July 8, 2009
Nellie Bly in 1880. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.)

Nellie Bly in 1880. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.)

The World According to Nellie Bly

In 1889, reporter Nellie Bly, The (New York) World’s intrepid "stunt girl," embarked on the latest of her ambitious missions: circling the globe in less time than Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne’s novel "Around the World in Eighty Days."

"If I fail, I will never return to New York," Bly said. "I would rather go in dead and successful than alive and behind time."

It was the latest attempt by editors to dazzle readers with Bly’s exploits and to keep the Joseph Pulitzer-owned World on top of the newspaper world. Riding ships, trains, horses and sampans, Bly completed the voyage in just 72 days, cementing her legacy as one of the most famous journalists of her era. Her popularity spawned books, a board game and playing cards about her trip.

Bly, born Elizabeth Cochran in 1864, was The World’s first female reporter. Her first newspaper job was at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, where an editor gave her the pen name of Nellie Bly.

Bly got the job at The World after interviewing the paper’s editors about the newspaper’s lack of female journalists. She was a pioneer of undercover investigative reporting: In 1887, she feigned insanity to expose the squalid conditions in the notorious Women’s Lunatic Asylum on New York’s Blackwell’s Island. Nearly every story she wrote was front-page news and The World carried her name in the headlines.

As Bly entered the final leg of her globe-trotting journey, The World wrote: "Her grit has been more than masculine. … She is coming home to dear old America with the scalps of the carpers and critics strung on her slender girdle, and about her head a monster wreath of laurel and forget-me-nots, as a tribute to American pluck, American womanhood and American perseverance."

The World featured a full-page, day-by-day illustration of Bly’s journey on page 21 of its Feb. 26, 1890, issue. Her record lasted only a few months: Businessman George Francis Train circled the globe in 67 days in 1890. In 1892, he did it in 60 days.

The story of Bly’s trip around the world, and the satchel she carried, is featured in the News Corporation News History Gallery. Go undercover with Bly in a 4-D experience at the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater.

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