Nellie Bly's 72-Day Trip Around the World

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

In 1873, French author Jules Verne published Around the World in 80 Days, the fictional account of a man named Phileas Fogg who took advantage of new nineteenth-century technologies to circumnavigate the globe. It wasn’t sci-fi by any means, since those means of traveling—steam ships, omnibuses, and railroads—did exist at the time, but it took one daring woman to make the made-up journey a reality.

The Pitch

Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, under her journalist pseudonym Nellie Bly, had already earned a reputation as the world’s first investigative reporter and a fearless individual. Her previous escapades, including uncovering the plight of female factory workers and checking herself into a mental institution for ten days, had been sensational adventures that introduced a new frontier of hands-on journalism, but her popularity was waning as more reporters began to parrot her style. After reading Verne’s novel, Bly approached her editor at the New York World with an outrageous pitch: If he would allow it, she would make the journey and document her experience for the paper.

John A. Cockerill, managing editor of the World, was intrigued by Bly’s proposal; the business manager, however, was not so easily convinced. A journey of the scale Bly proposed was unprecedented by man or woman, and although Bly insisted that she could undertake it without a chaperone, the male senior staff at the paper were unconvinced of the woman’s ability to succeed, preferring to send a man instead. Bly had her answer at the ready: “Very well. Start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” The editors conceded.

Bly planned ahead and packed light—extremely light. Rather than the “dozen trunks” her editors had derisively predicted she would need to carry with her, Bly took along just a single piece of luggage, sixteen inches wide and seven inches high. In a bag easily small enough to comply with today’s airline carry-on regulations, she packed a few changes of underwear, toiletries, writing implements, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, a flask, a cup, two caps, three veils, a pair of slippers, needles and thread, and some handkerchiefs. She packed not a single spare dress, wearing only the garment she commissioned from a dressmaker made of “a plain blue broadcloth and a quiet plaid camel’s-hair.” In her only concession to vanity, Bly did carry a single jar of cold cream. She refused to take a revolver, assured of “the world's greeting me as I greeted it.”

Not-So-Smooth Sailing

The World, now fully backing Bly both financially and with a front-page story on the day of her departure, saw her off from Hoboken Pier in New Jersey. From the start, Bly was exact with her timing, marking her departure on the Augusta Victoria at 30 seconds after 9:40 p.m. on November 14, 1889. Ambitiously, she aimed not merely to match Phileas Fogg’s ‘round-the-world record, but to beat it, hoping to be on the road for no more than 75 days and four hours.

Bly’s journey got off to a rough start, as she—a first-time traveler—found herself violently seasick on the transatlantic crossing to London. The sight of food made her nauseated, and her fellow passengers were rather judgmental of the queasy woman proposing to travel around the entire world. In attempting to sleep off her nausea, Bly awoke 22 hours later to a knock on her cabin door; the Captain feared she had died. The long sleep seemed to do the trick, however, and Bly managed the rest of the journey in good health and with good appetite, making fast friends with her shipmates.

Upon arriving at Southampton, Bly was faced with a critical decision. Jules Verne himself had issued an invitation to the reporter to visit him at his home in Amiens, France, but she only had one chance to make the trip without missing her connection in London. She went without sleep for two nights to do so, and was greeted at the station by the author and his wife “with the cordiality of a cherished friend.” Though forced to employ the services of a translator, the two writers had a pleasant visit, during which Bly learned that Verne’s story had been inspired by his reading a newspaper article—a fitting detail to share with a journalist.

A Rival Traveler

Hoping to ride the wave of Bly’s publicity, Cosmopolitan magazine sent a rival reporter to race her, headed in the opposite direction. Elizabeth Bisland left New York the same day as Bly, with only six hours’ notice to prepare. While the public took interest in this second traveler, Bly herself was unaware of Bisland’s competition until her arrival in Hong Kong on Christmas Day, when she was called into the office of the Oriental and Occidental Steamship Company prior to her departure for Japan. When asked if she was the Nellie Bly having “a race around the world,” she naïvely responded that yes, she was running “a race with Time,” only to be told, “I don’t think that’s her name.” Bisland had passed through Hong Kong three days prior, with a blank check from Cosmopolitan to offer ships bribes in any amount to accommodate her schedule. Bly’s response was assured:

I am not racing with anyone. I would not race. If someone else wants to do the trip in less time, that is their concern. If they take it upon themselves to race against me, it is their lookout that they succeed. I am not racing. I promised to do the trip in seventy-five days, and I will do it; although had I been permitted to make the trip when I first proposed it over a year ago, I should then have done it in sixty days.

Making New Friends

As a single woman traveling alone, Bly attracted considerable male attention, despite her best efforts to deflect it. On the ship from Italy to Egypt, a rumor spread that she was “an eccentric American heiress, traveling about with a hair brush and a bank book,” and she was made an offer of marriage by a man with eyes on her (falsely reported) wealth. On another occasion, she described being called upon by a ship captain whose “smooth, youthful face” and “tall, shapely, slender body” belied her expectation of a grizzled old seaman. Though Jules Verne had winkingly predicted that Bly might find herself a companion along the way, as Phileas Fogg did, she was determined that hers was a voyage to be made alone.

Bly’s journey was populated by a vibrant cast of characters, whose differences both great and small she delighted in reporting. On her first oceanic voyage, she took note of an American girl whom she claimed knew more about politics, art, literature, and music than any man on board, and she chronicled the “pecularities” of a man who took his pulse after every meal, another who counted every step he took each day, and a woman who had not once disrobed since departing from New York, determined that if the ship were to sink, she should be fully dressed. She made the acquaintance of other female travelers, including a pair of Scottish women traveling around the world as well, but over the course of two years—a much more leisurely pace.

While some of Bly’s observations about other races and ethnicities would now be seen as explicitly offensive, she made conscious efforts to respect the cultures she encountered. She made missteps along the way, as when she inadvertently insulted the Italians by offering a coin to a beggar child, but spent most of her time documenting Japanese fashion, Italian cuisine, and Egyptian alligator-hunting.  She was treated to a ride by the finest team of ponies in Hong Kong, but was not too much of a snob to see the appeal of a humble burro named Gladstone “with two beautiful black eyes” at Port Said.

Bly dispatched what brief notes she could to The World by cable, though she was surprised in Brindisi when the Italian-speaking cable operator asked her what country New York was in. Her more detailed, handwritten reports, however, traveled by ship, as slowly as she did. Her editors, forced to string out the story to maintain the public’s interest, began printing reaction pieces from foreign papers and geography lessons on all the countries Bly was visiting. After an 8000-mile journey across the Pacific and two weeks of silence from the woman of the moment, it was a relief to everyone when Bly arrived safely in San Francisco, back on American soil at last.

Home Sweet Home

The World, in a hurry to get their world traveler home again, chartered a one-car train to get her across the country with haste. She was greeted as a conquering heroine along the way, met at all stops by cheering crowds and well-wishers in their Sunday best. A Kansas man invited her to come to the Midwest that they might elect her governor; the mayor of Dodge City himself greeted her on behalf of his citizens; the Chicago Press Club held a breakfast in her honor; and the whole nation reverberated with cries of “Hurrah for Nellie Bly!”

Nellie Bly arrived in Jersey City at 3:51 p.m. on January 25, 1890, only 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds after she had left it. She beat her own itinerary by three days, and Verne’s story by eight. Elizabeth Bisland did not arrive for four and a half days afterward. Bly’s trip was an unqualified success, but on arriving, she professed: “I took off my cap and wanted to yell with the crowd, not because I had gone around the world in seventy-two days, but because I was home again.”

For more insight into Nellie Bly’s around-the-world adventure, her book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, is available in the public domain.

How Lewis Keseberg Was Branded the Killer Cannibal of the Donner Party

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the last of four relief teams arrived at a lakeside camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains on April 17, 1847 to recover what was left of the Donner Party, the log cabins built by the marooned pioneers were silent. Stranded there since the previous November—when the party realized the snow was too high and their cattle too weak for all 80 or so of them to travel safely over the summit blocking the last leg of their journey to California's Central Valley—they'd had little food on which to survive. First they slaughtered their cattle, then their dogs—and then, when rescue didn't come, they began to eat the dead. According to one account, the last relief team found human remains—battered skulls and bones stripped of flesh—scattered over the area, among other sights "too dreadful to put on record."

The scene was similar at George Donner’s tent, a few miles from the cabins at Truckee Lake. The doomed group’s namesake had been seen by an earlier rescue party on the cusp of death and in the care of his wife Tamzene. Now the tent was empty, and a pot filled with human meat stood at the front of it. George's split-open head, emptied of its brain, was found nearby. The only sign of life was a set of fresh footprints marking the snow.

After a physically and emotionally grueling day, the relief team was exhausted. They decided to make camp for the night, with plans to investigate the tracks further once they'd had a chance to rest. Setting out on the 19th, they followed the prints to Lewis Keseberg, a blue-eyed, 32-year-old German immigrant and the sole survivor at Truckee Lake.

The sight of men bearing provisions should have been a welcome one for Keseberg. But they had found him in a compromising position: Tamzene Donner, who had been in decent health when the last relief team saw her, had disappeared—and Keseberg was preparing himself a meal of fresh human lungs and liver. What’s more, he was carrying $225 worth of gold stolen from the Donners' coin hoard in his waistcoat. To the rescue party, it looked as though Keseberg had violated one of humanity's greatest taboos, one that went beyond mere cannibalism: Murdering a person—Tamzene—to feast on her body.

A SUSPICIOUS CHARACTER

When Keseberg had joined the Donner Party less than a year earlier, pioneers spurred on by the idea of Manifest Destiny were pouring into the West by the thousands. California promised mild weather year-round and fertile farmland—and the Donner and Reed families of Illinois wanted a piece of the bounty. Keseberg, his pregnant wife Elisabeth Philippine, and his 3-year-old daughter Ada were among the people who decided to join their covered wagon train in the spring of 1846 as it rolled through the heart of America toward the Golden Coast.

The stories that would later be told about Keseberg started with his behavior on the trail. He reportedly acted cruelly toward his own family—ignoring his daughter and abusing his wife—and often didn't treat other members of the party any better. On October 5, James Reed murdered a teamster during a quarrel involving oxen, and Keseberg vocally supported Reed's execution. The other men refused to hang Reed in front of his wife and children, and instead agreed to leave him in the desert without food or weapons.

That same week, Keseberg ejected an elderly Belgian man named Hardcoop from his wagon to relieve his tired cattle. The man’s legs had given out just days before, and he was unable to keep up with the party on foot. The last anyone saw him, Hardcoop was catching his breath in the brush, his feet black and bloodied.

Damning behavior aside, Keseberg’s personality wasn’t winning him any popularity contests. In his account of the ordeal [PDF], an emigrant named Jacob Wright Harlan characterized Keseberg as an eccentric, antisocial man who mostly kept to himself. He also struck Harlan as someone "predisposed to derangement of mind"—and this was before the tragedy.

“Keseberg was his own worst enemy,” Michael Wallis, author of The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, tells Mental Floss. “His overall demeanor set the stage for the eventual vilification of him.”

TRAGEDY AT TRUCKEE LAKE

The Sierra Nevada, a roughly 70-mile-wide mountain range snaking through California and parts of Nevada, presented one of the biggest obstacles of the Donner Party's trip. The mountains become impassable in the winter when the snow piles up; to get ahead of the weather, the group should have departed from Missouri in mid to late April. But the first members of the Donner expedition didn't leave Independence, Missouri, until May 12. To make matters worse, the winter of 1846-1847 was especially brutal in the area: About 20 storms pummeled the mountains that season, adding up to 25 feet of snow.

By December, winter had crept up on the travelers and immobilized them under its weight. Unable to continue any further with their belongings, most of the emigrants, including the Kesebergs, made camp for the season at Truckee Lake, while the strongest among them formed what would come to be known as the Forlorn Hope Party, strapped on snowshoes, and set out in search of help. Though they were just 150 miles from their destination of Sutter’s Fort in California, a wrong turn set the Forlorn Hope fatally behind schedule.

Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.
Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.
© Frank Schulenburg, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Weeks passed, but the peak over which the Forlorn Hope Party had disappeared remained white and still, and the remaining members at the lake camp began succumbing to the cold and hunger. Those who died early on provided a shot at survival to the people around them: With starvation gnawing at their insides, a source of fresh meat—even if it belonged, as it did in many cases, to their closest kin—was often impossible to ignore. Roughly half the party, including most of the Forlorn Hope, engaged in cannibalism that winter. Those who did were haunted by their actions for the rest of their lives.

Lewis Keseberg never denied cannibalizing Tamzene Donner. When the final rescue party interrogated him on her whereabouts, he admitted to eating her flesh to survive, but he rebuffed any accusations that he had murdered Tamzene rather than waiting to butcher her only after she died of natural causes. As for the gold lining his trousers, and the bundle of stolen silks, jewels, and firearms found in his cabin, Keseberg eventually confessed to taking George Donner’s goods—but only upon request from Tamzene herself. As he told it, Tamzene left the tents after her husband died and slipped and fell into a creek on her way to his cabin. When she arrived she knew she didn’t have much time left, and asked Keseberg to gather up the money George Donner had hidden and return it to her children at Sutter’s Fort. She died later that night.

The rescue team didn’t fully buy his story, but they begrudgingly decided to lead him back to the central California valley where the rest of the party had ended up, so that a jury of his peers could decide his fate. After a slog across the Sierra Nevada, Keseberg reunited with his wife—who had been rescued by the first relief party (their daughter Ada and a child born on the trail both died of starvation)—and for the first time in months, sat down to enjoy a hearty meal that didn’t consist of dog, cattle, or human meat.

"BETTER THAN CALIFORNIA BEEF"

After Keseberg's return to civilization, news of the “Donner Party Tragedy” rippled across the nation by way of newspapers and word of mouth. The cannibalism aspect gripped the American consciousness, and Keseberg was cast as the savage who ate humans not just for sustenance, but for pleasure. Journalists dubbed him the “human cannibal” and began reporting the murder of Tamzene Donner—which had never been verified—as fact. Gossipers added their own embellishments to the account. According to one telling, which allegedly came from the surviving Donner Party children, Keseberg had taken a young boy to bed with him one night and killed him by morning, later hanging his carcass on the wall like a slab of game.

The most persistent rumor may have come from Keseberg himself. The story goes that after settling in California, he would frequent the local bars and brag about his escapades in cannibalism to anyone who would listen. In this version, Keseberg claimed human meat was more delicious than California beef, and described Tamzene Donner’s liver as the sweetest bite he had ever tasted.

It's easy to see how rumors like these could snowball. But according to Wallis, even if Keseberg did say these things, they don’t necessarily prove his guilt. “To people who know about the human mind and know what starvation and hyperthermia can do to you, it’s not too much out of the ordinary for him to say something like that,” he explains. Post-traumatic stress disorder is known to provoke psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, although it's unclear whether this was the case with Keseberg.

Whatever the source of the grisly stories, they led to legal trouble. Keseberg was ultimately accused of murdering six of his fellow Donner Party members, including Tamzene, but was acquitted on each count due to lack of evidence. He later returned to court, this time as the prosecutor, to sue members of the relief party who had found him at Truckee Lake for fueling the vicious rumors attached to his name. Again the jury sided in his favor, but his reward was modest: just $1 for the damages, and he was still expected to cover the court fees.

LAST CHANCE FOR REDEMPTION

Life never got easier for Keseberg, but he was granted one last bit of closure around age 65. A journalist named C.F. McGlashan was writing a book called History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra when he reached out to the surviving members to interview them. Finally, Keseberg had the platform to tell his version of the events that transpired that winter, and address the rumors that had dogged him for years. His first-hand account was a stark departure from the infamous stories of his barroom braggadocio:

“The flesh of starved beings contains little nutriment. It is like feeding straw to horses. I cannot describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the first mouthful of flesh. There is an instinct in our nature that revolts at the thought of touching, much less eating, a corpse. It makes my blood curdle to think of it!”

Keseberg’s greatest chance for redemption came when McGlashan arranged for him to meet Eliza Donner Houghton, Tamzene Donner’s youngest surviving daughter. Eliza had been only 4 years old at the time of the Donner Party tragedy, and when Keseberg saw the grown woman standing before him, he collapsed to his knees. He didn’t deny eating Tamzene’s remains, but he swore to Eliza that he hadn’t murdered her. Hearing the sincerity in the voice of this man she barely remembered from childhood, Eliza decided to take him at his word.

Despite earning validation from the courts and a descendent of the Donners, Keseberg’s reputation continued to shadow him wherever he went, whether in the towns where he lived or aboard the supply ship where he eventually worked. Toward the end of his life, he gathered enough money to open his own inn in Sacramento, but even this endeavor failed. “People thought, ‘Well, why would we stay there where this cannibal lives?’” Wallis says. The inn burned to the ground, and the cause of the fire was undetermined.

An internet search of Keseberg today still pulls up results related to his alleged crimes. The story’s stubborn presence through the decades becomes more notable in light of certain facts concerning the Forlorn Hope Party: During that trek, two Miwok men, named Salvadore and Luis, were murdered for their flesh by William Foster, but because they were Native Americans their story was ignored by newspapers. Tamzene Donner's death, and the gossip surrounding Keseberg's alleged involvement, however, received plenty of coverage.

Lewis Keseberg's wife Elisabeth Philippine died in 1877, and the widower lived out the remainder of his life poor and struggling to care for the couple’s children—both born after the Donner Party saga—who had intellectual disabilities. He died in 1895, nearly half a century after the events that defined him in the public eye. “He took his last breath in a hospital for the poor. The only thing in his pockets was lint,” Wallis says. “Keseberg is just one of the many great tragedies of this whole story.”

Additional Source: The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party

Madelyn Pugh Davis, the “Girl Writer” Behind I Love Lucy

It was February 11, 1954, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were waiting nervously at the Emmy Awards. Their costar on I Love Lucy, Vivian Vance, had already won a Best Series Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of landlady Ethel Mertz. And now, Ball and Arnaz stood on stage at the Hollywood Palladium to accept the Emmy for Best Situation Comedy for I Love Lucy.

“It wouldn’t be right to call our writers up here, and give [the Emmy] to them, would it?” Ball asked the audience. “But I wish we could.” Arnaz also gave a nod to the importance of the show’s writers: “I just want to say this—and I really mean this—I hope that next year, the Academy does not forget the writers.”

Without I Love Lucy’s three main writers—Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr., and Madelyn Pugh Davis—television would be missing some of its most famously funny scenes. Davis, the only female writer on I Love Lucy, wrote for all the episodes of the six-season show. She often tested the slapstick herself, becoming key to the visual gags that made the series so memorable, from a chocolate factory assembly line cranked to an impossible speed to a giant loaf of bread overflowing from an oven.

Born on March 15, 1921, Davis (originally Madelyn Pugh) grew up in Indianapolis, where her father worked at a bank's real estate department. She wanted to be a writer from the time she was a child, and crafted her first play—performed in her living room—at the age of 10. Later, she co-edited her high school newspaper alongside fellow student Kurt Vonnegut [PDF].

In 1942, she graduated from Indiana University with a journalism degree, determined to become a foreign correspondent. "Somebody pointed out that there were very few women foreign correspondents, but there were very few women anything, so it didn’t bother me," Davis wrote in her 2005 memoir Laughing With Lucy. After failing to find a job she wanted in journalism, she began working as a copywriter at an Indianapolis radio station. She was one of only a few women to work behind the scenes in radio back then—an opportunity she attributed to the relative dearth of men, who were off fighting in World War II.

The next year, she and her family moved to Los Angeles, where she found work as a staff writer at NBC Radio. She met Bob Carroll Jr. at her next staff writer gig, at CBS Radio about six months later, where she was often referred to as the "girl writer." She and Carroll became writing partners, working on comedy scripts for radio shows including The Couple Next Door and It’s a Great Life. While writing for My Favorite Husband on CBS, they got the chance to work with Ball, the star of that show. Davis would later describe Ball as fearless, someone willing to "do anything" for the sake of comedy.

It was after about two and a half years of writing for My Favorite Husband that Davis got her big break. As she tells it in Laughing With Lucy, the then-network vice president of programming for CBS West Coast, Harry Ackerman, and Ball's agent decided to give the red-headed star a try on the then-new medium of television. Ball insisted on a show featuring her real-life husband, Arnaz, but "the network didn't feel the audience would believe Lucy was married to a Cuban band leader. Lucy told them stubbornly that she was married to a Cuban band leader, and the audience would like it fine," Davis wrote.

To prove it, Ball hired Davis and Carroll to write a stage act that she and Arnaz would perform during his show on the road. Audiences roared with laughter, and the network ordered a television pilot based on the act. Ball requested that Davis, Carroll, and Jess Oppenheimer (the producer and head writer on My Favorite Husband) write I Love Lucy’s first episode. “And so we said 'I guess we better learn to write for television,'" Davis said in an interview with the Writers Guild Foundation.

Besides brainstorming funny ideas, pitching storylines, and writing dialogue, Davis also typed the scripts and acted out some of the show’s visual stunts, making sure that a woman of roughly Ball’s height and size would be able to perform them safely.

“We’d wrap Madelyn in rugs and strap her into swivel chairs and hang her out of windows, and she came through nicely,” Carroll recalled. “So I said, ‘If it works for Madelyn, it will work for Lucy.’” (Not all the gags worked, however; after one perilous trip on a unicycle resulted in Davis running into a wall and hitting her head, she "decided it was too dangerous for Lucy.")

In the scripts, Davis typed the step-by-step instructions for these physical gags in all caps, leading Ball to call them “the black stuff.” Rather than improvise these stunts, Ball relied on Davis’s detailed, highly choreographed writing to know how to move her body and when to make certain facial expressions—all for maximum comedy.

To come up with enough ideas to write hundreds of funny episodes, Davis drew on her own life for inspiration, writing jokes about her experiences picking which movie to watch or what entree to order at a restaurant. “All writers do that. You use your own experience and pretty soon, when you're doing a weekly show, you just use everything you can,” Davis told the Writers Guild Foundation.

After I Love Lucy ended, Davis continued working with Carroll, writing for other Ball productions such as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, Life With Lucy, and the 1968 film Yours, Mine and Ours. During their 50-year working partnership, Davis and Carroll also wrote The Mothers-In-Law (which was executive produced by Desi Arnaz), produced the sitcom Alice, and co-wrote Laughing With Lucy. They were nominated for three Emmy Awards.

Davis, who married twice and had one son, died in Los Angeles in 2011 at 90 years old. Lucie Arnaz, Ball and Arnaz’s daughter, described her as a class act. “A very private person, very soft-spoken, genteel, feminine—all those lovely words you associate with great ladies. And yet she had the ability to write this wacky, insane comedy for my mother.”

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