The First Woman to Travel around the world by bike
In the 1890’s women were still unable to cast a vote. Their role in society was little more than marry and raise children. To complete domestic duties without question or complaint. Annie Cohen Kopchovsky was one of the most celebrated women the 1890’s. She was not content to stay home and instead set out to ride around the world by bicycle. Just to win a bet.
Annie Londonderry was a Jewish immigrant to Boston, and had emigrated from what is now Latvia. At 18 years of age she married Max Kopchovsky, a peddler. Within the next four years they had three children. She wasn’t happy with domestic life being mother to a husband and three young children. And took upon on a wager to cycle around the world in 15 months and raise $5,000 along the way.
The story goes that two wealthy Bostonians were sitting around their club discussing the fairer sex. One asserted that the modern woman could do just about anything a man could. His companion took the bait. They shook on a wager that a woman could ride a bicycle around the world in 15 months and earn $5,000 along the way. Jules Verne’s 1873 novel “Around the World in Eighty Days” had ignited public interest in such an endeavor. Thomas Stevens had completed a similar feat by bike in 1887. The rules were that Annie had to earn her way around the globe. Had to travel with her bicycle. Could not accept gratuities. And had to do it alone. For proof she was to gather signatures along the way at the American Consulates.
On June 27, 1894, 24-year-old Kopchovsky hopped on her 42-pound Columbia woman’s bike. Annie was wearing the long skirt, corset and high collar of the time. She waved goodbye to her husband and three small children. As well as some fans from the local cycling club and headed to New York. One newspaper reported her departure saying she “sailed away like a kite down Beacon Street.” She carried with her only a change of clothes. A pearl-handled pistol and a lot of chutzpa.
Undaunted by the financial obstacle. Annie sold “billboard” space on her bicycle to the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company. Who offered her the sum of $100. In return for their sponsorship, she agreed to carry their placard on her bike and on her clothing. Annie also had to adopt the name “Annie Londonderry”. This made her one of the first athletes to benefit from product endorsement and advertising. Lithia Waters were a health craze in the 1880’s and 1890’s. They were made commercially by adding lithium carbonate to water. Annie also paid her way by clerking and lecturing.
It took Annie almost 3 months to reach Chicago and she was almost ready to give up. She was heading into the winter season and was not suitable to ride through. Annie needed a new strategy. It was incredibly challenging to ride a bike in women’s clothing. Annie changed her bike for a lighter men’s frame. Then donned men’s trousers (called bloomers at the time) for the remainder of the trip. She also reversed course back to New York and took a steamer to Europe instead.
A masterful self-promoter, Londonderry spun wild and often conflicting tales to newspapers about her route, and even her background. Over the course of her journey. Annie claimed to be an orphan, an accountant, an affluent heiress, a Harvard medical student, a lawyer, the relative of a congressman, and perhaps most curiously the inventor of a new form of stenography. Readers and reporters couldn’t get enough, and she soon became an international sensation. Her tall tales of brushes with death, frozen rivers, German royalty, dangerous superstition, and vicious tigers were recounted in newspapers far and wide. This was all part of the savvy businesswoman’s plan. Along with the Londonderry spring water placard, she sold more ad space on her bike. But that’s not all. Having cultivated controversy and celebrity. Annie Londonderry also arranged for paid appearances, & sold promotional photographs of herself to fans eager to be a part of her adventure.
Annie sailed to Le Havre, France, arriving there in early December. Things did not go well at first. Her bike was impounded by customs officials. Her money was stolen, and the French press declared that she was too muscular to be a woman. Assigning her to the category of “neutered beings.” Somehow she was able to turn things around. Despite inclement weather, she made it from Paris to Marseilles in two weeks via cycling and train. In Marseille, Londonderry (as she was now known) boarded the steamship “Sydney.” Ports of call included Alexandria, Colombo, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Nagasaki and Kobe. To prove that she had actually been there, she had to get the signature of the United States Consul in each location.
From there she caught a steamboat across the Mediterranean. Heading to Asia. Since the wager never stipulated how much bike riding she had to do. Annie covered a lot of the distance on ships, occasionally getting off to ride around ashore. She stopped in Palestine, Egypt and Arabia, before landing in Singapore. Londonderry became a real entrepreneur. She kept herself going with income from displaying advertising banners on her bike and her person and telling her story. Telling the truth was less important than fundraising, and she concocted many stories about her background. In France she intrigued people with tales of being an orphan, an accountant, a wealthy heiress, a lawyer, a Harvard medical student, the inventor of a new method of stenography, the cousin of a U.S. congressman and the niece of a U.S. senator. In addition she sold promotional photos, silk handkerchiefs, souvenir pins and autographs.
Return to America
Londonderry returned to America via the San Francisco harbor on March 23, 1895. From there she pedaled to Los Angeles and then through Arizona and New Mexico to El Paso. She headed north and arrived in Denver on August 12 and then continued on to Cheyenne where she jumped on a train that carried her through Nebraska. From there she hopped back on the bike bound for Chicago, where she arrived on September 12. It’s assumed that she rode the train home to Boston where she arrived on September 24. 15 months from when she left.
During her trip across America. Annie Londonderry captivated audiences with stories from exotic places. She earned enough money from her lectures to supplement the other earnings and make the $5,000 as required in the challenge. Annie described hunting tigers with German royalty in India and a brush with death, nearly being killed by “Asiatics” because they thought she was an evil spirit. She became involved in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895. On the front lines she fell through a frozen river and ended up in a Japanese prison with a bullet wound in her shoulder. Whether true or invented, audiences loved her tales and the press ate them up. Luckily for Annie it was easy to lie to reporters. In the mid 1890’s, it was very difficult for a reporter of the time to verify a story, and often would take people at face value.
After returning to Boston, Londonderry was accused of traveling more “with” a bicycle than “on” one, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm for her achievements. On October 20, 1895 the New York World described her trip as “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.” Both the newspaper and Londonderry wanted to cash in further on her triumph, so she accepted the offer to write feature articles under the by-line “The New Woman.” Seeing more potential from her peddling adventure than in her husband’s peddling business. Annnie moved her family to New York for her new journalism career. Her first article was about her round-the-world bicycle adventure. “I am a journalist and ‘a new woman,’ ” she wrote, “if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.”
Annie Londonderry was a one woman travelling show. For its time, and what Annie set out to achieve. Particularly with women’s liberation it was a truly remarkable journey. Annie experienced much success, and became a legend in many regards. Whilst many applauded and revered her. There were also the sceptics that saw through the trail of lies and deceptions that she wove, and saw her for what she was. A charlatan. Annie simply got caught up in her own lies, and did an injustice to all that she achieved. It was hard in the end to discern fact from fiction, which made it difficult to believe anything of what she was saying.
The lies were designed to make her journey all the more epic. This would mean more people would love her, and respect what she was doing, and make it easier for her to make more money along the way. The trouble was she forgot the lies she was spreading and continually contradicted herself.
The biggest lie, may have been the bet itself. Annie never said who had offered the bet, and there was no evidence that a bet had ever occurred. There were a number of people during the time that had lied about similar bets designed to scam people out of money on their journeys. It was also necessary for Annie to justify travelling around the world on her own. It was not seen as proper for a woman of the time to be travelling on their own, by bike around the world. This may explain the lies. If the whole trip was based on a lie, then what difference would it make if the rest was also a lie?
It was in incredibly difficult undertaking for a woman of Annie’s age to travel solo around the world. She was visiting unfamiliar and often dangerous places, and only spoke English, and had difficulty communicating overseas. Annie succeeded in getting fame, fortune and from accounts, Annie became a very strong and experienced rider and you could argue that her trip was a major success.
Annie moved her family to New York where, for a brief time, she wrote a newspaper column under the title “The New Woman”. The fame didn’t last and she soon faded from public attention. The fame and fortune that Annie gained from her ride led her towards being a very successful businesswoman in future years. Annie died in relative obscurity in 1947.
Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride, Peter Zheutlin 2007
New England Historical Society