Nov. 14, 2022

Nellie Bly Races Around the World

Nellie Bly Races Around the World

November 14, 1889. Reporters Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland begin a race to beat Phileas Fogg’s fictional journey around the world in 80 days.


Cold Open

It’s just after nine o’clock in the morning on November 14th, 1889.

On an ocean liner cruising through New York Harbor, 25-year-old reporter Nellie Bly walks along the ship’s promenade deck. It’s the first time she’s ever been on a vessel like this, and she marvels at the sheer enormity of it. A faint haze floats through the air and Nellie looks up to see smoke churning out from the ship's three tall chimneys. She hopes that the steamship’s engines are as powerful as she’s been told. She needs to reach London in seven days or she’ll miss her onward connection. And if she doesn’t make that, her quest to travel around the world in less than 80 days will be over before it starts.

Nellie places her only piece of luggage—a small satchel—on a deckchair and walks to the side of the ship, clutching onto the rail. She looks back at the newly built Statue of Liberty standing proud on a small island in the harbor. But the heartwarming sight of Lady Liberty doesn’t make Nellie feel any less seasick. The ship's gentle rocking has her bile rising in her throat and despite her best efforts... she cannot hold it down. Nellie inhales deeply, trying to stave off the persistent nausea. She rests her head on the rail, enjoying the cool feel of the metal.  

It's through the vibrations of the rail that she notices the ocean liner has picked up speed and is pushing out toward the open sea. As she looks up to see the bow wave surging forward into the Atlantic, one of the ship’s officers’ approaches and gives Nellie a sympathetic look. His advice to avoid being seasick is to look at the horizon. Nellie smiles awkwardly, embarrassed, but pleased that her round-the-world journey has finally begun. She’s making this long, dangerous voyage as a publicity stunt. She hopes that in the end, the long days at sea, and the bouts of sickness, will be worth it and that her name will forever be enshrined in the annals of history.

By 1889, Nellie Bly is already one of the best reporters at the New York World. She’s an intrepid journalist, best known for feigning madness to write an exposé on a lunatic asylum. After that, she told her editor about an even more spectacular story she hoped to write. She wants to leave her home in Jersey City and circumnavigate the globe quicker than the fictional expedition of Phileas Fogg, the main character of Jules Verne’s popular novel, Around the World in Eighty Days. Nellie loved the idea of a woman traveling on her own, challenging the social norms of late 19th-century America. After mulling the idea over, her editor agreed. He decided it would be a flashy stunt, one that would sell copies of his paper. But today, as Nellie’s ship steams out of New York Harbor, she is completely unaware of one critical piece of information: she’s not the only woman planning to make the trip around the world. In fact, later that same day, another woman reporter will attempt to make the same trip and beat Nellie’s time. Their voyages will become a round-the-world race, with the clock starting to count down on November 14th, 1889.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is November 14th, 1889: Nellie Bly Races Around the World.

Act One

It’s eleven o’clock in the morning on November 14th, 1889, just over an hour into Nellie Bly’s journey around the world.

28-year-old Elizabeth Bisland, a writer for Cosmopolitan magazine, is reading at her New York home when she hears a knock on the parlor door. Her maid enters and presents Elizabeth with a letter that’s just been hand-delivered by a breathless messenger. Elizabeth opens the envelope and cocks her head. It’s from the editor of the magazine and he insists that she come to his office at once. Elizabeth dons her coat and heads for the door, wondering what this summon is all about.

In the United States, the late 19th century gave rise to stunt journalism, a form of writing where reporters take personal risks to get stories they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. Newspapers and magazines employed daring writers to interview criminals and infiltrate sweatshops, factories, and illegal abortion clinics. The reporters who pursued these juicy scoops were often women. And these so-called stunt reporters, like Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, have played a major role in exposing some of society’s biggest ills.

But today, as Elizabeth steps inside the Cosmopolitan building, she has no idea what her editor might have in mind for her. She finds out when she sees a copy of the New York World splayed across her editor's desk. The top story on its front page declares that one of their reporters has set off on a trip to emulate Phileas Fogg’s journey in Around the World in Eighty Days. Elizabeth quickly puts two and two together.

And her editor grins. He tells her that yes, he wants Elizabeth to make the same journey, and to do it faster than the New York World reporter. His idea is that Elizabeth will go the opposite way around the world—crossing the United States first by rail before catching an ocean liner to Japan. If Elizabeth takes that route, she won’t have to wait as long for onward connections, and she should beat Nellie Bly.

But Elizabeth points out that Nellie Bly is already on her way. Her editor’s grin widens and says he tells her that's why she needs to start tonight. Elizabeth stammers as she accepts the challenge, but she still can’t get her head around the magnitude of the assignment. Her main worry is that she’ll have to cancel the dinner party she is due to host tomorrow. 

The next 12 hours are a flurry of activity. Elizabeth rushes home to pack. She stuffs her trunk with what she thinks are essentials but it won't close, she takes pieces of clothing out and re-packs again, repeating this process several times until eventually, she is left with just one or two outfits and a handful of basic supplies. And soon, she hops in a carriage that whisks her to a rail station. And there, she boards a train bound for Chicago.

Finally, Elizabeth lies down in a sleeper compartment and marvels at the events of her day. She awoke expecting nothing out of the ordinary. But now she’s begun a journey around the world. As she closes her eyes and tries to fall asleep, she thinks of the reception she will receive if she beats Nellie. As she listens to the lowing sound of the train rattling over its tracks, Elizabeth smiles. She has a distinct advantage over her competition—she knows she is racing another person around the world. But Nellie does not. And by the time she finds out, Elizabeth hopes, it will be too late.


38 days later, on December 22nd, 1889, Nellie Bly walks into the offices of the Occidental and Oriental Steamship Company in Hong Kong with a spring in her step.

She has arrived here two days ahead of schedule thanks to fair weather on her last voyage from Sri Lanka. Now, she hopes she can take an earlier ship for the next leg of her journey.

For more than a month, Nellie has enjoyed her travels around the world, although it’s been exhausting. She felt ill for the entire week-long voyage across the Atlantic. She slept on a train for three consecutive nights to make a detour to visit Jules Verne, the author who inspired her unusual assignment. Then she sailed through the Suez Canal. She bought a monkey in Singapore. And now, she is halfway through her journey. Only two legs remain, crossing the Pacific, and then taking a train across North America. She knows these last two legs are substantial, but she is feeling rejuvenated now that the home stretch is finally in sight.

But today, as Nellie enquires about an early departure at the steamship office, the clerk gives her two pieces of bad news. The first is that there is no earlier ship to take. And two, she’s not the only person racing around the world. Nellie’s mouth falls agape as the clerk tells her that another woman left Hong Kong three days ago, determined to beat her around the globe.

Nellie’s stomach drops. She thought she was racing time. Not another human. When Nellie pumps the clerk for more information, he tells her that a rival publication is seeking to capitalize on Nellie’s journey by sending their own reporter on a copycat trip. They aim to beat her around the world by going west instead of east.

But Nellie doesn’t lose hope. Instead, the news that she has an opponent in this race spurs a new determination in her. When she gets on board her next ship, Nellie plans to inspire the captain to push his vessel to its limits. She will make every effort to get back home ahead of schedule, and ahead of Elizabeth Bisland.

Act Two

It’s four o’clock in the morning on January 17th, 1890, 64 days after Nellie Bly’s round-the-world journey began.

Elizabeth Bisland steps onto a train station platform at Villeneuve, just outside Paris. She looks around, trying to identify the connecting train that will take her to the next and final stop: the French port city of Le Havre.

For the most part, Elizabeth’s round-the-world trip has gone exactly according to plan. She arrived in San Francisco in time to take a steamer across the Pacific to Japan. In Asia, she made all her connections and managed to arrive in Italy right on schedule. From there, she took a fast mail train bound for France. But as it crossed the Alps, it started to fall behind schedule. And now, as Elizabeth walks along the deserted platform in Villeneuve, she worries she’s missed her connection. If she doesn’t catch her train to Le Havre, she’ll miss the ship that’s supposed to take her home.

Hearing the distant click of heels, Elizabeth spins around and spots a smartly dressed man striding toward her. He introduces himself as an agent of the Thomas Cook travel firm. He apologizes profusely and explains that because her train was delayed in the Alps, she has missed her connection. The ocean liner Elizabeth was due to catch at Le Havre will leave promptly at seven o’clock, in only three hours. There is no way she will make it in time.

Defeated, Elizabeth slumps into a seat on the platform. The agent politely explains that Elizabeth could catch a train to Calais and then cross the English Channel and secure a transatlantic voyage there. Elizabeth wearily nods her head in agreement. And then she boards a train, heads for the sleeper car, and plops down into her bunk.

With tears in her eyes. She quietly consults her timetables, not trying to wake the other women sleeping in her compartment. The train will arrive too late for her to catch a ship to England today. So tomorrow, after she crosses the channel and arrives in Dover, she will have to hotfoot to Southampton, or maybe even as far as Ireland, in order to catch a transatlantic steamer. Either way, this setback will significantly delay her journey. She’ll still make it back in less than 80 days, but there’s no chance she’ll beat her counterpart: Nellie Bly.


Four days later, on January 21st, 1890, an ocean liner carrying Nellie Bly docks in San Francisco.

Nellie stands gripping the rail, just as she did when her ship left New York Harbor 68 days ago. But this time she isn’t feeling seasick. She is marveling at the sight of US soil, and relieved at the thought that her journey is in the final stretch.

During the ocean liner’s voyage across the Pacific, a horrible storm blew in and slowed their speed. Nellie tracked the ship’s progress on a map and began to fear she would not make it back home in time to beat her competition. So Nellie convinced the captain and crew to power across the ocean and make up for lost time. A message was chalked in the engine rooms, saying “For Nellie Bly, we’ll win or die.” Nellie’s encouragement, and the efforts of the captain and crew, paid off. Despite the horrible weather, the steamship crossed the Pacific in 14 days—one day faster than originally planned. Now, Nellie just needs to get on dry land and begin her final leg by rail across the United States.

Nellie smiles at the ship’s captain as he approaches, and thanks him for making such good time. But her smile fades when the captain tells her that there are rumors of a smallpox outbreak in Japan. As a result, no one will be able to leave the ship until a quarantine officer has examined every passenger on board. If a case is discovered, the ship might be quarantined for two weeks. Nellie is visibly horrified by the news. 

But then the captain tells Nellie that a tugboat moored at the side of his ship is about to return to port. If Nellie were to sneak on board, she could bypass the health inspectors. Nellie decides to go for it. The captain points out a rope ladder and tells her to climb down into the boat below. Nellie manages the rope ladder as daintily as her heavy dress will allow. And right after her, her luggage is passed down to the men in the tug, along with the pet monkey she bought in Singapore.

But just as the tugboat’s sailors are about to cast off, a stern voice calls out, demanding to know what in the world is happening- It's the quarantine officer and he demands that no one leaves until everyone is inspected. Nellie shouts up that she has to get on shore or she might lose her race around the world. The quarantine officer grumbles that she must be examined before she can disembark.

But several of Nellie’s fellow passengers gather around the officer, they argue with him that he should make an exception and let her go. And as her fellow passengers cheer her on, Nellie calls out saying the officer can examine her mouth from afar. Then she sticks her tongue out at him as the tugboat chugs away.

Within an hour, the tug docks in San Francisco. Nellie is overcome with emotion as she steps foot on US soil for the first time in over two months. She is confident that she will be able to cross the continental United States and return to Jersey City in time to beat Phileas Fogg and Elizabeth Bisland in her race around the world.

Act Three

It’s quarter past three in the afternoon on January 25th, 1890, 72 days, six hours, and 11 minutes after Nellie Bly’s round-the-world journey began.

Nellie Bly rocks sideways as her train comes to a halt at the Jersey City Terminal, the finish line for her circumnavigation of the globe. She looks out of the window and sees hundreds of people standing behind barriers on the platform. A man steps forward to open the train door, but Nellie stops him. Instead, she leans out of the window and opens it herself. She has journeyed around the world all on her own and doesn’t need a man to open the door for her now.

On her four-day railroad journey across the United States, Nellie Bly was greeted like a returning hero. Crowds flocked to railway stations as she traveled through. She was presented with flowers and candy. And well-wishers tried to get close enough to touch the fabric of her dress, the same dress she wore on the entire journey. But now, at last, she is home.

Nellie steps onto the platform to officially stop the clock. The crowd explodes in riotous celebration as Nellie is whisked out of the train station through packed streets and across the Hudson River to the offices of the New York World, where a champagne reception is held in her honor. Only then is Nellie able to slip away to find out what’s happened to her rival.

Nellie listens intently as Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the New York World, tells her that Elizabeth Bisland is still on an ocean liner in the middle of the Atlantic because she missed her ship at Le Havre. Pulitzer has an enigmatic smile on his face. He tells Nellie that Elizabeth arrived near Paris in time to catch a train that would have gotten her to Le Havre and her ship—but for some reason, she didn’t catch that train. She went to England instead. Nellie will later wonder if Pulitzer himself was somehow involved in a plot to sabotage Elizabeth and make sure Nellie won. She will never know whether the person at the train station deliberately gave Elizabeth false information, or whether it was a misunderstanding.

Either way, Nellie Bly completed her round-the-world journey in 72 days, setting a record for the fastest-ever circumnavigation of the globe. Elizabeth arrived four days later. But both Nellie and Elizabeth beat the target set by Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days.

The bravery shown by these two remarkable women marks a high point of 19th-century stunt journalism. Their attempts to replicate Phileas Fogg’s fictional journey caught the imagination of America and made them the two best-known female journalists of their era; a status they achieved after embarking on their round-the-world race on November 14th, 1889.


Next onHistory Daily. November 15th, 1969. Millions of people participate in the Vietnam War Moratorium, one of the largest demonstrations in US History.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.