This young woman with an intelligent stare and apparently bizarre fashion sense is Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, more commonly known by her pen name, Nellie Bly.
“Who the hell is Nellie Bly and why in the name of all fuck should I give one solitary shit about her?”, I hear you cry, your jowly red faces quivering with rage. Well, if you’ll care to keep your hat on a few moments longer, I’ll tell you why you should know her name.
Bly was an American journalist, as well as a writer, inventor, and charity worker. She is famed for her journalism, and her fearless pursuit of the truth in the cases she worked on. Her pioneering journalistic feats helped create what is now known as investigative journalism.
To give you a sense of her character, at the age of 23 (God, what have I done with my life), Bly, working with the New York World newspaper, faked insanity in order to infiltrate the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island after reports of neglect and abuse. Yep, straight up Shutter Island shit.
Once there, she was subjected to beatings, mouldy food, rats, ice baths, and was forced to sit on cold wooden benches without moving or speaking for ten hours a day. At the New York World’s intervention, she was proven sane once more and removed from the asylum after ten days. Her published report led to new protective measures being put in place, and prompted an $850,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections.
The ordeal at the asylum wasn’t the great adventure that Nellie is remembered for. No, that would make for a bleak article.
As if bringing the Department of Corrections to its knees by the age of 23 wasn’t enough, two years later, on November the 14th, 1889, Bly began a round trip of the world, setting out on the Augusta Victoria steamer from Jersey.
The journey was dreamed up in discussion with Bly’s editor at the New York World, in a bid to turn the fictional book Around the World in Eighty Days, in which Phileas Fogg circumnavigates the globe on variety of steam ships, trains and omnibuses, into a reality.
The feat had never before been attempted. The New York World’s business manager was unconvinced that a woman could make the trip, and proposed a man make the journey instead. Ah, men. Aren’t we insufferable bastards. Bly’s response ensured they conceded.
“Very well. Start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”
Bly’s equipment list for the 24,899-mile trip read thus: the dress she was wearing, a coat, underwear changes, and some toiletries in a small travel bag. Pretty bad ass. Pretty hipster. Despite her editor’s advice, she refused to take a revolver, instead confident of “the world’s greeting me as I greeted it.”
With a front page story accompanying her departure, word soon got around of her journey. After spending days violently seasick on her crossing to London, other passengers on the ship were skeptical of the green-faced young woman’s vows to travel the world, between bouts of vomiting. On her various voyages, she encountered a cast of colourful characters, including a man who counted every step he took, a pair of Scottish women travelling the world together over a period of two years, and a woman who refused to take off her dress for the entire voyage, adamant that if the ship should sink, she would damn well drown looking her best.
On arrival in Southampton, England, she received a message from this fabulously bearded chap:
The man in question was Jules Verne, the father of science fiction himself, the world’s second most translated author, writer of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and, you guessed it, Around the World in Eighty Days. Bly travelled without sleep for two nights to fit a meeting with Verne into her trip itinerary, meeting him at his home in Amiens, France. Verne greeted Bly as a friend, and informed her that his own book was ironically inspired by a newspaper article.
With news of Bly’s trip spreading fast, it wasn’t long before another newspaper, Cosmopolitan, sent a rival journalist to attempt to beat her, travelling the globe in the opposite direction. Aren’t people just dicks. The journalist in question was one Elizabeth Bisland, who actually left New York on the same day as Bly, although Bly didn’t know anything of her competition until her arrival in Hong Kong, where, upon her arrival, she learned that Bisland had passed through three day earlier.
Bly travelled with an open mind, and though occasionally shocked by the sights she saw, such as unrelenting deformed beggars in Port Said, Egypt, she embraced the cultures she encountered; the alligator hunting in Egypt, the alien Japanese fashions, and a leper colony in China. She even, in Bieber-esque fashion, purchased a pet monkey in Singapore, albeit probably with a bit more class than the tattooed fop. The monkey cost $3 dollars. Bargain.
Heading back to the US, Bly’s voyage was slowed by two full days due to bad weather, and she arrived in San Francisco, where she was swiftly bundled past the rapturous applause of the gathered crowds and onto a one-car train to blitz her across the country.
Her whole journey across the States was filled with meetings with ruddy cheeked town mayors, invites to dinners from local families, and events held in her honour in all the various states and cities she passed through. America was enamoured with the globetrotting young journalist… and her monkey.
Bly arrived in New Jersey on January 25, 1890, at 3:51p.m, 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds after leaving. I don’t know the milliseconds. Sorry to disappoint. Bisland, that slacker, didn’t make it back for another four and a half days. Bly beat her own estimate by three days, and Phileas Fogg’s journey by a whole eight days.
Nellie Bly broke the world record for the fastest ever circumnavigation of the globe, and captured the imagination of every character she met on her travels. Years after her great adventure, she married a prominent industrialist several decades her senior, and became one of the leading female industrialists in the US. Returning to reporting in later life, she covered the Eastern Front in the First World War, and the Women’s Suffrage Parade in 1913.
What a life.
If, for some baffling reason, you’re still not convinced at how awe inspiring Nellie Bly was and is, try this. Type ‘best reporter in America’ into Google. In fact, I’ve done it for you, you lazy shit. Just click here.
And if you want to read Bly’s account of her trip, which is in the public domain, it’s here. She’s a much better writer than me, but she doesn’t use any GIFs, so I guess we’re kind of evenly matched.