Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Montage of images and link description. Around the World in 72 Days Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience
Program Transcript Further Reading
The Film & More
Program Description

On January 25, 1890, the world waited for a young reporter named Nellie Bly to arrive back home. For 72 days, as she jumped cargo ships, trains, tugboats, and rickshaws, newspaper readers had been following her progress in one of the most highly publicized journeys of all time. Never before had anyone -- man or woman -- circled the globe with such speed, outdoing the "record" of eighty days set by Jules Verne's popular fictional character, the legendary Phileas T. Fogg. The journey would make her famous.

"Around the World in 72 Days" paints a portrait of a remarkably ambitious woman who, in an era of Victorian reserve, would become a household name by doing things a woman wasn't supposed to do. "At a time in history when women's sphere was the home and children," notes producer Christine Lesiak, "Nellie Bly extended that sphere to the entire world, and became a symbol of American pride and power."

By the time Bly embarked on her famous trip, she had already made a name for herself as one of Joseph Pulitzer's top reporters, documenting the lives of America's growing underclass. "She seemed to know how to pick the assignment that would put her on center stage," says Brooke Kroeger, Bly's biographer. Her exploits titillated readers and earned her a reputation for fearlessness among the readers of New York's newspapers. In the process, she also changed the way news was gathered.

The first story to put her on center stage was a harrowing account of her experience inside a madhouse. On a dare from the editor of Pulitzer's "New York World," Bly, masquerading as a madwoman, spent ten terrifying days in the most notorious mental asylum in New York City -- the women's asylum on Blackwell's Island. Her exposé of the cruel and even life-threatening treatment she and other patients endured shook the city to its foundation and was reprinted nationwide. The series resulted in increased funds to improve conditions at the asylum, and earned Bly instant renown, as well as grudging respect from her newspaper colleagues. Never before had a journalist gone to such lengths to pursue a story. The new brand of undercover, investigative reporting would continue to grab headlines for another ten years.

"The New York World" immediately recognized "stunt" journalism's powerful appeal and over the next two years sent Bly undercover in countless guises: a domestic employee, a chorus girl, an unwed mother. Soon all the papers had their own "stunt girls," but none could outdo Bly's style and derring-do. By the age of 23, Nellie Bly was larger than life; readers loved her, and her adventures sold newspapers. But none of Bly's exploits prepared her for her greatest stunt ever -- a race around the world.

"When Nellie Bly actually decided to go all around the world," historian Mitch Stephen tells THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, "I mean that was like going up in the space shuttle!" Wearing what would become her trademark checkered coat and carrying a single bag, Bly set out in November. Despite numerous perils, Bly said that she "would rather go back to New York dead than not a winner."

She returned in triumph, a celebrity. A hotel, a train, and a racehorse were named after her. Just twenty-five years old, Bly was the most famous woman on earth.

Film Credits

Program Description | Program Transcript | Further Reading

The Film & More | Special Features | Maps | People & Events | Teacher's Guide

©  New content 1999-2000 PBS Online / WGBH