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This Day in History: Nellie Bly’s trip around the world in 72 days

On this day in 1889, Nellie Bly concludes her famous trip around the world. The intrepid female journalist had already gone undercover in an insane asylum and reported on corruption in Mexico. She routinely wrote front page stories and exposés at a time when women were “supposed” to write recipes or style guides.

But Nellie simply refused to submit to such tame expectations. She knew she was capable of more—and her trip around the world was undertaken in exactly that spirit.

Nellie’s trip had been inspired by Jules Verne’s popular novel, “Around the World in Eighty Days.” She pitched the idea to her editor at The New York World a full year before she ultimately embarked on her journey. Unfortunately, the World initially wanted to send a man. “Very well,” she said, “start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”

In the end, Nellie departed on her voyage with just a few days’ notice.

Women at the time typically traveled with a lot of baggage. (Think about how big their skirts and bustles and hats could be!) But Nellie was determined to get everything into one small bag. Obviously, she would have to limit her wardrobe—severely. Thus, she had a dress specifically made to withstand three months of constant wear.

Well, technically she had two dresses made, but she couldn’t make the second one fit into her bag. So she left the second dress behind.

Nellie had spent time studying timetables and maps for both ships and trains, and she’d been diligent in planning her route. Yet The World still had to announce Nellie’s trip by stating the obvious: The itinerary might be “very pretty on paper, but it is a case of man proposes and God disposes.”

Weather, mechanical issues, or sickness could throw a wrench into everything, forcing Nellie to miss an important connection. If you think a missed connection in a modern-day airport is bad, then you don’t want to imagine the trouble caused when you miss the last boat out of a port!

Nellie had another challenge, although she didn’t realize it at first. Another female journalist from a competing news outlet was racing against her. Elizabeth Bisland started out from New York, headed west, just a few short hours after Nellie departed from New Jersey, headed east.

Nellie was halfway around the world before she realized that she was not only racing against the clock, but she was also racing against another journalist.

Nellie’s trip began at 9:40 a.m. on the liner Augusta Victoria. As she watched the American coastline recede in the distance, she later admitted that she felt momentarily “lost.” Making matters worse, she was soon gripped by a terrible case of seasickness.

Nevertheless, Nellie’s trip was full of unanticipated pleasures—such as a visit with Jules Verne himself—and surprising disappointments, as when her train ride from France to Italy occurred in such a fog that she missed seeing much of the beautiful countryside. She received (and declined) a marriage proposal, survived a monsoon, and purchased a pet monkey!

Finally, she arrived in San Francisco and boarded a train that would take her back to New Jersey. The trip, she wrote, was “one maze of happy greetings, happy wishes, congratulating telegrams, fruit, flowers, loud cheers, wild hurrahs, rapid hand-shaking and a beautiful car filled with fragrant flowers attached to a swift engine that was tearing like mad through flower-dotted valley and over snow-tipped mountain, on–on–on! It was glorious! A ride worthy a queen.”

Nellie ultimately made it home in a record-setting 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds. She’d surpassed her goal—and she’d beaten Bisland by four days.

Nellie had other adventures, of course. But those are stories for another day.

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