Race for the Prize: On Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland

By Lary WallaceApril 5, 2013

Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman

WE'D BE FORGIVEN for wondering today what the whole thing could have possibly meant, even if back then it seemed like it meant everything. When her editors at the New York World asked Nellie Bly to write about a trip around the world, they were really just boomeranging back an idea she’d thrown their way a year earlier. Back then they’d believed that, as a woman, Bly wouldn’t be safe making such a trip, and, anyway, wouldn’t a woman require too much baggage? (They meant baggage in the literal sense — it was 1889.) Anyway, her editors did end up promising that if they sent anyone, it’d be Bly.

Then other reporters, at the World and elsewhere, started getting the same idea, and the newspaper realized that if they didn’t make their move around the world now, somebody else would, attracting all the attendant publicity in the bargain. They had to send somebody, and since Bly was their somebody, she’s the one who got called to the office in November of 1889 and was asked, “Can you start around the world the day after tomorrow?” And Bly was the one who answered, “I can start this minute.”

She’d proposed to beat the fictional record set by a fictional character: that of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (1873). But Fogg wasn’t her only inspiration. A great-uncle of Bly’s, one Thomas Kennedy, had also made such a trip. It “had taken him three years and had ruined his health,” writes Matthew Goodman in his terrifically engaging new book Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, “but he had done it, and it was what people remembered about him.”

The second figure mentioned in Goodman’s subtitle, Elizabeth Bisland, is likely less familiar to readers than the first. Bisland was, like Bly, a female journalist in 19th-century New York. She wrote for The Cosmopolitan (back when it still carried a definite article at the front of its title), and was different from Bly in the same ways that The Cosmopolitan was different from the World: more refined and genteel, less sensationalistic. Goodman is careful to emphasize, however, what the two women had in common: “[E]ach of them was acutely conscious of the unequal position of women in America. Each had grown up without much money and had come to New York to make a place for herself in big-city journalism, achieving a hard-won success in what was still, unquestionably, a man’s world.”

The very morning Bly left New York (carrying only a small bag, it should be noted), Bisland’s editor, John Brisben Walker, called her into the office with a proposal. He wanted her to embark on her own trip around the world, traveling in the opposite direction, to be completed before Bly completed hers. Once satisfied that this was not a joke, Bisland reminded Walker that she had never so much as left the country and had no desire to do so. Furthermore, she was expecting guests at home the next day, and, anyway, she didn’t even have suitable attire. Afterward, Bisland would never reveal what precise mixture of threat and promised compensation induced her to agree to the assignment.

This was much more Bly’s kind of beat than it was Bisland’s. Bly had spent her entire career to date pulling this kind of stunt journalism; it was how she’d made her career in the first place. In 1887, she faked madness to get inside the walls of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York. Besides being a virtuoso act of fakery and daring, this stunt and the series of resulting articles, later collected as Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887), effected real, substantive change to the way mental patients were treated in the state of New York. Bly continued in this vein of participatory undercover journalism: exposing faith healers, “magnetic” doctors, political lobbyists, and sexual opportunists; living among the homeless and the orphans and the poor stacked in the city’s tenements; spying on sweatshops and employment agencies; and even just learning how to fence and dance ballet.

There was always another story to get, always something new about the world to reveal. This trip around the world was to be carried out in the same vein. What she hoped to reveal about the world this time was how easy (or not) it was travel the whole way around it, using only “the ordinary lines of commerce,” as the World promised its readers, offering as she did so “suggestions for improvement in travel, in treatment of travellers, in costume and what not, all told in a woman’s gossipy fashion.”

Near the beginning of Bly’s voyage, she made a stop in the French town of Amiens to see Jules Verne. She did so to pay homage to the man whose creation she would now attempt to eclipse, and because the World’s editor thought “it would give a good advertisement” to her journey. She did not come, particularly, in the spirit of one seeking advice, but advice is what she got. Verne asked her what route she was taking around the globe, and when she answered — "My line of travel is from New York to London, then Calais, Brindisi, Port Said, Ismailia, Suez, Aden, Colombo, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Yokohama, San Francisco, New York” — Verne asked her: “Why do you not land at Bombay and travel across India to Calcutta, like Phileas Fogg?” To which Bly replied, “Because I am more eager to save time than [to save] a young widow.” 

Bly’s overriding interest in expediency forced her, pretty much by definition, to give the world short shrift as she made her way around it — a haste, Goodman tells us, that extended even to the vessel on which she traveled. “Though Nellie Bly constantly urged the ship’s engineer to make more speed,” writes Goodman,

she seems never to have actually gone down to the fire room where workers shoveled the coal that produced that speed — just as, for instance, she never went into steerage to investigate the conditions in which the passengers there had to cross the ocean, the very topic about which she had proposed to write for the World when she first sought a job on the paper. By this point in the journey she had essentially stopped functioning as a reporter. Gone were the curiosity, the perceptiveness, the moral sense that had been on such abundant display, for instance, during her months in Mexico, when she used her dispatches to refute all the American clichés about dirty and dangerous peasants and courageously decried official corruption and the press’s complicity in perpetuating it. On her race around the world she had neither the time nor, apparently, the inclination to delve beneath surface appearances. Her most passionate and concerted attention was devoted to her own itinerary; and when that itinerary forced her to remain in a place for long, she did not seek out compelling news stories or interview local people of interest, and only reluctantly did she participate in sightseeing expeditions on which, more often than not, she was repelled by what she saw. 

It’s unsurprising that Bisland, whose primary concern was simply to beat Bly to the finish line, functioned no better in this capacity. But just because the reporters were more interested in picking up speed than gathering insights doesn’t mean Goodman himself can’t show us the late-19th-century world that Bisland and Bly zipped past. His book contains fascinating digressions on all the countries visited, as well as on passing figures of interest such as Verne and Joseph Pulitzer, the transcontinental railroad, and, yes, the conditions of those steamship workers and passengers. 

What Goodman is writing about more than anything, though, is the round-the-world voyage as a cultural phenomenon, and his book functions exceedingly well on this level. (His pages are consistently informed by close and judicious use of all relevant sources and a commitment to lapidary narrative. His digressions are never too digressive; his transitions never jolt or jar.) Why were these trips around the world so celebrated in the first place? In fact, the mania got off to a slow start: Bly’s voyage was on its way to being just another stunt-story until the New York World — after seeing a substantial but uninspiring jump in circulation, with no promise of regular-enough dispatches to sustain interest — came up with a promotional idea that saved and then made the whole venture. They started a contest offering a free trip to Europe for the reader who came closest to guessing Bly’s arrival time. At first, the contest-coupons were made available only on Sundays; then they were in each day’s paper. This was public-interest journalism of the crasser kind, but not entirely unsubstantial for that, for it was, as Goodman notes, “a subject ready-made for spirited debate, as everyone could support his or her opinion about the outcome of the race with additional opinions about the weather, the state of modern technology, and the constitution of the female traveler.”  The World had taken the aristocratic spectator sport of circumnavigation and made it into a democratic participatory one.

Bly won the race (or “races” — the one against Bisland and the one against Fogg). Admittedly, she had to cheat to do it, but she won. When some heavy snow hit the Western mountains just as Bly was preparing to leave California to make her way home, the World chartered a train through the Southern Pacific Railroad that would cost more than the entire rest of Bly’s trip combined. So much for “the ordinary lines of commerce.” It didn’t matter: Bly had still travelled some 18,000 miles without hitting a delay or missing a connection. The World felt she’d earned the right to bend the rules, and the public, apparently, agreed. (The only published objection Goodman can find to the chartered train appeared in a small newspaper in West Virginia — a state that was not, as it happens, on Bly’s itinerary.) One reader who certainly didn’t mind was Frank W. Stevens, superintendent of a clothing concern in New York City, who sent in the winning coupon, guessing to within two-fifths of a second Bly’s arrival time. “His earliest guesses,” Goodman explains, “had been based on the supposition that Nellie Bly would take the five o’clock train out of Chicago, but when he saw that she would probably reach Chicago in time to take the ten-thirty train on Friday morning, he made a number of guesses based on the scheduled arrival time in Jersey City.”

The Nellie Bly who returned to New York in January of 1889 was much more famous than the one who had left it, some 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds earlier. If Bisland’s life can be said to have changed hardly at all because of her voyage (hence her current obscurity), Bly’s life had changed dramatically. People named their children and their pets after her. She was celebrated with her very own board game, in which players spin for the right to advance along a spiral to a square marked for another one of Bly’s 72 days. (An iceberg or a steamship collision could send one back; fair weather or a visit with Jules Verne could send one forward.) Her image was used to sell everything from horse feed to embroideries to bonbons. Her 1890 ads for Kodak provided one of the more curious endorsements in the entire curious history of celebrity product endorsements: “The only regret of my trip, and one that I can never cease to deplore, was that in my hasty departure I forgot to take a Kodak.” She wrote a best-selling book that showcased her name in the very title: Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days (1890). She hit the lecture circuit. She became, by some reports, the highest-salaried woman in the United States when she signed a contract with The New York Family Story Paper to write serial fiction for $15,000 a year.

Fiction proved to be a type of writing for which Bly was ill-suited, and eventually it went the way of many of her other ventures following the round-the-world triumph. She tried to return to the sort of newspaper work she had done before, but fame is not an asset to the undercover reporter, as she discovered when she infiltrated a gambling den and was recognized by a fellow player, or visited an insane asylum and was recognized by one of the patients.

In 1895 Bly married an iron magnate 40 years her senior, and when he died, at the age of 80, she assumed control of his business and brought that enterprising Nellie Bly spirit to the factory, modernizing the equipment and streamlining overall efficiency. She wasn’t so hands-on in overseeing the company’s finances, however, and employees took advantage by embezzling substantial sums, for which Bly was held accountable. She ended up fleeing the country, going around the world yet again, or at least halfway. From Central Europe she filed dispatches for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal. In 1919 she returned to America, was cleared of all charges, and continued writing for the Evening Journal. Her health was failing, however, and in 1922, at the age of 57, she died of pneumonia in New York City. She was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, about a quarter-mile from where Bisland would be laid to rest, in the very same cemetery, almost exactly seven years later. “Both,” Goodman writes,

had married wealthy men, were childless, performed relief work in Europe during the First World War; both were widowed, both died of pneumonia, and both had been writers right up to the very end. Of the two, though, only Nellie Bly had racehorses and show dogs and an express train named for her, and a board game with her picture on it, and songs sung of her famous deeds. Of the two, only Nellie Bly would be remembered long after death, and almost always it was for her record-breaking trip around the world.

Bly had lived long enough to see her round-the-world record broken, twice (the second time by more than half). But in the years since making the journey herself, Nellie Bly had gauged, in all its myriad dimensions, the true abundance of the world. 


LARB Contributor

Lary Wallace is an eccentric-at-large and the features editor of Bangkok Post: The Magazine.


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