On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly boarded a steamship for London, planning to return to New Jersey 75 days later, beating the record set by the fictitious protagonist of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” with time to spare.
A few hours later, Elizabeth Bisland stepped on a train in New York, bound west for California. In a wild scramble, her editors at Cosmopolitan magazine decided to have her circumnavigate the globe in the opposite direction in an attempt to beat Bly.
The two women were very different. Bly was a daredevil reporter perhaps best known for exposing the horrific conditions of an asylum on Blackwell’s Island, and Bisland was a literary critic and poet. But both were in their mid-20s and had made their way to live and work in New York on the strength of their writing.
Traveling such a far distance in only a few months would have been impossible only a few decades earlier. For women to make the journey, and by themselves, was also unusual.
“I do like thinking that they help flip the dial of what women could do at the time,” Adrien Behn told Insider. She created “A Race Around the World: Based on the True Adventures of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland,” a new podcast about the two women’s race.
Through a combination of trains and steamships and with the assistance of some well-timed telegrams and a lot of luck, the two finished their race within days of each other.
These technologies were still developing at a rapid clip.
“These women were not only racing around the world; they were racing through the heart of the Victorian age,” Matthew Goodman, author of “Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World,” told Insider.
Steamships and seasickness
The first leg of Bly’s trip was aboard the “Augusta Victoria,” a brand-new ship with stained glass, shuffleboard games, and starlit concerts.
Though she was crossing from New York to London at the end of the Atlantic hurricane season, sea travel could still be dangerous. Everything from icebergs to collisions with other vessels to shipboard fires presented risks.
For Bly and Bisland, seasickness proved the biggest hazard. The ship’s captain recommended Bly keep eating until the nausea passed. It didn’t work.
“She takes a bite, and she runs over to the deck and keeps vomiting,” Behn said.
Other 19th-century seasickness “cures” included champagne, oysters, and chloroform.
Transcontinental rail from New York to California
Traveling by train had the trappings of luxury. On her first day, Bisland boarded a swanky sleeper car on the Fast Western Express from New York to Chicago.
A first-class passenger could expect opulent decor, access to a shared washroom, and smoking and library cars. Years later, all that Bisland could recall was the “coffin-like smell.”
Such a journey — from New York to Chicago to Omaha to Utah to San Francisco — took Bisland on the transatlantic route. Just 20 years earlier, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads were joined for the first time north of the Great Salt Lake.
Before rail travel, it took about six months to cross the country. Tracks crisscrossed the East and Midwest, but it took a gargantuan effort to help open the West. Between Nebraska and Sacramento, California, lay the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Rockies.
“The women were riding on these railroads that had been laid down by almost slave laborers who were facing extreme prejudice and discrimination in the course of doing it,” Goodman said.
Railroad bosses gave the most dangerous jobs to Chinese workers. They lit the fuse that exploded the black powder, tunneling through mountains. Over 1,000 Chinese workers died during construction.
In 1882, the US passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred many Chinese immigrants from entering the country.
As the railway joined the two coasts, it cleaved vast numbers of bison into separate herds. Easy access to the huge animals nearly led to their extinction. Hunters shot them from trains and left carcasses to rot.
The devastation of the bison also impacted many Indigenous people who depended on the animals for survival and who now had railroad tracks running through their lands.
Treacherous trains and the new time zones
Just a few years before Bly’s and Bisland’s trips, the US ran on dozens of different local times. It might be noon in Washington, DC, but 12:08 in Philadelphia.
With different railroad companies coordinating trains on the same tracks based on different clocks, collisions could easily happen. In 1883, the companies adopted Standard Railway Time. Widespread use of time zones soon followed.
“That was another indication of the remarkable transformative power of the railroad companies in that period,” Goodman said.
Even once the trains were all running on standard time, rail travel could still be dangerous. “There were men who were specifically hired to work close to railroads just in case the train tipped over, and they would have to do emergency surgery,” Behn said.
Railway surgeons would treat passengers and crew for everyday illnesses when they were far from home. And in the case of not-infrequent accidents, they also set broken bones, amputated crushed limbs, and tended to scalded flesh.
“Unfortunately the mechanical devices for the transportation of human freight come to grief and a calamity as terrible as a battle,” one chief surgeon wrote in 1904.
The Suez Canal opened the world
Before 1869, there was no direct sea route between Europe and Asia. Ships had to sail all the way around southern Africa.
It took an estimated 1.5 million builders and 10 years to connect the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Many Egyptians were forced into service and poorly paid. Cholera and other diseases killed thousands, though the death toll estimates vary widely.
The Suez Canal’s opening shaved 4,500 miles off the voyage between Britain and India.
“That alone really does crack the world open in a sense,” Behn said.
Bly arrived at Port Said, Egypt, on November 27, 1889 and traveled southward toward Yemen. In early January 1890, Bisland sailed the opposite way through the canal, entering near Yemen.
Both women had plenty of time to take in the buildings, encampments, and camels. Ships in the Suez Canal traveled slow enough that Bly could exchange pleasantries with passengers on other vessels.
“If ships went through faster than that, the waves would stir up the dirt and erode the banks of the canal,” Goodman said. The canal’s speed limit is still between 7.6 knots and 8.6 knots, just under 10 miles per hour.
Here, as in other countries the two women visited, accounts of their journeys include stereotypical and offensive descriptions of the native people they saw and interacted with.
The sun never set on the British Empire
With commonwealths, countries, and colonies on six continents, Britain’s reach was inescapable during Bly’s and Bisland’s race.
“They were traveling through the length and breadth of the British Empire,” Goodman said, stopping in its ports all along the way. Aden, Colombo, Penang, and Hong Kong were all under British control.
“As I traveled on and realized more than ever before how the English have stolen almost all, if not all, desirable sea ports,” Bly wrote, she no longer marveled at “the pride with which Englishmen view their flag floating in so many different climes and over so many different nationalities.”
Bisland, too, noted war ships guarded Aden, which was “valuable; and therefore, like Hong Kong, Singapore, Penang, Ceylon — like everything much worth having in this part of the world — it is an English possession.”
British citizens could travel halfway around the world and still speak English, eat British food, read London newspapers, and stay in European hotels, Goodman said.
“That was a sort of imperial privilege,” he said. “You can go halfway around the world and in a sense almost never feel like you’re leaving home.”
Even in ports the British didn’t control, like Yokohama, the women still saw the empire’s ships, as well as vessels from France, Germany, and America.
“Colonialism seeps through the entire story” of their travels, Behn said.
Avoiding the flu
In the third week of December 1889, the women were both in the South China Sea. Bly was headed to Hong Kong, while Bisland was traveling to Singapore.
A week later, a Nevada newspaper read: “The influenza is coming around the world in a good deal faster time than Nellie Bly or her rival will make.”
Train and sea travel helped rapidly spread the pandemic from the Russian Empire to Europe, the US, and beyond. Modern researchers have suggested the disease may actually have been a coronavirus instead of influenza.
Bly had only a couple of days to prepare for her trip. Bisland left the same day her editor decided to send her. Even if they’d had time to get vaccines, there weren’t a lot to choose from.
Medical professionals had been using the smallpox vaccine for over 100 years. In the 1860s, a new technique employed cowpox lesions instead of taking pus or scabs from an infected person and introducing it into a healthy person’s bloodstream. (People in the Middle East and Africa had used similar techniques for centuries.)
This was also decades before antibiotics. “There’s no penicillin,” Behn said. “Hopefully some of those doctor surgeons are nearby in case anything goes wrong.”
Luxury liners and lung disease
Bly and Bisland voyaged via first-class accommodations whenever possible. Nowhere was the difference more stark than the steamships, where a single meal might include soup, fish, beef, duck, potatoes, salad, pastry, cheese, and fruit.
Below the more sumptuous accommodations, hundreds of steerage passengers were crammed in airless rooms with unwashed dishes and clothes, and pools of vomit.
First-class rooms were further from the ceaseless vibration of the engines that stokers, or coal shovelers, worked furiously to power.
“You see a huge emphasis being placed on building ships that were ever faster than the previous generation of ships,” Goodman said.
Many passengers enjoyed the idea of being on the “fastest” ship. And Bly had a race to win. She’d only recently learned that she wasn’t just competing against time. A steamship company employee had shocked her with the news that Bisland was in the race, too.
On the journey between Hong Kong and San Francisco in late December, Bly urged the ship captain to go faster. “If I fail, I will never return to New York,” she said.
“The only way that that could happen is because you had these men down in the bowels of the ship shoveling coal in the most abject working conditions imaginable,” Goodman said.
The stokers shoveled up 2 tons of coal a day in rooms that could reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit, Goodman said. Their shovels could get hot enough to blister their hands. Inhaling coal dust led to pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease.
One doctor described coal miners’ and stokers’ lungs during autopsies. They were leathery and coated in thick black mucus.
Telegrams and travel delays
Queen Victoria sent President James Buchanan a telegram on August 16, 1858. It celebrated the new transatlantic cable joining Europe and North America. People could send messages between the continents more quickly than ever before.
There were kinks in the system. New advances in the 1870s meant the cables could finally transmit more than one message at a time. Adding more cables helped lower the price of sending a telegram, too, to about 31 cents in the US. By 1889, a message could travel the transatlantic cables in about five minutes.
It wasn’t until 1902 that cables stretched all the way around the world. Still, Bly and Bisland managed to dash off quick notes to their editors from various ports.
“The cables were actually few and far between,” Behn said, much to Joseph Pulitzer’s chagrin. The owner of The World, the paper Bly worked for, hoped to entice readers to follow her adventures.
Instead, the editors cooked up a contest. The person who came closest to guessing Bly’s return time would win a trip to Europe. Naturally, entrants had to fill out a slip available in each Sunday’s edition — “the more expensive paper,” Behn said.
When Bly arrived in San Francisco on January 21, 1890, she had another unwelcome surprise. A massive snowstorm had delayed the train she was supposed to take back east. Instead, her editors spent thousands of dollars to get Bly her own private train that would take a route avoiding the bad weather.
Once aboard the train, Bly began to receive telegrams from her editors and well-wishers. “Sometimes it literally literally just says, ‘Nelly Bly’s train,’” Behn said.
Jules Verne, whom Bly met in France during her trek, sent her a congratulatory telegram.
There were a few times when communications technology more reliable and accessible than the telegraph would have helped the travelers. A man who said he was from the Thomas Cook & Son travel agency approached Bisland as she disembarked from a train in Italy on January 16, 1890. The boat she’d been hoping would wait for her had sailed, he said.
“It’s not like she can send her boss a quick email,” Behn said. Instead of sailing home from France, Bisland had to make her way to London then Ireland.
And, it turned out, the man had been wrong. The ship was waiting for Bisland, who never showed. “The cause of this false information was never satisfactorily ascertained,” she later wrote.
After the race
As Bly’s train raced through the US, thousands of people gathered at different stops to cheer her on. On January 25, 1890, she reached New Jersey after 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds of travel. She had handily beat Verne’s fictional Fogg.
After a storm-tossed voyage across the Atlantic, Bisland arrived home on January 30, having completed a 76-day journey around the globe. She was greeted with much less fanfare.
For a while, Bly was perhaps the most famous woman in the United States, Goodman said. Companies started slapping her name on products. “Just put her name on anything and people will buy it,” Behn said. “So horse feed and games and a whole slew of items are named after Nelly.”
After a brief speaking tour, the backlash against Bly began. “She was embarking on a nationwide lecture tour and presuming to speak uninterrupted for an hour,” Goodman said. “I think that’s when the public began to turn on her.”
“Nellie Bly is not a success as a lecturer,” one newspaper reporter wrote. “If she wishes to marry, however, this might be considered a recommendation.”
Bisland, meanwhile, seemed happier off the front page. She continued writing and returned to Japan, China, Singapore, and other countries she’d visited on her first tour.
For Behn, what Bly and Bisland did remains incredible and deserve to be remembered as much as Verne’s story.
“Two people actually did it,” she said. “Two women actually did it.”