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Nellie Bly's 72 Day Trip Around the World

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Library of Congress

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.

The Pitch

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.”


Not-So-Smooth Sailing

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.

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Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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