Around the world in 72 days: how journalist Nellie Bly became the real Phileas Fogg

Nellie Bly was a 19th-century American journalist who was told it would be impossible for her to make it around the world in 80 days like the fictional Phileas Fogg – then did it all the same. Pat Kinsella tells the story of how she achieved this record feat quicker than Jules Verne's imagined gentleman scientist and while racing against a very real rival travelling in the opposite direction

Nellie Bly

With his 1873 classic Around the World in Eighty Days, master raconteur Jules Verne skilfully captured the excitement of an era in which people could feel the planet shrinking beneath their feet.

In 1869, the First Transcontinental Railroad began sending trains across America, and the Suez Canal opened, connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. A year later, Indian railways linked up across the sub-continent – creating a news story that acted as the imaginary catalyst for Verne’s plot. It was this that led his protagonist, Phileas Fogg, to set a wager that he could circle the globe from London’s Reform Club, door-to-door, in 80 days.

With his 1873 classic Around the World in Eighty Days, master raconteur Jules Verne skilfully captured the excitement of an era in which people could feel the planet shrinking beneath their feet.

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In 1869, the First Transcontinental Railroad began sending trains across America, and the Suez Canal opened, connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. A year later, Indian railways linked up across the sub-continent – creating a news story that acted as the imaginary catalyst for Verne’s plot. It was this that led his protagonist, Phileas Fogg, to set a wager that he could circle the globe from London’s Reform Club, door-to-door, in 80 days.

No one tested the plausibility of this feat for 17 years until, in 1889, two people took up the challenge at once. Shockingly for the age, both were women. Neither would have been allowed through the doors of Fogg’s gentlemen’s club, but both proved more than a match for any pretend Victorian globe-trotting toff, and one in particular specialised in jumping gender hurdles.

Who was Nellie Bly?

Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864, in a small Pennsylvanian town named after her father, Judge Michael Cochran. She was his 13th child, and her early life experiences ignited a fierce fire in her belly. Known as ‘Pink’ as a youngster, because she was so often dressed in the colour, Cochran would become a trailblazer, carving a career at the cutting edge of journalism under a new name: Nellie Bly.

After the death of her father when she was six, the family fell on hard times. Her mother remarried, but the relationship turned abusive and ended in divorce. Cochran had to leave school and abandon her ambitions of being a teacher. In 1880, the family moved to Pittsburgh, where they took in boarders to make ends meet. In 1885, Cochran read an article in The Pittsburgh Dispatch that would change her life.

The viciously misogynistic piece, titled ‘What Girls Are Good For’, criticised women for attempting to gain an education, forge a career or stray too far from home. The writer even expressed supposedly tongue-in-cheek support for the practice of girl-child infanticide. Under the pseudonym ‘Lonely Orphan Girl’, Cochran sent a response that so impressed the editor, George Madden, with its combination of incandescent rage and dignified prose that he published both the letter and an invite for the writer to come in to the office. Madden suggested she write a full riposte to the offending article, and the resulting feature, ‘The Girl Puzzle’, led to a full-time job.

The World’s front page celebrating Bly's triumph
The World’s front page on 26 January 1890 celebrates Bly’s feat (Photo by Getty)

Madden suggested the nom de plume, Nelly Bly (from a popular song), which became Nellie. Shunning assignments that focused on fashion, gardening and theatre – traditional fodder for female writers – she instead tackled prickly social issues. Criticism and threats from advertisers saw Bly reassigned, which prompted her indignant resignation. She then travelled to Mexico, working as a freelance foreign correspondent, until her writing – which was sharply critical of President Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship – came to attention of the government and she was forced to leave.

Back in the US, Bly scored her first major scoop after accepting an undercover assignment for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and deliberately getting committed to New York’s infamous Blackwell’s Island women’s asylum. She spent ten days collecting content about the abuse and inhuman treatment that was meted out before being rescued by the World. Her subsequent article ‘Ten Days in a Madhouse’ directly led to wave of reforms and an injection of cash into the treatment of the mentally ill.

By 1887, Bly had established herself as a pioneer in the dangerous field of immersive investigative journalism, which remained her lifelong specialty. She continued to rail against various injustices, including dire working conditions for factory women and the fate of unwanted infants. In 1889, after reading Around the World in Eighty Days, she pitched an idea to her editor that would crystallise her reputation as a trailblazer for her sex. If she could pull it off…

Becoming Phileas Fogg

“It is impossible for you to do it,” the World’s managing editor, John A Cockerill, barked at Bly when she proposed her round-the-world speed attempt. “You are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes… No one but a man can do this.” Bly’s response was characteristically blunt.

“Very well,” she said. “Start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” Cockerill relented. Bly began her journey within the year, leaving New Jersey on a steamship bound for England.

She took a single piece of baggage, measuring 41 by 18 cms, containing bare essentials – underwear, toiletries, writing materials, dressing gown, tennis blazer, flask and cup, two caps, three veils, slippers, needle and thread, handkerchiefs. But no gun. “I had such a strong belief in the world’s greeting me as I greeted it that I refused to arm myself,” she wrote.

The rough crossing was a rude awakening for the 25-year-old first-time traveller. Horribly ill, Bly stayed in her cabin so long the Captain checked she was still alive. Eventually, she found her sea legs, and six days later arrived in Southampton, where Tracy Greaves, the World’s London correspondent, had exciting news.

Jules Verne himself had heard of Bly’s quest and wanted to meet her in his hometown of Amiens, France. This was both an honour and a gamble, necessitating a deviation from her meticulously planned route. Bly travelled non-stop for two days to make the appointment, by road, rail and boat via London to Boulogne, and then Amiens, where Verne and his wife were waiting at the station. Leaving Verne’s home in the middle of the night, Bly caught a 1.30am train across France and Italy to the port of Brindisi. Here she boarded the Victoria, a steamer that took her through the Mediterranean to Port Said in Egypt, at the new Suez Canal’s northern end.

Here, she was critical of fellow passengers swatting away beggars with their walking canes. Once her boat had refuelled, it continued through the canal into the Red Sea, stopping at the Port of Aden on the Arabian Peninsula, where Bly went exploring. Next stop was Colombo in Sri Lanka, from where she fired off a report via telegraph to the World.

In between access to telegraph stations, Bly mailed updates to the paper. As the roving reporter’s dispatches often took a long time to arrive in New York, the World used inventive ways to keep interest in the story alive, such as running a sweepstake asking readers to guess exactly how long Bly’s trip would take. The grand prize was an expenses-paid trip to Europe, and over half a million people had a punt.

After an agonising five-day wait in Colombo for a boat that would take her the 3,500 miles by sea to Hong Kong, Bly finally set sail for China on the Oriental. En route, the ship stopped at Singapore, where the lonely traveller bought herself a companion: a fez-wearing miniature monkey she called McGinty.

Another overnight delay in Singapore had Bly fretting about her connection in Hong Kong, but the ship made good progress when it finally set sail – albeit through a violent monsoon storm that created enormous seas. They arrived safely – and early, just before Christmas Day – however Bly had an unwelcome surprise awaiting her.

Nellie Bly’s rival

Having caught whiff of the World’s round-the-world escapade, a rival publication – the Cosmopolitan – hastily commissioned another female journalist to try and beat Bly’s time.

With just six hours notice, 28-year-old Elizabeth Bisland had left New York on the same day as Bly, but she travelled west while the World’s champion went east. The competition intensified public interest in what was now a real race, but Bly remained unaware of the live contest she was in until arriving in Hong Kong, where she was told that Bisland had passed through several days earlier.

She was not impressed by the news, and a visit to a leper colony and the Temple of the Dead did little to lighten her mood.“I am not racing,” Bly claimed. “I promised to do the trip in 75 days, and I will do it.” However, comments made while she was in the clutches of a delay-causing storm during the trip from Hong Kong to Yokohama in Japan, suggest otherwise. “I’d rather go back to New York dead than not a winner,” she said.

Did Nellie Bly make it around the world?

Despite more heavy weather on Bly’s final boat ride, across the Pacific from Japan to San Francisco on the White Star Line ship Oceanic, she arrived back on American soil on 21 January, a day ahead of schedule. However, snowstorms had slowed rail travel. Bly could feel Bisland’s breath on her back. But unbeknown to Bly, her rival’s luck had just run out.

In England, Bisland learnt that the fast German steamer Ems, due to take her from Southampton to New York, had been cancelled. She was forced to divert via Ireland to catch the much slower ship, the Bothina.

Meanwhile, the World’s owner, Pulitzer, had chartered a private train to bring Bly home in style. The ‘Miss Nellie Bly Special’ set records of its own during that final leg, completing the 2,577-mile journey in 69 hours, passing crowds, to deliver Bly back to New Jersey on 25 January 1890, at 3.51pm – 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds after leaving. Bly had bested Fogg’s fictional journey time by over seven days. Bisland arrived five days later.

A board game of Nellie Bly's trip
The World also published ‘Round the World with Nellie Bly’ – a board game of Bly’s trip, with squares for each day of her journey (Photo by Getty)

The escapade worked out well for Verne, with Around the World in Eighty Days being re-issued in over ten new editions after Bly’s race. In 1895, Bly married millionaire manufacturer Robert Seaman, over 40 years her senior, retired from writing and became a businesswoman. After Seaman died his business went bankrupt, and she returned to journalism, covering women’s suffrage and spending a stint reporting from the frontline during WWI.

Bisland also continued to write. Both women died of pneumonia – Bly in 1922 and Bisland in 1929 – and were buried in New York City’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

The main players

Elizabeth Jane Cochran

Better known by her nom de plume, Nellie Bly. A pioneering investigative journalist who championed women’s and children’s rights, among other causes.

Elizabeth Bisland

The Cosmopolitan dispatched this female reporter in the opposite direction to Bly to try and trump her time. By reputation, Bisland was a serious writer.

Joseph Pulitzer

The Hungarian-born newspaper publisher famous for setting up the Pulitzer Prizes for journalistic excellence. As owner of the New York World (among others), he assisted Bly in crossing the US.

Jules Verne

French author of Around the World in Eighty Days. he told Bly that he’d written his book after seeing a newspaper advert for a Thomas Cook holiday taking people around the globe.

John A Cockerill

Managing Editor of the New York World, who reluctantly accepted Bly’s proposal that she should attempt to go around the world quicker than Verne’s fictitious Fogg.

Pat Kinsella is a writer specialising in history

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This content first appeared in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed