The Woman Who 'Girdled the Globe'
Elizabeth Cochrane, aka Nellie Bly, circa 1890
A Decade after Departing Indiana Normal, Bly Made Her Round-the-World Trek
If she ever contemplated the future in her John Sutton Hall room during the fall of 1879, Elizabeth Cochrane likely never, even in her most audacious daydreams, envisioned becoming one of the most famous females on the planet.
The teenager who scarcely left a mark at Indiana Normal School—she dropped out after a single semester—little more than 10 years later would, as a New York World reporter writing under the nom de plume Nellie Bly, eclipse the record for circling the globe set by Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days.
When Bly accomplished the feat in 72 days, six hours, and 11 minutes, the World hailed her as “the best-known and most widely talked-of young woman on earth today.”
Bly was lauded by newspapers from coast to coast, received a mountain of congratulatory telegrams (including one from Verne himself), embarked on a national speaking tour in which she recounted her adventures to rapt audiences, and published a best-selling book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days.
Not only did Bly beat Fogg during her whirlwind journey; she bested fellow reporter Elizabeth Bisland of Cosmopolitan magazine, who left New York the same day, traveling in the opposite direction. Slowed by severe storms on the North Atlantic, Bisland reached the finish line five days after her rival.
Bly first proposed the idea of challenging Fogg’s record to World publisher Joseph Pulitzer in 1888; he gave her the green light at last on November 11, 1889. Three days later, clad in a dark blue broadcloth traveling dress, a long, black-and-white plaid Ulster coat, and a wool ghillie cap, Bly boarded the steamship Augusta Victoria in Hoboken, New Jersey, bound for England. She carried with her only a leather gripsack, not much larger than a doctor’s bag, into which she crammed clothing items, underwear, slippers, toiletries, a flask and a drinking cup, needles and thread, writing implements, and a jar of cold cream.
Bly set out on her journey with only a satchel.
“One never knows the capacity of an ordinary hand-satchel,” Bly wrote, “until dire necessity compels the exercise of all one’s ingenuity to reduce every thing to the smallest possible compass.” By traveling light, she hoped to avoid delays making connections that those encumbered by multiple trunks often encountered.
Bly chronicled her experiences in exotic lands for readers of the World, the sales of which consequently skyrocketed, through dispatches sent by telegraph. She addressed the customs, fashions, food, homes, and places of worship in the countries she visited. Bly wrote about her seasickness on the Atlantic crossing, which she described as “a lively tussle with the disease of the wave”; the casino in Egypt where she gleefully lost money at the roulette wheel; the snake charmer in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), whose dancing cobra “seemed to stand on the tip end of its tail” as its owner played his fife and waved a red cloth; the execution grounds and instruments of torture she inspected in China; her delight in discovering curry, which she consumed whenever possible while in Asia, although its spiciness nearly gave her “palpitations of the heart”; and the brief detour she made to visit Verne and his wife, Honorine, at their home in Amiens, France.
After showing her his study and library, Verne stepped into a hallway, where a large map hung on the wall. “He pointed out to us several blue marks,” Bly wrote. “Before his words were translated to me, I understood that on this map he had, with a blue pencil, traced out the course of his hero, Phileas Fogg, before he started him in fiction to travel around the world in eighty days.” In the weeks after bidding Bly a fond adieu and wishing her luck, Verne followed her daily progress by pinning small flags to that same map.
Jules Verne’s hero, Phileas Fogg, and Nellie Bly followed similar paths around the world. Click the map to view larger.
Unlike the typical world traveler, Bly collected only a few souvenirs. One brought her particular grief: a rambunctious monkey she named McGinty, purchased for three dollars in Singapore. Before her ship departed Hong Kong for Japan, Bly stopped a stewardess and casually inquired about McGinty. “We have met,” the woman said. Bly’s eyes then flew open when she realized one of the stewardess’s arms was bandaged from wrist to shoulder. “What did you do?” Bly exclaimed. Replied the stewardess, “I did nothing but scream; the monkey did the rest.” When Bly returned home and freed McGinty from his cage, he ran amok in her apartment, smashing all the china he could find.
Throughout her odyssey, Bly obsessed about keeping ahead of Fogg’s pace. But until she arrived in Hong Kong, Bly had no clue she was racing not only against time, but against a flesh-and-blood competitor. When Bly identified herself to an agent of the Occidental and Oriental Steamship line, he blurted out, “You’re going to be beaten.” Bisland, heading west, had departed Hong Kong three days before, he informed her. Bly was dumbfounded. Incredibly, the World had kept her in the dark about Bisland.
In the end, the agent’s powers of prognostication proved faulty. Despite storms, Bly crossed the Pacific aboard the Oceanic in two weeks and arrived in San Francisco on January 21. What ensued was a mad dash by rail across the continent, with crowds according her a tumultuous welcome at every stop. The routine never varied: Bly would wave from the platform at the rear of her private car, and admirers would respond with exuberant cheers and present her with gifts and flowers.
“I leaned over the platform and shook hands with both hands at every station, and when the train pulled out, crowds would run after, grabbing for my hands as long as they could,” she wrote. “My arms ached for almost a month afterwards, but I did not mind the ache if by such little acts I would give pleasure to my own, whom I was so glad to be among once more.”
A sketch of Bly’s reception at Jersey City at the close of her journey. It appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1890. Click the photo to view larger.
Bly completed the journey on January 25, when her train pulled into the station at Jersey City, New Jersey. A throng numbering in the thousands let out a thunderous roar as she stepped onto the platform. Cannons boomed at Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan and at Fort Greene in Brooklyn, and boats in New York harbor sounded their whistles in salute to the woman whose exploits had captivated a nation.
After traveling, by her calculations, 21,740 miles, Nellie Bly had, in the words of the World, “girdled the globe” in record time.
“I took off my cap and wanted to yell with the crowd,” she wrote of her arrival, “not because I had gone around the world in seventy-two days, but because I was home again.”
Keep Reading: The Gift of Nellie Bly»