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Did Nellie Bly And Joseph Pulitzer Rig The Race?

Joseph Pulitzer agreed to send Nellie Bly, around the world without an escort to increase readership of his New York World newspaper. Although articles reported that Bly would travel by ordinary means only, this was not the case. Did Nellie Bly and Joseph Pulitzer rig the race on the final stretch across the United States?

By the time she reached San Francisco on January 21, 1890, she was two days behind schedule due to the bad weather on her Pacific crossing. But Joseph Pulitzer had chartered a private train to race her across country while Elizabeth Bisland, Bly’s competitor, was stalled in Europe.

At the outset of the race, Nellie Bly announced in Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper that she would use no special means of travel, only regularly scheduled trains and ships. However, when he ship, the Oceanic, arrived in San Francisco, she was met by the Millen Griffith, a tug chartered by the New York World to rush her to the Oakland Wharf.

Meanwhile, the other passengers were left to wait on the Oceanic.

From Oakland, she would catch the private train, the Miss Nellie Bly Special. In record time, Bly arrived victorious in New Jersey on January 25, 1890 at 3:51 p.m.. Did Nellie Bly and Joseph Pulitzer cheat?

The Miss Nellie Bly Special

The record-breaking passenger train operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway blasted at top speeds through California to Chicago.  To ensure a speedy journey, the train had only one sleeping car and one baggage car. Orders were given that the train had right of way over all other traffic and speed limits were suspended.

Crews along the way became interested in the race and changed engines at record speeds. The crew at Needles, Calif., changed engines in one minute and the crew at La Junta, Colo., claimed a record engine-change time of 42 seconds.

The Miss Nellie Bly Special stopped at small towns every where possible so Nellie Bly, who was now a celebrity, could meet her public. It was possibly the best publicity stunt Pulitzer ever conceived.

The train completed its 2,577-mile journey in 69 hours, averaging a record breaking 37 miles per hour. Bly presented each division superintendent with a quart of Mumm’s Extra Dry champagne. She signed autographs and was given gifts at every stop.

Phineas Fogg Outdone

The Daily Alta California Newspaper Interviewed Nellie Bly on January 22, 1890. In that article, she claimed that she did not realize she was challenged by Elizabeth Bisland until she reached Hong Kong. (By many accounts, she learned of Bisland much earlier in her trip.)

According to Bly, “If I had known that any one was trying to beat me, I could have made better connections and so done the trip in a shorter time. I relied solely on the facilities afforded to an ordinary traveler.”

“She was then conducted to the special train which was waiting with steam up, and, without any further time for explanations, whirled away at a lightning express rate. Miss Bly was compelled to leave by the Atlantic and Pacific route, as the Central Pacific is blockaded. If no accidents happen she will reach New York on Sunday morning next, fully on time and demonstrating the possibility of encircling the globe in seventyfive days and at the same time having an enjoyable and pleasant trip.”

A Footnote On Nellie Bly’s Monkey

The Daily Alta reported that when Nellie Bly left the Oceanic to board the chartered tug, she became inconsolable until one of the customs officers succeeded in bringing her the monkey she had purchased on her trip.

“This,” she said, turning to a wooden cage in the centre of the aisle, “is the only thing I brought back with me, except this small silver breast pin, which is a Chinese ornament given me by a friend in China aa a sort of mascot.” In the cage was a vicious-looking monkey. “I got that in Singapore, and the poor fellow loves me so well that he wants to eat me up.”‘

TMZ Of The Victorian Era

Joseph Pulitzer was definitely a man who understood publicity. He introduced what became known as “yellow journalism” to his newspapers in the 1880s. Also called the “yellow press,” it was a style of journalism that utilized sensationalism, exaggerations of real news events, and scandal-mongering. The so-called stunt journalist, of style Nellie Bly used well to her advantage, were courted by Joseph Pulitzer.

Bly’s first stunt involved her pretending to be insane so she would be taken to Blackwell’s Insane Asylum. It resulted in he front-page stories and a book, Ten Days In A Madhouse. Readership of Pulitzer’s newspaper soared as soon as Nellie Bly entered his door.

Competition for readers was fierce in the 1890s. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal went head to head. Their battle for readers paved the way for stories with a wider appeal to the general public and mass circulation of newspapers dependent on advertising revenue. The very definition of “news” expanded to include entertainment, first-person accounts and contests. It was right up Nellie Bly’s alley.

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2 Responses

  1. The special tug and trains were technically cheating. No normal “tourist” could have availed themselves of these services. They would have had to wait until the snow was cleared from the mountain passes. That being said, Cosmopolitan attempted to “cheat” by having the French ship wait for Bisland, but a mysterious official detoured her to a slower ship. I believe Pulitzer sent this man. Bisland, who was a much nicer human being should have beaten Bly, who was a racist and was a huge critic of the British. If it was not for the ships/ports/hotel etc. of the Empire Bly would not have gotten anywhere.

    1. Agreed! We wrote a post about the Nellie Bly special that whisked her across America to make her deadline, even through some of the worst snowstorms the country had seen. And yes, she definitely reflected some ideas and biases of her time that make us cringe today! Thank you for posting this and please circle back with other comments.

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