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Bly-Bisland Race Enticed New Readers

The Bly-Bisland Race enticed new readers to the New York World newspaper just as everyone involved had hoped it would. Publicity for the outrageous stunt exploded when  publications across America and Europe reprinted stories coming out of New York. Details changed in the retelling and the facts were sometimes sensationalized.

The race gained speed when Elizabeth Bisland challenged Nellie Bly, heading in the opposite direction. Progress from the Bly-Bisland Race continued to boost readership from November 14, 1889 to this day, making it one of the most successful publicity stunts of its era.

The Stage Was Set For Competing Female Journalists

Competition between newspapers and periodicals grew throughout the 19th century. With advances in technology that lowered printing costs, the penny press emerged for lower and middle classes who could not afford expensive subscriptions. Editors and publishers battling for readers and advertisers leaned toward sensationalized, entertaining stories to boost circulation.

The competition was fierce.

When Joseph Pulitzer bought the New York World in 1883, the paper was losing an estimated $40,000 per year.  The race for readers was on. In Dignified Sensationalism: Cosmopolitan, Elizabeth Bisland and Trips Around The World, Author and Professor Karen Roggenkamp writes that Pulitzer pioneered new journalism to make his paper profitable. New practices including illustrations and bold stacked headlines that could be read easily as potential buyers passed newsboys on street corners. He also incorporated celebrity writers and stunt girls to draw new readers.

The time was ripe for the Bly-Bisland Race.

“…new journalism appropriated the conventions of popular literary genres—including travel narratives and fantastic novels—to frame the news for readers, and as news writers formulated a compositional style based on “the real thing,” they positioned their worked with such entertaining fictions as Verne’s Around The World In Eighty Days.” (Karen Roggenkamp)

Girls Just Wanted To Have Fun–And Make A Big Splash

The official goal of Bly’s challenge was to show America’s can-do spirit to the rest of the world, while putting Joseph Pulitzer’s name on everyone’s tongue. Personally, Nellie Bly said she wanted to be the voice of the helpless, proving to them that anything was possible if they set their minds to it.

On another level, the Bly-Bisland race was a way for both women to establish themselves as professional reporters at a time when females were barely allowed in a newsroom. They had to prove to male publishers and editors that women were well suited to working at mass-market newspapers and other publications.

It was also a time when front-page bylines were considered inappropriate for women and many people still believed that women lacked the necessary aggression and competitive spirit to go for a story. The Bly-Bisland race allowed them to shoulder their way into the man’s world of American journalism. They were the epitome of the New Woman.

American Newspapers Jumped On Board The Race For Readers

Newspapers across America reprinted stories about the Bly-Bisland Race from the Associated Press. Others hyped their own sensational slants. Surprises like Nellie Bly veering off course to visit Jules Verne added more excitement to the long, sometimes tedious itineraries of both contestants.

The sheer volume of newspapers that carried the story fueled the speed of rising circulation and notoriety for the World and Cosmopolitan—as well as both Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland. Games and dolls were produced, songs were written, and Nellie Bly’s outfit was reproduced for the masses. At least one race horse was named “Nellie Bly.”

The Homer Guardian from Homer, Louisiana for example followed the Bly Bisland race, sometimes with details that varied from other versions. Facts and details often changed in the retelling, all with the goal of increasing the heat of the race.

In Woman Against Women: Two Girls to Go Around the World In Les Than Eighty Days, November 29, 1889, the Homer Guardian wrote that John Brisben Walker, the “millionaire proprietor of the Cosmopolitan Magazine” sent Elizabeth Bisland on a westward course to beat Nellie Bly because he was “confident the time could be shortened.”

Despite Nellie Bly’s popularity, many readers across America agreed that Elizabeth Bisland would be the winner.

Brisben said Miss Bisland “will reach Yokohama, Japan December 11 and will be in Hong Kong five days later.”

To expedite Bisland’s progress, Walker cabled for a government boat for her use in making the last trip. The expense for that part of the journey alone was $8,000.

“It is in this transfer from Yokohama to Hong Kong that we expect to gain time, as Nellie Bly must wait over at Hong Kong four days for the regular boat.”

Wagers And Sensationalized Accounts Added Heat To The Race

In the same article published on November 29, 1889 the Homer Guardian wrote:

“Mr. Walker and the proprietor of the World have wagered $1,000 on the result and the money of the loser will go to some charitable institution.”

The Homer Guardian also reported an item from the New York Tribune regarding the Bly Bisland race and the publications that sent them to girdle the globe.

“An epidemic of globe-galloping broke out in these parts yesterday, and already has three victims trying hard to get home the longest way round in the shortest time.”

Nellie Bly, they reported, had calculated that “after seventy-five days of rushing I will ‘bob up’ serenely in New York.”

“Not many hours after the departure of the steamer is was whispered in Park Row that the New York Herald had sent a man on two hours notice or so to beat her (Nellie Bly) home by a day, an hour,, a minute, anything only to beat her within the possibilities of a split- second calculation.”

The Herald’s contestant supposedly took passage on the Augusta Victoria with Nellie Bly, his unsuspecting rival.

“But the ‘quick travel’ commissioner on whom the wise will bet is a quiet and un-sensational girl worker on the staff of the Cosmopolitan Magazine. Her name is Miss Elizabeth Bisland. She is only 22 years old, and is possessed of much beauty and much intrepidity.”

For the record, Nellie Bly was 25 when she started the race (born May 5, 1864) and Elizabeth Bisland was 28 (born February 11, 1861).

According to the article, Bisland was expected to reach Yokohama on December 11 and Hong Kong six days later by a special steamer. From China she will go to London, and will return to New York, arriving according to her plans, on January 23.

“If she succeeds in doing this, she will make the fastest trip record and have time to rest before she has to welcome home the two other rash young people who are running away from the sun while she is chasing it. If all goes well the east-bound and west-bound flyers ought to pass one another somewhere in Asia.”

A Guessing Game Fueled New Readers

Since Elizabeth Bisland was writing for a monthly publication, her articles were not as time sensitive as those by Nellie Bly for the World. Her itinerary had several travel days when she would not be able to post dispatches.

With the heat building around the Bly-Bisland race (both against Verne, and now Elizabeth Bisland), the World editors wrote filler pieces about each country she visited to capitalize on growing readership.

Then someone came up with the idea of The Nellie Bly Guessing Game. An entry form was printed in every World Sunday edition starting with Dec. 1, 1889. Contestants had to guess the exact time, down to the second, when Nellie Bly would return home. One guess was allowed per coupon but people could enter as many times as they wanted. The winner who came closest would win a first-class trip to Europe, with a week in London, Paris, and Rome.

Author, attorney, professor Marshall Goldberg writes:

“The guessing match began in earnest: by the end of the first day, the World had received more than 100,000 guesses. As of Sunday, December 8, at the end of the first week of the Nellie Bly Guessing match, the World reported that the week’s total circulation was three hundred thousand over the previous week. People from all over the country entered the contest.” (Marshall Goldberg)

Joseph Pulitzer and his team at New York World did not include Elizabeth Bisland in the contest. This was their race.  But the word was out, even if they chose not to publicize her progress.

After stating publicly that Nellie Bly would use no special transportation, the World secured The Nellie Bly Special train which broke all records. It was the final leg of Bly’s 24,899-mile race to beat Jules Verne’s fictional record of Phileas Fogg’s trek Around the World in Eighty Days. Had her publisher, Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World, not chartered a private train to bypass record blizzards across country, she would not have made it to New Jersey in time to make her stated goal of 75 days.

Despite the outcome, everyone won.  With the amount of hype and promotion both in the United States and the countries each contestant visited, the Bly-Bisland Race became one of the biggest stories of its era. And we’re still talking about it today.

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