Backstory: Retracing Annie Londonderry's Victorian odyssey
Part 2: A 19th-century woman's break with tradition – and '15 minutes of fame' – rediscovered.
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Four of us rode all the way to New York: two young documentarians – Gillian Klempner and Meghan Shea – and Gary Sanderson, 71, on his 1880s high-wheeler, joined me, Annie's great-grandnephew.Skip to next paragraph
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I knew that by riding with Gary we'd be traveling at a stately Victorian pace, but I didn't realize how it would alter the cycling experience. Typically when I ride, I have a short window of time, and to get a good workout I ride hard. To New York we traveled as cyclists of the 1890s did, averaging about 10 m.p.h. It was sublime. Cycling wasn't a diversion or a way to exercise for this one week, it was a way of life – nothing on the agenda but moving leisurely across the countryside. It was all about the journey, not the destination. How liberating it must have been for a Victorian woman to see the world from a bicycle saddle.
Steep grades are a serious challenge on a high-wheeler, and on that first day, as the other riders moved ahead, I dropped back to stay with Gary. Soon, we were alone on a beautiful, narrow country road winding through the woods. With his britches, knee socks, handlebar mustache, and leather saddle bag strapped to his bike frame, Gary looked as though he'd ridden through the Twilight Zone from the 19th century. His bicycle elicited stares and shouts of disbelief all week as we passed children on playgrounds and front-porch sitters. Several motorists circled around to take pictures with cellphones, no doubt to prove to themselves and others that they weren't hallucinating.
Unlike Annie, we had a support vehicle carrying sleeping bags, clothes, and provisions. Like Annie, we had our setbacks and misfortunes. On the third day we rode 35 miles in rain, much as Annie did in New Mexico in the stormy summer of 1895. On the fourth day, Meghan took a spill on some New Haven, Conn. railroad tracks. She was bruised, as Annie was when a runaway horse and carriage ran her off a canyon road near Tracy, Calif. in April 1895.
The emotional highlight of the trip came in Larchmont, N.Y. on the last day when we stopped for breakfast at the home of Annie's granddaughter, Mary Goldiner. It was through my research about Annie that Mary, my distant cousin, and I met. Now in her 70s, she told me when we first met that she felt she was expected to do something with her grandmother's legacy. She is delighted that Annie's story, lost for over a century, is finally being retold.
After Annie's journey ended in September 1895, she wrote sensational features for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. The byline on her first story – a hyperbolic account of 15 months "in all parts of the globe in her bloomers" – was "Nellie Bly, Jr.," after the famous World reporter who, six years earlier, "broke" the 'round-the-world travel record of Phileas Fogg, the hero of "Around the World in Eighty Days."
By the time Annie died in 1947, her audacious escapade was already a long-forgotten piece of the history of women in America. There were no obituaries, no tributes, and even a death notice placed by her family in The New York Times didn't mention it. Now, almost 60 years after her death, the story of what the New York World called "the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman," is being told once again.
• Peter Zheutlin's book about Annie Londonderry will be published next year. To learn more about Annie and the documentary film about her visit www.annielondonderry.com and www.spokeswomanproductions.com. Part 1 ran in Monday's Monitor.