Pioneer Journalist Globetrotter Nelly Bly

On the 14th of November 1889, journalist Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Cochran (1864 – 1922), at just 25 years of age, began her solo travel around the world. A year earlier, Bly had suggested to her editor Pulitzer at the New York World that she was to be despatched on a trip which would turn Jules Verne’s fictional Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) into reality. So, with only two days notice, Nellie was told that she was to board the Augusta Victoria, a steamer of the Hamburg America Line which would start her 24,899-mile journey.

“It was my custom to think up ideas on Sunday and lay them before my editor for his approval or disapproval on Monday. But ideas did not come that day and three o’clock in the morning found me weary and with an aching head tossing about in my bed. At last tired and provoked at my slowness in finding a subject, something for the week’s work, I thought fretfully: “I wish I was at the other end of the earth!” “And why not?” the thought came: “I need a vacation; why not take a trip around the world?” It is easy to see how one thought followed another. The idea of a trip around the world pleased me and I added: “If I could do it as quickly as Phileas Fogg did, I should go.(Nellie Bly, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, The Pictorial Weeklies Company, N.Y., 1890)

She was actually going to beat fictional Fogg’s record of 80 days, completing the trip in 72 days. The press closely followed her preparations and the scarcity of the items she took with her was noted: a dress, a sturdy chequered overcoat, several changes of underwear and a small travel grabbag containing her toiletry essentials. The only money she took was 200 English pounds and some gold which she kept in a bag tied around her neck. The news of her departure spread and the rival paper newspaper Cosmopolitan got wind of it, setting up a counter-challenge as it sponsored its own reporter. Elizabeth Bisland was to travel round the world but in the opposite direction, endeavouring to beat the time of both Fogg and Bly. (Matthew Goodman, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, 2013). Bly’s paper the New York World had to keep their readers interested so they fought back with a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match”, setting travel prizes for the lucky readers who would come closest at estimating Bly’s exact arrival date and time.

For Nellie, who lived in an age in which ladies were expected to be chaperoned at every social appearance, this was a defining feminist gesture by a self-assured career woman. Her travels took her through England, France, Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo (Ceylon), the Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. Electric telegraph and undersea cable systems allowed for short written messages to be sent back to New York, but her regular letters would often arrive with week-long delays, so the most complete account of her experience can be found in the short book she wrote about her trip. The main means of transport Bly used (as opposed to Phileas Fogg’s balloon) were steamships and the emergent rail systems, which were often unreliable. Notable curiosities during these stops, were her visit to a Chinese leper colony and her purchase of a monkey in Singapore. While Bly’s language is blunt and honest, it can appear offensive to modern ears tuned to political correctness; however, the novelty and shock of such different civilisations is captured with brutal freshness:

“I had a great curiosity to see the leper village, which is commonly supposed to contain hundreds of Chinese lepers. The village consists of numbers of bamboo huts, and the lepers present a sight appalling in its squalor and filth. Ah Cum told us to smoke cigarettes while in the village so that the frightful odors would be less perceptible. He set the example by lighting one, and we all followed his lead. The lepers were simply ghastly in their misery. There are men, women and children of all ages and conditions. The few filthy rags with which they endeavored to hide their nakedness presented no shape of any garment or any color, so dirty and ragged were they. (…) We stopped at the driver’s humble home on our way to the ship and I saw there on the ground floor, his pretty little Malay wife dressed in one wrapping of linen, and several little brown naked babies. The wife had a large gold ring in her nose, rings on her toes and several around the rim of her ears, and gold ornaments on her ankles. At the door of their home was a monkey. I did resist the temptation to buy a boy at Port Said and also smothered the desire to buy a Singalese girl at Colombo, but when I saw the monkey my will-power melted and I began straightway to bargain for it. I got it.”

Rough Pacific seas delayed her arrival somewhat and eventually she reached New Jersey on the 25th of January 1890, at 3:51 p.m “Seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after her Hoboken departure”, setting a new world record, as Bisland arrived 4 and a half days after her.