Thursday, 28 April 2016


Back in mid February I wrote a blog about inspirational women (you can recap that blog here: Inspirational women). One of those was Nellie Bly. She had been given the assignment of beating the fictional Phileas Fogg's feat of Around the World in 80 Days.

She of course did just that, and in a little over 72 days, on 25 January 1890, she stepped off the Atlantic Express train of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in Jersey City. Three time keepers from athletic clubs clicked stop on their watches, and the official time was recorded.

The majority of her journey had been by sea, as was that of her rival, Elizabeth Bisland, who was to come in four days later. She had been sent out by The Cosmopolitan in the opposite direction. This had been her undoing. It was January, and the storms in the North Atlantic were notorious. Her ship took almost double the amount of time to reach New York harbour than was usual.

Nellie Bly had finished the last leg of her journey across the United States by train, and despite enormous falls of snow blocking the passes in the Sierra's, causing her route to been diverted, she made it in plenty of time. Every station her train pulled into, enormous crowds had gathered to cheer her, hoping to grab a glimpse of this young American woman. They were star struck, in a time when "celebrity" was still to become a common phrase. Even the author Jules Verne, who she had met in France near the beginning of her adventure, had sent a telegram of congratulations.

She had tried to keep The World newspaper up to date by sending wire telegraphs as she went, but at times there would be weeks between her communications. How things would change.

As soon as she had set foot on the platform, an operator in Western Union telegraph office flicked a switch, which sent a signal across the water to Battery Park, and the sky was filled with fireworks. On that signal the roar of 10 cannons filled the air, and several more followed in other areas. This call was then taken up by boats, tugs and barges sounding their horns.

Everyone went mad for Nellie Bly.

Her route had taken her across the Atlantic, through Europe and across the Mediterranean from the southern tip of Italy. Then south east across Africa, to sail from Aden to the southern tip of India, and on to Singapore, Hong Kong and then Japan. In Japan her "taxi" around the city was in a chair carried aloft on two poles suspended between two barefoot Japanese men, called Jinrikishas. From Japan it had then been seven days out of Yokohama to San Francisco across the Pacific Ocean.

All at just 26 years old, in a time long before air travel.

But all this fame had a price. Exactly one year later, during which she had conducted a lecture tour that did not endure its full run of dates, and published a book of her exploits that sold below its expectated sales numbers, Nellie Bly was in a dark place. She had quit her job from The World in a dispute over money, been involved in a libel suit, fallen out with her lecture tour manager, endured increasing slights on her character by rival newspapers, moved out of New York, become bedridden and was struggling to write much of anything. To a friend she wrote:
"I am a victim of the most frightful depression that ever beset a mortal". She concluded that at times it was not clear who had really won between herself and Bisland.

However, five years later she would marry and retire from journalism entirely, going on to become president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. They created the steel 55 gallon oil drum, which is still in use today.

Despite all her travels, and challenges of that journey through all weathers and climates, she was to die of pneumonia in 1922 aged 57.

Nellie Bly's story kept me riveted from cover to cover. It made me smile to read about the little nuances of solo lightweight travel more than 100 years ago, as little has changed in all that time, apart from the choices of mode in which we can circumnavigate, and of course in how we can communicate instantly.

Following Bly's triumph, companies came up with the idea that if they could get Nellie Bly to use their products, then her success might rub off on their products, as they could imply to their customers that the success and vigour of Bly would rub off on those that bought the products.

Celebrity endorsement had been born.

Children used the Nellie Bly notebook, that had the picture of the globe on the front, and they carried that inside their Nellie Bly school bag, perhaps also with their Nellie Bly doll. Somehow even animal feed manufacturers got in on the game, with Ingerson's of Syracuse marketing Nellie Bly Horse Food.

Could she ever have imagined something such as the internet. Perhaps there would then have been a Nellie Bly tablet.

No comments: