Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky was a Jewish mother of three small children. She lived in the Spring Street tenement in Boston’s West End.On September 24 she finished her whirlwind 15-month trip around the world. Annie Londonderry biked around the world in 1895. She had never ridden a bike before the trip.
Circling the globe was all the rage in the Victorian Era. In January of 1890, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland completed their race to beat Jules Verne’s fictional record “Around the World In Eighty Days.” In 1895, Joshua Slocum became the first person to circle the globe alone in a yacht.
In 1887, Thomas Stevens had ridden his penny-farthing bicycle around the world. No woman had ever attempted such a challenge on a bicycle.
It was supposedly the public wager of two businessmen in Boston who triggered Kopchovsky’s seemingly insane journey. She had to do it in fifteen months or less and she had to earn $5,000 along the way. Some accounts place that number at $10,000.
The two men intended to challenge a woman to an impossible task. When she failed, they would use her failure as evidence that a woman’s place was in the home. Kopchovsky was determined to prove them wrong.
According to author, Peter Zheutlin, Kopchovsky’s great grandnephew and author of Around The World On Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride, the entire wager might have been a fabrication.
Zheutlin believes she was prone to creating historical fiction as she went. No matter what triggered the trip, Annie Kopchovsky’s bicycle journey was real.
Annie Kopchovsky said goodbye to her husband and three small children on June 27, 1894. With only a few days experience riding a bicycle, she left Boston and headed west to Chicago on the first leg of her journey.
She wore a corset and long Victorian Era dress and carried a pearl-handled revolver and a change of clothes. She started out on a 42-pound, women’s Columbian drop frame bicycle. It had a skirt guard over the rear wheel to keep her skirt from getting caught in the chain.
Kopchovsky rode without an entourage or support team. She stayed at inns or the homes of strangers she met along the way. On some nights she had to camp.
A master of self-promotion, Kopchovsky had to find ways to make money along the way. Her first sponsor was the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company. They paid her $100 to carry a placard bearing their name on her bike. She also agreed to become known as Annie “Londonderry”-Kopchovsky.
Londonderry-Kopchovsky became a master at selling advertising placards and ribbons, which she attached to her clothing or her bicycle. She also sold her pictures, autographs and mementos as she went.
She later arranged speaking engagements along her trip. According to Zheutlin, telling the truth was less important to his great grand aunt than raising funds. Her personal bio changed routinely, painting herself as an orphan, accountant, heiress, medical student from Harvard, and many more personas.
She also had a robust collection of slides she used in her talks with stories that supposedly occurred in places she never visited. Still, she was able to pay her way and easily earn the sum as required in the wager.
She aimed to please audiences at her lectures with wildly creative stories about her “adventures.” These included hunting for tigers, falling through ice into a river and ending up in a Japanese prison.
When Londonderry-Kopchovsky finally reached Chicago, she nearly quit her journey. She had lost 20 pounds and was already weeks behind schedule. Instead of quitting, she traded her bike for a 21-pouind Sterling men’s bike, and traded her cumbersome skirts for men’s bloomers.
Her original plan was to ride on a westward course around the world. Instead, she named Chicago as her starting point and changed her course to an eastward direction. From New York, she sailed to Europe.
In spite of a bumpy bureaucratic start, kopchovsky-Londonderry was a huge hit in France. From there, she sailed across the Mediterranean, She travelled through Egypt, Jerusalem, and Yemen, stopping briefly at major ports for quick bike rides. Next she did Colombo and Singapore.
She finally headed back to the United States, landing in San Francisco. From there she bicycled through the southwest USA—Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, then North through Iowa and finally back to Chicago where she began her journey.
She returned to America via San Francisco on March 23, 1895, then pedaled to Los Angeles, Arizona, New Mexico, El Paso, Denver, Cheyenne and Nebraska. She finally arrived in Chicago on Sept 12 and rode a train back home to Boston where she arrived on September 24, 15 months from the day she left
Annie Londonderry-Kopchovsky moved her family to New York. She wrote articles about her trip for the New York World, the same paper that employed Nellie Bly. In her first story, she wrote, “I am a journalist and a ‘new woman’ if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.”
Nellie Bly did not comment on the New Woman in town. She did, however, quote Susan B. Anthony in her article published February 2, 1896 in which she said that that bicycle had done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.
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