Follow Annie Londonderry’s tyre tracks around the globe
Pat Kinsella follows the tyre tracks of a bloomer-wearing biker girl who completed a surprise cycling circumnavigation of the world – but was she pedalling the planet or peddling a myth?
The most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman” The New York World’s description of Annie Londonderry’s planet-pedalling achievement
In 1894, in an apparent bid to resolve a bet about the ability of women to match men in feats of physical endurance, a 24-yearold woman set off to make history by circumnavigating the planet on a bicycle, carrying little more than a change of underwear and a pearl-handled revolver.
The Jules Verne–like venture shocked and outraged those who held fast to Victorian values in the sunset years of the 19th century, not least because Miss Annie Londonderry – as she called herself – soon dispensed with traditional women’s cycling attire (cumbersome long skirts) and began biking in bloomers.
Starchy onlookers’ eyebrows arched even higher, and detractors set their expectations yet lower, when they discovered Miss Londonderry was actually Mrs Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a married woman with three young children.
Little about this adventure was quite as it seemed, however, least of all its main character. Annie had an interesting approach to the truth, and throughout the course of her extraordinary escapade she never let facts stick in the spokes of a good story.
But she did blaze a trail around the world with a bicycle, and her antics enthralled an international audience at the time, which makes it all the more surprising that memory of her mission evaporated from the public consciousness so quickly, until being recently reinvigorated.
Between steam-powered transport, the rollout of railway tracks across the world and the opening of the Suez Canal, the globe had significantly shrunk by the second half of the 19th century, and a swathe of round-the-planet records were set following the 1873 publication of Jules Verne’s adventure novel Around the World in Eighty Days.
In 1889–90, the very real female journalist Nellie Bly beat the fictional Phileas Fogg by encircling Earth in 72 days, and such circumnavigations soon became quite common. George Francis Train, who’d claimed to be the original Fogg, subsequently whittled the roundthe-world record down to 67 and then 60 days.
The bicycle had only been around in recognisable form since 1817, when Karl Drais launched his ‘velocipede’ – the first twowheeled machine with a steerable front wheel. Yet, by December 1886, Englishman Thomas Stevens had become the first person to pedal the planet, having set off on his large-wheeled Ordinary (a penny-farthing) from San Francisco in April 1884.
Bicycles had become symbolic freedom machines for women too, despite determined efforts in some quarters to suggest bike riding was a physically or morally harmful activity for females (ailments including ‘bicycle face’ were invented, and there was much frumpish frowning over the possibility that cycling could be sexually stimulating for women).
“[The bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” suffragette Susan B Anthony famously proclaimed in 1896. “I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”
And ride by they did, in ever-greater numbers. Contemporary women such as Fanny Bullock and Elizabeth Pennell were cycling large distances by the 1890s. But Annie herself had never been on a bike in her life until just a few days before she set off to circumnavigate the world on two wheels, and the origins of her involvement in this globe-trotting gallivant are steeped in mystery.
Annie Kopchovsky was a working mother, a fraction over five feet tall, who couldn’t cycle. On the surface, a less likely candidate to confound stereotypes about the so-called softer sex could scarcely have been found, but Annie would soon demonstrate rare reserves of determination, courage and cunning.
Born with the surname Cohen, Annie was a Jewish Latvian immigrant to the US, a proud ‘new woman’ and an absolute expert at harnessing the sensationalist appeal of ‘fake news’, well over a century before the concept had been invented.
The true tale of how Annie became embroiled in a globe-rounding gamble has been lost to time. The story, as it was reported in the papers, begins with two “wealthy clubmen of Boston” discussing the antics of a chancer calling himself Paul Jones, who’d made headlines by claiming he was walking around the world to win a $5,000 bet. The men went on to wager “$20,000 against $10,000” that no woman could perform a similar feat.
Shortly afterwards, Jones – revealed as a Harvard student called Pfeiffer – admitted he’d made up his story, but by then the stage was set for Annie to prove a point for her gender. The eccentric terms of the bet required her not just to circumnavigate the world by bicycle within 15 months, but also to earn $5,000 en route, over and above expenses, after starting without even a cent in her saddlebag.
The identity of the two wager-waving protagonists has never been properly verified, and it’s possible they never really existed. Speculative theories have Annie taking on the challenge for the benefit of her original sponsor (Colonel Albert Pope, owner of Boston’s Pope Manufacturing Company who made Columbia bicycles); to make a bold point for feminism; as a basic business venture; or simply for the sheer hell of it.
What’s beyond doubt, though, is that Annie was a masterful media manipulator. She shamelessly and constantly spruiked conflicting stories about her background and the adventure she was undertaking, variously claiming to be an orphan, a wealthy heiress or a qualified lawyer. All of which whoppers were dwarfed by tales told about her exploits and experiences during and after the expedition itself, which grew taller by the month.
The papers and the public lapped it up, falling in love with the attractive young woman. “Any horrid man who says she is not good looking ought to be taken out back of a cow shed and knocked in the head with an axe,” an El Paso Daily Herald reporter purred.
And attention led to sponsorship, beginning with a deal seemingly hatched right on the starting line, when New Hampshire’s Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company paid $100 in cash to hang an advertising placard on Annie’s bike and adopt the company name as her moniker for the duration of the journey.
Annie’s carefully stage-managed grand depart took place in front of a crowd comprised of 500 supporters, suffragettes and curiosity chasers amassed on the steps of Boston’s Massachusetts State House on 25 June 1894. Despite reports of
how she “sailed away like a kite down Beacon Street” on her Columbia bicycle, she didn’t actually begin the expedition for another two days, after bidding her young family adieu.
Following detailed route instructions published in touring guides and scrounging accommodation as she went, Annie cycled straight through the Fens towards New York, before wobbling west to Chicago. This was a huge error, and by the time she arrived in the Windy City in late September, Annie realised it would be impossible to traverse the Rocky Mountains and reach San Francisco before the fast-approaching winter dumped impassable snow in her way. A diversion south would involve an extra 1,000 miles or more.
She was staring defeat in the face having only made it halfway across the US, but before quitting, Annie rekindled contact with another bicycle manufacturer, Chicago-based Sterling Cycle Works, who gifted her an Expert Model E Light Roadster, which was half the weight of the 42lb Columbia.
Equipped with a new steed, and having jettisoned her skirt in favour of bloomers, Annie felt rejuvenated. She rebooted the expedition – but not the clock – from Chicago, retracing her tyre tracks to New York and boarding La
bound for France in November. Following a less-than-friendly welcome in Le Havre, where officials temporarily confiscated her bike and money, Annie cycled the length of France over the following month, during which time she was allegedly attacked and robbed by a three-man gang. Local riders were supportive, however, and she eventually arrived in Marseilles (complete with a bandaged foot as a battle wound) to be greeted by a large and enthusiastic crowd, which she then proceeded to woo with characteristic aplomb.
By now, only eight months remained for Annie to complete the rest of the journey back to Chicago. Fortunately, the terms of the wager were woolly, and there was apparently nothing to stop her travelling large sections of the route by boat, hopping off here and there to do day rides around port cities.
Accordingly, Annie crossed the Mediterranean aboard the steamer Sydney, arriving in Egypt, where she claims to have done a side trip to Jerusalem. Via the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, she sailed on through the Gulf of Aden, past Yemen, to Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) and into Southeast Asia.
In early 1895, while the Sino-Japanese War was still in full swing, Annie spent several weeks in the region, seemingly travelling through hotly contested areas even as fighting flared. She claimed to have suffered a gunshot wound here, and wrote about being taken prisoner and witnessing a Chinese man being brutally slaughtered by a Japanese soldier right in front of her eyes. According to Annie’s accounts, she met two war correspondents during this leg, travelling with them – she on her bike, and they on ponies – along rough roads to Port Arthur (now Lüshunkou), the scene of an infamous massacre that had taken place shortly before. Annie subsequently lectured and wrote about the conflict, claiming to have crossed Korea and ventured to Vladivostok in Russia, but hard evidence is lacking.
HIT AND HOME RUN
After reaching Japan and visiting Nagasaki, Annie sailed from Yokohama, reaching San Francisco in late March. Strangely, after all her apparent exploits within a warzone, it was once she arrived back on US soil that her closest scrape with death occurred, when an outof-control horse and cart crashed into her in California. In her account of events, Annie was hospitalised for several days and coughed up lots of blood, but records reveal her giving a speech in Stockton the evening after the accident.
After riding across California, Arizona, Texas, Colorado and Wyoming, Annie took a train across Nebraska, apparently to avoid excessively muddy roads. From Fremont she saddled up once again, cycling into Chicago on 12 September 1895 to triumphantly claim victory in her quixotic quest.
Regardless of her rubbery relationship with the truth, and the fact that for a large part of her journey she travelled with, rather than on, her bicycle – pedalling only a fraction of the 13,500 miles cycled by Thomas Stevens a decade earlier – Annie’s achievement was huge. Whatever her real objectives and motivations, she’d made a massive statement about a woman’s ability to take on the fast-changing world on her own terms and prevail.
Thomas Stevens was the first person to cycle the globe by bike Annie soon ditched her long skirt for more practical bloomers
Bicycles represented freedom for many disaffected women Karl Drais invented the 'velocipede', the first really recognisable version of the modern bicycle Annie's journey began at Massachusetts State House, cheered on by 500 supporters
This advertisement for Londonderry Lithia spring water appeared in the Rocky Mountain news