Around the world in 72 days: the story of Nellie Bly

by Malia Ogawa

In 1889, a New York World journalist named Nellie Bly began her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days. She aimed to beat Jules Verne’s fictional character, Phileas Fogg, the protagonist of “Around the World in Eighty Days.”

Nellie Bly, circa 1890, public domain image via Wikipedia

Nellie, born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, was a pioneer in her field who introduced a new form of investigative journalism. Her first assignment with the New York World was one that would change the world and cement her name in history. In 1887 Bly feigned insanity and bravely went undercover at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt’s Island). She exposed the brutal and unfair misogynistic treatment of the female victims imprisoned in the asylum. She published her report in book form under the title “Ten Days in a Mad-House” and caused an immediate sensation. Social reforms were implemented at the asylum and she launched the decade of stunt girl journalism. Nellie Bly had demonstrated to her male contemporaries the strength, bravery, and intelligence a woman was truly capable of.

In 1888, Bly approached her editor with an extraordinary pitch: to travel around the world in less than 80 days and beat Phileas Fogg’s fictional record. John A. Cockerill, her managing editor, was intrigued but hesitant. The idea had already come up around the newsroom but the better candidate would be a man – someone who didn’t need protection and wouldn’t drag along loads of suitcases. Bly protested:

“Very well. Start the man, and I’ll start the very same day for another newspaper and beat him.”

Her persistence and promise to travel light prevailed and she was given the go-ahead to embark on her next assignment.

On November 14, 1889 Nellie Bly boarded the Augusta Victoria steamer with a small single travel bag and bid adieu to her friends and family. She traveled by steamships and trains from New York to England, France (where she met Jules Verne), Italy, Egypt, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and back to a port in San Francisco. She then traveled by train across the US and arrived in New Jersey on January 25, 1890. She had traveled for a total of 72 days.

A publicity photograph taken by the New York World to promote Bly’s around-the-world voyage, 1890, public domain image via Wikipedia

Unbeknownst to her, a competing publication named Cosmopolitan sent one of their own reporters to race against Bly by making the same journey in the opposite direction. A race around the world was the name of the game, and publicity was its aim. Bly wasn’t even aware of the other reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, until her arrival in Hong Kong, and dismissed the cheap stunt upon hearing of it. In the end, Cosmopolitan’s grasp at fame was fruitless, for Nellie Bly beat Elizabeth Bisland by four and a half days. 

Bly met quite the parade of characters on her journey. On her voyage across the Atlantic, she met a dog named “Home Sweet Home” whose owners called it “Homie” for short. Given that this was written in 1890, the contemporary version of “homie” that we know today didn’t exist; however, reading about this from a contemporary viewpoint was definitely amusing. She also reported on an American girl whom she claimed to know more about art, literature, politics, and music than any man on board, a man who regularly took his pulse after every meal, and a woman who had never undressed since departing from New York. This peculiar woman wanted to make sure that, if the ship were to sink, she would be fully dressed.

Reading Bly’s observations from the year of 2021 will most likely result in shock and/or offense, for the words she used to describe certain races and ethnicities would be deemed highly inappropriate and offensive today. Her comparison of the Chinese to the Japanese is shocking and would not sit well in contemporary society. However, being that it was 1890, a historical perspective must be applied and harsh judgement of her character should be withheld. Nellie Bly did do her best to consciously respect the different cultures she encountered. There were faux pas and missteps made along the way, but a certain amount of culture shock is to be expected when two different cultures collide.

Nellie Bly is considered an American hero. She was a pioneer both in her career field and in highlighting the societal pressures placed upon women. She broke free of the constraints placed upon women by her time period and pursued her dreams of a successful career. She traveled the world in 72 days, seeing sites that most people don’t experience in a lifetime and meeting a host of all kinds of people she never would have met before. She broadened her horizons by creating a new and exciting career for herself, reporting on important social issues and global diversity, which allowed the world to become more accessible to her readers back home.

Cover of the 1890 board game “Round the World with Nellie Bly”, 1890, public domain via Wikipedia

You can read Nellie Bly’s “Ten Days in a Mad-House” here and “Around the World in Seventy-Two Days” here.


About the Author:

My name is Malia Ogawa, I received my MA in Modern History from King’s College London in 2016. I’ve studied a wide range of topics – the Japanese American experience during WWII, France during WWII, Napoleon (his rhetoric, accomplishments, troop morale), Napoleonic soldiers, and fashion history. I have a history blog called cyclicity that originally traced the history of fashion and trends through the years, but now focuses on a wide variety of topics and history’s cyclical nature. Check out my website www.cyclicity.net follow me on Instagram at cyclicity.history, or drop me an email at cyclicity.history@gmail.com

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