Born May 5, 1864, in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Jane Cochran would grow up to become one of the nation’s first and most well-recognized journalists of the late nineteenth century – Nellie Bly.
Elizabeth’s journalism career started when the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch took notice of a letter she wrote in response to an article in 1885. It was signed “Lonely Orphan Girl,” and George Madden, the editor, tracked her down. When offered a job with the newspaper, Elizabeth would be forever known by her byline – Nellie Bly.
Two years later, Bly would venture to New York City to find work as an investigative reporter with The New York World published by Joseph Pulitzer. Her claim to fame came in 1889 through what many would say was “stunt journalism.” On November 12, 1889, The World agreed to send Nellie on a trip in an attempt to beat the “record” of Jules Verne’s fictitious character, Phileas Fogg, from the novel Around the World in 80 Days.”
The following two days would be a whirlwind. She had to get the trip in order. Nellie would be traveling like a regular person – no private transportation. Despite multiple suggestions to pack a revolver, she refused, and Bly didn’t even have a passport! So, The World would work quickly to get her a temporary passport to allow her to leave on such short notice. The “plucky” female writer would leave on November 14, 1889, with only a small satchel and no chaperone.
Little did Nellie know, but a few short hours after her departure, a competing publication, the Cosmopolitan, a monthly magazine, would send their own female reporter in an attempt to beat Bly. Elizabeth Bisland would go the opposite direction – west to east – on her globetrotting adventure. “What Does it Amount To?” published by the Janesville Daily Gazette, provided an unbiased view of the race between the women.
A few weeks into Nellie’s race, The World realized the excitement and buzz her stories created for the newspaper. They decided to start a contest called the Nellie Bly Guessing Match. Each day the newspaper included a coupon readers could submit to guess the day, hour, minute, and second she would arrive back in New York. The winner would receive an all-expense paid trip to Europe. Readership of The World soared as a result.
As the race grew closer between Bly and Bisland, The World continued to publish Nellie’s whereabouts and news of the exotic locations she visited. When she arrived back in the United States, the newspaper included a visual of her train journey across the country for its readers titled “Across the Continent!”
Nellie Bly arrived in Jersey City at 3:51 PM on January 25, 1890, beating Phileas Fogg’s 80-Day adventure. Her trip took 72 days, 6 hours, and 10 minutes. The evening edition of The World included a “Nellie Bly EXTRA” with a complete account of her journey, itinerary, and arrival with breathtaking illustrations.
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