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Backstory: Chasing Annie Londonderry

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

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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.


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