She was hailed for her daring and for her achievement — her time of 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes smashed Phileas Fogg’s mark of 80 days.
Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Cochrane in 1867 in Cochrane Mills, Pa., a town founded by her father. She began her journalism career at the age of 18, writing for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. She took the pen name Nellie Bly from a song about a social reformer written by a fellow Irish American, Stephen Foster. Earning $5 a week, Bly quickly gained a reputation for her hard-hitting writings about social problems. Buoyed by her success, she moved to New York and took a job with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World (for a good deal more money).
Bly won national fame for her investigative reporting, especially when she posed as an inmate to write a sensational expose of the horrid conditions of the insane asylum in New York City.
“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island,” she wrote, “is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get into the place, but once you are there, it is impossible to get out.”
Her story stunned New York’s political establishment and shamed them into action. Within a year of her expose, the state enacted several important reforms regarding the treatment of inmates and mandating more rigorous inspections of facilities. But nothing topped her round-the-world exploit. As with her earlier undertakings, the trip was financed by Pulitzer and given national attention through his vast media empire. Bly sailed for Europe from New York on Nov. 14, 1889.
Just as Pulitzer had hoped, his papers’ circulation soared as people rushed to read Bly’s daily dispatch describing her latest adventure traversing the continents by train, mule, rickshaw, and wagon. In her signature first-person style, she offered her readers vivid descriptions of exotic peoples, perilous storms, and extraordinary scenery. For good measure she included several brushes with death.
Pulitzer made the most of his scribe’s fame. When she arrived in San Francisco, he provided a special train to whisk her across the country to the finish line in New York. Drawn by the publicity, thousands turned out to give her a hero’s welcome. The next day, Pulitzer’s headlines blared “Father Time Outdone!”
Of course, she didn’t really break any record, because Phileas Fogg, the man who did the feat in 80 days, was the fictional creation of Jules Verne in his story “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Still, since no living person had done it before her, Bly could take credit for establishing a record that in years to come many would attempt to beat (the latest, of course, being non-stop flights in hot air balloons).
The fact that Bly was a woman made her story all the more remarkable. Victorian era women weren’t supposed to write for major newspapers, much less embark on daredevil journeys round the globe. She paved the way for many other notable female crusading journalists, like Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells.
Bly published a book about her journey (“Nellie’s Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days”) and continued writing into the mid-1890s. She gave it up when she married Robert Seaman in 1895 and started a family. Little was heard of Nellie Bly until her death on Jan. 22, 1922. Obituaries across the country carried the story, reminding those old enough to remember of the days before the automobile and plane, when a trip around the world was truly remarkable — especially by a woman of 23.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Jan. 19, 1937: aviator Howard Hughes sets a transcontinental air record, flying from Los Angeles to New York City in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds.
Jan. 20, 1961: John F. Kennedy is inaugurated as the 35th President of the United States.
Jan. 25, 1945: U.S. Army hero Audie Murphy is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Jan. 22, 1943: Writer James P. Carroll is born in Chicago.
Jan. 24, 1925: Prima ballerina Maria (Betty Marie) Tallchief is born in Fairfax, Okla. (on the Osage Indian Reservation.)
Jan. 25, 1691: Pioneer chemist Robert Boyle is born in Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford.