Chances are you’ve heard of the title Around the World in 80 Days, a fictional novel written by French author Jules Verne in 1873. It was about a man named Phileas Fogg, who took advantage of then-new 19th-century technologies to travel around the globe. Verne’s story was fictional, but thanks to a fearless journalist by the name of Nellie Bly, the trip around the world became a reality.
In 1889, Bly took it upon herself to make the voyage, on mainly steamships and trains. But while she knew exactly what she was doing – she wanted to beat the 80-day “record” – what she wasn’t aware of was that the worldly trip was actually a race. Bly unknowingly set out on what the world saw as a competition between her and a reporter from a rival publication, who also took on the challenge.
This is the story…
The name Nellie Bly was actually her journalist pseudonym. Her real name was Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, and she had already earned a reputation as being the world’s first investigative reporter. By the time this adventure began, Bly had already made headlines for her bold journalistic work.
In an early example of investigative journalism, she spent ten days in a madhouse to expose the cruelties experienced by those living in New York’s Blackwell’s Island insane asylum. Bly made a name for herself as a fearless journalist – a pioneer, not just for women, but for all reporters. In 1889, she took on another daring project, which attracted even more attention than her previous story: she decided to take a trip around the world.
How did she do it? She traveled mostly by train and steamship but also took rickshaw rides, horses, and donkeys – all accomplished within 72 days. Her goal? To defeat the fictional Phileas Fogg’s 80-day odyssey. Bly, a reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, managed to get it done in just 72 days, which marked a world record and even beat her own personal goal of 75 days.
But perhaps even more surprising to Bly was the fact that she beat out her competitor – a woman she had no idea was even involved – Elizabeth Bisland of Cosmopolitan magazine. As it turns out, Bisland and Bly were in a race around the world. And Bly won.
At the end of her journey, on January 25, 1890, Bly arrived at a New Jersey train station, met by a crowd of cheering supporters. If you would have asked her editor at New York World, John A. Cockerill, he would have told you that it was an impossible feat. Initially, Cockerill resisted sending her on the mission…
It all started when Bly finished reading Verne’s famous novel. She approached Cockerill with what would have been seen by anyone as an outrageous pitch. But, if he would allow it, she would then make the journey and document it for the paper. Cockerill was indeed intrigued by Bly’s proposal. But as a business manager, he wasn’t a man who could be easily convinced.
A journey on the scale that Bly was proposing was unprecedented by any man or woman. Although Bly insisted that she would be able to do it without a chaperone, the senior staff at the paper – all men – were unconvinced that a woman could succeed in a mission like this. Obviously, they preferred to send a man instead.
Cockerill plainly told Bly that the very fact that she was female would make the trip impossible. “No one but a man can do this,” he told her. She replied: “Very well,… start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” He eventually gave in and sent her on her mission around the world.
With the mission green-lighted, Bly went ahead and planned her trip. She was wise enough to pack light — extremely light. Rather than taking a “dozen trunks” that her editors mockingly predicted she would carry with her, Bly took with her a single piece of luggage, 16 inches wide and seven inches high.
In a bag that could easily small comply with today’s airline carry-on standards, Bly packed the following: a few pairs of underwear, some toiletries, writing utensils, needles and thread, a tennis blazer, a dressing gown, a flask, a cup, two hats, three veils, one pair of slippers, and some handkerchiefs. And all that fit in her little bag.
Bly didn’t even bother taking a spare dress, wearing only the clothing she ordered from a dressmaker that was made of “plain blue broadcloth and a quiet plaid camel’s-hair.” In her only indulgence of vanity, Bly took one jar of cold cream. In regards to safety, she refused to take a revolver with her, confident of “the world’s greeting me as I greeted it.”
The New York World (aka The World) was fully backing her both financially and professionally, with a front-page story on the day of her departure. They bid her farewell and good luck from the Hoboken Pier in New Jersey. From the beginning, Bly was precise with her timing, marking her departure on the Augusta Victoria at 9:40 p.m. on November 14, 1889.
Bly was ambitious as she didn’t want to merely match Phileas Fogg’s record – she wanted to beat it. A woman of precision, Bly planned to be on the road for no longer than 75 days and four hours. Her journey actually got off to a rough start. She was, after all, a first-time traveler. Right off the bat, she fell violently seasick on the transatlantic trip to London.
Just the sight of food made her sick. Her fellow passengers were judgmental of this queasy woman who thought she could travel around the entire world. She tried to sleep off her nausea, which helped at first, but she was awakened 22 hours later by a knock on her cabin door…
The ship’s Captain hadn’t seen her for nearly a full day, and he was worried that she had died considering how sick she was. Not only was she alive, but her long sleep appeared to have done the trick. Bly managed the rest of her journey in good health and, more so, with a good appetite. She even made friends with her shipmates.
The observations she noted in her journal were both perceptive and humorous. She wrote of a conversation she had with someone as the ship embarked. “Do you get sea-sick?” A man asked her in a friendly way. “That was enough; I flew to the railing. Sick? I looked blindly down, caring little what the wild waves were saying, and gave vent to my feelings.”
After a full week, Bly arrived at Southampton, she was faced with a critical decision. Jules Verne himself sent her an invitation to visit him at his home in Amiens, France. But the problem was that she had only one chance to make the trip to visit him without missing her connection in London. In order to do so, she went without sleep for two nights.
She reached Amiens and was greeted by Verne and his wife “with the cordiality of a cherished friend.” Thanks to the services of a translator (Bly didn’t speak French), the two writers had a pleasant visit. She learned that Verne’s story was inspired by reading a newspaper article — a fitting detail to reveal to a journalist.
As Bly bid Verne and his wife adieu, he wished her luck, saying, “If you do it in seventy-nine days, I shall applaud with both hands.” She then continued on her way through the continent of Europe, which was to be followed by Egypt and the Suez Canal. All the while, Bly was completely unaware that she was actually in a competition – that her mission had become a race.
On the same day that she departed to London, reporter Elizabeth Bisland left New York, heading in the opposite direction. Bisland was being sponsored by her own publisher, Cosmopolitan. In more than one way, Bisland served as a real contrast to Bly.
Bisland was the literary editor of Cosmopolitan, and she “reveled in gracious hospitality and smart conversation, both of which were regularly on display in the literary salon that she hosted in her small apartment,” according to Matthew Goodman from the Public Domain Review.
Bisland’s editor asked her to race Bly around the world, but, at first, she said no. Why? Because she had guests coming for dinner, and she had nothing to wear on such a journey. But it seems as though the real reason she initially refused the project was because she had no desire to gain the kind of notoriety that she was sure would come with a race like this. In the end, however, her editor made her go on the trip.
At the end of the day, Cosmopolitan was hoping to ride the wave of Bly’s publicity. They sent their rival reporter to race against Bly, but she headed in the opposite direction. Bisland left New York the same day as Bly and with merely six hours to prepare herself. While the press clearly took an interest in this rival traveler, Bly had no idea.
She was unaware of Bisland’s competition until she got to Hong Kong on Christmas Day. She was called into the office of the Oriental and Occidental Steamship Company before she was set to depart for Japan. It was then that Bly was asked if she was the “Nellie Bly having a race around the world.”
Bly naïvely responded by saying yes, she was indeed running “a race with time.” But she was then told, “I don’t think that’s her name.” Apparently, Bisland had already passed through Hong Kong just three days prior, with a blank check from Cosmopolitan, offering ships bribes in any amount they wished in order to accommodate her schedule.
The man in the office then told her she was going to lose this race. Although caught completely off-guard, Bly was confident in her response: “I am not racing with anyone. I would not race. If someone else wants to do the trip in less time, that is their concern. If they take it upon themselves to race against me, it is their lookout that they succeed. I am not racing.”
Bly continued in her response to the Oriental and Occidental Steamship Company: “I promised to do the trip in 75 days, and I will do it. Although had I been permitted to make the trip when I first proposed it over a year ago, I should then have done it in sixty days.”
She wrote of the interaction in her journal: “Lose it? I don’t understand. What do you mean?” She noted that she began to think he was mad. But the man told her: “Yes, the other woman; she is going to win. She left here three days ago.” Bly was shocked to discover that Bisland was her competitor, but she nonetheless pressed forward, toward Japan.
Before Bly headed for Japan, while she was waiting for the steamship to be ready, she made a small detour. She stopped to buy, believe it or not, a monkey. During her journey, Bly sent short dispatches to her paper by cable. She was surprised when the Italian-speaking operator asked her what country New York was in.
Meanwhile, in New York, Bly’s editors started taking bets on the amount of time it would take her to return home. And they were exact, too, down to the minute. The World also reprinted accounts of her journey in the newspapers in the countries she visited.
As a single female traveler, Bly naturally attracted a lot of male attention, despite her best efforts to prevent it. A rumor began while she was on a ship from Italy to Egypt, that she was “an eccentric American heiress” who was traveling with pretty much nothing but a “hairbrush and a bank book.”
Bly was even proposed to by a man who clearly had eyes on her (falsely reported) wealth. She wrote about another occasion when she was hit on by a ship captain whose “smooth, youthful face” and “tall, shapely, slender body” disproved her expectation of him being a rather grumpy old seaman. When she met with Verne, he even “winkingly” predicted that she would find herself a companion along the way, just as Phileas Fogg did.
Bly was determined and insisted on making the voyage alone. She wouldn’t allow herself to be distracted by the likes of ogling men. Her journey was populated by all kinds of characters as if she really was a character herself in a book written by Verne. On her first oceanic passage, she noticed an American girl who knew more about politics, art, music and literature than any man on board.
She wrote of the “peculiarities” of a man who took his pulse after every meal. There was also a man who counted every single step that he took each day and a woman who never undressed even once since departing from New York. Apparently, it was because she was determined that, if the ship sank, she should be fully dressed.
Some of Bly’s comments about other races and ethnicities would be seen as offensive by today’s standards, but she still made a conscious effort to respect every culture she encountered. Considering that it was her first time traveling, she naively made slip-ups along the way, like when she inadvertently insulted Italians by offering a coin to a begging child.
She spent a lot of her time documenting Italian cuisine, Japanese fashion, and Egyptian alligator-hunting. One day, Bly was treated to a ride by a team of ponies in Hong Kong. And she accepted a ride on a donkey named Gladstone “with two beautiful black eyes” in Egypt.
Bly’s journey was coming to an end. In a hurry to get their world traveler home, The World chartered a one-car train to get Bly across the country quickly. Meanwhile, Bisland’s crossing from England back to the US ultimately made her lose the race. In the end, after an 8,000-mile journey, it was a relief to everyone to learn of Bly’s safe arrival in San Francisco.
At last, she was back on American soil. She arrived in Jersey City at 3:51 p.m. on January 25, 1890, meaning it took her 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds from the moment she left. It also meant that she beat her own schedule by three days, and Verne’s by eight.
Bly later recalled that when she arrived, she “took off my cap and wanted to yell with the crowd, not because I had gone around the world in seventy-two days, but because I was home again.” On the lecture tour, Bly was welcomed as a conquering heroine, met by cheering crowds and supporters in their Sunday best.
A Kansas man even invited her to the Midwest since they were considering electing her for governor. The mayor of Dodge City greeted her himself, and the Chicago Press Club held a breakfast in her honor.
As for Bisland, she returned home four days later, to her disappointment. Unlike Bly, who quickly began a four-city lecture tour, Bisland fled the limelight and lived for a year in Great Britain. After her return, Bisland never spoke publicly about the trip.
It may seem unlikely that there were two female reporters on such a trip at the turn of the 20th century, but that’s only because the story of bold, daredevil “girl reporters” faded from history books. During the era of “yellow journalism” (newspapers that used eye-catching headlines for increased sales), papers and magazines hired many of these kinds of reporters.
According to Tom Leonard, a professor of journalism history at the University of California, they were “stunt girls” who were meant to boost circulation. The journalist Brooke Kroeger, who wrote a biography on the famed reporter, said, “I can’t imagine the editors of her day were excited about the idea of throwing a woman onto the front page as often as she got there. But she got there nearly every time she wrote, which in itself is astounding. It’s hard to understand today what that really meant in its context.”
Bisland wrote about being given five hours’ notice before such a crazy trip. She was clearly unhappy about it. “To the masculine mind, there appears to be something strangely exhilarating in the thought of a woman being abruptly torn from her home without sufficient time to put her wardrobe in order,” were her words.
She continued: “To all the men responsible for this voyage, the most delightful feature apparently of the whole affair was the fact that I should be forced to get ready in five hours for a seventy-five days’ voyage around the world.” She also wrote that she finally managed to get all “absolute necessaries” of travel into a steamer trunk, a large bag, and a shawl-strap.
Now for an excerpt from Bly’s book: “I bought one handbag with the determination to confine my baggage to its limit. That night, there was nothing to do but write to my few friends a line of farewell and to pack the handbag.” It’s clear how different these two women were just based on these two accounts.
These women’s stories of traveling the world also revealed a darker side to history. Their accounts revealed the struggles both women faced trying to find a place in the male-dominated world of journalism. They had to deal with sexist and paternalistic attitudes before, during, and likely after their travels. Their stories inadvertently revealed all kinds of prejudices, human rights violations, and cultural misinterpretations that were prevalent at the time.
If you remember, at the beginning of this piece, I mentioned the story that made Nellie Bly a well-known name. Well, here is the story of THAT story…