Backstory: Retracing Annie Londonderry's Victorian odyssey

Part 2: A 19th-century woman's break with tradition – and '15 minutes of fame' – rediscovered.

Annie Londonderry, the "globe-girdler," as she was often called, was seven months into her 'round-the-world journey when she arrived in Marseilles, France, on her Sterling bicycle to a hero's welcome.

Her celebrity had grown so great that, a week later, thousands crowded onto the quay to see her sail for the Middle East aboard the steamship "Sydney." One local newspaper said Annie had "captured the hearts of the people of Marseilles."

But what the people of Marseilles didn't know was that the Boston lady with the Irish surname was actually Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a 23-year-old Jewish immigrant from near Riga, Latvia, who came to Boston as a young girl with her family in the mid-1870s.

Annie was a pioneer of sports-related marketing for women, and she went by the name Londonderry by agreement with her first sponsor, the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of Nashua, N.H. Having broken – at least temporarily – the ties that bound her to Boston, Annie was free to reinvent herself on the road as the daring globe trotter, Mlle. Londonderry, cyclist extraordinaire. Though the wager that purportedly set her in motion was a test of whether a woman could do what only a man had done before, Annie's journey wasn't motivated by a desire to make a political statement. Rather, the bicycle was Annie's means of escape from a life constrained by 19th-century expectations of women. By age 18 she was married and had one child; when she left to cycle the world in 1894, she had three young children and a job selling ads for several Boston newspapers. Her husband, Max, was a devout Jew who made a modest living as a peddler. The bicycle, she hoped, would also be her ticket to fame and fortune. For a woman of that era to leave her husband and young children was unimaginable; to do so to bicycle the world was utterly radical.

For me, riding at least a couple of hundred miles in Annie's shoes, from Boston to New York earlier this month, was the culmination of three years of research into her long-forgotten story. It was the next logical step in my own odyssey on the Londonderry trail that began with a query from a perfect stranger looking for information about her and making it clear that Annie was my great-grandfather's sister – even though no one in my family had ever heard of her.

August 12 brought clear blue skies in Boston, a perfect day for cycling. After a brief ceremony at the Massachusetts State House, at the precise spot where Annie's journey began 112 years ago, a couple dozen cyclists and I, some on high-wheel bikes from the 1880s, pushed off and, like Annie, flew away like kites down Beacon Street.

It is presumptuous to think that riding a lightweight carbon-fiber bike, powered by Gatorade and energy bars, and with a cellphone for emergencies, is much like Annie's experience in 1894. Annie began her journey on a 42-pound Columbia bike that weighed twice as much as mine. It had but a single gear and no freewheeling mechanism, which meant that the pedals spin with the wheels. Going downhill she placed her feet on rests mounted on the front fork, lest the spinning pedals tangle in her skirts and bring her crashing to the ground. (Later in her trip Annie acquired a man's Sterling bicycle, donned bloomers, and then a man's riding suit. The Sterling, unlike the Columbia, had no brake.) Annie traveled roads that ranged from smooth macadam in the cities to impassable sand that required her to push her bike.

On the flip side, Annie rode without the noise and constant danger of the fast-moving traffic we contended with much of the way, though we rode secondary roads and rural byways whenever possible. "Road books" for cyclists offering meticulously detailed routes between cities as distant as New York and Chicago were available in the 1890s. Today, it would be possible to navigate using a portable GPS system, though we relied on bike maps which were sometimes unreliable.

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.

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 and Part 1 ran in Monday's Monitor.

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