In 1873, French author Jules Verne published his classic and highly acclaimed tale Around the World in Eighty Days. The novel tells the story of a wealthy English gentleman named Phileas Fogg who embarks on an adventure with his valet, Jean Passepartout. His adventure is based on a wager that would have him attempt to travel around the world within 80 days, as the title suggests. Fifteen years after its publication, Around the World in Eighty Days would inspire a journalist with the idea to compete against the fictional character and attempt to circumnavigate the world in fewer than 80 days. The journalist, Nellie Bly, and her groundbreaking journey would play a critical role for the future of women pursuing investigative journalism and for women in general.
Bly was born in 1864 as Elizabeth Jane Cochran. Her first foray into journalism was in response to a piece called "What Girls Are Good For," which was featured in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. As a result of her impressive rebuttal, Cochran was invited to write for the paper first on a part-time, per-article basis and then as a full-time employee. It was at this time that Cochran was given the pseudonym Nellie Bly, which was based off of a song by the same name, though the song was spelled "Nelly Bly." Writing as Bly, she became known for pulling sensational stunts to get a story. Her journey around the world was her greatest and most sensational stunt idea.
By 1887, she had started working for the New York World newspaper, which was Joseph Pulitzer's paper. In 1888, she was struck with the idea of beating the record in Verne's fictional story and writing about the experience. When Bly proposed the idea to her editor and the paper's senior staff, she was met with resistance. The resistance was not to her idea, however, but to her gender. The editor felt the journey would better be accomplished by a man, citing that a man would travel lighter than a woman and that men did not require an escort. The paper's resistance lasted for a year before she made threats to start the journey with another newspaper, which led them to acquiesce, and she began her travels with very minimal luggage and the backing of the New York World.
During Bly's journey, she was faced with adventure and hardships. While on a ship at the beginning of the trek, she was violently ill, although she eventually recovered. Without the airline flights of today, Bly's means of travel varied from boats to horses, burros, rickshaws, and whatever other means of transportation she could find. Near the beginning of her journey, she was even able to meet with Verne himself. Additionally, throughout her journey, she was met by a number of male travelers who expressed interest in her, partially because they believed her to be an heiress traveling alone. One man even proposed marriage. Unfortunately for them, Bly had but a single focus, and that was to complete her trip around the world and do so alone. Nellie sent some correspondence back to the newspaper via cable, but a large amount of her documentation she kept with her. This left the paper with little to print about the journey. As a result, they began to write about the locations where she was traveling, run sweepstakes and offer trips, and fabricate stories.
Elizabeth Bisland was also a journalist; however, her style was very much different than Bly's. While Bly tended to seek sensational stories, Bisland did not. Bisland worked for The Cosmopolitan magazine. Originally, she did not want to take on the journey when it was presented to her by her editor: She was given extremely short notice and had not ever traveled outside of the country. Ultimately, her editors won, and she was sent to race against Bly starting on the same date, November 14, 1889. Although it was the idea of Bisland's editor at The Cosmopolitan that she compete against Bly, it was not in actuality a true race: The New York World would neither take the bet nor acknowledge Bisland's journey. In fact, Bly was unaware of Bisland's quest to travel around the world for a good portion of the journey. Upon finding out about Bisland while in Hong Kong, Bly adamantly denied any desire to turn her voyage into a race, even if someone had decided to race against her. As a result, most of the attention landed on Bly, who is still the journalist primarily recognized for taking on the Around the World in 80 Days record.
Bly's return home was met with immense fanfare, as she was greeted by crowds of cheering people, warm welcomes, and flowers. She had become a hero to many and, at that time, one of the most famous women in the world. As there were no flights to take her directly home, she had to go by train. By the time she reached New Jersey, which was where she started her journey, she had beaten her projected time. Her goal had been to travel around the world in 75 days; however, she had managed to make the trip in 72. In 1890, she wrote Around the World in 72 Days to document her journey.