Around the World – in *How* many days?!

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Elizabeth Seaman, aka Nellie Bly

Many people have heard of Jules Verne’s book, Around the World in Eighty Days. At the time it was written, without air travel, the idea of traveling around the world in two and a half months seemed preposterous. The book, after all, was fiction. The character Phineas Fogg encountered many obstacles, and even used balloon travel to make it in time, and win his bet.

However, there was an intrepid young woman, Elizabeth Seaman, who took it as a challenge. On November 14, 1889, she set out on a round the world trip to prove that it not only could be done, but she was determined to beat the eighty-day limit.

Elizabeth was a novelty of her time, a female journalist who wrote news stories, not fluff for the society page. She had already won fame for her daring stunt of pretending to be insane and admitting herself to New York City’s insane asylum, in order to ferret out abuse and fraud in the institutions. She correctly suspected that many of the inmates were no more insane than she was, having been committed by unscrupulous or uncaring relatives.

Nellie Bly was Elizabeth’s pen name and the way the world knew her. She was intelligent, hard-headed, and had a nose for news. If there wasn’t a news story to be had, she was adept at creating one, as in the case of this round the world journey. She proposed the idea to her editor at the New York World, and rather than spending months in preparation in study, she left two days later. She took with her the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear, and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials. She carried most of her money (£200 in English bank notes and gold, as well as some American currency) in a bag tied around her neck.

To add to the drama, another female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, working for the Cosmopolitan, left on the same day as Nellie, promising to beat both Nellie and the fictional Phineas Fogg, traveling in the opposite direction from Nellie. The World ran a contest for their readers, with a prize for guessing the exact time that Nellie would return to New York. Nellie maintained that she would stick to her original goal of beating the eighty-day deadline, declining to race Bisland. “If she wishes to do it in less time, that is her own affair.”

Bly traveled by steamboat and train and hit occasional delays that cost her precious days. After making her way through Asia, her ship encountered a storm on the Pacific that delayed her, threatening to cost her the record. The publisher of the World, Joseph Pulitzer Sr. stepped in and chartered a private train to take Nellie from San Francisco to New York. In the end, she made the round the world trip in seventy-two days. At the time, no one had done it faster. Bisland was four and a half days slower.

If you’re interested in Nellie’s earlier adventures, pick up the excellent novel What Girls are Good For by David Blixt.