Miss Bisland can beat globetrotter Nellie Bly in her own race against Jules Verne’s fictional record Around the World in Eighty Days. At least that’s what many people believed when Elizabeth Bisland launched on a westward course around the world on the evening of November 14, 1889. She left mere hours after Nellie Bly set sail on an eastward course.
Questions remain unanswered. Why did Miss Bisland, a proper woman of the Victorian Era, agree to embark on such an undignified race? How did Joseph Brisbane Walker, her editor from Cosmopolitan Magazine, convince her to abandon her plans for the evening let alone for the upcoming holiday season? Was she truly opposed to notoriety and seeing her name in print?
It Started Like Any Other Day For Elizabeth Bisland
Miss Bisland was a creature of habit and comfort. The morning of Thursday November 14, 1889 started in the usual way. She writes in her book In Seven Stages: A Flying Trip Around the World (1891) that she read the papers leisurely and got ready for work.
“,,, the very first intimation I received of the coming thunderbolt out of the serene sky of my existence was a hurried and mysterious request, at half-past ten o’clock, that I would come as soon as possible to the office of the magazine of which I was one of the editors. My appetite for mystery at that hour of the day is always lamentably feeble…”
By 11 that morning, Miss Bisland made the five-minute walk from her residence to the offices of Cosmopolitan Magazine. While all accounts of Nellie Bly setting sail that morning showed her as an enthusiastic traveler, Miss Bisland was the opposite.
“If my appetite for mystery at that hour is not strong, my appetite at eleven in the morning for even the most excruciatingly funny jokes may be said to actually not exist, and this one, I remember, bored me more than most.”
Her Life Changed After A Brief Meeting With Her Editor
Miss Bisland was a relatively successful columnist and writer who worked for multiple publications. She had gotten a strong foothold into Cosmopolitan Magazine as the arts editor, but following the rules of Victorian propriety she did not allow her name to be in print as a byline. Nellie Bly on the other hand, couldn’t get enough bylines, even if her real name was Elizabeth Cochrane.
Bisland writes about the meeting with John Brisben Walker who was the new owner and editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine. He had read about Nellie Bly setting sail that very morning from Hoboken, New Jersey and saw a golden opportunity for publicity. From his extensive travels, he also calculated that the odds were with a contestant heading on a westward course in November as opposed to Bly’s eastward course.
In the course of half an hour, it was evident that Walker was determined to send a woman to compete with Nellie Bly on her own race. But Miss Bisland wanted no part of it. Lady Travelers going solo were increasing in numbers by the late 19th century, but they were still considered scandalous by many. Travel could be dangerous and was often uncomfortable, hence requiring the assistance of a male companion.
“To begin with, I didn’t wish to. In the second place, guests were coming to my house to tea on the following day; thirdly, I was not prepared in the matter of appropriate garments for such an abrupt departure, and lastly, but most weightily, I foresaw the notoriety that an effort to outdo the feat of Jules Verne’s hero was likely to bring upon me, and to this notoriety I most earnestly objected.”
Brisben Walker took the better part of an hour presenting substantial arguments to persuade Miss Bisland to “make the experiment of lowering the circumnavigatory record.” According to the Ohio Statesman June 6, 1890, Walker’s strongest offer was a significant bump in her career as a literary writer along with a yearly salary of $3,000.
Whatever arguments he offered, Miss Bisland had a sudden change of heart.
“I then took a cab and drove to my tailor for the appointed fitting and for a vigorous interview in which he was ultimately convinced that I could wear that gown at six o’clock in the evening.”
She spent the next five hours preparing frantically for her trip.
What Should A Proper Victorian Lady Pack?
Rather than packing several steamer trunks for a grand globe-trotting trip, Miss Bisland managed with one trunk, a large Gladstone bag and a shawl-strap.
“I managed the trip on two cloth gowns, half a dozen light bodices, and an evening silk, but might quite as well have carried my entire winter and a large part of my summer wardrobe. Happily I took the precaution of carrying plenty of pins and hair-pins. I had had some previous experience with their vicious ways, and well knew that in critical moments in foreign parts they would get up playful little games of hide-and-seek…”
Meanwhile, Nellie Bly had set sail with one small glad stone bag.
Newspapers Played Up The Competition Of A Race Between Two Women
Nellie Bly, Joseph Pulitzer and her editors at the New York World newspaper nearly ignored Miss Bisland as a competitor. But other papers saw a chance to increase readership. Just one day after they departed in opposite directions, Trenton Evening Times wrote:
“NELLIE BLY, of the New York World, is to have a competitor in her trip around the globe. The proprietor of the Cosmopolitan magazine has dispatched a young woman on the same sort of journey, only the latter travels West instead of East. They both left New York yesterday. The pluck and nerve of these young women in undertaking such a trip will be heartily applauded by every admirer of the American girl.”
Two days later, on November 16, The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote:
RACING AROUND THE WORLD.
Two Young Women Who Are Trying to Beat Each Other’s Records.
“NEW YORK, Nov. 15. – The imaginary trip of Phileas Fogg around the world in eighty days will be excelled if possible. Yesterday a young woman writer connected with the World, Nellie Bly, left New York in the steamship Augusta Victoria, for Southampton. She expects to make the grand circuit and arrive home again in seventy-five days. The steamship is due at Southampton November 21. From there she goes to London, Calais, Paris, Turin and Brindisi, where she takes a steamship for Hong Kong and Yokohama and another for San Francisco.
When the announcement was made that she was going the Cosmopolitan Magazine decided to beat the record she would make if possible. Another young woman writer, Miss Elizabeth Bisland, was summoned, and agreed to undertake the task. She goes westward instead of eastward, and will reach San Francisco in time to catch a steamship for Yokohama, sailing on the 21st. Her route is about the same as Miss Bly’s reversed.
The World Evening Edition Announced An Imitator
On Friday, November 15, 1889 The World Evening Edition wrote about Nellie Bly’s race. Editors put their spin on the competition with a subhead line:
A Woman Imitator Starts Westward to Make the Globe-Girdling Race More Exciting
Imitation is the sincerest flattery. It is not a difficult thing to do that which you know somebody else has done, and to emulate another is to say in fact that you admire the pluck, heroism, energy and genius of the pioneer.
No sooner had yesterday’s Evening World related the story of the departure of the intrepid little Bly on her flying trip around the world for The World than the imitator appeared.
Editor Walker of the Cosmopolitan read the story and he was aflame at once. He dispatched a messenger for another plucky newspaper woman Miss Elizabeth Bisland…a bright and wide-awake member of a wide awake profession. She has written for the World at times, and is now connected to the Cosmopolitan.
She responded to her editor’s call, and was astonished at his proposition that she enter as a competitor with Miss Bly.
Walker wanted her to start immediately on a Westward instead of Eastward.
Miss Bisland considered, accepted and from a study of the timetables concluded that she could equal, if not excel, the time set by Miss Bly.
She could reach San Francisco by rail in time to catch the Oceanic, of the Oriental and Occidental Steamship Company, which sails Nov. 21 for Yokohama—the same ship, which Miss Bly expects to ride from Japan to America in January.
She Claimed She Maintained A Calm Demeanor
While on the exterior she maintained her composure, Miss Bisland was anything but calm. “I was practically stupefied with astonishment for at least two days.”
All accounts of Nellie Bly showed her seasick, but in control and embracing the challenges of sea travel. Bisland later writes that her initial days were challenging. As hours passed and her hansom cab carried her to Grand Central Depot at Forty-Second Street, her mood shifted.
“I remember thinking rapidly on all manner of subjects; telling myself warningly that it would not do to forget anything or make any mistakes, as they could not be rectified. . . . I remember thinking that my new gown fitted very well, and that, though my face was drawn and white with the excitement and fatigues of the day, my new hat was distinctly becoming. . . . Then there were cabs and hurry — kisses — last directions — the bumping of the box on the stair — a big bunch of pink roses (which I felt was a nice complimentary touch to my travelling ensemble) — everybody talking at once and giving different advice and directions — the glare of lights…”
She finally arrived at the New York Central Railroad’s Fast Western Express where Brisben Walker had reserved a berth for his contestant, Miss Bisland.
“— the coffin-like smell of a sleeping-car — and I was off for seventy-five days’ travel round the globe.”
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