Journalist Nellie Bly has always been a personal heroine of mine — from way back when I was in elementary school and I discovered a storybook about her race to travel around the world in less than 80 days. (This was when I was very young. Since I had barely traveled out of my home county — going around the world sounded like a sweet deal.)
Since that time, I have made it an effort to study the life of Nellie Bly — she could be considered a muckraker although most of her important journalism was completed way before the term “muckraker” was coined. One of her best pieces was “Ten Days in a Mad House” where she faked insantiy to do undercover work at the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum.
Unfortunately, most of the work I have found about Bly has been a bit dry and academic — but I just finished Eighty Days: Nellie Bly’s and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman and I have to say that this is one of the best books I have read this past year. Goodman details Bly’s life (she’s from a small town in Western Pennsylvania) and her struggles as a woman journalist in a time period when women only wrote marriage advice columns and housekeeping tips. Most of the book, however, traces Bly’s trip around the world — an event that was arranged by a newspaper when Nellie herself told her editor that she wanted to beat the record set by the fictional character, Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s book, Around the World in Eighty Days.
I knew a little about Bly’s trip — however, what I didn’t know was that another newspaper sent another woman to beat Nellie Bly. Her name? Elizabeth Bisland — and outside of working for women’s rights, she had little in common with Nellie Bly. Goodman also traces Bisland’s trip, emphasizing the fact that Bly would have actually beat Bly — if poor weather had not slowed her journey.
Goodman’s account of the two journeys is intriguing and insightful. Nellie Bly would go down in history, and I’m glad to read a thoughtful account of her life and this particular journey. On the other hand, it seems that Elizabeth Bisland’s name would seemingly vanish from history — so I am glad that Goodman found Bisland’s records, so that I could learn about this intriguing woman.