Eyewitness 1890: Pittsburgh welcomes home globe-trotting Nellie Bly

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When Nellie Bly's train stopped at Pittsburgh's Union station, the Armstrong County-born reporter was completing a journey that would make her one of the best-known journalists in the country.

She had left New York for England by boat on Nov. 14, 1889, in an effort to beat the fictional record set by Phileas Fogg, hero of Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days." She succeeded, completing her trip on Jan. 25, 1890 -- 72 days later.

Born Elizabeth Cochrane in 1864, she had started her career as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Dispatch, where she was given the pen name "Nellie Bly." Her stories included reports on terrible working conditions for women in Pittsburgh sweatshops. She later reported from and wrote a book on Mexico.

By 1887, she was in New York, where she got a job on Joseph Pulitzer's World. Feigning madness, she was committed to the city's lunatic asylum. Her articles and book on the terrible conditions she found there resulted in increased spending and improved treatment for patients.

In 1889, she persuaded her editors to let her circle the globe, sending back dispatches from her travels in England, France (where she met Jules Verne), Egypt, China and Japan.

When the 25-year-old reporter arrived back in San Francisco, she was several days behind schedule. Pulitzer arranged for special trains to transport her across the continent.

It was after 3 a.m. on Jan. 25, 1890, when Ms. Bly's train arrived in Pittsburgh on one of the final legs of her journey. "About 130 people, chiefly newspaper men, surrounded the train immediately, all anxious to get a chance to speak to her," the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette reported later that same morning.

"Although she had succeeded in skimming around the globe in the fastest time on record, the achievement had not affected her the least bit," the paper found. "She was the same bright-eyed girl who used to hustle ... in this city, with a cheery greeting for every friend and an eager desire to gather in any stray gems of thought.

"She was as chipper as a cricket, and glad to meet and shake hands with everyone," the paper reported.

"Nellie, when she appeared on the platform of the car, was attired in a long traveling coat, which reached to her feet, and a jaunty little traveling cap, which was saucily set to one side of her head. She looked the picture of health ..."

" 'I am feeling splendid,' said Nellie. 'I am not in the least fatigued and have had good luck during my entire trip. I kept myself awake on my way to this city as I wanted to see my old home and to meet my old friends. This reception is one of the most gratifying one[s] I have had along the route.' "

While her own health was good, she told her friends she was concerned about a pet monkey that had been given to her in Singapore. "I fear the little fellow has the grip," she told reporters. "The grip," sometimes spelled "the grippe," is an earlier term for the flu.

An editorial that appeared in the Gazette on Jan. 27 drew several lessons from her journey.

"It is not necessary, for a woman who has a little courage and self-reliance and who desires to visit foreign lands, to provide herself with a male escort," the newspaper concluded. "Neither is it essential to her health or comfort that she should carry with her a wagon load of trunks. NELLIE BLY found a single suit of navy blue cloth, and a grip-sack supplied with a limited number of essential articles all that was requisite. If she had taken with her the conventional amount of luggage and occupied the time which ladies usually devote to dressing to suit the varied circumstances of their journey, she would not have completed her task in a year."

Her trip around the world was a race not only against the fictional Phileas Fogg, but against a real-life competitor named Elizabeth Bisland. Bisland's editors at a magazine called Cosmopolitan had sent her west on a round-the-world journey within a few hours after Bly's ship, traveling east, left for England. For much of the next two months, it appeared that Bisland would beat Bly back to New York, but she missed a final crucial connection in France.

During her stop in Pittsburgh, Bly asked reporters if anything had been heard of her rival. "[B]eing informed in the negative [she] gleefully said, 'Oh, I will win ... I am so glad, and yet I'm so tired."

In 1894, Nellie Bly married an elderly manufacturer named Robert Seaman, eventually taking over his business after his death. She later returned to journalism and was working for the New York Journal when she died of pneumonia in 1922. She was 56.

Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. Past stories in the "Eyewitness" series, all drawing from contemporary reports in Pittsburgh's newspapers, can be read on post-gazette.com/pgh250 .


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