded a salary of $25,000 a year, an enormous amount for a reporter at the time. She could cover any story she wanted, and continued her crusades for social reform. As she had in Pittsburgh, she exposed slum conditions in New York, and she described her horror after witnessing an execution. She also debunked the claims of a popular "mind-reader," went up in a balloon, and down in a diving bell. But her influence extended beyond her writing, because of the example she set. By the turn of the century, woman reporters were working at newspapers around the country.


Further Reading

Bisland, Elizabeth. In Seven Stages: A Flying Trip Around the World. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891.

Bly, Nellie. Nellie Bly's Book: Around the World in 72 Days. New York: Pictorial Weeklies Company, 1890.

Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. New York: Random House, 1994.

Marks, Jason. Around the World in 72 Days: The Race Between Pulitzer's Nellie Bly and Cosmopolitan's Elizabeth Bisland. New York: Gemittarius Press, 1993.

Verne, Jules. Around the World in 80 Days. New York: Bantam, 1984.

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