In 1873, French author Jules Verne published Around the World in 80 Days, the fictional account of a man named Phileas Fogg who took advantage of new nineteenth-century technologies to circumnavigate the globe. It wasn’t sci-fi by any means, since those means of traveling—steam ships, omnibuses, and railroads—did exist at the time, but it took one daring woman to make the made-up journey a reality.
Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, under her journalist pseudonym Nellie Bly, had already earned a reputation as the world’s first investigative reporter and a fearless individual. Her previous escapades, including uncovering the plight of female factory workers and checking herself into a mental institution for ten days, had been sensational adventures that introduced a new frontier of hands-on journalism, but her popularity was waning as more reporters began to parrot her style. After reading Verne’s novel, Bly approached her editor at the New York World with an outrageous pitch: If he would allow it, she would make the journey and document her experience for the paper.
John A. Cockerill, managing editor of the World, was intrigued by Bly’s proposal; the business manager, however, was not so easily convinced. A journey of the scale Bly proposed was unprecedented by man or woman, and although Bly insisted that she could undertake it without a chaperone, the male senior staff at the paper were unconvinced of the woman’s ability to succeed, preferring to send a man instead. Bly had her answer at the ready: “Very well. Start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” The editors conceded.
Bly planned ahead and packed light—extremely light. Rather than the “dozen trunks” her editors had derisively predicted she would need to carry with her, Bly took along just a single piece of luggage, sixteen inches wide and seven inches high. In a bag easily small enough to comply with today’s airline carry-on regulations, she packed a few changes of underwear, toiletries, writing implements, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, a flask, a cup, two caps, three veils, a pair of slippers, needles and thread, and some handkerchiefs. She packed not a single spare dress, wearing only the garment she commissioned from a dressmaker made of “a plain blue broadcloth and a quiet plaid camel’s-hair.” In her only concession to vanity, Bly did carry a single jar of cold cream. She refused to take a revolver, assured of “the world's greeting me as I greeted it.”
The World, now fully backing Bly both financially and with a front-page story on the day of her departure, saw her off from Hoboken Pier in New Jersey. From the start, Bly was exact with her timing, marking her departure on the Augusta Victoria at 30 seconds after 9:40 p.m. on November 14, 1889. Ambitiously, she aimed not merely to match Phileas Fogg’s ‘round-the-world record, but to beat it, hoping to be on the road for no more than 75 days and four hours.
Bly’s journey got off to a rough start, as she—a first-time traveler—found herself violently seasick on the transatlantic crossing to London. The sight of food made her nauseated, and her fellow passengers were rather judgmental of the queasy woman proposing to travel around the entire world. In attempting to sleep off her nausea, Bly awoke 22 hours later to a knock on her cabin door; the Captain feared she had died. The long sleep seemed to do the trick, however, and Bly managed the rest of the journey in good health and with good appetite, making fast friends with her shipmates.
Upon arriving at Southampton, Bly was faced with a critical decision. Jules Verne himself had issued an invitation to the reporter to visit him at his home in Amiens, France, but she only had one chance to make the trip without missing her connection in London. She went without sleep for two nights to do so, and was greeted at the station by the author and his wife “with the cordiality of a cherished friend.” Though forced to employ the services of a translator, the two writers had a pleasant visit, during which Bly learned that Verne’s story had been inspired by his reading a newspaper article—a fitting detail to share with a journalist.
A Rival Traveler
Hoping to ride the wave of Bly’s publicity, Cosmopolitan magazine sent a rival reporter to race her, headed in the opposite direction. Elizabeth Bisland left New York the same day as Bly, with only six hours’ notice to prepare. While the public took interest in this second traveler, Bly herself was unaware of Bisland’s competition until her arrival in Hong Kong on Christmas Day, when she was called into the office of the Oriental and Occidental Steamship Company prior to her departure for Japan. When asked if she was the Nellie Bly having “a race around the world,” she naïvely responded that yes, she was running “a race with Time,” only to be told, “I don’t think that’s her name.” Bisland had passed through Hong Kong three days prior, with a blank check from Cosmopolitan to offer ships bribes in any amount to accommodate her schedule. Bly’s response was assured:
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. I promised to do the trip in seventy-five 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.
Making New Friends
As a single woman traveling alone, Bly attracted considerable male attention, despite her best efforts to deflect it. On the ship from Italy to Egypt, a rumor spread that she was “an eccentric American heiress, traveling about with a hair brush and a bank book,” and she was made an offer of marriage by a man with eyes on her (falsely reported) wealth. On another occasion, she described being called upon by a ship captain whose “smooth, youthful face” and “tall, shapely, slender body” belied her expectation of a grizzled old seaman. Though Jules Verne had winkingly predicted that Bly might find herself a companion along the way, as Phileas Fogg did, she was determined that hers was a voyage to be made alone.
Bly’s journey was populated by a vibrant cast of characters, whose differences both great and small she delighted in reporting. On her first oceanic voyage, she took note of an American girl whom she claimed knew more about politics, art, literature, and music than any man on board, and she chronicled the “pecularities” of a man who took his pulse after every meal, another who counted every step he took each day, and a woman who had not once disrobed since departing from New York, determined that if the ship were to sink, she should be fully dressed. She made the acquaintance of other female travelers, including a pair of Scottish women traveling around the world as well, but over the course of two years—a much more leisurely pace.
While some of Bly’s observations about other races and ethnicities would now be seen as explicitly offensive, she made conscious efforts to respect the cultures she encountered. She made missteps along the way, as when she inadvertently insulted the Italians by offering a coin to a beggar child, but spent most of her time documenting Japanese fashion, Italian cuisine, and Egyptian alligator-hunting. She was treated to a ride by the finest team of ponies in Hong Kong, but was not too much of a snob to see the appeal of a humble burro named Gladstone “with two beautiful black eyes” at Port Said.
Bly dispatched what brief notes she could to The World by cable, though she was surprised in Brindisi when the Italian-speaking cable operator asked her what country New York was in. Her more detailed, handwritten reports, however, traveled by ship, as slowly as she did. Her editors, forced to string out the story to maintain the public’s interest, began printing reaction pieces from foreign papers and geography lessons on all the countries Bly was visiting. After an 8000-mile journey across the Pacific and two weeks of silence from the woman of the moment, it was a relief to everyone when Bly arrived safely in San Francisco, back on American soil at last.
Home Sweet Home
The World, in a hurry to get their world traveler home again, chartered a one-car train to get her across the country with haste. She was greeted as a conquering heroine along the way, met at all stops by cheering crowds and well-wishers in their Sunday best. A Kansas man invited her to come to the Midwest that they might elect her governor; the mayor of Dodge City himself greeted her on behalf of his citizens; the Chicago Press Club held a breakfast in her honor; and the whole nation reverberated with cries of “Hurrah for Nellie Bly!”
Nellie Bly arrived in Jersey City at 3:51 p.m. on January 25, 1890, only 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds after she had left it. She beat her own itinerary by three days, and Verne’s story by eight. Elizabeth Bisland did not arrive for four and a half days afterward. Bly’s trip was an unqualified success, but on arriving, she professed: “I 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.”
For more insight into Nellie Bly’s around-the-world adventure, her book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, is available in the public domain.