The two Elizabeths singularly raced around the world in opposite directions to beat the eighty-day record boasted by Jules Verne’s fictional character, Phileas Fogg, in “Around the World in Eighty Days.”
Elizabeth Bisland (1861-1929) was a literary critic for “The Cosmopolitan” magazine while Elizabeth Jane Cochran (1864-1922), pen name Nellie Bly, was a journalist for “The World” newspaper. The race was Bly’s idea but it was not until Joseph Pulitzer’s circulation began to decline did he agree to it.
Since it was deemed inappropriate for a woman to sign her real name to a story, Miss Cochran and her managing editor decided to use a character from a popular tune by Stephen Foster because it was catchy and brief.
It was called simply “The Nelly Bly Song” whose first line was: “Nelly Bly! Nelly Bly! Bring de broom along, We’ll sweep de kitchen clean, my dear, and hab a little song.”
Previously her nom de plume had been Orphan Girl, and she had gone undercover posing as mentally ill to shed light on the abuse suffered by patients at The Women’s Lunatic Asylum on New York’s Blackwell’s Island, later writing a book “Ten Days in a Mad House,” which is still in publication. Her goal was to enlighten the public to social injustice.
Leaving a day apart in November of 1889, the women experienced the positive and negative aspects of Victorian travel by train, ferry, steamship, and various other modes of transportation. Their routes are shown on the maps on the front and back inside covers with all stops noted.
Bly actually stopped in France to meet Jules and Honorine Verne, who were most impressed by her efforts. She even rode the train through Kansas where a fan told her if she would return they would elect her governor. (Where is Nellie when you need her…if she could only come back now).
Calling “Eighty Days” an adventure story almost seems like an understatement since a woman traveling alone anywhere at that time was considered incredible. A woman did not dine or drink alone or attend the theater without an escort and these were just a few of societies confining rules.
After the race both married well and were thus able to help those less fortunate, especially working women and mothers’ with children, which is what they did.
Although each continued to write it was only Nellie who achieved lasting fame, having an express train, a board game, a movie, an amusement park, a postage stamp, songs, stories, and poems either named for her or created in her honor.
The New York Press Club even presents a Nellie Bly Cub Reporter award each year. Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland are buried near one another in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City’s Bronx neighborhood, each having died of pneumonia, with Nellie alone remembered for her record-breaking trip.
The Manhattan Library has eight books on the topic of Nellie Bly, as she continues to be an inspiration to female reporters and women and girls in general.
See “Around the World in Eighty Days” to get a fictional, visual idea of the challenges of her actual adventure.
Michaeline Chance-Reay is an emeritus professor of Women’s Studies and Curriculum and Instruction at Kansas State University.