On Nov. 14, 1889, New York World reporter and Western Pa. native Nellie Bly started a 25,000-mile journey around the world, inspired by the popular Jules Verne book “Around the World in Eighty Days.”
Nearly 131 years later, we’re sharing her adventures in real time. Follow her thrilling journey around the globe here now through January 2021.
Note to Readers: The language and terminology used in these historical materials reflects the context and culture of the creator, Nellie Bly, and may include stereotypes in words, phrases, and attitudes that were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it, and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.
Nellie Bly: Around the World in 72 Days
Content researched and written by Lawson Pace, History Center Intern
Meet Nellie Bly
Born on May 5, 1864 in the small town of Cochran’s Mills, about 30 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, Elizabeth Jane Cochran grew up in nearby Apollo. At the age of 15, she began to take classes at Indiana Normal School (now Indiana University of Pennsylvania), but dropped out that same year because her family could not afford the costs. Since her mother and stepfather had divorced, Cochran moved to Pittsburgh in 1880 to be closer to her two older brothers. She and her mother struggled to get by. In January 1885, while living in Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh’s North Side), Cochran wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, George Madden, in response to a column that argued for a traditional role for women in society. Madden, intrigued by her unique voice, asked her to write an article for his newspaper. Impressed with what she sent him, he hired her as a reporter for the Dispatch at five dollars per week. There she acquired the pen name (taken from a song by Pittsburgher Stephen Foster) that she has been known by ever since: Nellie Bly
As a young reporter at the Dispatch, Bly mostly wrote about fashion, the home, and women’s issues, as was expected for female journalists at the time. However, she grew bored with day-to-day newspaper life and took an assignment to go to Mexico. Only 21 years old, Bly travelled with her mother across the southern border into Mexico. She spent six months there, sending reports home about the government and culture. Eventually, fearing that she would be arrested for criticizing the government, she cut her stay short and returned home. Though glad to be home, Nellie’s adventurous spirit could not last another year at the Dispatch. In March 1887, someone on the newspaper staff found a note from Bly that confidently declared, “I am off for New York. Look for me.”
In New York, Bly got a job writing for the New York World, a major Democratic newspaper rising under the leadership of Joseph Pulitzer. While there, she pretended to have a mental illness so she would be admitted to the Women’s Asylum on Blackwell Island. After staying there for 10 days, she was released. She went on to write a best-selling report on the terrible conditions within the hospital, “Ten Days in a Mad-House.” Bly’s daring feat of undercover investigative journalism began the tradition of the so-called “stunt girls,” female journalists sent to report on stories, often about social injustice, that were shocking or amazing in some way. This was a reversal of the traditional roles that women filled in journalism, and newspapers competed fiercely to see who could offer the more astounding story. The biggest idea yet came to Bly one night in 1888. She brought the idea to her editor the following day: what if she were to travel around the world? If she could do it in less than 80 days, she would improve upon the fictional adventure of Phileas Fogg, the main character in Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Her editor was skeptical. He pointed out that she could only speak English, would have to be escorted by a man, and (being a woman) would obviously pack too much luggage to make good time. He even suggested sending a man on the trip instead. She angrily declared, “Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” However, it would take a full year, until a fateful November day in 1889, for Nellie’s idea to come to fruition.
Day 1 – Nov. 14, 1889
The Race Begins
Many adventurers considered travelling around the world trying to beat the record of Phileas Fogg, the fictional hero of Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days. In the year after Nellie Bly brought the idea to her editor, other people openly discussed the race against time, including another writer at The World. Showman Henry C. Jarrett’s announcement that he would be making the trip finally inspired Bly’s editor to send her. For Bly, however, the call she received on the chilly Tuesday evening of November 12, 1889 came as a total surprise. Her editor wanted her to leave in the next couple of days on a trip around the world. Nellie Bly, never one to back down from a challenge, said yes.
Rather than setting off the following morning on the speedy City of Paris, Bly chose to travel on the German ocean liner SS Augusta Victoria so she had an extra day to prepare. On her last full day in New York she visited Ghormley’s, a dressmaker on Fifth Avenue, who made her iconic travelling gown. She also bought the satchel that she would carry around the world. Just seven inches tall and 16 inches wide, its size represented Bly’s commitment to independence and self-reliance. Many people in Bly’s time believed that a woman would require many suitcases for such a journey, making it impossible to travel quickly or alone. It seemed to please Bly to surprise people; when asked by a reporter if she needed help with her luggage, she responded with what might have been amusement, saying, “My luggage is already aboard, thank you. I brought it on myself.” Bly was able to fit a surprising amount in such a small bag. According to her account, she packed:
…two traveling caps, three veils, a pair of slippers, a complete outfit of toilet articles, ink-stand, pens, pencils, and copy-paper, pins, needles and thread, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, a small flask and a drinking cup, several complete changes of underwear, a liberal supply of handkerchiefs and fresh ruchings and most bulky and uncompromising of all, a jar of cold cream to keep my face from chapping in the varied climates I should encounter.
In addition to this small piece of luggage and the clothes that she wore, Bly brought British and American money given to her by The World along with a pair of earrings, two bracelets, and a gold thumb ring that she wore as a good-luck charm. She had worn it the day she was hired at The World, and in the days since, “the only three days that it has been absent from my finger, I have had bad luck.” She may have needed the luck. She had never been at sea, only spoke English, and had recently suffered from severe headaches. Completing the journey in the hoped-for 75 days would be very difficult, and the trip would also be dangerous. Bly wrote her will before her departure and sent it to her mother. Nevertheless, she told reporters, “I have no qualms of fear.” At 9:40 on the morning of Thursday, November 14, 1889, the Augusta Victoria left the docks at Hoboken, New Jersey, travelled down the Hudson River, passed through the Narrows, and steamed out into the Atlantic Ocean. Nellie Bly had set off on her quest around the world!
Day 3 – Nov. 16, 1889
A Competitor Joins the Race
Though she was unaware of it at the time, Nellie Bly’s journey quickly attracted interest from other newspapers and journals. John Brisben Walker, owner of Cosmopolitan magazine, became intrigued by the news that Bly planned to beat the fictional record set in Jules Verne’s 1872 novel “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Walker knew that if he could take advantage of the already popular story, he might make the Cosmopolitan, a relatively new publication, famous. Shortly after the Augusta Victoria steamed out of New York Harbor on November 14th, Walker sent a message to one of his promising young editors, Elizabeth Bisland, asking her to come to the office. Only 28 years old, she was about to race Nellie Bly around the world.
Like her eventual rival Nellie Bly, Bisland had been born far from the city where she would eventually make a name for herself. Her father was a prosperous Louisiana planter who served as a quartermaster and surgeon in the Confederate army until captured at Vicksburg. After the war’s end, when the family returned to their plantation on Bayou Teche, they found it in ruins. Unable to keep up their payments, the Bislands ceded the property to its previous owner, a planter who had remained loyal to the Union. Bisland eventually sought employment to support her struggling family. Unlike Bly, she had an effortlessly elegant writing style; Bisland had begun her career publishing her poetry in local newspapers. She eventually became an editor at the New Orleans Times-Democrat but dreamed of bigger and better opportunities. Bisland came to New York and found work at Cosmopolitan magazine, where she served as t he editor for the literary section.
When Bisland arrived at the offices of the Cosmopolitan on Nov. 14, Walker asked if she would be willing to make a trip around the world competing with Nellie Bly. Bisland originally thought he might be joking. It took an hour-long argument to convince her to go. Almost noon by the time she agreed, Bisland had only hours to prepare for the journey. The afternoon raced by, a blur of preparations. Bisland later wrote that she found herself “practically stupefied with astonishment.” Walker decided that Bisland would have a better chance of beating Bly if she traveled west instead of east. She left that day at 6:00 pm, headed for Chicago. For the next few weeks, the newspapers of America would be filled with stories about the race between the two brave journalists circling the globe. Everyone wondered who would reach New York first, Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland?
Day 6 – Nov. 19, 1889
Luxury at Sea
As Nellie Bly’s ship steamed away from land, she began to worry about her journey. Despite the brave face she put on for reporters, friends, and family, she could see many potential dangers ahead. Her first challenge would be to adjust to life at sea. Although Nellie knew that she would visit many exotic and interesting places on her trip, she also knew that a lot of her time would be spent traveling on ocean liners. Though seasick for most of her first day on board, after she recovered, she had a full week to experience life on one of the finest ocean liners in the world.
The Augusta Victoria, a German vessel operated by the Hamburg-America Line, was practically brand new, having crossed the Atlantic for the first time in May 1889. She broke the record for the fastest westbound Atlantic crossing on that voyage, racing to New York in only seven days. Though not the largest transatlantic ocean liner, at nearly 500 feet long, she was certainly one of the most luxurious. The ship had the most magnificent interior design available at the time, with a beautiful dining room, an ornate atrium with many statues, and a “gothic smoking room.” Reading, playing cards, and smoking cigars were all common pastimes on board. The highlight of each day was dinner, when guests would gather for a formal meal. A menu from 1893 (bottom right) offers barley soup, salad, fish, roast beef, a fruit dessert called compote, and a German pastry called Schneebälle (Snowball). Passengers were also serenaded by piano during and after the meal.
During her time on the Augusta Victoria, Bly got to know her travelling companions, including the ship’s captain, Adolph Albers. Despite their eccentricities, she came to like them. She later wrote, “I had not known one of the passengers when I left New York seven days before, but I realized, now that I was so soon to separate from them, that I regretted the parting very much.” Whatever her feelings, there would be no delay. The world awaited Nellie Bly.
Day 9 – Nov. 22, 1889
A Visit with Jules Verne
At 2:30 am on Sunday morning, Nellie Bly stepped off the SS Augusta Victoria into the darkness. After spending nearly eight days crossing the stormy Atlantic, she now began the leg of her journey that may have been more hectic than any other. The London correspondent for the New York World told her that he had received a letter from Jules Verne, author of “Around the World in Eighty Days,” inviting Bly to visit his wife and him at their home. Bly jumped at the chance. The correspondent warned her that to visit Verne without losing all-important time, she would have to be moving for the next 24 hours. She responded that she would not “think about sleep or rest.”
A tugboat took Bly from the place where she had disembarked in the English Channel to the run-down docks of Southampton. From there, she took a special mail train to London. London was a blur; she traveled from Waterloo Station to the London offices of The World, and from there to the American legation on Victoria Street in Westminster. She ate breakfast at Charing Cross Station before leaving and heading east. Finding British trains to be much slower than those in America, Bly slept through the journey of several hours to Folkestone, in the extreme southeast of England. At that point, she took a ferry across the Channel to Boulogne—a journey of only about 30 miles! There she took her first major detour, traveling about 65 miles south to the city of Amiens.
When she arrived at the station in Amiens, a city of almost 80,000 people, Nellie Bly was understandably nervous. Jules Verne was not only the inspiration for her journey but also one of the most renowned authors of his time. He wrote world-famous novels such as “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” and, of course, “Around the World in Eighty Days, “published in 1873. “Around the World” told the story of a British aristocrat named Phileas Fogg who wagered £20,000 (worth over £2,000,000 today) that he could travel all the way around the globe in 80 days. The novel was full of swashbuckling adventure: Fogg was pursued by a detective, rode an elephant across India, was attacked by Native Americans, and ultimately made it back to London with only hours to spare. Although this thrilling story made “Around the World” a smash hit in Britain and America, Bly probably hoped to avoid this kind of adventure on her own journey.
She also had to cope with the fact that neither of them spoke more than a few words of the other’s language. Nevertheless, Verne made a very positive impression on Bly. A rather short man, he had kind eyes, a full beard, and white hair “standing up in artistic disorder.” The two traveled together to the gates of the Verne House where they were greeted by the Vernes’ dog. They conversed through a translator in Verne’s grand salon. Verne, interested in the route that Bly planned to take, asked why she did not plan on crossing India by rail like his character Phileas Fogg. She responded that she would save time going by sea. They plotted out their contrasting journeys on a large map. Nellie also asked to see his study, which she found surprisingly small, and his library, which she thought was enormous. Although enjoying herself, Bly knew that she had to leave. A single missed connection could cost her the record. Saying her farewells to the Vernes, she stepped back out into the cold and windy November evening, headed to Calais. At about 1:30 in the morning, she boarded the mail train bound for Italy. After 24 hours, Nellie Bly could finally rest.