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Could Elizabeth Bisland Have Won Nellie Bly’s Race?

Could Elizabeth Bisland have won Nellie Bly’s race around the world if Joseph Pulitzer had not chartered The Miss Nellie Bly Special? Bly’s super train broke speed records, allowing her to arrive at her final destination in New Jersey in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes.

In spite of a tragic miscommunication in Bisland’s schedule, she still arrived in New York on January 30, 1890, 76 ½ days from her departure. She was four days behind Nellie Bly, but four days ahead of Phileas Fogg.

Why Did Bisland Miss Ems, The Swift Steamer?

If Elizabeth Bisland had boarded the swift German steamer, Ems, in Southampton as scheduled, she could have beaten Bly as well as Fogg. So why didn’t she board that ship as planned? As the story goes, when she landed in Charing Cross, she was told that the Ems had been withdrawn and would not sail until later in the week. By other accounts, a clerk told her that the Ems had already set sail.

Even though Bisland knew that her publisher, Brisben Walker, had bribed the shipping company to delay the departure of the Ems until she arrived, she still believed what she was told by the clerk. Charing Cross Station had a telegraph office, but there was no time for her to send a telegram to The Cosmopolitan for help.

Instead of questioning the clerk’s statement, and with no time to spare, Bisland jumped on a train to Queenstown, Ireland where she boarded the Bothnia, a much slower ship. It was said to be the slowest vessel in the entire Cunard fleet. That decision cost Bisland the race.

Bisland’s Series Of Articles For The Cosmopolitan

Bisland wrote a series of articles for the Cosmopolitan about her journey that was later published as a book, In Seven Stages: A Flying Trip Around The World. In her final article, The Last Stage, she wrote:

“Clatter, hurry, and confusion – every one giving different suggestions and directions. I had meant to remain overnight in London and take the North-German Lloyd steamer at Southampton the next day, but here the news meets me that this ship has been suddenly withdrawn and will not sail till late in the week. My one chance is the night mail to Holyhead and to catch the Bothnia, which touches at Queenstown next morning. This train leaves in an hour and a half. I have not slept since two o’clock the night before, nor eaten since breakfast, and my courage is nearly at an end.”

Did Jospeh Pulitzer and Brisben Walker “Cheat”? And If So, Why Did They Do It?

Both Joseph Pulitzer and Brisben Walker had arranged for special travel along the way for Elizabeth Bisland and Nellie Bly. Walker, for example, arranged for a government boat to speed Bisland from Yokohama to Hong Kong. All of this was done behind the scenes, in spite of public statements that Bisland and Bly would travel by regular transit only.

Why Was The Race Around The World So Important To Pulitzer and Walker?

It was a time of intense competition for readers. Altough Joseph Pulitzer published some serious journalism, he was known for sensationalizing the news in order to drive up circulation. Because Brisben Walker’s Cosmopolitan was published monthly, he could not compete head to head with Pulitzer. Still, it seemed he could not resist the opportunity to gain some publicity by sending Elizabeth Bisland to compete with Nellie Bly in her race around the world.

According to Texas A&M Professor Karen Roggenkamp in Dignified Sensationalism: Cosmopolitan, Elizabeth Bisland, and Trips Around the World:

“… new journalism was marked by such journalistic novelties as ample illustration, enormous stacked headlines, celebrity writers, and above all, an emphasis on drama—all for the low price of two cents a copy.”

Pulitzer’s brand of journalism aimed to increase sales by enticing readers. He approached the news with an aesthetic of storytelling.

“Unlike more expensive, informational newspapers, which catered to upper-class tastes and focused on business and political news, papers operating under the banner of new journalism understood that readers enjoyed a good story in their news even more than they expected accuracy and dry information.”

Nellie Bly, Elizabeth Bisland and the race around the world in 80 days were  definitely crowd pleasers.

Brisben Walker And The Cosmopolitan

As for Brisben Walker, he needed a way to appeal to the enormous audience that was intrigued by Nellie Bly’s exploits. He wanted to retain the genteel periodical and its high-brow audience that enjoyed the cerebral articles written by the likes of Elizabeth Bisland, but he had to increase his appeal and broaden his readership. According to Roggenkamp, Walker’s publication was one of many struggling to find its place in the increasingly crowded marketplace of the late 1800s.

Pulitzer’s Contest Won Nearly A Million Readers

Pulitzer sponsored a contest for his readers – whoever could guess closest to the second that Nellie Bly would arrive back in New York would win a free trip to Europe. To enter, contestants had to purchase a paper to get the entry form.  Pulitzer’s marketing scheme was a spectacular success with nearly a million entries.

Pulitzer and his editors at  the New York World were careful to rarely mention Bisland, instead keeping their laser focus on Nellie Bly’s progress. The winning entry was off by only 2/5 of a second. The second place winner was off by 3/5 of a second.  Nellie Bly became one of the most famous women in history of her time.

Elizabeth Bisland Limps Home

Elizabeth Bisland’s return was much less grand than Nellie Bly’s. She was greeted by a small crowd of curious people, including her own sister. Bisland claimed that she never wanted her name to  appear in newspapers again, but  travel became a huge part of her life.

She was no longer the timid Victorian Era woman bound in her tight corset. Thanks to Nellie Bly, Elizabeth Bisland’s world was forever expanded.

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