Jet-Set in a Jet-less Age: Nellie Bly’s Sensational Cross-Continental Voyage

Nellie Bly makes the headlines | The World | 26 January 1890 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A cold morning mist lingered over the Jersey City harbor on the morning of November 14, 1889, as famed stunt journalist Nellie Bly stood at the bow of the Augusta Victoria, a steamship bound across the Atlantic Ocean to her port of call in England.1 The spray of the sea tasted like more than the salt that disseminated in the unforgiving waters before her. For Bly, the salt was sweet, as it held freedom within its crystals. Having doggedly persisted on making this voyage for over a year, sparring back and forth with her editors for permission to go on the basis of her gender, she prepared to embark on its first leg. Entirely financed by her own earnings, this was to be the defining moment of her career. Cutting through the waves, this ship was to bear her intrepid passenger down the road less traveled, all in an attempt for Bly to circumnavigate the globe quicker than anyone else in recorded history had up until then. Once settled into her mission, she intended to report her experiences periodically to The New York World, one of the most esteemed newspapers in the nation, as well as her employer.2

A portrait of Nellie Bly | H.J. Myers | 1890 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Not to be outdone, the fledgling Cosmopolitan sent its own eager lady by the name of Elizabeth Bisland in an attempt to beat Bly in this race around the world. Competition with The World at this point was a futile effort, but with the art of journalism on the rise, Cosmopolitan believed that it could cement its name in the annals of the newsstands; if only it could pull off something truly outlandish. Thus, Bisland volunteered to contend with the already established Nellie Bly, hoping to achieve a sliver of notoriety herself. Far from easily attainable, she would ensure that her name would also be remembered.3

All of this travel fervor, in an era before cars and planes and reliable communication, was a risky business. Both Bly and Bisland faced potentially perilous and life-altering circumstances, not the least bit due to illnesses potentially contracted abroad, such as the dreaded smallpox. None could foretell what the two women would encounter in the faraway lands they would soon tread, cut off from “civilization.” However, the general populace was heavily invested in this story of the century, as it was inspired by one of the most cherished novels of the day, which continues to be beloved by armchair adventurers and avid explorers alike—Around the World in Eighty Days by French author Jules Verne. This rather special book brought a sense of fantasy and spontaneity into the dreary, smoggy haze of daily life of the Industrial Revolution.4

The waning years of the nineteenth century is considered by many to be the golden age of print journalism. During the Antebellum Era, most were content to know what was occurring in their own neighborhoods and cities, but nothing more. However, once the Civil War came and went with all its rampant bloodshed, it stirred within concerned citizens a want to be aware of all the goings-on in their now extended horizons. Without television or even radio, the people of the United States predominantly relied on publications such as The World to update them on the current state of affairs.5

To be a journalist was now a respectable position to hold in society, especially in the eighteen hundreds straight on through to the twentieth century, although pay was still relatively low. The stereotype of the starving artist would serve as an appropriate application, as many journalists also held secondary stable employment out of necessity. It was purely the love of the profession and the romance attributed to it—especially the prospects of travel—that attracted both men and women. Reporting on current events took aspiring writers to the forefront of the hallmarks of history, including such conflicts as the short yet brutal Spanish-American War and the infamously grisly World War. Safety was not a priority; getting a good scoop, no matter the cost, was the ultimate aim.6

Females in particular were keen on this glamorous profession, but they were usually relegated to social columns or reviewing the latest fashions and domestic gadgetry. Promising journalists, however, wrote for the front pages, and pseudonyms began to increase in popularity. There was a certain mystique in writing as a persona rather than as oneself, akin to an actor portraying a character on the stage; and just like an actor, the journalists themselves received all the credit. Their faces were attached to their pseudonyms, and their articles were their playbills. In fact, Nellie Bly was a pen-name in and of itself. Our girl’s real name was Elizabeth Cochrane, which admittedly fails to roll off the tongue as easily as her pseudonym.7

Aboard the Augusta Victoria, Bly could hardly imagine where her journey would take her, but it can be ascertained that everywhere was on her mind. For a month, she hopped around familiar Europe, first disembarking in London. Continuing on to France, she even paused her time-sensitive mission to pay a visit to Jules Verne himself at his home in Amiens, where he encouraged her to break “his record.” He expressed excitement that someone was taking his fun little novel so seriously.8 After bidding adieu to the author, it was all new territory from there. The sweet aroma of spices embraced her as she traversed the Mediterranean Basin. Darkest Africa awaited her arrival, greeting her with the splendorous sands and ancient magic of the former kingdom of Egypt.9

Throughout her travels, Bly surely did it all. Whether it was by boat, foot, donkey, or rickshaw, she was quite the resourceful woman, able to negotiate vast continents with her limited knowledge of their diverse languages and customs. Crossing the Suez Canal, Bly finally entered mysterious Asia. Although she did make a point to explore the strange syncretism of tradition and culture that permeated Singapore, as well as the serene yet austere and beguiling beauty of Japan, her longest and most involuntary sojourn was in Ceylon. Known today as Sri Lanka, this island off the coast of India held a myriad of insurmountable obstacles by any human measure within its jungles. A fear persistently present in the preparation stages of this trip nearly came true during Bly’s five days stranded in the monsoons, as she underwent a brush with smallpox. Fortunately, the illness never progressed far enough to develop any lasting complications, and she was soon off to the races once again.10

All along her eastbound route, she would never cross paths with Bisland, blissfully unaware that another journalist was striving to steal her spot in the limelight. Fittingly, Christmas would be the season of revelation, as Bly learned that she and her now exposed rival were together in the province of Hong Kong nearly simultaneously. Bisland, however, had departed west towards Europe three days earlier. Bly’s confidence took a downturn, but she could not allow herself to forfeit when millions were keeping up with her outlandish experiences with a zeal that knew no bounds, but the earth continued to turn with or without her goal accomplished. Time was of the utmost essence, and it seemed to be running out for Nellie Bly.11

Journalism was not the only written art that gained popularity during the late nineteenth century. Fantastical novels were on everyone’s shopping list as books became more affordable and accessible. Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days was a revolutionary work for its time, painting a picture of a young man seeking adventure beyond his current situation. Phileas Fogg, the protagonist of the novel, endeavored to become the century’s Ferdinand Magellan, proving that it was absolutely possible to circumnavigate the globe in such a short duration. Verne himself was inspired by the bevy of industrialization and groundbreaking transportation methods, such as the railroad circuits of North America and Asia, plus the Suez Canal’s access to the Indian Ocean from the Mediterranean. These advancements in technology and innovation drastically reduced the amount of time necessary for travel in both the commercial and leisurely spheres. Interestingly, the allotment of eighty days was not the maximum time frame. Rather, “the eighty days represent the minimum amount of time needed to go around the world:

Jules Verne, author and inspiration | Nadar | 1878 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

‘In order not to exceed this time, one must jump mathematically from railroads to ships and from ships to railroads!’ Phileas Fogg, a man of methods and precision, coldly answers: ‘I will jump mathematically.'”12

Being one of the most beloved works of fiction of the day, the character of Phileas Fogg was an inspiration to all who desired more than what they were dealt in life. Not only did Verne capture the romanticism of adventure that was so prevalent in his community, he also conveyed the inherent hazards of venturing beyond one’s comfort zone and into the unknown. Rather than serve as a deterrent, though, this only fanned the flame. There was something to be said of those who tired of their mundane condition and instead opted to pursue a greater purpose, those like Nellie Bly.13

Bly pushed on, determined to catch up with and outrun her competitor. Progressing across the East China Sea from Hong Kong to Japan, she then sailed at long last for San Francisco and boarded a train from there for the home stretch, but relief was rather difficult to muster in her heart. Even for all the purple mountains majestic under the rolling clouds and amber waves of grain, there would be no stopping to smell even the prettiest rose. A persistent thought nagged in the back of her mind: she had no idea where in the world Elizabeth Bisland was. Everything hung in the balance, dependent on Bly’s victory, not the least of which being The New York World’s reputation as the people’s premier source of news. What demands to be addressed, however, is the crucial element of the advancement of transportation and communication technologies. As indirect as it may appear to us now, Bly’s ambitious project was almost wholly intertwined with both the popularity and credibility of travel. Only during the latter Victoria Era did leaving one’s own country to patronize another for pure leisure—and often luxury—become relatively commonplace. To have an already well-regarded reporter utilizing all the latest technology was the boost of inspiration that many needed to finally abandon their parlors and endeavor to cross seas and borders. Bly understood that if she failed, both the art of journalism and the sport of travel may have faded out of what was considered as in vogue. Besides saving her own position, she must have also felt the weight of the burden of Western society on her shoulders. In order to carry it through to the end, she had to trounce Bisland. There was no other option. 14

Unbeknownst to Bly, Bisland was actually still adrift, chugging across the northern Atlantic from Ireland and languishing from seasickness. Merciless storms ravaged the Bothnia, her chosen ship, and the freezing water that entered her cabin threatened to strike her with hypothermia. Just as Bly had suffered a delay in Ceylon, so it seemed Bisland would pay for that, and doubly so. She spent miserable days on end bedridden on her cot, unable to stand due to her severe weakness. The Cosmopolitan’s reporter had fallen off the map, stranded at the edge of the world with no idea how far ahead or behind she really was. Meanwhile, as Bly wrestled with that very same question, she received no word as she wrote her final reports. Ironically, despite the earlier setback in the Asian stretch, Bly not only held the lead once again, but she soon surpassed her opponent by a little over four days; and although she did not realize it, she was determined to keep her advantage, now that she had it.15

The “cult of domesticity” was still very much alive in the Industrial Revolution, and women were expected to observe their designated roles in society. Save for working women who had to leave the comforts of home for the hardships of the factories that popped up seemingly at random, upper class women simultaneously enjoyed luxury—waited on hand and foot by servants at home—yet they endured a subtler, more palatable oppression. Of course, they were fortunate in that they were spared from the horrors of factory conditions, but they still faced unequal status and demeaning conditions. A vastly more potent form of sexism abounded during this time, far worse than any that had existed before. Women were pale, delicate, and fragile, according to the men who ruled their lives. They embodied feminine poise. A graceful manner and a nurturing persona were highly desired for their ultimate objectives of pleasing their husbands and raising children. This sentiment was widely regarded as the norm throughout Western society during the Victorian Era. Even Joseph Pulitzer himself, the executive editor of The New York World, was concerned for Nellie Bly’s constitution and ability to make her trip, proposing to sponsor a male reporter instead.16

Females in journalism were far and few between, in large part due to this rampant misunderstanding of a woman’s real ability to stay on course with a man and even exceed his progress, so the sensationalism surrounding Bly and Bisland—two celebrated women that everyone wanted to read about—meant a sudden shift in perspective and set in motion what would become a gradual yet momentous change in culture. With nearly universal women’s suffrage achieved within the following decades, it could be argued that the pen was mightier than the sword to indirectly secure this most sacred right, the written word a paragon of female competence and intelligence in a world truly dominated by those with just a little extra testosterone.17

Finally, after more than two months of trekking across the globe—a marvelous feat with the technology available—Bly stepped off her train in Jersey City on January 25, 1890, to exuberant praise and her name in the very newspaper she had been writing for. The headlines screamed it loud on the following day. She had broken every record, and Father Time had been outdone!18

When all was said, done, and calculated, it was announced that she had conquered Jules Verne’s fictitious record, having journeyed around the world in an astonishing 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds. The significance of this to the history of travel cannot be understated. Nellie Bly’s achievement ushered in a new age of global interconnection, and with the invention and improvements of telephones and the widespread usage of electricity, seeing what else the planet had to offer was about to become more attainable than ever. The advent of the airplane was soon to follow within two decades, and with it, a new method of getting from one point to another at fairly breakneck speeds. Sadly, this betterment in humanity was a double-edged sword, as these newfound delights would quickly bring about disastrous consequences. War on an unprecedented scale would arrive sooner than anyone could have anticipated, and casualties would only escalate with every well-intended invention.19

Nellie Bly lands in New Jersey | Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper | C. Bunnell | 8 February 1890 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Bisland, for her part, accomplished an equally stunning timestamp. While true that she floundered towards the end of her own voyage in a sort of “Tortoise and the Hare” circumstance, she finished strong, trailing just behind Bly at a stunning 76 days, 16 hours, and 10 minutes, though specifics differ regarding just how many seconds were left over. Although she did not succeed in being the first to set foot back on American soil, what she had done was bring attention to the Cosmopolitan magazine, a publication which is now one of the most read by the female demographic of the United States.20

Regardless of Bisland’s runner-up status, it was Elizabeth Cochrane—Nellie Bly—who forever cemented herself as a hero to women, an idol in journalism, and a legend in navigational history. Some may venture to believe that she carried with her the spirits of those explorers of old, guiding her way across the map. Others say she was given a special task by God himself, protected by His hand from all manner of harm. However she did it, none could argue that it was nothing short of a miracle. No matter how one approached this astounding race around the world, it can be stated with utmost certainty that Nellie Bly was and still is one of the greatest writers and travelers to have ever walked, sailed, or ridden in the cart of a rickshaw upon the face of the earth.21

  1. Liesl Bradner, “Trouble Maker: Journalism took reporter Nellie Bly undercover and around the world in 72 days,” American History 52, no. 7 (2018): 6.
  2. Science and Its Times, 2010, s.v. “A Race Around the World.”
  3. Science and Its Times, 2010, s.v. “A Race Around the World.”
  4. Science and Its Times, 2010, s.v. “A Race Around the World.”
  5. American History Through Literature, 2006, s.v. “Journalism.”
  6. American History Through Literature, 2006, s.v. “Journalism.”
  7. American History Through Literature, 2006, s.v. “Journalism.”
  8. Liesl Bradner, “Trouble Maker: Journalism took reporter Nellie Bly undercover and around the world in 72 days,” American History 52, no. 7 (2018): 7.
  9. Liesl Bradner, “Trouble Maker: Journalism took reporter Nellie Bly undercover and around the world in 72 days,” American History 52, no. 7 (2018): 6.
  10. Liesl Bradner, “Trouble Maker: Journalism took reporter Nellie Bly undercover and around the world in 72 days,” American History 52, no. 7 (2018): 6.
  11. Liesl Bradner, “Trouble Maker: Journalism took reporter Nellie Bly undercover and around the world in 72 days,” American History 52, no. 7 (2018): 6.
  12. Marie-Hélène Huet, “Around the World in Eighty Spaces,” The Princeton University Library Chronicle 74, no. 3 (2013): 400.
  13. Marie-Hélène Huet, “Around the World in Eighty Spaces,” The Princeton University Library Chronicle 74, no. 3 (2013): 397.
  14. Matthew Goodman, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (New York: Ballantine Books, 2013), 282-283.
  15. Matthew Goodman, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (New York: Ballantine Books, 2013), 319.
  16. Science and Its Times, 2010, s.v. “A Race Around the World.”
  17. American History Through Literature, 2006, s.v. “Journalism.”
  18. Brooke Kroeger, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (New York: Times Books, 1994), 172.
  19. Brooke Kroeger, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (New York: Times Books, 1994), 172.
  20. Matthew Goodman, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (New York: Ballantine Books, 2013), 321.
  21. Matthew Goodman, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (New York: Ballantine Books, 2013), 316-317.
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  • I had never heard of Nellie Bly but it was certainly someone worth learning about. This article made great use of fax and Captivated the readings by explaining the journey around the world. The story kind of reminds me of when I was a kid and Disney Channel would always showcase a movie of 80 days around the world. It was great to look back on my childhood and get informed about yet another important person that impacted our world.

  • Congrats on your nomination! I am sure I have heard of Nellie Bly once or twice in elementary school, but that is as far as it goes. I admire how Bly refused to give up or even forfeit, even when she realized that her opponent had departed at an earlier time and might have a better chance at stealing her thunder. I wish Bly and her success was more prominent in history, she is a wonderful role model to women!

  • Wow, awesome article. I had never heard of Nellie Bly, but I am glad that I did. I think the randomness of her goal is what I love the most. Other explorers wanted to circumnavigate the globe to see if it could be done, but Nellie knew it could be done and just wanted to do it faster. She was so dedicated to this goal that she saved up the money for this trip. The people who had gone before her literally needed to be funded by kingdoms while she took this challenge on all by herself.

  • I love the title to this, I think it does an awesome job drawing the reader in. Prior to reading this article, I had not heard of Nellie Bly and had very little knowledge of any kind of journalism, current or past, so reading this was very interesting. The author did an incredible job of laying out Nellie’s journey around the world.

  • I have heard of Nellie Bly somewhere, but I can not remember where. Your article was fascinating to read and to see the different points that you connected to the overarching story. I feel like Nelli Bly is someone that we should learn about in school, just a mention of her, especially during Women’s History month. You did a really great job detailing her accomplishments!

  • I didn’t know who Nellie was until I read this article and from what I read she was a wonderful woman who helped paved the path for female journalist. This is very inspirational because once again this was a woman who fought for equality in the workforce. She had many challenges and not yet once did she give up and that is what makes her stand out from all the rest. Overall, this was a great article!

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