The Jan. 25, 1890, edition of the Lancaster Daily New Era proclaimed in a front page story that thousands of onlookers gathered to the train station to greet and cheer for a journalist.
Reporter Nellie Bly had just finished a record-breaking journey around the globe - 25,000 miles in 72 days, six hours and 11 minutes - and was traveling through Harrisburg and Lancaster on her way along the Pennsylvania Railroad to Jersey City.
Bly had looked at the then-recent fictional globetrotting record set by Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s classic “Around the World in Eighty Days,” and thought, “I can top that.”
Of course, a lot stood in between Bly’s departure from and return to the United States in 1890.
As a writer, Bly first got major national attention at the age of 23 for feigning insanity and gaining entry into the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on New York City’s Blackwell’s Island. The piece, which would first be printed in the New York World newspaper before getting compiled into the book “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” proved that Bly was willing to go above and beyond the usual call of reporters.
One morning in 1888, Bly visited her editor, John A. Cockerill at the New York World, and informed him of her plan. Almost immediately, Bly was rebuffed, as Cockerill insisted on a man making the trip. His reasoning? Not only that Bly, as a woman, wouldn’t be able to make the solo journey herself, but that she would carry too much cargo with her. Bly replied simply that she would take her story elsewhere if the World wasn’t up to assigning her the story.
It would be a full year before Bly’s journey received the thumbs up. On Nov. 12, 1889, Bly was asked if she would be able to begin her globetrotting journey in two days’ time. Bly agreed, and at 9:40 a.m. on Nov. 14, she was off.
As if to scorn the World editor who doubted her, Bly traveled extremely light. Along with the dress on her back, Bly carried a satchel filled with changes of underwear, paper and pencils, needle and thread, a tennis blazer and a small flask. The largest item in her 16-by-7-inch bag was a jar of cold cream. On Bly’s wrist was a twenty-four hour watch, so that she could keep time with the U.S. wherever she was in the world.
Bly’s journey began on a steamship departing Hoboken, New Jersey, headed toward London. Modes of transportation were kept strictly to what the average person would travel in, which ranged from ships and trains to sampans and jinrickshas. Often, a significant portion of Bly’s travel time was dedicated to waiting for a slow ship to arrive, as opposed to the travel itself. However, not only was Bly competing with time, she was competing with another journalist. The recently launched Cosmopolitan magazine had sent its own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, in the opposite direction around the world to achieve some clout off of the back of the New York World.
It would take a week for Bly to arrive in London, but she quickly left for Paris because of a preordained meeting with the man responsible for the trip, author Jules Verne.
According to a contemporary edition of the Harrisburg Telegraph, Verne and his wife, Honorine, met Bly at a railway station outside of Amiens, France, before departing for the Vernes’ abode. Verne and Bly compared routes and discussed how travel had changed in the 18 years since the publication of “Around the World in Eighty Days.” In a bit of irony, Bly learned from Verne that his tale was initially inspired by something he had read in a newspaper.
“If Miss Bly, without the help of the Trans-Siberian railroad, is able to do the journey as fast as my imaginary heroes did theirs, it will be a great thing,” said Verne.
Bly spent the following weeks traveling through exotic locales including Italy, Yemen and Malaysia, before arriving in Hong Kong on Christmas Day. It was during this leg of the trip that Bly purchased a monkey named McGinty to keep her company.
Thanks to a lapse in departing ships, Bly spent five days shopping and sightseeing around China.
The longest leg of Bly's journey was near the end – from Hong Kong to Yokohama, Japan, and then to San Francisco. Due in part to lost days from rough weather, there was a worry that Bly wouldn’t be able to complete her journey in the days allotted. New York World editor-in-chief Joseph Pulitzer stepped in to personally charter a one-time train trip from San Francisco to Chicago, which allowed her to make it to the East Coast in a then-record-breaking five days.
When Bly first arrived back in New Jersey on Jan. 25, 1890, her 24-hour watch was finally synced back up with the correct time - though, because she passed through all of the time zones, she had lost a full day of her life.
At every train stop along the final leg of her journey, including Lancaster, thousands of well-wishers waved and threw flowers at Bly’s world-traveling feet. According to an evening edition of the New York World from the day she returned, Bly’s brief stop in Harrisburg received “an ovation here equal to any ever accorded a President,” and in Lancaster, “the ovation exceeded anything ever seen here before.”
Bly would spend the rest of the year giving speaking engagements on the subject of her trip. Her journey and subsequent speeches would serve to garner enthusiasm for female journalists. Just five years later, Bly would be married, then widowed, retired from journalism and in charge of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.
Nellie Bly died in New York City at the age of 57 from pneumonia.
Of course, once Bly’s initial journey was over, it inspired dozens of competitors to attempt to best her record. Even before 1890 was over, George Francis Train had already bettered the record by five days. Just this past year, New Zealand native Andrew Fisher set the new record for traversing the globe commercially in a scant 52 hours and 34 minutes. However, no subsequent trips would inspire the sensational reaction that Nellie Bly received.
When Bly’s journey was inevitably turned into a book, the aptly-titled “Around the World in 72 Days,” she had this to say about her determination:
“I always have a comfortable feeling that nothing is impossible if one applies a certain amount of energy in the right direction. When I want things done, which is always at the last moment, and I am met with such an answer: ‘It’s too late. I hardly think it can be done,’ I simply say: ‘Nonsense! If you want to do it, you can do it. The question is, do you want to do it?’”