Thursday, 18 February 2016


A couple of blogs ago I mentioned the annual celebration in pop culture of Groundhog Day. A lot of tongue-in-cheek fun. But two days later, a far more important event was celebrated in the USA. That of the 103rd anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks.

Born in 1913, she lived to the ripe old age of 92, passing in October of 2005. She shot to fame, or maybe I should say, infamy, on the 1st December 1955, when she was riding on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She refused to give up her seat when ordered to do so by driver James Blake. Rosa had committed the crime as a black woman, of sitting in the whites only section of the bus.

On the 100th anniversary of her birthday in 2013, appropriately, President Barack Obama, made a speech to this effect:

         "I call upon all Americans to observe this day with appropriate service, community, and education programs to honour Rosa Parks enduring legacy"

Several states, then, and since, reserve the front seat of their public transport buses on her birthday, to mark the stand she took.

I am inspired by this simple, and brave, act, in an awful time of American history. The American Civil War had sparked off in 1861, primarily because of the slavery of black people, and to think she still had to take what was seen as a risk, almost 100 years later.

Also in 1861, but most likely less well known to the masses than Rosa Parks, one of the women in the next part of this week's blog was born.

Elizabeth Bisland Wetmore. She would become a reporter for The Cosmopolitan (now a popular magazine) in New York City, with her pen name simply as, Elizabeth Bisland. Her family had fled their homestead in Louisiana just prior to a Civil War battle nearby in 1863. The family returned but life was difficult, and they moved to Natchez when Elizabeth was 12. She would start her writing career when she was still a teenager. Not that famous today, despite taking a "mans world" head on.
Until that is, 1889.

The other woman is Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, who was by far the most famous female newspaper reporter of her time, was born three years after Bisland, in 1864. She started her writing career as a teenager also, when she was given a chance to write for The Pittsburg Dispatch  by editor George Madden, in response to a fiery readers letter she had written. By 1887 she had tired of the Dispatch, and moved to New York City. Penniless she somehow talked her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer at The New York World newspaper, where she carved out what would become a very successful journalistic career.

She was to shoot to fame whilst working for Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, when she went undercover in an insane asylum for 10 days, exposing the terrible conditions therein.

But what was to influence Bly shortly after, was a publication from 1873, that of Jules Verne's fictional novel, Around The World In 80 Days. Pulitzer decided to send Bly on just such a trip, and she departed on November 14 1889, aboard the steamer ship Augusta Victoria, the fastest ship crossing the Atlantic at the time, later to be renamed RMS Empress of Scotland. It was to perish in a shipyard fire, appropriately in Blyth!

72 days,  and 24,899 miles later, Bly arrived back in New York City, on the 25 January 1890.

But where does Bisland fit into this picture? When John Walker, editor of The Cosmopolitan, heard of Bly's quest, he decided to send freelance reporter Elizabeth Bisland on the same quest, with a subtle difference: she would journey in the opposite direction.

By the time Bly finished, Bisland was still traveling. Bly's record would be broken just a few months later by George Train, who completed the circumnavigation in 67 days. That would stand for 23 years, until a Broadway producer, John Henry Mears, would smash it, to finish in just 36 days.

You may have guessed that I am currently reading Eighty Days, by American author Matthew Goodman, all about the two women's adventure, and I just cannot put it down. He quotes a small paragraph just before the prologue, from Jules Verne's book:

"You have a strange way, Ralph, of proving
that the world has grown smaller.
So, because you can go around it in three months..."
Phileas Fogg interrupts. "In 80 days".

1 comment:

Pauline said...

Very interesting blog Graham. Thanks.