When American journalist Nellie Bly realized how badly she needed a vacation, she challenged herself to travel around the world in fewer than 80 days, an idea that came to her in the middle of a sleepless night. Her editor set it aside for about a year, but then, one day in 1889, he told her that the trip was a go — and asked if she could leave just two days later.
The next 70-plus days passed in a whirlwind of sea voyages and train rides. Even when setbacks occurred, Nellie clung to the belief that she would accomplish her goal. Along the way, she met Jules Verne (author of “Around the World in Eighty Days”), made new friends, adopted a pet monkey, and outpaced a rival journalist who was attempting the same journey.
It was a trip for the (world record) books.
On a clear fall morning in 1889, Nellie Bly walked up a gangplank and boarded a ship. Like her fellow passengers, she would spend a week on board before arriving in Southampton, England. Unlike the others, however, she was on a mission. She planned to circumnavigate the world in 75 days, racing a character in a certain Jules Verne novel.
She didn’t know it at the time, but a real-life opponent wanted to race as well. Since her employer, the New York World, had already publicized the trip, rival publication Cosmopolitan decided to turn Nellie’s endeavor into a competition. Although Nellie was traveling east, Cosmopolitan sent its own journalist, Elizabeth Bisland, on a westward journey around the globe. Bisland left New York City on the same day as Nellie, but Nellie wouldn’t find out about her competition for weeks.
In the beginning, few people believed that a woman could make her way around the world so quickly. Even Nellie’s coworkers had expressed early doubts, believing she would overpack and struggle without an escort. But she set out alone, carrying only one bag and wearing a single dress throughout her entire journey.
Just moments into Nellie’s first ocean voyage, she became violently seasick and threw up over the side of the ship. Many passengers saw it happen, and Nellie overheard someone making a sarcastic comment, but it wasn’t long before she found her sea legs and made friends with the other travelers. During that first week at sea, Nellie earned herself several new allies.
She also won the support of one influential individual — someone she hadn’t even met yet. Upon docking in Southampton, she learned that Jules Verne himself wanted her to visit his home in Amiens, France. Although meeting him would require a quick detour, Nellie was excited to converse with the man who had inspired her journey. She set out for Amiens immediately.
When Verne and his wife, Honorine, met Nellie at the train station in Amiens, she couldn’t help herself from liking the couple right away. The Vernes took her home for a chat beside the fire, then gave her a tour of Jules’ study and library. They even showed her a world map where he had traced his protagonist’s route. Using a pencil, he marked Nellie’s route on the same map and drank to her success, wishing her Godspeed and saying, “If you do it in 79 days, I shall applaud with both hands.”
Though the meeting had been amiable, Nellie knew then that Verne doubted she could meet her goal of 75 days.
After leaving the Vernes’ home, Nellie rushed to Calais, where her journey continued by train. In a matter of days, she sped through the French and Italian countrysides, boarded a boat to Egypt, passed through the Suez Canal, and sailed across the Red Sea. She spent little time at the train stations and ports she visited, although she did go ashore once or twice. During the long days at sea, she and her fellow passengers entertained themselves by playing cards and musical instruments, as well as interacting with the locals who came aboard at port cities.
Nellie’s next real adventure didn’t come until she disembarked in Colombo, Sri Lanka (then a British colony known as Ceylon). The green island resembled heaven, and she fell in love with its food, scenery, and people while she waited for her next ship.
Nellie made good friends during this stage of her trip, but although she enjoyed Colombo, she was fairly disappointed with a day trip she and two friends took to Kandy. When she returned to Colombo that evening, she felt sick and suffered a headache, but found comfort in her friends, who made her laugh. She later wrote that insignificant moments often raise the loudest laughs — and make the best memories.
After five days in Sri Lanka, Nellie boarded a ship bound for China. The ship docked at ports in Malaysia and Singapore, where she did some light exploring. In Singapore, she and her friends paid a tuk-tuk driver to show them the sights, including a mosque and a Hindu temple. When the driver stopped at his house on the way back to the ship, Nellie saw his pet monkey and asked if she could buy it. The driver agreed; luckily, the monkey was a good sailor, although it did scratch several people before Nellie’s trip ended.
While en route to Hong Kong, the ship ran into a monsoon. Nellie, who had become much more comfortable at sea throughout her trip, loved sitting on deck and watching the vessel battle the waves. One night, water crept into her cabin, and she felt certain that everyone was going to die, but she decided to stay in bed and go back to sleep. Her friends shared her blasé attitude, and they roared with laughter when someone later told them that she had slept in her life jacket for several nights.
In Hong Kong, Nellie went straight to the steamship company’s office, hoping to find out when she could set sail for Japan. She was shocked when company officials informed her that “the other woman” had left Hong Kong three days earlier and that Nellie was going to lose the race. She explained that she wasn’t racing anyone or anything but time; if another journalist wanted to pit herself against Nellie, that was her decision.
Nellie stayed in China for five days, visiting Hong Kong’s iconic Victoria Peak, befriending British expats, and spending Christmas on a day-trip to Canton (now Guangzhou). It was an untraditional holiday — Nellie learned about the city’s prison system and its torture methods before touring a leper colony with her friends.
When she finally sailed to Japan, the ship made good time. She celebrated the New Year at sea, noting that she and her friends had lots of fun acting like children. They eventually arrived in Yokohama, Japan, where she spent another five days before setting sail for San Francisco. Luckily, Japan was one of Nellie’s favorite destinations, so if she had to lose time anywhere, at least it was in a country she really liked.
Leaving Japan was bittersweet. Nellie was reluctant to say goodbye to the country and her new friends, but she needed to continue her journey. Knowing how much the voyage meant to her, the ship’s chief engineer wrote “For Nellie Bly, we’ll win or die” on machines throughout the engine room.
In San Francisco, the New York World sent a special tugboat to meet Nellie and whisk her to shore as quickly as possible. In the midst of the chaos, she left her pet monkey on the ship, but someone went back and brought it to her (suffering several scratches for his trouble). Nellie immediately boarded a train to New York City and marveled at the crowds that greeted her in cities all across the United States.
At every train station, she was accosted for handshakes and showered with flowers and fruit. She even received a telegram from Jules Verne, who wanted to congratulate her for her speed.
Finally, Nellie’s train pulled into the station in Jersey City. It had been 72 days, six hours, and 11 minutes since she’d left home. The Cosmopolitan journalist, Elizabeth Bisland, was still crossing the Atlantic Ocean (although she, too, would make it to New York fewer than 80 days after her departure), so Nellie had completed the journey first.
“The station was packed with thousands of people, and the moment I landed on the platform, one yell went up from them, and the cannons at the Battery and Fort Greene boomed out the news of my arrival. I took off my cap and wanted to yell with the crowd, not because I had gone around the world in 72 days, but because I was home again.” — Nellie Bly
Hoping to learn more about Nellie Bly’s record-breaking trip around the world? You’re in luck! Her entire travelogue is available online.