Do you know the real Nellie Bly? No, she’s not a serial killer! (Sorry NPR)

‘m a huge fan of National Public Radio, but a weird mental glitch earlier this week led an on-air host of “All Things Considered” to name “Nellie Bly” in a laundry list of serial killers! Yes, no kidding—it happened. NPR corrected the error one day later, but millions of listeners already had heard Nellie Bly named as a homicidal maniac. (I fear that most of the original listeners never heard the correction. An NPR editor assured me personally that the correction was made, but I didn’t hear it, for example.)
At ReadTheSpirit, we already were planning to honor Nellie, next week, on the 120th anniversary of her historic ‘Round the World challenge. Next week, you can read Stephanie Fenton’s piece about that anniversary. (Or, for now, you can check out Stephanie’s “Season” column for this week.)
Well, when we heard poor Nellie—who many Americans obviously have forgotten—maligned in the same breath as Jeffrey Dahmer, we had to expand our Nellie Bly coverage.
Count this as our noble effort to repair her memory!
If you want to help, Email a friend right now and urge them to come read this Nellie Bly story. Come on! One by one, we make a difference here. Let’s give Nellie a boost!

Why care about Nellie Bly?

As you’ll learn next week in Stephanie’s column, she was a pioneer in investigative reporting in the late 1800s—not to mention her gender-busting role as a world-famous woman journalist, proving defiantly that women could “do” journalism often better than men!
Among her investigations, she helped to expose abusive conditions within mental asylums. (More next week from Stephanie on that.)
Today—we want to share excerpts of her world-changing report from circling the Earth in record time. Thanks to the University of Pennsylvania, you can read Nellie’s entire book about her global adventures. Remember that she was an American zooming around the world in 1889, so some of her language and attitudes toward global cultures look sadly flawed, 120 years later. But, overall, she optimistically fueled global excitement for cross-cultural travel. For example, she came back with a glowing report on the Japanese,  which was not always a popular American attitude.
Here are samples of Nellie’s unique flair …

Starting her historic journey …
Nellie already was famous as a daring newspaper reporter when she proposed beating Jules Verne’s fictional 80-day record in his novel about Phileas Fogg. Here’s a sample of her confident style as a barrier buster …
    I approached my editor rather timidly on the subject. I was afraid that he would think the idea too wild and visionary.

“Have you any ideas?” he asked, as I sat down by his desk.
“One,” I answered quietly.
He sat toying with his pens, waiting for me to continue, so I blurted out: “I want to go around the world!”
“Well?” he said, inquiringly looking up with a faint smile in his kind eyes.
“I want to go around in eighty days or less. I think I can beat Phileas Fogg’s record. May I try it?”
To my dismay he told me that in the office they had thought of this same idea before and the intention was to send a man. However he offered me the consolation that he would favor my going, and then we went to talk with the business manager about it.
“It is impossible for you to do it,” was the terrible verdict. “In the first place you are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes. Besides you speak nothing but English, so there is no use talking about it; no one but a man can do this.”
“Very well,” I said angrily, “Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”
“I believe you would,” he said slowly.

And she did! But, she didn’t make it easy on herself …

boasted that she could beat Verne’s fictional character by at least 5 days! No one could believe that—certainly not Verne himself. In addition, Nellie didn’t make the journey at a break-neck pace. She added interesting stops along the way!
One of them fulfilled her dream of visiting Verne himself—to show him that a woman was capable of beating his character’s dramatic record in the novel. In her words …

M. Jules Verne … sat forward on the edge of his chair. His snow-white hair rather long and heavy was standing up in artistic disorder; his full beard, rivaling his hair in snowiness, hid the lower part of his face and the brilliancy of his bright eyes that were overshadowed with heavy white brows, and the rapidity of his speech and the quick movements of his firm white hands all bespoke energy—life—with enthusiasm. …
M. Verne asked me what my line of travel was to be, and I was very happy to speak one thing that he could understand, so I told him.
“My line of travel is from New York to London, then Calais, Brindisi, Port Said, Ismailia, Suez, Aden, Colombo, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Yokohama, San Francisco, New York.”

“Why do you not go to Bombay as my hero Phileas Fogg did?” M. Verne asked.

“Because I am more anxious to save time than a young widow,” I answered.

“You may save a young widower before you return,” M. Verne said with a smile.

I smiled with a superior knowledge—as women always will at such insinuations.

I looked at the watch on my wrist and saw that my time was getting short. There was only one train that I could take from here to Calais, and if I missed it I might just as well return to New York by the way I came, for the loss of that train meant one week’s delay. …
As we clinked glasses of wine, he wished me “God speed.”
“If you do it in seventy-nine days, I shall applaud with both hands,” Jules Verne said.
Then, I knew he doubted the possibility of my doing it in seventy-five days, as I had promised.
Finally, he complimented me, endeavoring to speak to me in English as his glass tipped mine:

“Good luck, Nellie Bly.”

Nellie nailed it …
She took off from Hoboken on November 14, 1889, and finished on January 25, 1890. She described her trip this way—and remember that this was 120 years ago!
Total time occupied in tour, 1,734 hours and 11 minutes, being 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes.

I visited or passed through the following countries: England, France, Italy, Egypt, Japan, the United States, and the following British possessions: Aden, Arabia; Colombo, Isle of Ceylon; Penang, Prince of Wales Island; Singapore, Malay Peninsula; and the Island of Hong Kong. …

I spent 56 days 12 hours and 41 minutes in actual travel and lost by delay 15 days 17 hours and 30 minutes. …

In diverging from my original line of travel to visit M. and Mme. Jules Verne at Amiens, I traveled 179-1/2 miles. …

Up to date, my trip is the fastest on record between San Francisco and Chicago. One run was 250 miles in 250 minutes, and that, counting the minutes lost stopping at a half dozen different towns. Another run was 59 miles in 50 minutes. Between Topeka and Kansas City we ran 13 miles in 11 minutes. Later we ran a mile in 53 seconds, and again 26 miles in 23 minutes. …

She left the world with this heart-felt note of encouragement …
Nellie closed her book with this hopeful image of “a chain around the earth” …

To so many people this wide world over am I indebted for kindnesses that I cannot, in a little book like this, thank them all individually. They form a chain around the earth.
To each and all of you, men, women and children, in my land and in the lands I visited, I am most truly grateful. Every kind act and thought, if but an unuttered wish, a cheer, a tiny flower, is embedded in my memory as one of the pleasant things of my unique tour.

  (Originally published at

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