On November 14, 1889, an intrepid journalist began a record-setting jaunt around the world. This journey, although it began over 131 years ago, still captivates global imagination and inspires curiosity. But who was brave enough to undertake such a journey before the luxury of modern transportation?
Inspired by the novel Around the World in 80 Days by French author Jules Verne, a young journalist named Elizabeth Jane Cochran requested that her editor at the New York World allow her to attempt to circumnavigate the globe in less than 80 days and write about her experiences under her pen name Nellie Bly. Although the editor was fairly certain that such a feat was merely a work of fiction, he was especially doubtful that a woman could complete the trip. When the editor told Bly that he preferred a male journalist for the job, she quickly retorted, “Very well. Start the man and I’ll start the very same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” Unsurprisingly, the editor assigned the story to Bly.
Bly had already made headlines as a journalist prior to the beginning of her world-wide race against time. Two years earlier, Bly had pretended to be mentally ill in order to gain entry into a New York asylum. Once inside, Bly observed the asylum’s appalling conditions for ten days from the perspective of a mental patient, later penning an article that exposed the many disturbing practices she witnessed during her stay. This article served as a catalyst for change and granted Bly an elevated status in American journalism.
Mustering the same grit and determination that originally made her famous, Bly boarded a ship bound for England on November 14, 1889 and departed from Jersey City, New Jersey, with only a single suitcase in hand. Unbeknownst to Bly, a writer named Elizabeth Bisland from rival publication Cosmopolitan departed that same day in an attempt to complete a trip around the world before Bly could navigate her way back to Jersey City.
After arriving in England, Bly was forced to make a difficult decision. After hearing of her plan to circumnavigate the globe in less than 80 days, author Joules Verne himself invited Bly to visit him in his home in Amiens, France. However, this detour posed the risk of causing a significant delay in Bly’s travel itinerary. As a compromise, Bly traveled for two full days without sleep in order to meet Verne without experiencing any setbacks.
Throughout the remainder of her expedition, Bly recorded her experiences as an international traveler and telegraphed articles for publication back to New York. These articles conveyed Bly’s rich descriptions of the cultures she encountered as well as personifications of the odd cast of characters she met as she traveled, from a myriad of unwanted suitors to eccentric shipmates.
It was not until Bly reached Japan that she was informed of her competition in Elizabeth Bisland. Bly, however, was entirely unconcerned with reaching Jersey City before Bisland, stating that her only objective was to achieve the goal she had set for herself at the beginning of her journey. Leaving Asia behind, Bly enjoyed a speedy voyage across the Pacific. Her only problem while returning to America? Her newly acquired pet monkey she had purchased in Singapore had a penchant for biting the others aboard the ship.
At last, Bly was back on American soil. She completed the stretch to Jersey City via railroad, returning to her starting point in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds after her departure, breaking the standing world record of the time and beating Bisland by almost four days’ time. This daring endeavor catapulted Bly into the public eye, making her an American hero still honored today, well over a century after completing her famous trek across the planet.