On the 14 November 1889, American journalist Nellie Bly began a record-breaking trip around the globe.
Inspired by Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg, she set off from Jersey City determined to prove that crossing the world in eighty days could be made a reality.
Even before this feat, Bly had lead an extraordinary life. Born in Pennsylvania in 1864 as Elizabeth Cochrane, she had dealt with a distraught single mother after her father’s death in 1870 and had to drop out of college as a result.
Though her future looked bleak, Cochrane did not sink into a life of miserable toil, and got her lucky break in 1880.
Entry into journalism
After her impoverished family had moved to Pittsburgh, she spotted an article in the local Dispatch titled “What Girls Are Good For,” which goaded her into a passionate anonymous response. After years of supporting a family through her teens, she refused to be lectured on what her duties were.
The Dispatch‘s editor George Madden was so impressed with the fiery nature of this reply that he put out an advert in his newspaper calling for its author to come forward.
When Cochrane duly did, she was offered the chance to write a full article for the paper, which she seized – again impressing Madden, who then offered her a full-time job.
Though this was extraordinary for a girl barely out of her teens she refused to be cowed. Under the pen-name Nellie Bly – which then stuck forever – she began to investigate the lives of women of her own working class background, and at one point even posed as a sweat-shop worker in order to better assess their conditions.
This sort of investigative journalism was revolutionary at the time, and was all Bly’s idea, as her superiors were keen for her to stick to the “women’s pages” of the paper.
This friction between her talents and what was expected of her lead Bly to move to Mexico – still only 21 years old – and serve as a foreign correspondent.
There, rather than just reporting on the obvious, she began to dig deeper into living conditions and political freedoms under the dictator Porfirio Diaz, until she had to flee the country after he sent policemen after her.
Once safely back home again, she published many withering polemical pieces on him and his regime.
The brief recognition and celebrity that this brought would be short-lived however, and soon she was only allowed to do the arts and theatre section in the Dispatch. Eventually, she grew sick of this stunted life and moved to New York in the hope that this gamble would bring her a job which matched her talents.
For months she was disappointed and lived destitute and unemployed in the city, before eventually blagging her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer’s paper – the New York World – and demanding a job.
Knowing that she would have to do something extraordinary to get the job, she outlined a plan for a bold undercover assignment. Having heard rumours about the conditions in the woman’s lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island, she spent hours practicing looking deranged in front of a mirror so that she could convincingly gain entry.
Despite being examined by many of the leading experts in the field, she fooled them all and was administered into the asylum, where she witnessed appalling conditions, treatment, and even noticed that many of the inmates didn’t appear to have anything wrong with them.
After being released after a request from the New York World, she published an account of her experiences which made her a national celebrity and went a long way towards improving conditions in asylums after their true horror had been revealed.
In her later years she also threw her weight behind the increasingly noisy calls for female suffrage in the United States.
Around the world in eighty days
After this sensational story broke, Bly decided that there were more ways to use her fame to generate publicity. The idea she seized upon was inspired by the 1873 novel Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne, and in 1888 she decided that such a feat could be matched in reality.
After packing a coat, some money and a few changes of underwear, she set off across the Atlantic on the 14th November 1889.
Her travels across Europe and Asia were eventful, and along the way she met her hero Verne in France, visited a leper colony in China and bought a pet monkey in Singapore.
Anticipation gathered momentum back home as telegrams of her progress reached them, and when rough seas in the Pacific delayed her arrival in San Francisco, Pulitzer kept everyone happy by chartering a fast and hugely expensive private train to take her across America to her destination.
Eventually, the exhausted traveler returned to Jersey City to a hero’s welcome on the 25th of January 1890, having set a new-world record and become a worldwide celebrity.
Bly’s later life continued to be eventful, as she married a rich industrialist, pushed through industrial and social reform in his company, and even reported on the Eastern Front in World War One.
Aside from her marvellous round-the-world trip, her inspiring example of self-sufficient boldness and enterprise would inspire thousands of other young women, and ensure a lasting legacy.
Header image credit: Corbis / Commons.