Near the beginning of Nellie Bly’s book Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, she describes an argument she had with a newspaper manager. The argument happened in 1888, so call it a year before she set out on her record-breaking journey around the globe, which started 125 years ago today, on November 14, 1889. It’s maybe worth keeping in mind that the late 1880s were not the easiest time to be a female journalist, not that there has ever been an easy time to be a female journalist, not even if you are a supernova of determination like Nellie Bly.
Anyway. In 1888, she went to her bosses at the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s paper, where she had talked her way into a job the previous year, and told them she wanted to circumnavigate the earth. Her idea was to try to beat the time of Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne’s massively popular 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days. She’d send dispatches back to the paper, make an adventure out of it. Her editor was in favor, but the World’s business manager — who liked the concept — wanted to send a man.
“It is impossible for you to do it,” he told her. “You are a woman and would need a protector.” Even if she could travel alone, he said, she’d want to take too much baggage. “There is no use talking about it,” he insisted. “No one but a man could do this.”
“Very well,” she said. “Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”
She was 24 when she said this. The next year, a few months after her 25th birthday, the paper said yes, and she set sail.
She brought one suitcase.
By the time Nellie Bly was 21, she’d already earned a steady job writing for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. She was drawn to serious projects, like the articles she filed on working conditions in factories. But her editors thought female writers should stick to the fashion-and-gardening beat. So she took off for Mexico, where her fearless reporting on the imprisonment of a local journalist put her in danger from the national regime. She fled the country ahead of the police, at which point the sagelike men who edited her in Pittsburgh told her that she’d done fine work and, by the way, had she ever considered writing about gardens? You can imagine the Nellie Bly–shaped puff of smoke she left behind her when she bolted for New York City.
If you’ve heard anything about Nellie Bly, you’ve probably heard about her first big assignment for the World. She pretended to be crazy, got a court to commit her to an insane asylum, and spent 10 days reporting on the conditions inside — basically your full complement of 19th-century madhouse horrors: rats, ropes, beatings, buckets of ice. In other words, she wrote witheringly afterward, undergoing the hospital’s cure for insanity would drive any sane person mad. Her articles created an uproar; at 23, she had simultaneously helped to invent a new kind of investigative journalism and forced a public reconsideration of treatment for the mentally ill. It was tiring work; by the time she left on her voyage, she’d gone three years without a day off. Traveling around the world faster than anyone had ever done it was Nellie Bly’s idea of a vacation.
She took one dress, which she wore, and an ulster coat. She packed a tennis blazer, a few changes of underwear, two hats, a pair of slippers, needles and thread, pencils and paper, a flask, and a few other sundries, including a jar of cold cream to keep her face from chapping. The jar of cold cream was forever in the wrong place in her bag; it got on her nerves through the whole trip.
She sailed for England at 9:40 in the morning on the ocean liner Augusta Victoria. She was grimly seasick. During the first night’s dinner she kept having to dash out of the dining room to vomit, but she willed herself to keep going back in; before long the other passengers were applauding her.
She had the outline of an itinerary in mind, but not a specific plan. Circling the globe at high speed in 1889 was both an endurance sport and a high-stakes puzzle. It meant sleepless nights, hurried connections, mad dashes to meet steamers in the rain; it also meant poring over timetables and weighing bets. If you could save an hour by going through Florence instead of Milan, but you risked being stranded for a day if the train was late, was it worth the risk? A hundred years earlier, traveling around the world had meant sailing under wind power, on wooden ships, with no guarantees regarding either time or security. Steam and steel put a different infrastructure in place, made the world thrillingly smaller. Now it was a kind of game to plot the swiftest route across 25,000 miles — albeit a game whose safety buffer was thin enough to make the adventure real.
After reaching London, she crossed the English Channel into France, then traveled by train from Boulogne to Amiens, where she met Jules Verne; he plotted out her intended route on a map and was disappointed to find that it didn’t include Bombay. Then she was on to Calais, and then through a thick fog to Brindisi, on the heel of Italy, where she boarded a ship bound for the Suez Canal. In Egypt she watched men catch a crocodile; in Hong Kong she was surprised that all the houses had tennis courts. In Ceylon she found that American coins were being worn as jewelry. She passed through Aden, in what is now Yemen, and through Singapore, where she bought a monkey. A fellow passenger fell in love with her and then, mad with passion, threatened to throw her overboard; she was relieved when he got seasick. On Christmas Day she visited a Chinese leper colony and ate lunch in a Temple of the Dead.
Back in America, her journey was a phenomenon. A new magazine called Cosmopolitan had sent its own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, in the opposite direction to try to beat Bly’s time around the globe. So there was a race to be followed. On top of that, the World, which could have sensationalized a story about winter following fall, held a guessing contest to predict her final time (first prize: a trip to Europe). The image of Bly in her ulster coat, holding her single handbag, became, for a while, iconic; it appeared on the cover of Round the World With Nellie Bly, an 1890 board game based on her trip.1 She hoped to finish the trip in 75 days. Jules Verne had doubted whether she could do it in less than 79. When she reached Hong Kong, she learned that Bisland was ahead of her. Then her steamship ran into rough Pacific waters and reached California two days behind schedule. Could she possibly make it in time?
“A Novel and Fascinating Game with Plenty of Excitement on Land and Sea.”
She could, of course, and it wound up not being close. Joseph Pulitzer wasn’t about to let his star reporter miss her biggest deadline; he chartered a private train from San Francisco, and by January 21, Bly was speeding east. In the meantime, a misunderstanding in England meant that Bisland missed her ship across the Atlantic. Her publisher had bribed the captain to wait for her, but someone — possibly at the World’s behest — told her she was too late.2 She boarded a slower ship and was still chugging westward from Europe when Bly’s train pulled into New Jersey.
One hundred and twenty-five years later, the dirty-tricks-of-the-rival-publishers subplot is not the least entertaining aspect of this story.
Bly traveled around the world in 72 days, six hours, and 11 minutes, a world record. From the moment she left, she estimated that her average rate of speed had been 22.47 miles per hour. All along her journey from San Francisco she had met cheering crowds — a packed station in Columbus, where a delegation of railroad men gave her flowers and candy; a mob of thousands in Harrisburg. When she stepped onto the platform in Jersey City, her official finish line, cannons boomed in the Battery and Fort Greene, and a vast crowd roared. “I took off my cap,” she writes, “and wanted to yell with the crowd, not because I had gone around the world in seventy-two days, but because I was home again.”
Well, it’s a Friday in November, and sometimes on a Friday in November it’s good to think about delightful things. Bly’s journey captured the imagination of her moment in much the same way that Verne’s novel had done — both said something about how the world had changed, what the world was becoming. Keep in mind that in 1889 the first airplane was still 14 years away. After centuries of slow, dangerous travel, the idea that you could buy a handful of tickets in New York and wind up in Singapore a few weeks later must have induced a feeling of perfect giddiness; it was as if they’d discovered teleportation. And of course the optimism of that industrial head rush hadn’t yet turned into anxiety or doubt. It was easy to believe in progress and fun to open the newspaper and read about faster ships, faster trains, speed records falling, daredevils blazing into the impossible. The world had always been so huge that the margin of wonder still seemed endless. It was hard to imagine that mere technology could change your perception of the size of habitable reality in a fundamental way.
I don’t want to oversell the connection, but it’s certainly fair to say that that mind-set also played a role in the creation of modern sports. If you think of, say, early-20th-century airshows and the Olympic movement, there’s a nontrivial amount of conceptual common ground: faster, higher, stronger. You can still see the aftereffects of this all over the place, but it’s changed, of course. That old sense of glee, the sense that life is going to turn out to be perfectible, that things will get better and better and the bill will never come — that’s hard to get back. And it’s mostly gone for good reasons — I’m going to put fascism just ahead of steroids in the power rankings — but still. On a Friday in November, I like spending some time with the 1889 version of this feeling. I like imagining Nellie Bly standing at the rail of the steamship, looking out across the water at a world just small enough to be explored, still big enough to get lost in.