So by now you probably know that I like to go all-in when I’m researching a new idea to write about here. When I read 80 Days to Elsewhere by KC Dyer it reminded me of a podcast I had listened to a year or so ago about two women who were racing around the world to beat not only Jules Vernes’ fictional timeline from Around the World in 80 Days but also each other! I had no idea that this had happened and really, who doesn’t love bringing a book to life? I also happen to love that it was women who did it first.
It was time to learn more!
Further research led me to the book, Eighty Days, by Matthew Goodman. Goodman spent four years researching and writing about the race between Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland. If you really want to follow along on the race, experiencing these trips around the world on a day-by-day basis, read this book. Even if you already know who won the race, you’ll soon have a favorite and you’ll be cheering for her to win.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a quick recap of the story with fun illustrations, check out A Race Around the World, The True Story of Nellie Bly & Elizabeth Bisland by Caroline Starr Rose and Alexandra Bye. Even though it is a children’s book I feel like it still captures the depth of the experience and the differences between the two women that I first found in Matthew Goodman’s book.
Both authors do an exceptional job of portraying the women and the race and both are worth reading.
From the Fashion Page to the Front Page – Who Were These Two Women Who Raced Around the World?
Before we get too far into the story of this record-setting race around the world, let’s learn the background of our two star journalists. In the late 1800s, women represented only 2% of journalists and were relegated to writing under a pen name and writing only about “women’s topics” such as fashion and society events. More serious reporting was reserved for the men.
A Brief Biography of Nellie Bly
Nellie Bly was a well-known journalist in New York before starting out on this race around the world. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Cochran’s Mill (now a suburb of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, on May 5, 1864. Her writing career started at age 16 when she responded to an editorial about “What Girls Are Good For” and was hired by the editor. Her first article, “The Girl Puzzle”, was about the effect of divorce on women and called for divorce law reform. As was customary for women writers at the time, she adopted a pen name. Nellie Bly would soon be a name known all across the world!
Nellie spent several months in Mexico writing about the lives and customs of the Mexican people which became a book, Six Months in Mexico.
After Mexico, Nellie moved to New York City. Four months later she had spent all her money. In a last-ditch effort to get hired, she talked her way in to the New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer. In order to get the job, she agreed to go undercover into the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. This expose brought Nellie’s name into the spotlight and began what became known as stunt journalism. Her report, Ten Days in a Madhouse, brought much-needed reforms to the asylum and lasting fame to Nellie Bly.
A Brief Biography of Elizabeth Bisland
Elizabeth Bisland was born on Fairfax Plantation on February 11, 1861. Her writing career began in her teen years when she submitted poems to the New Orleans Times Democrat paper. She eventually moved to New Orleans to work for the newspaper. At the age of 26 she moved to New York City and worked for a variety of publications. Elizabeth was writing for Cosmopolitan (yes, that Cosmopolitan, though it was only 3 years old at the time) when the editor, John Brisben Walker, learned of Nellie’s stunt to travel around the world and decided to send Elizabeth off in the opposite direction, changing it from an attempt to beat the fictional time set by Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days to an actual race.
What Fascinates Me About This Race Around the World?
Of course, the basic premise of the whole thing is super interesting. Jules Verne imagined a race around the world in his book, Around the World in 80 Days, and a few years later the story comes to life when Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland are racing Phileas Fogg and each other on a trip around the world. I had read Jules Verne’s book as a kid and liked it a lot but hadn’t heard of the amazing real-life race until recently.
But what was it exactly that drew me in so strongly that I spent days upon days reading more and more about this historical event?
Here’s what I personally found interesting about this whole subject…
Women Set the Record for Fastest Trip Around the World
Nellie Bly set the world record for the fastest trip around the world. Her official time was 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds.
No man did it first. A woman – really 2 women – did it first. The record has been broken and set in a variety of different ways since then but the original journey was successfully completed by women.
Maybe it’s a product of the era I group up in or maybe a result of my time spent serving in the Navy (probably a combination of many factors, honestly) but I’ve always been on the side of equality and recognition for women.
Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman Really Brings the Journey to Life
I cannot recommend this book enough if you want to know more about how the actual trip around the world was for these two women.
Matthew Goodman spent four years researching this trip and these women. Both the famous Nellie Bly and the lesser-known Elizabeth Bisland wrote books about their respective trips after the fact. Using those books as well as extensive research into travel and daily life around the world during the late 1800s, Goodman has created an immersive narrative journey.
I really felt like I was traveling right alongside them.
Traveling Around the World In the Height of English Colonialism
In Jules Verne’s book AND in Eighty Days – English colonialism is very apparent. The British Empire was at its height during the time of the race, peaking in 1913. Today, over 100 years later, the influence of colonialism has muted and merged with the lands it conquered. In the late 1800s though, there was still a big contrast between the native lands and customs and the British presence.
The world is constantly changing. If I were to travel around the world today, my experience would be vastly different than it was for Phileas, Nellie, and Elizabeth for many reasons. I am grateful to historians and authors for writing books that allow us to imagine more easily what life was like in other times.
Their Journeys Were Almost Identical But Their Experiences Were So Different
One of the things that struck me while reading about these two women was how different they were – both in personality and in how they experienced their journeys. Nellie was always in a rush, more concerned about winning than about seeing anything along the way. Elizabeth, who hadn’t wanted to take the trip in the first place, was able to settle in and really enjoy all the new sites and experiences. Caroline Starr Rose, author of the children’s book A Race Around the World, summed it up nicely, I think.
Nellie Bly longed for recognition and gained quite a lot through her various journalistic experiences, especially the trip around the world. Elizabeth Bisland never wanted to travel but once it was forced upon her, embraced it whole-heartedly. At the end of the day, they were winners because they both beat Phileas Fogg’s time of 80 days, but also grew personally through achievement and experience.
Travel is Individual AND Universal
Travel is an individual experience and yet affects all people in similar universal ways.
Your individual experience of a place is dependent on environmental factors as well as your own experiences and outlooks on life. It colors how you view the world.
At the same time, travel has the universal ability to open our minds. No matter what we bring to our travels personally, we always leave as a different person. Experiencing new things helps us to learn and grow and appreciate other people and cultures.
I have moved and traveled throughout my life. As a result, I found myself personally relating to some of the experiences reported by Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland. Despite the more than 100 years between us, I found myself saying “me too!” to some of their remembrances and ordeals.
- Both women had to prepare for a trip around the entire world in very little time. Nellie Bly spent 3 days getting ready. Elizabeth Bisland had 5 hours to prepare!
- Elizabeth Bisland is homesick at the beginning of her journey. She is lonely and frustrated and NOT having a good time but after a few days she settles into the journey and finds beauty and amazement in the landscape outside her train window.
- This reminded me of the beginning of Big Trip 8. This was the year we camped our way around the American Northwest. We started our trip with non-stop rainy days. We were wet and miserable. But by day 4 we had completely adapted to our camping life and when we arrived in Seattle we found it to be much too noisy and people-y. We high-tailed it out of the city to our next National Park pronto.
- When Nellie Bly is visiting Jules Verne, she comments on the many pigeon-holes of notes all through his office.
- This reminded me of seeing the same thing when we visited President James Madison’s house, Montpelier.
- Travel is not all sunshine and roses. Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland both faced disruptions to their itineraries throughout the journey.
- Weather conditions and car troubles have made appearances in all of our road trips!
I could go on forever about this subject but I will spare you! Instead, I will say that if you are also intrigued by these epic journeys around the globe, you should read more yourself. I’d love to hear what parts you relate to most!
Fun Facts About Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s Trip Around the World
- Nellie and Elizabeth both moved to New York City the same year – 1887
- Nellie and Elizabeth have the same first name (remember – Nellie Bly is a pen name!)
- Nellie Bly traveled around the world with only one dress and one small bag (Elizabeth Bisland didn’t bring much more than Nellie)
- Nellie Bly bought a monkey in Singapore
- To increase circulation, the New York World ran a guessing game. Whoever guessed Nellie’s final return time and submitted it on a Nellie Bly Guessing Match coupon (printed in the newspaper of course!) would win a first-class trip to Europe. By the end of the first day, the newspaper had received over 100,000 entries.
Other round-the-world travelers
Traveling around the world is a dream of many. Here are a couple interesting firsts.
- Thomas Stevens (first to bicycle around the world – 1886)
- Annie Londonberry (first woman to bicycle around the world – 1895)
- Wiley Post (first around the world flight – 1931)
- Steve Fossett (first balloonist to circumnavigate solo (2002) and first nonstop airplane flight around the world without refueling 2005)
- Yuri Gagarin (first complete orbit around the earth 1961)
To see a very LONG list of many more noteworthy circumnavigations of the earth, check Wikipedia’s List of Circumnavigations.
When You Can’t Travel Yourself, Read About It
I found many books about Nellie Bly and traveling around the world while researching this story. Here are just a few (Yes, these are affiliate links. Feel free to read my full disclosure.):
Lovely illustrations add to the depth of the story. It may be short, but it packs in a lot of detail about this historic race around the world.
It will take a while to read because it is packed with information! If you want to feel like you’re traveling right alongside Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland in the late 19th century, this is the book for you!
There are a lot of different versions of the original story in print now. I actually ended up buying my copy on Ebay. This one is from Puffin-Penguin House Publishing.
Looking for a modern rom-com take on this whole around the world in eighty days thing? Eighty Days to Elsewhere is the book for you then! Shout out to my book club for picking this and sending me down the Nellie Bly rabbit hole!
Sadly I didn’t get a chance to actually read this one before it was due back at the library which is too bad. I would’ve loved to read about how he traveled around the world in the current day without any air travel. You really do see so much more from the ground.
Check out these episodes about Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland. Stuff You Missed in History Class is where I first learned of the race around the world.
Nellie Bly and the Race Around the World tells the story in three parts.
(The Bowery Boys focus on Nellie’s asylum expose rather than the trip around the world.)
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You can find more information about Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland here.
- Brain Pickings – Illustrated Packing List
- Caroline Starr Rose – author of children’s book Race Around the World
- Wikipedia – Nellie Bly
- Wikipedia – Elizabeth Bisland
- Bowery Boys Interview of author Matthew Goodman
- Wikivoyage – Around the World in 80 Days Itinerary