In less than 80 days around the world in 1889 - the journalists Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland start their “race around the world”

14 November 1889, in New York the journalists Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland started their “race around the world” against the fictional 80 days benchmark set by Jules Verne 15 years before.

“I said I could and I would. And I did.” (Nellie Bly)

Once upon a time, the Cliffs of Moher and Cape Finisterre used to be the end of the world. By the 1870s, New York had become just the next layover. The White Star liners made the Atlantic crossing in under eight days, railways ran from coast to coast and a message sent on the telegraph from Cape Town, to Alexandria and London would reach the States almost in a blink of an eye. The world had become significantly smaller with the power of steel and steam and human ingenuity while speed evoked a unique myth of the 19th century. And Jules Verne finally had become its prophet with the publication of his classic adventure novel “Around the World in Eighty Days” that described a fictional circumnavigation just a couple of years after the days, when East Indiamen still sailed three months from England on the Calcutta run. In 1873, Phileas Fogg’s journey time was a theoretical possibility. 15 years later, two women set forth to suit action to the word.

Elisabeth Bisland
Nellie Bly

“Ten Days in a Mad-House”, published in 1887, was an early example of investigative journalism exposing the shocking conditions in the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island and made the “New York World” reporter Nellie Bly’s reputation. A year later, she approached her editor with the idea of beating Phileas Fogg, the “World’s” owner, Joseph Pulitzer, was all for it and finally, on November 14, 1889, at 9:40 a.m., she boarded the Hamburg-America Line’s record breaker “Augusta Victoria” to Southampton for the first leg of her journey that would take her 25,000 miles around the world, equipped with a plaid coat, 1 (in words: one) dress, a change of underwear, a sponge bag and 200 Pounds Sterling. A few hours later, Elizabeth Bisland, recruited by the new “Cosmopolitan’s” editor John Brisben Walker just a day before, left New York on a westward-bound train to take up the chase in the reverse direction. They would miss each other around December 25th in Hong Kong for three days, the first time that Nellie Bly learned that she had a competitor. The “World’s” rather loud media coverage of her journalist’s journey, with its “Nellie Bly Guessing Match” contest offering a free trip to Europe along with spending money and almost daily updates received via telegraph from her various waypoints around the world quite overshadowed Bisland’s attempt, ignored by Pulitzer’s paper while “Cosmo” was famously published monthly only. 

Nellie Bly's reception in New York, 1890

Bly met with Jules Verne in Amiens on 23 November 1889, the author, aged 61, allegedly said to his wife when he first saw the 22-years old Nellie: “Is it possible that this child is traveling around the world alone? Why, she is a mere baby." And when she described the route she was about to take, with Brindisi, Port Said, Ismailia, Suez, Aden, Colombo, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Yokohama, San Francisco and back in New York still to go, Verne asked: "But why do you not go to Bombay as Phileas Fogg did?" and Nellie Bly countered: "Because I am anxious to save time, not a young widow." Despite being rather focussed, Jules Verne didn’t believe she would beat his hero’s fictional record, but she did. Nellie Bly completed her journey in seventy-two days and six hours. Elizabeth Bisland returned after 76 days and it might or might not be that Pulitzer had something to do with a delay she had in Southampton, forcing her to catch a slower boat back across the pond. Nevertheless, both women had accomplished a remarkable feat, even though Bisland was, by and large forgotten, while Nellie Bly is remembered, deservedly, as the mother of investigative journalism.

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