A Brief History
On November 14, 1889, American female journalist, Nellie Bly, began her trip around the world in a successful attempt to match the fictional story of Phileas Fogg who went Around the World in 80 Days in the 1873 Jules Verne novel. Not only did Bly become the first known human to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, she actually beat the target by completing the journey in only 72 days, a world record at the time.
Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania in 1864, Bly was incensed in 1880 when she read an article titled “What Girls are Good For” in a Pittsburgh newspaper. Her response, under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl” impressed the paper’s editor so much he asked the writer to contact him and offered her an opportunity to write more articles, and then gave her a full time job. She assumed the pen name “Nellie Bly” as a variation on the Stephen Foster song, “Nelly Bly.” By 1885 she was working as a foreign correspondent in Mexico, having tired of assignments writing about women’s fashion and the like.
In 1887 Bly took on a dramatic assignment as an undercover mental patient at the Women’s Insane Asylum in Blackwell’s Island, New York (now called Roosevelt Island) while working for the New York World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer). Declared insane by multiple doctors, Bly endured 10 days of hell in the asylum, until the newspaper staff got her released.
Her expose, titled 10 Days in a Mad-House, earned her acclaim and triggered a Grand Jury investigation into the asylum and New York’s treatment of the mentally ill. Her recommendations were accepted by the State of New York, and the mental health budget was reinforced accordingly.
On November 14, 1889, Bly set off on her nearly 25,000 mile journey around the world, leaving on the steamship Augusta Victoria. Equipped with only a small travel bag and only £200 and some American money kept in a bag around her neck, Bly was off. Meanwhile, the New York magazine Cosmopolitan, also sent a female reporter to race Bly around the world, but traveling in the opposite (East to West) direction. While enroute, Bly utilized ships and trains, visiting author Jules Verne in Paris and a leper colony in China. Sailing back to the US (San Francisco) across the Pacific Ocean cost her a couple days’ time due to rough weather, but the private train arranged for her by Pulitzer enabled her to make the time up and arrive in New Jersey on January 25, 1890, making the trip in only 72 days. Her rival in the race from Cosmopolitan, Elizabeth Bisland, returned via the Atlantic crossing 4 days later, also beating the 80 days goal, but losing the race and the accompanying fame and fortune.
Bly’s record of traveling around the world was beaten only a few month later by George Train, an American man who had previously held the circumnavigation record. Train’s 1890 trip took only 67 days (Bly really did not prepare and plan for her trip, but Train did), and his next attempt in 1892 took only 60 days for him to beat his own record. By 1913 the record stood at only 36 days.
Bly married an industrialist 42 years her senior in 1895, and retired from journalism, although she became active in the steel container business, earning patents for inventions of improved milk cans and stacking garbage cans. After her husband died and her company went bankrupt due to corruption by management (not her), she again became a journalist, reporting on World War I and campaigning for Women’s Suffrage. She died of pneumonia in 1922 at the age of 57.
Nellie Bly has been the subject of numerous cultural references, including a Broadway play, motion pictures, a board game, ice cream, a train, and the New York Press Club “Nellie Bly Cub Reporter Award.” Of course, she has been enshrined in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and has appeared on a US Postage Stamp. Her name and persona has been used in fictional books, television shows and films as well.
The exciting life of Elizabeth Cochran/Nellie Bly is certainly one to inspire girls to fight the glass ceiling and achieve their potential as a person. We salute Nellie Bly and her accomplishments!
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