Ah, stunt journalism. where would America’s airport bookstores be without it? Let’s see if I can read an entire encyclopedia in a year. What’s it like to try to live on a minimum-wage job? How about if I just eat at McDonald’s for a month?
But today’s stunt reporters have nothing on their yellow-journalism predecessors. Around the turn of the 20th century, stunts commanded banner headlines and drove massive circulation increases; stunt reporters were treated like celebrities; and stunt stories could have real social significance. The queen of this was Nellie Bly, celebrated for her 1887 exploration of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, in which she pretended to be insane in order to expose how the county’s asylums operated. Her story prompted a grand jury investigation and sweeping changes at the asylum.
Two years later, Bly was part of another mad stunt, in which two American women raced to circumnavigate the globe. Bly, from Joseph Pulitzer’s World, and Elizabeth Bisland, from The Cosmopolitan magazine, both left New York on November 14, 1889, trying to outdo Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne’s 1873 science fiction novel, Around the World in Eighty Days. Clutching their petticoats to keep dry, Bisland and Bly embarked on one of the journalist’s greatest adventures, the foreign reporting trip—at a time when most women weren’t even allowed to cover City Hall.
In Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, Matthew Goodman retraces the journey from both women’s perspectives. He follows Bly and Bisland across the continents, recounting their experiences, their reporting, its contemporary reception, and what the two trips might have meant in the long run. Goodman, the author of two other books and the recipient of a Yaddo fellowship, uses their journeys to illuminate several larger themes: the introduction of world tourism, the progress of journalism, the closing of the American frontier, and the slow advance of women’s suffrage.
In the late 19th century, America was curiously obsessed with women and their virtue and “moral superiority.” New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, who surely knew a great deal about the sins to which men were tempted, lathered his speeches with references to “pure, enlightened, and progressive womanhood.” Like Rome with its Vestal Virgins, the rhetoric of the time often treated women as pure beings defending the nation against wickedness though the power of their virtue alone.
This sentimentalizing served to counteract the growing clamor for female suffrage and equal rights. The Reverend John Buckley, for example, was so convinced of women’s moral rectitude that that he “implored male voters to respect female moral superiority by making sure that it wouldn’t be soiled and degraded by putting a bit of paper in a ballot box,” wrote Thomas Beer in The Mauve Decade, his cultural history of the 1890s. It’s reasonable to surmise that many women were sick and tired of all of this lip service to their “moral superiority” and eager to go out and prove to the world their actual capabilities.
Nellie Bly was on the front lines of this battle. A scrappy reporter from Pennsylvania coal country, Bly’s work at The World seemed to involve a new adventure every week. She’d get a job in a factory, attempt to indirectly bribe members of the New York State Legislature, try to buy a baby, and so on.
Elizabeth Bisland was a different sort of journalist. Bisland’s publication, The Cosmopolitan, was one of America’s early magazines of ideas (not until later, under new owners, did it become the “8 Ways to Indulge Your Naughty Side” Cosmopolitan we know today). Bisland wrote and edited the magazine’s books section. She was also “the most beautiful woman in metropolitan journalism,” according to an 1888 article in The Journalist.
This was not a particularly crowded field. In 1880, about 2 percent of American journalists, or 288 of them, were women. These reporters were largely consigned to writing stories about society, a dreadful job path one woman characterized as “one long drawn-out five o’clock tea of somebody else.” Talented journalists like Bly and Bisland were desperate to escape this career prison, which is perhaps how this contest came about.