Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Backstory: Chasing Annie Londonderry

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

(Page 2 of 2)

By all accounts, she was intensely charismatic, a gifted conversationalist, and wickedly clever. It's virtually certain, for example, that she concocted the wager story to sensationalize her trip. She wasn't the first to try to capitalize on the public's fascination with 'round the world schemes, many inspired by Jules Verne's 1873 book "Around the World in Eighty Days." The 15-month "deadline" turned Annie's trip into a race, a dramatic element with press appeal. But, more important, because the purported wager was over the capabilities of women at a time when many were campaigning for social and political equality, Annie ensured that no matter where one stood on the question of women's equality, there'd be a vested interest in the outcome. It was a brilliant device.

Skip to next paragraph

Though her motivation was personal, not political – she was out to earn fame and fortune, not to make a statement – she quite consciously took up the mantle of women's equality.

Annie's route was, like the cyclist herself, not straightforward. A novice cyclist, she rode first to New York and then west, reaching Chicago in early autumn exhausted from riding her 42-pound bike. Realizing it was too late to cross the plains and the mountain west before winter, she reversed course and switched bikes, returning to New York on a 21-pound men's Sterling bicycle.

She sailed to Le Havre, France, in November 1894. She then rode south to Marseilles where she boarded the steamship "Sydney" in January of 1895. Newspapers in the "Sydney's" ports of call – such as Alexandria, Colombo, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, and Shanghai – reported sightings of Annie on a bike, some swallowing her story whole, others greeting her with skepticism.

By March, she had sailed into San Francisco aboard the steamship "Belgic." Her accounts of the trip – given in lectures across the American west en route back to Chicago – detailed riding across India where she hunted tigers with German royalty and was nearly killed by "Asiatics" who mistook her for an evil spirit. Caught up in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, she said she traveled to the front, fell through a frozen river, took a bullet in the shoulder, and was thrown into a Japanese prison. She recounted freezing nights on "Corean furnace beds" heated by coals, and riding to Siberia where she "observed the workings of the Russian system of treating political prisoners." Audiences loved the tales, and so did most of the press.

Her route back east took her from San Francisco south to Los Angeles, across Arizona and New Mexico to El Paso. Texas was still the Wild West in 1895, and Annie was the toast of the town through the Fourth of July weekend. As she delivered her lecture one evening in El Paso, newspaper accounts of the time indicate, her audience included the outlaw John Wesley Hardin and his lover, Helen. As she lectured, four men hired by Hardin gunned down Helen's husband a few miles away.

From El Paso, she rode to Cheyenne and hopped a train across much of Nebraska, before riding to Chicago where on Sept. 12, 1895 one of the most convoluted and fanciful chapters in cycling history came to an end.

Annie was a showwoman and a teller of tall tales, so perhaps it isn't surprising that the woman who became world famous over the course of her journey wasn't exactly who she appeared to be, either.

Rather, Annie Londonderry was the alter ego of a very clever young woman with no shortage of what she herself might have called chutzpah.

Tomorrow: Who was Annie Londonderry?