Hello Book Nerds!
It’s a mash-up episode this time around! After reading 80 Days Around the World, I was reminded of Nellie Bly’s race around the world in 1889.
Who was Nellie Bly? How did she change the writing world for women? And was Jules Verne’s novel nothing more than a product placement ad? Find out in Episode (Lucky Number) 13.
Behind the Scenes
After reading 80 Days Around the World for the first time recently, I had planned on doing a whole episode on the book. But as I was reading it (or listening to it since I got the audiobook from the library), I kept thinking about another book I’d read a few years ago titled Eighty Days. It recounted the true life competition of two women racing around the world as part of a newspaper stunt.
One of those women was Nellie Bly, and I thought it would be perfect to combine an 80 Days Around the World episode with Nellie’s tenacious efforts to make her name in journalism. Stick with me here. This will all come together, I promise. Or at least, I hope.
Enjoy the episode!!!
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Links mentioned in this episode…
- Matthew Goodman’s book Eighty Days: Nellie Bly’s and Elizabeth’s Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World*: https://amzn.to/3mV7WCw
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The (Rough) Transcript
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Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.
So it’s episode 13 and this time we’re talking about a pioneering woman named Nellie Bly. If you’ve never heard of her, you’re probably not alone…although I think there’s a movie being made about her exploits. Anyway, she was quite the go getter in the writing world…and around the world.
But before we start. I screwed up! In Episode 12, while I was rambling on about Agatha Christie, I missed a beat and said something like, “In 1914, World War II broke out.” Yeah, that would be World War I going on in 1914. Oops. And thanks to David Anderson for catching that flub…and teasing me about it. But I’ll let him get away with that because he’s my husband…but the next time he makes a mistake…yeah. I did add the correction to the show notes for that episode. I just hope no historians start trolling me.
Also, thank you to everyone who enjoyed the Agatha Christie episode. Special thanks to LaVelle Stumpf (aka “my mom”) and Tierney of TierneyCreates.com for leaving comments about how much you enjoyed the episode.
Alright, so Nellie Bly. Who is she and what does she have to do with Jules Verne? Well Nellie was a journalist and while she didn’t invent the notion of investigative journalism, she was one of the first ladies who showed women could be just as hard-hitting as male reporters. Now, if you’re scratching you head wondering how this relates to books, we have to take a couple steps back to the publication of Jules Verne’s story 80 Days Around the World.
Now, I had planned on doing a whole episode on 80 Days Around the World because I just read the book for the first time and I loved it. But as I was reading it (or listening to it since I got the audiobook from the library), I kept thinking about another book I’d read a few years ago titled Eighty Days. It recounted the true life competition of two women racing around the world as part of a newspaper stunt.
One of those women was Nellie Bly, and I thought it would be perfect to combine an 80 Days Around the World episode with her tenacious efforts to make her name in journalism. Stick with me here. This will all come together, I promise. Or at least, I hope.
So if you’ve never read it, 80 Days Around the World tells the tale of Phileas Fogg and his servant Passepartout going around the world in under 80 days. They do this to win a £20,000 bet Phileas has made at his club in London, and poor Passepartout is really put through his paces the entire way through the tale. And to me he is the main character of the story, although Phileas Fogg seems to get all the credit.
As many stories were done back then, the book was published in serial form with the first installment coming out on the 2nd of October 1872 and people watched the pair journey through the Suez Canal, across India (where they stop to rescue a princess), on to Singapore, San Francisco, New York, Ireland, then back to London. The final installment came out on the 21st of December…the same day as the fictional Phileas’s is set to return to London.
And you might know Jules Verne for his science-based stories like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and science and technology does play a key part in the novel because he makes use of recent developments such as the Transcontinental Railroad in the US, the linking of the Indian railways, and the opening of the Suez Canal.
People were hooked on this story. So much so that they thought it might be real. They even placed bets on whether or not Phileas would make it in time. No word on how many won or lost those bets. And in sort of a modern twist, there is speculation that the book is basically a huge product placement ad because Verne gets very specific in naming certain trains and ships and their amenities. Hey, whatever you can do to make a buck, right.
So now let’s get back to Nellie Bly. She was born in Pittsburgh in 1864, as Elizabeth Jane Cochran. She started in on her higher education, but had to drop out after only one term because he didn’t have enough money for tuition.
And you kind of have to admire how Elizabeth gets her first writing gig. Basically she gets angry and sends off a letter…that’s what people did back in the day before there were Twitter rants. See in 1880, she had come across an article titled “What Are Girls Good For?” which pretty much came straight out and said girls were good for nothing but keeping house and making babies.
I know, right?
So Elizabeth zips off her letter to the jerk face newspaper under the name Nellie Bly, the pseudonym she would end up writing under for the rest of her career. The editor of the newspaper ends up being so impressed with this Nellie’s eloquence and reasoning, he puts out an ad asking her to reveal herself. Eventually, she did and took a commission from him to write an article which ended up being about how divorce laws were set up to ruin a woman’s life. Mr. Editor is once again impressed and takes her on as a full time writer.
And Nellie jumps in with both feet investigating the harsh lives of factory girls. Trouble was the owners of those factories didn’t like their poor and downright dangerous working conditions exposed. They complained to the newspaper, and Nellie ended up being demoted to writing articles on fashion and gardening.
Big surprise. She didn’t like this work.
So at this point she decides to take matters into her own hands and declares she’s going to write something no one has ever seen before. Now, keep in mind, she’s only 21 at this point, but she’s decided she’s going to be a real journalist, and sets out on the road to be a foreign correspondent reporting from Mexico.
She gets to know the Mexican people, and ends up writing a fairly well received book about their lives. And she also joins in on a few protests against the Mexican government. This doesn’t go over well, because dictators don’t like protestors. She gets threatened with arrest, she hightails, it and when she gets back to Pittsburgh, she writes some pretty damning reports about the tyrannical Mexican government.
And despite all this, when she returns, the newspaper puts her back on the fashion and gardening articles.
Sheesh, what’s a girl got to do?
Move to New York, that’s what. In 1887, she leaves Pittsburgh, she’s completely broke, and she ends up talking her way into a job with the paper New York World. And it’s here she really gets committed to her work. Literally.
Because it’s with the aim of revealing the horrible conditions within mental asylums she purposely gets herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum.
In the asylum, as expected, she discovers the utter brutality, cruelty, neglect, and just nasty living conditions. And she makes it through ten days before the New York World gets her released. She ends up writing not just an article exposing the horrors, but an entire book which stirred up such a sensation it ended up bringing reform to the asylum system.
All of which means, Nellie had just proved for the first time what girls were good for and that women were skilled enough to be true reporters, not just writers of fluff pieces or baby makers.
Now don’t worry, I haven’t gone fully off track because we’re now up to 1888 when Nellie’s reporting career meets up with 80 Days Around the World?
So, in 1888, Nellie’s looking for an idea and suggests testing out whether Verne’s tale can actually be done. The editor sits on the idea, then in November 1889, he decides, “Yeah, that’s a a great idea.” So, with two days notice, she’s told to get packed and get her butt around the world in 80 days or less.
So, Nellie grabs nothing more than a small satchel, picture something like an old timey doctor’s bag, to hold a few toiletries and her underwear. She brings nothing to wear other than the dress she had on and her coat, and the only other item she brings is a couple hundred dollars that she’s tucked into a punch she wears around her neck. I mean, talk about traveling light!
Meanwhile over at Cosmo, yes, THE Cosmo, they’ve gotten wind of this scheme and send Elizabeth Bisland off on the same day, but in the opposite direction as Nellie (Nellie goes east as Phileas Fogg and Passepartout did in the story).
And Bisland — and believe me, she’s fooling no one — tells everyone she’s just doing it for a personal adventure, and she’s not in any way competing with Nellie. I picture this statement being delivered with plenty of knowing eye winks.
Nellie does follow Verne’s route as closely as possible and she even meets June Verne on the way. Although unlike Phileas and Passepartout, she does not rescue an Indian princess…such an underachiever, right?
Anyway, while Nellie’s away, just like people did with 80 Days Around the World, the New York World organizes a betting scheme. Whoever guesses the exact minute Nellie will arrive will win a free trip to Europe.
As she’s traveling, people are able to keep up with adventures and progress, because she’s sending cables and telegraphs at each stop to report her progress, as well as longer dispatches that are by sent mail which end up taking weeks to get to the paper.
And she’s making really good time until she hits bad weather making the crossing to San Francisco. This puts her two days behind and risks Bisland catching up. Well Pulitzer, who I haven’t mentioned yet, but he owns the New York World is not about to risk losing this race, and so he hires a private train to whisk Nelli from the West Coast to New York where she arrives at 3:51 pm on the 25 of January 1890…72 days after taking off. At the time, that was a world record for going around the world.
No word on if anyone won that free trip to Europe, but Bisland wouldn’t arrive back to New York for four more days.
And this newspaper stunt wasn’t the only time people have taken Verne’s book as some sort of challenge. Plenty of people have done the whirlwind tour and continue to do it today.
For example, in 1903, James Willis Sayre of Seattle made an around the world trip in only 54 days using nothing but public transportation. In 1928, which would have been Verne’s 100th birthday, a Dutch newspaper sponsored 15-year-old Palle Huld to go around the world by train and ship. He made it in 44 days, but again, did not rescue an Indian princess. Lame. And in 1988, Michael Palin of Monty Python fame, did the an around the world journey for a television program using only ground and sea transport, no airplanes, which I’m sure Greta Thunberg would love. And he made the trip in 79 days and 7 hours, which just strikes me as being a bit theatrical.
Anyway, back to Nellie. She continues to write until, at 31, she marries the 73-year-old Robert Seaman. He owns an ironworks company that makes steel bottles for milk and for boilers and Nellie helps him run the company. But nine years after they marry he dies and Nellie fully takes over operations.
Nellie after all her investigations into working peoples’ lives, runs the company under the idea that workers should be treated well, including being provided health benefits and safe working conditions. Revolutionary! She also, for what it’s worth, invented a new type of milk can and a stackable type of garbage can.
So, it seems like Nellie is a wonder woman. She can do anything. Well, maybe not. She ends being crap at financial matters and ends up losing the entire company. Oops.
But luckily there’s a war on…and yes, that would be World War I. I am not getting that wrong this time! She ends up reporting on the Eastern Front of Europe and becomes one of the very first journalists, and certainly the first woman, to report from there. When she returned home, Nellie reported on Woman’s suffrage and other social issues. Unfortunately, in 1922, Nellie contracts pneumonia and doesn’t survive, but her story does live on and her work did pave the way for other female journalists.
So that is your two for one episode. Nellie Bly and 80 Days Around the World. If this has you curious about Nellie’s journey, get your hands on a copy of Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman. It’s a great read and really delves into an amazing adventure story, and a pretty incredible lady.
Writing Update – I’ve just finished the second book of my Cassie Black trilogy. Again. I know, I know, I said this was done a few weeks ago, but that draft was mainly filling in some giant plot holes and basically rewriting a huge chunk of the book. This draft was to see how those new additions fit into the scheme of things and of course some of them didn’t, so I had to rearrange a few events, trickle in a few more hints and teasers to set things up for the grand finale, and to hone some of the overall language and settings. But, I think this one is really close to done and I’ve sent it off to my eagle-eyed beta readers to see what they think.
As for the podcast, there’s not much other than if you’re on my newsletter you should have gotten your Book Owl Coloring Pages in the email for Episode 12. And any new sign ups will automatically get those coloring pages, because I’m sure we could all use a way to take our minds off things lately.
Alright everyone, that is it for The Book Owl Podcast! Thanks so much for listening, if you enjoyed this, tell a friend or leave a review, and I will hoot at you next time!
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