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On This Day: Nellie Bly Sets Off on Around-the-World Journey

Last updated: February 13, 2023

On Nov. 14, 1889, journalist Nellie Bly set out to circle the globe, seeking to beat the fictional record set by Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days.”

Around the World in 72 Days, 6 Hours and 11 Minutes

Sick of the daily grind at her newspaper job, Nellie Bly conceived of the trip after reading Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days.” Originally a daydream, she floated the idea of challenging main character Phileas Fogg’s record to her editor at the New York World. After initially rejecting it because she was a woman, he later gave the 24-year-old the green light with only two days to prepare.

Bly mapped out her route, but purchased a ticket only for the first leg of her journey so that she could adjust her travel schedule at any time. On Nov. 14, 1889, she left her home in New York with a single suitcase and boarded a ship, the Augusta Victoria, leaving Hoboken, N.J., for London.

Learn about the life of Jules Verne or purchase “Around the World in 80 Days.”

After reaching London seven days later, Bly took a train to Paris and traveled out of her way to meet with Verne in Amiens. She wrote of her encounter: “‘If you do it in seventy-nine days, I shall applaud with both hands,’ Jules Verne said, and then I knew he doubted the possibility of my doing it in seventy-five, as I had promised. In compliment to me, he endeavored to speak to me in English, and did succeed in saying, as his glass tipped mine: ‘Good luck, Nellie Bly.’”

A train to Italy later, she hopped a bus across the continent to catch a steamer headed for the Suez Canal and Egypt. Next up was Singapore, then Hong Kong and another ship to San Francisco, where it became clear that she would beat Fogg’s fictional record.

“I only remember my trip across the continent as one maze of happy greetings, happy wishes, congratulating telegrams, fruit, flowers, loud cheers, wild hurrahs, rapid hand-shaking and a beautiful car filled with fragrant flowers attached to a swift engine that was tearing like mad through flower-dotted valley and over snow-tipped mountain, on–on–on!” she wrote.

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Along the way, Bly sent dispatches back to her home paper, which played up the story by running a contest: Whoever made the most accurate guess of Bly’s travel time would win a trip to Europe. More than a half-million people entered, and the New York World soared in popularity.

A rival publication, Cosmopolitan magazine, upped the drama by sending another female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, after Bly in an attempt to out-race her around the world. Bisland finished in 76 days, besting Fogg but not Bly.

Bly traveled by ship, train, jinricksha, sampan, horse and burro, to reach her goal. She was welcomed by a cheering crowd as she returned to New York on Jan. 25, 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes after first setting sail on her nearly 25,000-mile journey across four continents.

PBS provides an interactive map of Bly’s journey.

Biography: Nellie Bly

Sources in this Story

  • University of Pennsylvania Libraries: Around the World in 72 Days by Nellie Bly
  • PBS: The American Experience: Around the World in 72 Days
  • Texas A&M University: ‘Dignified Sensationalism’: Elizabeth Bisland, Cosmopolitan, and Trips Around the World
  • Library of Congress: Today in History: January 25
  • Encyclopedia Britannica: Nellie Bly
  • Pennsylvania Center for the Book: Cochrane, Elizabeth (Nellie Bly)

Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Cochran’s Mills, Pa., May 5, 1864. Nicknamed “Pink,” she was the most rebellious of her father’s 15 children, according to PBS. When Bly was 6, her father died and left little to his family, leaving them in near poverty.

After reading a misogynist article called “What Girls Are Good For” in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, 18-year-old Bly penned a fiery letter of protest, which impressed the editor so much he offered her a job.

During that time, women wrote under pen names, so Bly changed her name to that of a character in a well-known Stephen Foster song. As a full-time reporter for the Dispatch, Bly wrote stories about real people, examining child labor, the impact of divorce on women and other investigative pieces, and brushed off attempts to relegate her reporting to petty domestic issues.

When she was 20, Bly got a job at the New York World and wrote a famous exposé on a New York insane asylum. Posing as an insane woman, she was treated in the asylum for 10 days; her damning report on the conditions inside the asylum brought reform to the city’s health care policies.

She continued to write provocative stories that sided with the poor and exploited in society. She exposed the corruption of lobbyists in government, wrote sympathetic pieces on workers during the Pullman strike, and spent six months in Mexico writing about the living conditions of the poor.

She was already a well-known journalist when she embarked on her trip around the world, but the voyage made her a pop culture hero. Figurines, trading cards and board games were made with her image.

Bly left journalism after her trip, and married millionaire industrialist Robert Livingston Seaman. She helped him found American Steel Barrel Company, but after his death, Bly struggled to run the company.

She returned to journalism and covered the early years of World War I in Austria, Serbia and Russia. Her initial support for Austria hurt her popularity, and she had little success in her later years. She died of pneumonia on Jan. 27, 1922, at the age of 55.

“In an age of sensationalist ‘yellow journalism,’ Elizabeth Cochrane remains best known as one of the earliest investigative reporters in America and pioneer of stunt journalism, utilizing simple first-person narration alongside striking detail and heartfelt opinion,” writes Matthew Lavelle for the Pennsylvania Center for the Book.

Nellie Bly’s “Around the World in Seventy-Two Days” and “Ten Days in a Mad-House” are available online from the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

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