That Time Reporter Nellie Bly Became a 19th Century Global Sensation

In 1890, she went around the world in 72 days, pet monkey included.

January 25, 2019 5:00 am
(Original Caption) Nellie Bly (1867-1922), an American journalist and around the world traveler, made headlines in 1890.
(Original Caption) Nellie Bly (1867-1922), an American journalist and around the world traveler, made headlines in 1890.
Bettmann Archive

When Nellie Bly stepped off the train platform in New York, the crowd got so rowdy that a reporter said, as any early 2000s hip hop artist would appreciate, “there seemed to be danger of the roof’s raising from the depot.”

Bly, a 20-something journalist for the New York’s World newspaper, was the reason for the raucousness, having arrived safely home on this day in 1890 an unprecedented 72-day trip around the world – a successful bid to beat the fictional record set in the Jules Verne novel “Around the World in 80 Days,” and an adventure followed by thousands of readers.

“When the train began slowly to enter the long, arched depot the assembled multitudes sent up cheer after cheer, and when the lithe little traveler stepped lightly from the train it was into the very arms of the surging crowd,” the World said of their star journalist.

Bly, who had already gained recognition for going undercover in a New York insane asylum — the subject of a recently released TV movie, had suggested to her editors that she take on the adventure in November 1889 – a time when the speediest modes of transportation were railcars and steamships. Her editors reportedly demurred, hoping to send a man instead, but when Bly threatened to simply accomplish the stunt for another newspaper, they relented.

“I’ve never been out of sight of land,” Bly is quoted as saying before beginning her journey, “but I have no qualms of fear. I may be seasick, but I’ll get over it, and I know I shall enjoy the trip.”

Headlined “A Girl’s Feat” in the World, the trip called for a journey from New York, through London, England; Paris, France; Brindisi, Italy; Ismailia, Egypt; Aden, Yemen; Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka); Penang, Malaysia; Singapore; Hong Kong; and Yokohama, Japan before a long Pacific steamship trip back to the American west coast.

The World, as well as newspapers across the country, followed Bly’s every move, blasting headlines like “Nellie in London,” “Nellie in India,” and “From China Next.” Eager followers were invited by the World to guess on what precise time she’d get back, the winner getting a free trip to Europe.

Throughout the journey Bly sent back short updates on her progress.

“A cable dispatch received at The World office this afternoon announces that the nervy little globe-trotter has arrived safely at Singapore in good health and spirits and will sail tonight for Hong Kong,” the World reported on Dec. 18.

While in Singapore Bly picked up a pet monkey, which she later said was “an intelligent monkey, but very bad tempered.”

“Miss Bly has plenty of money, and all the resources of The World to draw upon, and a vast deal of pluck, ready wit and energy,” the paper said the next day.

When she arrived in Yokohama, the World reprinted another dispatch:

“I arrived here today safely and in good health, after a six days’ passage from Hong Kong, which we left Dec. 28,” Bly wrote. “Quicker time could have been made between Hong Kong and this port, but an earlier arrival would’ve been of no avail as the steamship Oceanic is advertised all through Japan to leave here Jan. 7 and the mails will not be ready until that date. The commander of the Oceanic expects to make an extraordinary effort between here and San Francisco.”

The paper warned, “The possibilities of gales and storms must always be taken into account, and many things may happen to prevent the Oceanic from lowering her record, which she must do if Miss Bly is to realize her hope.”

Luckily for Bly, the long Pacific passage to San Francisco went off without a hitch, except for the monkey biting people. From San Francisco she hopped on a railroad to roll through the “homestretch” that is the breadth of America. At each train station along the way, crowds gathered to cheer her on.

She arrived in Jersey City, the finish line, on Jan. 25, 1890 – 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes after she left, breaking Vernes’ fictional record by nearly 8 days.

The trip, and the book authored by Bly about it, made her a national celebrity. The World also made good on its competition among readers who tried to guess the exact time she’d return, rewarding one reader with the promised European vacation.

“The completion this afternoon of Nellie Bly’s wonderful journey around the world will add one of the brightest pages to the imperishable record of the Achievements of Woman,” the World wrote in a breathless front-page spread the day she arrived home. “Without guide or escort; speaking no language but her mother tongue… with but a single gown and an outfit which the ordinary woman would consider inadequate for a one day’s visit to Newark, this frail, slender, plucky young woman has travelled over twenty-three thousand miles, has touched at every continent, has obtained flying glimpses of every phase of the world’s civilizations, has demonstrated the perfection and simplicity of modern methods of travel, and has established a record which within her own lifetime would have been regarded as chimerical as a journey to the mountains of the moon.”

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