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Backstory: Chasing Annie Londonderry

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Two weeks ago, joined by Gillian Klempner and Meghan Shea (two young documentarians making a film about Annie) and Gary Sanderson, a septuagenarian gent in Victorian attire astride an 1880s high-wheel bicycle, I pedaled the first leg of Annie's 'round theworld trail, starting at the Massachusetts State House and ending in lower Manhattan.

For me, the ride was the culmination of three years of work to recover Annie's improbable story – an effort that began with a letter from a perfect stranger looking for information about her, a letter that made it clear that Annie was my great-grandfather's sister. But I'd never heard of her, nor had anyone else in my family.

I started chasing Annie in the spring of 2003. It began as a casual effort, but quickly blossomed into an obsession. I chased Annie through snow-covered cemeteries, across cyberspace, and over miles and miles of microfilm. I phoned libraries, historical associations, funeral homes, academics, and newspapers all over the country. I learned that when she left Boston, Annie was not only married, but astonishingly, the mother of three children, ages 5, 3, and 2. And I found her only direct, living descendant, her granddaughter, Mary Goldiner, who had all the artifacts that remain of Annie's journey (at least those I've been able to find).

Annie, I learned, had a rather casual relationship with the truth. Though she cycled thousands of miles during her odyssey, her own accounts of it were often wildly inconsistent, and it doesn't appear that she cared one whit about sticking to a single, intact story. On one day, for example, she told two San Francisco newspapers completely different stories about how she'd reached the Chinese coast from India: overland by bicycle to one reporter, by steamer to another. She also had a rich repertoire of stories about her background. In France she claimed to be an orphan, a lawyer, a Harvard medical student, an accountant, a wealthy heiress, the inventor of a new method of stenography, the cousin of a US congressman, and the niece of a US senator.

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