The Woman Who Beat Phileas Fogg Around the World — and Championed Human Rights Way Ahead of Her Time

The Woman Who Beat Phileas Fogg Around the World — and Championed Human Rights Way Ahead of Her Time


When Jules Verne’s classic adventure novel Around the World in 80 Days was published in 1872, the idea of circumnavigating the world in such a short period was still strictly in the realm of fiction.

And then Nellie Bly came along.

Not only did she become the first person to cross the entire globe in under 3 months, she did it carrying nothing but a small travel bag, £200, and the clothes on her back.

By herself.

In 72 days.

January 25 marked 130 years since she arrived back in New York. And if you haven’t heard of Nellie Bly — a woman far ahead of her time who broke a world record, pioneered new frontiers in investigative journalism, fought for the rights of women and mental health patients, and patented her own inventions, all during a period when women still couldn’t even vote in the U.S. — boy, are you in for a treat.

“Lonely Orphan Girl”

Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Mary Jane Cochran near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1864. She eventually changed her last name to Cochrane. When her father died, his estate was divided among the 13 (or 15, according to some sources) children he had from 2 marriages, and there wasn’t much left for Elizabeth and her mother. Elizabeth’s mother remarried, but the new husband was a violent abuser, and they were divorced in 1879.

Elizabeth attended a semester of college in hopes of becoming a teacher, but ran out of money and had to quit. By this point, however, she had discovered that she had a talent for writing, and convinced her mother to move to Pittsburgh in hopes of getting a job there.

It was an extremely tough job market for a woman writer in those days. After a while of struggling and failing to find employment, Elizabeth read a column in a local newspaper, the Pittsburgh Dispatch, called “What Girls Are Good For.” The column disparaged women’s employability and claimed that they should stick with having babies and keeping house. Incensed, Elizabeth wrote a letter to the editor and signed it “Lonely Orphan Girl.”

The editor, George Madden, was so impressed with Elizabeth’s response that he ran an advertisement asking “Lonely Orphan Girl” to identify herself. Elizabeth obliged, and George asked her to write another piece for his paper under the same pseudonym. She wrote an article called “The Girl Puzzle,” in which she described how divorce law affected women and argued for legal reform. George was again so impressed that he decided to hire her full-time.

It was customary for women writers to use pen names during that period. The editor settled on Nellie Bly, the title character of a popular song by Stephen Foster.

Speaking truth to power

Nellie continued writing about women’s issues, human rights, and discrimination. People were uncomfortable with a woman tackling such heavy topics and convinced the editor to reassign her to “women’s interest” topics like fashion and society. But Nellie was having none of it. She wanted to speak truth to power and no one was going to shut her up.

She arranged to travel to Mexico as a foreign correspondent. Her mother traveled with her as a chaperone, but soon returned home, leaving 21-year-old Nellie to travel on her own — unusual, and scandalous, for a woman during that time. Nellie wrote about life in Mexico — the good, the bad, and the ugly. After exposing its poverty and the corruption of its officials and openly criticizing the oppressive government, she was threatened with arrest and escaped the country. She published a book of her writings, Six Months in Mexico, in 1888.

Undercover at the asylum

After her exciting time in Mexico, it was difficult for Nellie to return to her boring assignments in theater and the arts at the Pittsburgh Dispatch. So she quit and headed for the Big Apple in hopes of landing a more interesting job. After searching for months and living in poverty, she managed to talk her way into a job with the New York World and accepted an outrageous and unprecedented undercover assignment. There had been some ominous reports of brutal and neglectful treatment at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, and Nellie’s job was to pretend to be insane, get admitted to the asylum, and get the inside scoop on the institution.

What she discovered was worse than anyone had imagined. It was shockingly easy to convince the people who examined her that she was insane — which she chalked up in part to the fact that the doctor seemed more interested in the pretty nurse who was helping with the exam than in Nellie’s actual condition. Once admitted, Nellie resumed her completely normal behavior, but no one on staff seemed to notice. Instead, they reported her normal actions as symptoms of her insanity. Nellie spoke with other women in the asylum who she suspected were just as sane as she was.

The conditions were abominable: unhygienic, inhumane, and cruel. There were rats everywhere, the food was spoiled and inedible, women were bathed in ice-cold, filthy water, and the staff was abusive. The New York World had Nellie released after 10 days, and the exposé she wrote — later published as a book called Ten Days in a Mad-House — shocked the nation and launched Nellie to fame. Her report also directly contributed to reforms that were implemented in the asylum soon thereafter.

Nellie took advantage of her platform to write about corruption and horrible human rights abuses such as the sweatshop conditions and the “baby slave” trade — and to boost the voices of suffragettes and female leaders.

Around the world in 72 days

Inspired by the recently published Around the World in 80 Days, Nellie came up with the idea to emulate Phileas Fogg and circumnavigate the globe in record time: 75 days. Her editor resisted, telling her that only a man could do it, to which she replied: “Very well. Start the man and I’ll start the same day for another newspaper and beat him.”

He gave her the job.

While her editors snidely predicted that she’d be traveling with tons of luggage — as per the stereotype of the spoiled lady — Nellie packed extremely light: she took just one dress, one overcoat, a small travel bag with equipment and a few changes of underwear, and a bag around her neck with £200.

Nellie departed New York on November 14, 1889, heading for England. The journey started out rough: Nellie, who had never traveled by sea before, was violently seasick at first.

When she arrived in Southampton, she received notice that Jules Verne himself had invited her to visit his home in Amiens, France. Though this put her in a tight spot in terms of her schedule and she had to skip two nights of sleep, she accepted his invitation and was greeted by him “with the cordiality of a cherished friend.” After all, it’s not every day you meet someone embarking on a journey around the world inspired by your own book!

While in China, Nellie learned that she was apparently racing more than just time: Cosmopolitan magazine had sent their own female journalist, Elizabeth Bisland, to accomplish the same task. Elizabeth had left New York on the same day Nellie had, but going in the opposite direction. (Anyone who’s read Around the World in 80 Days will know that that was not a smart move. Spoiler alert — Phileas Fogg only makes it in 80 days because he unwittingly gained a day by traveling east across the International Date Line!) Nellie was unmoved: “I am not racing with anyone,” she wrote. “I would not race. If someone else wants to do the trip in less time, that is their concern.”

She ended up beating Elizabeth Bisland, Phineas Fogg, and her own deadline. Thanks to a private one-car train chartered especially to take her across the United States back to New York, she made it back on January 25, 1890 — just 72 days after she had left.

Nellie’s stint in industry

As if all that doesn’t make her cool enough, Nellie Bly was also an inventor and one of the leading women industrialists in the United States.

When she was 31, she married a much older man who owned a manufacturing company called Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. When his health started to fail, Nellie took over and invented a novel milk can design and a stacking garbage can. There are also claims that she invented a steel barrel that served as the model for a 55-gallon oil drum — which is still widely used in the U.S. — though the patent was filed for a man named Henry Wehrhahn.

Back to fighting the good fight

Unfortunately, the company went bankrupt, and Nellie returned to reporting. She traveled to the Eastern Front in Europe during WWI, one of the first foreigners — and the first woman — to visit that area during the war.

She also covered the women’s suffrage movement. In 1913, she wrote about the Woman Suffrage Parade, and predicted that it would take at least until 1920 before women in the U.S. would be granted the right to vote. In fact, it took exactly until 1920: the 19th amendment was ratified on August 18 of that year.

Nellie lived just 2 years after being allowed to vote. She died of pneumonia in 1922 at age 57.

Smart, talented, creative, and fearless, Nellie Bly was a modern woman far ahead of her time, using her gifts to fight injustice and cruelty. Her daring accomplishments cemented her legacy as one of the foremost trailblazers in the field of investigative journalism.

Are there any larger-than-life women in your family history? Give our Newspapers collection a look — you never know what you might find.

Leave a comment

The email address is kept private and will not be shown

  • Sophie

    February 6, 2020

    Wow, that was one tough lady! Never knew about her, frankly. But reading her story makes me feel so proud of our tribe. Nowadays, the globe is full of women solo travellers but it must have taken some courage at that period to go on a world trip.