Seventy-Five Days. Two Very Different Women. One Incredible Race. by Caroline Starr Rose
In the late 1800s, only two percent of American journalists were women. Most newspapers assigned them pieces about fashion, homemaking, or society gossip—hardly the kinds of stories that would be considered news. But a journalist named Nellie Bly insisted her reporting equaled any man’s. She refused to take on such work.
I owned a book about Nellie when I was a girl. I read and re-read it and became fascinated with her story. I thought I had my Nellie facts down, especially when it came to her most-famous feat — a globe-circling trip around the world.
But as I recently read up on Nellie’s trip, I learned just how little I knew.
Nellie wrote for a paper called the New York World. She was always on the lookout for a good story. In 1888, Nellie studied international train schedules and steamship routes. She was convinced that she could travel the world five days faster than the fictional hero Phileas Fogg from Jules Verne’s popular novel, Around the World in 80 Days.
Nellie asked her boss if the World would sponsor her trip. He told her only a man could make such a journey. A woman would need a chaperone and would require far too much luggage. Nellie didn’t back down. She told her boss she’d travel alone and would take only what she could carry. Still, he insisted the assignment should go to a man.
“Start the man,” Nellie told him. “I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”
One year later, Nellie set out on a steamship on the morning of November 14, 1889. The World had agreed to sponsor her trip.
Unbeknownst to Nellie (and to this Nellie fan), another lady journalist named Elizabeth Bisland embarked on a competing journey that very same day!
Elizabeth worked as the literary editor at The Cosmopolitan magazine. When her publisher read of Nellie’s departure, he sensed an opportunity. The Cosmopolitan would send its own lady journalist around the world, changing Nellie’s race against distance and time into a race between two women, with Nellie traveling east and Elizabeth traveling west.
The race quickly became international news. Each woman traveled roughly 28,000 miles. Both experienced seasickness, loneliness, storms, and extreme changes in weather, yet they also found moments to enjoy their surroundings despite their hurried pace.
Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland couldn’t have been more different. Twenty-five year old Nellie was plucky and quick. Twenty-eight year old Elizabeth was thoughtful and reserved. Nellie relished the rhythm of newspaper work. Elizabeth preferred the steady pace of a monthly magazine. Nellie came up with the idea for the trip. Elizabeth had it thrust upon her. Nellie completed her journey in 72 and a half days. Elizabeth finished in 76. It’s Nellie who is remembered to this day while Elizabeth has been largely forgotten to history. Yet both women traveled faster than Phileas Fogg. Both turned an imaginary voyage into a real-life accomplishment, something no one — man or woman — had ever done before.
What I’d thought I’d known of Nellie’s race was just a sliver of the truth. The full story was far more compelling.
The courage to strike out into the unknown. To face down opponents and obstacles. These are the things I want young readers take from A Race Around the World: The True Story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland. As Nellie once said, I want readers see that “Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”
But I also hope readers remember that there’s not just one way to be. The spirited and the contemplative can both do incredible things.
Caroline Starr Rose is a middle grade and picture book author whose books have been ALA-ALSC Notable, Junior Library Guild, ABA New Voices, Kids’ Indie Next, Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for Kids, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. In addition, her books have been nominated for almost two dozen state award lists. Caroline was named a Publisher’s Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, May B. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico and taught social studies and English in four different states. Caroline now lives with her husband and two sons in New Mexico. Visit her online at carolinestarrrose.com.