Backstory: Chasing Annie Londonderry

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

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."

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.

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.

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?

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