Around the world in 15 months

"Her audacious global dash nearly lost to history..." Also, 7 other things worth your time.

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Annie Londonderry: Cyclist and self-promoter

On a June day more than 125 years ago, a 23-year-old mother of three named Annie Cohen Kopchovsky stood in front of a crowd at the Massachusetts State House to say goodbye.

She was off to settle a bet, she said. And with a pearl-handled revolver among her belongings, “she climbed onto a Columbia bicycle and sailed away like a kite down Beacon Street.”

Her destination: the entire world.

Renaming herself Annie Londonderry as a marketing move (she sold ads on her bike and even her clothes to finance the trip, including one for the “Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of New Hampshire"), she planned to travel around the globe.

As her great-great-nephew (more on him shortly) wrote in 2006:

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."


Yet when her trip ended, Annie Londonderry quickly faded into obscurity, her audacious global dash nearly lost to history.

Spoiler alert: She completed the trip, although there's good reason to question whether she did it "on a bicycle" or largely "with a bicycle," while traveling by train and ship.

I’m going to break the Fourth Wall here briefly. I originally read about Annie in a 2019 New York Times retrospective. I made a note and filed it away for some June day when I might want to write about her, pegging it to the anniversary of her departure.

But while putting together the story, I realized that Annie’s aforementioned great-great-nephew—author Peter Zheutlin—had written a nonfiction book about her journey a few years back. (He spent years and years researching it.)

It turns out, he also just released a novel based on her story. When I tracked down him to fill in some details, I realized this was the kind of interview that will be a lot better with an audience.

As a result—and even though we just did the latest edition of the Understandably Live crowd-sourced video interview series on Thursday (nice new name, don’t you think?)—I’ll be interviewing Zheutlin on Monday at 1 pm ET, if readers want to join in.

I’ll remind you in Monday’s newsletter, but if you’d like to reserve a spot, please sign up here.

We’ll also have a few ebook versions of Zheutlin’s latest release, Spin: A Novel Based on a (Mostly) True Story—as I say, a fictionalization of Annie’s journey—to give away.

(He's also written several other books, including the New York Times bestseller Rescue Road: One Man, Thirty Thousand Dogs and a Million Miles on the Lost Hope Highway.)

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OK, back inside the Fourth Wall. Despite the ads hanging off her bike, Annie told people throughout the journey that it was actually prompted by a bet with a New England businessman, who would pay her thousands of dollars if she could make the trip in 15 months.

Zheutlin thinks she probably made up that story as a marketing ploy. But when you think about it, it's probably even more remarkable if the businessman didn't exist.

How many people do you know who would be capable of putting their lives on hold today—never mind in the 1890s—to travel for 15 months around the world like that?

We'll have some more details on Monday. (Somebody please remind me: I’m supposed to ask Zheutlin what happened when Annie reached El Paso; apparently there’s a good story.)

But for now, I’m sure you’ll agree the moral of the story is clear: Every successful family needs at least one talented writer.

Of course I’d say that, right? But otherwise, if you learn that you have an ancestor with a strange adventure worth sharing, who will be in charge of telling the tale?

(Have a great weekend. Sign up here if you'd like to be in on Monday's interview.)

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In case you missed it

Here’s the video from yesterday’s interview with Dr. Bruce Greyson, author of After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond.

7 other things worth your time

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Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Public domain. The photo is not actually Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, but it’s the same era. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here