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Backstory: Chasing Annie Londonderry

Part 1: I chased Annie through snow-covered cemeteries, across cyberspace, and over miles of microfilm.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 28, 2006

On an early summer day in June 1894, a young woman carrying only a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver climbed onto a Columbia bicycle before a crowd of 500 people on the steps of the Massachusetts State House in Boston. Then, declaring she would circle the world, Annie Londonderry, according to one newspaper, "sailed away like a kite down Beacon Street." It was, The New York World declared a year later, "the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman."

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The catalyst for the trip, it was widely reported, was a high-stakes wager that required Annie to circle the earth by bicycle in 15 months and earn $5,000 en route. No mere test of a woman's physical endurance and mental fortitude; it was a test of her ability to fend for herself in the world. Annie earned her way by turning her bicycle and her body into a mobile billboard, carrying advertising banners through cities around the world. Though she started her journey in long skirts on a woman's model bicycle, for most of the trip she wore a man's riding suit and rode a men's Sterling bicycle. Along the way she turned every Victorian notion of female propriety on its head. Some even questioned whether she was a woman at all.

A consummate self-promoter, and a skillful creator of her own myth, Annie became a global celebrity, her adventures reported by newspapers from San Francisco to Saigon and Chicago to Shanghai. Her genius was to seize on the major social phenomenon of her day. The 1890s was the height of a bicycle craze in the US and Europe. The women's movement was in full force, and the bicycle, said Susan B. Anthony, "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in history." And, the late 1800s was a time of globalization with telegraph and fast steamships connecting the world and creating public interest in world travel as never before. Yet, when her trip ended, Annie Londonderry quickly faded into obscurity, her audacious global dash nearly lost to history.

Two weeks ago, joined by Gillian Klempner and Meghan Shea (two young documentarians making a film about Annie) and Gary Sanderson, a septuagenarian gent in Victorian attire astride an 1880s high-wheel bicycle, I pedaled the first leg of Annie's 'round theworld trail, starting at the Massachusetts State House and ending in lower Manhattan.

For me, the ride was the culmination of three years of work to recover Annie's improbable story – an effort that began with a letter from a perfect stranger looking for information about her, a letter that made it clear that Annie was my great-grandfather's sister. But I'd never heard of her, nor had anyone else in my family.

I started chasing Annie in the spring of 2003. It began as a casual effort, but quickly blossomed into an obsession. I chased Annie through snow-covered cemeteries, across cyberspace, and over miles and miles of microfilm. I phoned libraries, historical associations, funeral homes, academics, and newspapers all over the country. I learned that when she left Boston, Annie was not only married, but astonishingly, the mother of three children, ages 5, 3, and 2. And I found her only direct, living descendant, her granddaughter, Mary Goldiner, who had all the artifacts that remain of Annie's journey (at least those I've been able to find).

Annie, I learned, had a rather casual relationship with the truth. Though she cycled thousands of miles during her odyssey, her own accounts of it were often wildly inconsistent, and it doesn't appear that she cared one whit about sticking to a single, intact story. On one day, for example, she told two San Francisco newspapers completely different stories about how she'd reached the Chinese coast from India: overland by bicycle to one reporter, by steamer to another. She also had a rich repertoire of stories about her background. In France she claimed to be an orphan, a lawyer, a Harvard medical student, an accountant, a wealthy heiress, the inventor of a new method of stenography, the cousin of a US congressman, and the niece of a US senator.