In 1895 Annie Londonderry became the first woman to cycle around the world. She was a truly incredible woman for many reasons:
- She was fiercely independent and self reliant.
- She went against just about every ‘social norm’ for women in the times in which she lived.
- She was an incredible athlete, particularly given the bikes, equipment and dress of the age.
- She was a compulsive liar.
I am not sure which of these she stands out more for, but together they make for quite a personality.
Who Was Annie Londonderry?
Annie Londonderry was not in fact, Annie Londonderry. Her name was Annie Cohen Kopchovsky. She was born around 1870, in Latvia. In 1875, Annie moved to the United States with her parents and two older siblings, and they settled in Boston.
In 1888, Annie married Max, a devout Orthodox Jew and a seller of second hand goods and other items. They had three children; Mollie was born nine months after the wedding, Libbie was born in 1891, and Simon was born in 1892. As well as being a wife and mother, Annie was an advertising solicitor for various Boston papers.
But this was not enough for Annie. She wanted adventure and fame. She undertook to cycle around the world. Annie was asked about her motivation to make such an incredible trip and replied ‘I didn’t want to spend my life at home with a baby under my apron each year.’ This is a sentiment that I am sure many women can relate to, but remember that this the 1890’s and life was very different for women then. There were expectations and limitations and although 1848 marked the first stirrings of the campaign for women’s suffrage in the US, women did not even gain the freedom to vote until 1920.
Rising to the Challenge
Annie’s ride was said to be a response to a bet between ‘two wealthy club men of Boston’ that no woman could ever match Thomas Stevens, the first man to cycle around the world. Stevens had covered 13,500 miles in 32 months on a Penny Farthing, ending his expedition in December 1886. The wager Annie stood to settle was $20,000 to $10,000 that a woman would fail. The conditions of this wager required Annie to start her ride with no money, to accept no donations and to complete the trip in 15 months or less. She was to earn all the expenses she needed during her journey. She was also required to finish the journey having earned $5000 over and above these expenses. Bear in mind that, at this time the average yearly salary was around $1000. Success would earn Annie $10,000…and worldwide acclaim.
The Send Off
In 1894, when Annie set off from the Massachusetts State House in Boston on her attempt to cycle around the world, she was around twenty-four years old and her children were all under the age of six. She was a slight lady, measuring five foot three and weighing only 100 lbs. Annie rode a Lady’s Columbia bicycle – a beast of a machine weighing 42 pounds – almost half of Annie’s own weight.
She started her journey wearing typical women’s clothing of the time, including a long skirt and tailored jacket. She carried only a change of underwear and a pearl handled revolver. At the time bloomers were gaining popularity with female cyclists as they were held to be more comfortable and practical. When asked why she did not wear these, Annie replied, ‘I could not quite bring myself to wear the bloomers some women cyclists wear. Although I’ve cheek enough to go around the world, I’ve not enough cheek for that.’ In fact, she wore bloomers beneath her skirts to protect her modesty.
A crowd of around five-hundred people gathered to see Annie off. With her typical flair for the dramatic she had arranged for a representative of New Hampshire’s Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company to use this moment to hand her a payment of $100 for hanging an advertising placard on her bike and using the last name ‘Londonderry’. Thus Annie Kopchovsky became Annie Londonderry.
‘Anyone else make a bid for space on the wheel?’ Annie asked that day, hoping to get more sponsors. Nobody made her an offer, although many did in the course of her travels. She was reported at times to be virtually covered from head to foot with adverts.
Annie was at this point, no regular cyclist. In the previous two days she had received two lessons. Other than this, she had never ridden a bike.
A Shaky Start
Annie headed west and four months after her departure, she had reached only Chicago. It was September and autumn was bringing colder weather and shorter days. She nearly gave up. However, after publicly announcing defeat, two massive changes in her kit changed her mind and got her back on the road.
Chicago was home to Sterling Cycle Works who had a reputation for making very high quality bikes. The company motto was ‘built like a watch’. They offered Annie one of their bikes; a twenty pound men’s diamond frame machine. They also provided a significant amount of sponsorship money.
Annie’s other change in kit was necessitated by her new, diamond frame bike. With a top tube, it was simply not possible to ride in long skirts – Annie had to resort to bloomers as outerwear. Bloomers were by no means new at this point – they had been around for decades. However, they were still considered risque and women were frequently submitted to verbal and even physical abuse for wearing them. How deeply ingrained this sense of the impropriety of such clothing was, can perhaps best seen in the fact that a woman as audacious as Annie Londonderry was reluctant to wear them.
Newly equipped with a bike of less than half the weight of her original one, and with more comfortable clothing, Annie set off once again. This time she headed east – back the way she came. By this time she had only eleven months remaining to complete her journey.
In November Annie reached New York City and boarded La Touraine, bound for Le Havre, France.
The Outlandish Personal Claims
Annie had an incredible talent for weaving a story to suit her own purposes and with worldwide media interest in her, her wild claims about herself were frequently reported. She consistently failed to correct the assumption that she was single and she simply did not mention her husband and children.
Some of her claims may have held an element of truth, below are some which were pure fabrications:
- She became an orphan at a young age.
- She was a law student.
- She was a medical student who earned money dissecting cadavers.
- She was a wealthy heiress.
- She had founded a newspaper and sold it just before she began her journey.
- She had invented a method of stenography.
- She was the cousin of a US congressman.
- She was the niece of a US senator.
- She had a twin brother who died in childhood.
It is difficult to understand why Annie made such unbelievable and contradictory statements about herself. Did she really believe these things to be true? Did she expect others to believe them? Or did she simply enjoy pulling everyone’s legs?
Annie’s round-the-world trip was purportedly filled with wild adventures. Some of these stories may be true, or at least exaggerations of the truth. Others appear to be Annie’s active imagination. It is certainly difficult to reconcile the timescale of Annie’s journey with some of the events she described.
Annie reported that, before leaving the US for France, she fell off her bike onto railroad tracks and was attacked by a man. She narrowly escaping being crushed by an oncoming train as she shot and killed her attacker. This she reported in France, having left it unmentioned before leaving US soil.
While in France she apparently had no difficulties in racing against the finest Parisian male cyclists, having deemed female cyclists as unworthy of her efforts. She was also held up by French highwaymen, injuring her ankle and shoulder in her attempts to defend herself – attempts which included holding a revolver to the head of one of her attackers.
In January 1895, Annie left Marseilles, France on the steamship Sydney, heading for the Suez Canal. Just seven weeks later, she was again on board a steamer, the Belgic departing Yokohama and bound once more for US soil in California. Those seven weeks are filled with tales of outrageous adventures. Annie hunted Bengal tigers in the company of German royalty. She visited the front lines of the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 where she was shot in the shoulder. She was held in a Japanese prison where she witnessed the execution of a Chinese prisoner by Japanese soldier. In Siberia she ‘observed the workings of the Russian system of treating political prisoners.’
Annie earned her keep by lecturing as she cycled from California towards home, and the tales she told during these lectures were often at odds with her own previous accounts. With her growing fame she was frequently accompanied by other cyclists who could verify that she did indeed travel by bicycle. Nevertheless, there are some stretches where she appears to have travelled especially quickly. These are often the stretches running along railway lines.
Exactly fifteen months after she left, Annie and her bicycle arrived back in Boston. She had won the wager.
There is no doubt that Annie Londonderry cycled many thousands of miles during her travels, with equipment that many accomplished cyclists today would struggle with. What she achieved was phenomenal for a woman at that time and her sheer audacity is worthy of massive admiration. However, there is also no doubt that much of Annie’s ‘cycle’ around the world took place on board a steamer ship. There were also a number of train journeys involved.
Annie’s reporting of the conditions of the wager was also often contradictory and it appears that she may have made up the ‘rules’ as she went along. For example, assuring commentators that a permissible mileage by boat had been stipulated. She also claimed that her passage through France was made tricky by the stipulation that she was to speak no language but English throughout her travels – there is no evidence that Annie could speak French or indeed any other languages. In fact, there is no evidence that the wager ever existed at all.
It is likely that much of Annie’s journey between her departure from Marseilles and her arrival in California, was spent on board the Sydney. She did indeed cycle during this time, but it does appear that much of this comprised day trips by bike where the ship docked. It is highly unlikely that she ever hunted tigers or was held in a Japanese prison.
Somehow though, for me Annie’s willingness to re-invent herself and to spin an incredible yarn about her adventures is as much to be admired as Annie’s accomplishments on the bike. She knew how to get herself noticed and keep herself noticed. She knew how to get what she wanted.
Annie had a fourth child, Frieda, two years after her bike ride ended. She remained married to Max until her death in 1947. As far as anyone knows, she never cycled again.
Annie Londonderry is a woman I wish I could have met. I would have loved to hear her tales about her life and what’s more, I don’t think I would have cared if they were true or not.
Much of the research on Annie Londonderry has been done by Peter Zheutlin, her great grandnephew. I am greatl;y indebted to him for much of the information in this article. Peter runs a website dedicated to Annie; www.annielondonderry.com
Peter Zheutlin has also written a book about Annie which includes something of the aftermath of her journey, ‘Around the World On Two Wheels’ which I would highly recommend.
There is also a great article on Total Women’s Cycling about Annie Londonderry.