November 14th, 1889 – Around the World in 72 Days
Nellie Bly (the pen name of American journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) is perhaps better known for her 1887 exposé Ten Days in a Mad-House when the journalist feigned insanity to be admitted to Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. While there Bly witnessed the ill treatment of inmates being fed gruel broth, rotten meat, barely baked bread, and drinking dirty water. Patients were tied together, forced to sit in the cold, and various waste strewn on the floors attracting rats that freely moved around the hospital. Bly’s article, which was later expanded into a book, was widely received, bringing her fame and journalistic success, and much needed reform to the treatment of the mentally ill.
The following year, with this new found celebrity status, Nellie Bly pitched a story idea to the editor at the New York World that she would attempt Phileas Fogg’s 80 day adventure around the world, bringing Jules Verne’s 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days into a reality; she would be the first to actually do it. It took another year to get the venture approved, and with only two days notice from the newspaper, Bly left for her 24,899 miles journey at 9:40AM on November 14th, 1889.
The adventure began with the Augusta Victoria steamer transporting her across the Atlantic ocean on the Hamburg America Line. She brought with her the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials. She carried most of her money (£200 in English bank notes and gold in total as well as some American currency) in a bag tied around her neck.
The New York newspaper Cosmopolitan sponsored its own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, to beat the time of both Phileas Fogg and Bly. Bisland would travel the opposite way around the world. To sustain interest in the story, the World organized a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match” in which readers were asked to estimate Bly’s arrival time to the second, with the Grand Prize consisting at first of a free trip to Europe and, later on, spending money for the trip.
Bly’s path took her first to England, and then to France where she actually met with Jules Verne in Amiens. Via Italy, she traveled the Suez Canal, passed through Ceylon, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan; in Singapore she purchased herself a monkey for a traveling companion. Thanks to cable networks that extend beneath the Atlantic, Bly was able to send telegram reports of her progress back to New York.
Rough waters on the Pacific placed her two days behind schedule for her arrival in San Francisco, but Pulitzer, then owner of the New York World, chartered a private train to complete the rest of her journey back to the East Coast. After having left on November 14th, 1889, Nellie Bly arrived back in New Jersey on January 25th, 1890 at 3:51PM; it had taken her 72 days to circumnavigate the world traveling alone.
Four and a half days later Cosmopolitan‘s Elizabeth Bisland arrived in New York having taken just over 72 days to make the trip around the world. Both women had successfully toppled the fictional record made by Phileas Fogg, but only a few months later the record was bested by George Francis Train who made the journey in just 67 days. In 1913, the record was reduced even further by John Henry Mears who took only 36 days to get around the world. Despite the record having been beaten so soon after, one cannot forget that two adventurous and resourceful women, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, were the first to do it.