Until 1894 there were no female sport stars, no product endorsement deals, and no young mothers with the chutzpah to circle the globe on a bicycle. Annie Londonderry, the great-grandaunt of author Peter Zheutlin, changed all of that.
When Annie left Boston in June of that year, she was a brash young lady with a forty-two-pound bicycle, a revolver, a change of underwear, and a dream of freedom. She was also a feisty mother of three who had become the center of what one newspaper called “one of the most novel wagers ever made”: a high-stakes bet between two wealthy merchants that a woman could not ride around the world on a bicycle. The epic journey that followed took the connection between athletics and commercialism to dizzying new heights, and turned Annie Londonderry into a symbol of women’s equality.
A vastly entertaining blend of social history, high adventure, and maverick marketing, Around the World on Two Wheels is an unforgettable portrait of courage, imagination, and tenacity.
“A wonderful telling of one of the most intriguing, offbeat, and until now, lost chapters in the history of cycling.” —David V. Herlihy, author of The Lost Cyclist
“Zheutlin’s thoroughly researched account will make you wish you’d been around to catch a glimpse of the extraordinary woman as she went wheeling by.” —Bill Littlefield, National Public Radio’s Only A Game
“[A] remarkable saga.” —The Winston-Salem (NC) Journal
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Annie Kapchowsky Is a Poor Rider, but Intends to Do the Earth
Good health to all, good pleasure, good speed, A favoring breeze — but not too high For the outbound spin! Who rides may read The open secret of earth and sky.
— Anonymous, Scribner's Magazine, June 1895
Monday, June 25, 1894, was a perfect day for baseball in Boston. The weather was fair, if somewhat overcast, but the hometown team, the Beaneaters, was in Louisville to play the Colonels. The big news this early summer day — news carried by telegraph cables to newspapers across the country and around the world — was the assassination the previous day in Lyon of French president Sadi Carnot at the hands of an Italian anarchist.
With the South End Baseball Grounds on Columbus and Walpole streets quiet, some who might have gone to the ballpark chose instead to ride the swan boats plying the lagoon in the Boston Public Garden. Others sat on benches, reading the news from France. Pedestrians strolled along gently curved walkways under the garden's graceful willows. If any of them had wandered the short distance to the gold-domed Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill they would have been treated to an unusual sight. There, at about eleven o'clock in the morning, a crowd of five hundred suffragists, friends, family members, and curiosity seekers gathered at the steps to see a young woman about to attempt something no woman had before — an around-the-world trip by bicycle.
Annie Cohen Kopchovsky arrived in a barouche accompanied by a friend, Mrs. Ober-Towne, and Mrs. J. O. Tubbs, head of the local chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Her close friends, Pear Stone and Susie Wyzanski, were there to meet her. Governor Green-halge was expected to preside over the proceedings, but sent word at the last moment that he could not attend, much to Annie's disappointment, no doubt. Though "the event lost something of the glamour that comes with state patronage," the scene was a festive one.
Annie was dressed in typical late Victorian attire: a long dark skirt, a dark blue tailored jacket with billowing leg-o'-mutton sleeves, a white shirtwaist with a striped collar and a neat bowtie, dark gloves, and a flattopped hat, under which her dark hair had been tied up in a tight bun. "[S]he was short and lightly built," reported the Boston Post. "Her face was unmistakably Polish; her eyes, big brown and sparkling, her mouth wide but well formed and stamped with determination, her complexion olive, her hair dark brown, waving luxuriantly over a countenance full of expression."
To one side, Captain A. D. Peck of the Pope Manufacturing Company, maker of Columbia bicycles, stood watch over the Columbia "wheel" on which Annie would make her journey. Peck, an officer of the Massachusetts chapter of the League of American Wheelmen, a cycling organization, was dressed in his formal riding attire, including epaulets bearing the abbreviation "MASS," which allowed him to pass "as a State dignitary."
Mrs. Ober-Towne briefly addressed the crowd, declaring her conviction that "woman should have the same chances as men." The head of the WCTU spoke next. "May she set a noble example wherever she goes!" shouted Mrs. Tubbs, who also expressed the wish that Annie would "spread good tidings among the Bedouins and the nations of the earth." She then introduced Annie to the crowd. Annie kissed all the women around her, asking each "if she had got her hat on straight," and announced she was making the trip to settle a wager between two wealthy Boston sugar merchants:
"I am to go around the earth in fifteen months, returning with five thousand dollars, and starting only with the clothes on my back. I cannot accept anything gratuitously from anyone." She turned her pockets inside out to show that she was penniless.
Mrs. Tubbs held up a copper coin and offered it to her. "A penny for luck!" she declared.
"I can't take it," replied Annie. "I must earn it."
"Take it as pay in return for speaking for the white ribbon, then," said Mrs. Tubbs, who pinned a white ribbon, the emblem of the WCTU, on Annie's right lapel.
Next, a representative of New Hampshire's Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company stepped forward, handed Annie $100, and attached an advertising placard to the skirt guard on the rear wheel of her Columbia. The money was payment not only for carrying the Londonderry placard on her bicycle, but for Annie to use the surname "Londonderry" throughout the journey, as well. The latter served more than a commercial purpose; it had a practical one. It would ease her journey to travel under a name that didn't call attention to the fact that she was a Jew. And, more prosaically, she already had a keen awareness of the importance of publicity and a penchant for showmanship; "Annie Londonderry" would be far more memorable than "Annie Kopchovsky."
"Anyone else make a bid for space on the wheel?" she asked. There were no other takers that day, though there would be many down the road. "There was quite a crowd present to see her off," reported the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, "the advertising man being particularly prominent."
As she prepared to mount her bicycle in front of the State House, her husband and three small children were nowhere to be seen, and she lamented to a reporter that her brother, Bennett, who was in the crowd, "didn't come up to say good-bye." Bennett may have thought his sister was meshugineh, Yiddish for "crazy," or he didn't expect her to get very far — or, perhaps, both.
As Captain Peck steadied her bicycle, she climbed into the saddle at last. Then, carrying only a change of underwear and a pearl-handled revolver, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, now Annie Londonderry, "sailed away like a kite down Beacon Street." She would not return for well over a year.
IT WAS "one of the most novel wagers ever made" said one Iowa newspaper: $20,000 to $10,000 that a woman could not go around the world on a bicycle as had Thomas Stevens a decade before. The wager was designed to settle an argument between two wealthy Boston men, but carried on at all levels of society in the 1890s, in homes, parlors, public meetings, work places, legislatures, rallies, and newspapers — indeed everywhere — about the equality of the sexes, a debate that carried well into the twentieth century and, one could argue, continues today. The requirement that the woman earn the formidable sum of $5,000 en route above her expenses made the journey not merely a test of her physical toughness and mental fortitude, but of her ability to fend for herself in the world. If she succeeded, she was to win the staggering sum of $10,000 in prize money.
Talking to reporters as she traveled, Annie often gave idiosyncratic descriptions of the wager. She sometimes said it prohibited her from earning money as a journalist, her chosen profession, and that she was prohibited from speaking any language other than English, even though the only other language she actually knew was Yiddish. One newspaper reported, fancifully, that "when riding she must dispatch a postal card to Boston every ten miles telling where and how she is, as well as the condition of the roads." Annie even told one El Paso newspaper that the wager prohibited her from contracting matrimony during the trip, not disclosing that she was already married.
ANNIE KOPCHOVSKY WAS, on the surface, as unlikely a candidate for the adventure she was about to undertake as one could imagine. Slightly built and a novice cyclist, she was a Jew, a married woman, and a working mother who was helping her husband, a peddler, to support a growing family.
It was a hectic household. When Annie left Boston in June 1894, she and her husband, Max, and their children lived in the same Spring Street tenement in Boston's West End as did Annie's brother, Bennett, his wife, Bertha, and their two young children, ages four and two. Max was a devout Orthodox Jew who spent hours studying Torah and attending shul. Bennett was an up-and-coming newspaper executive determined to make a success of himself at the Boston Evening Transcript, one of the city's many daily newspapers. Annie, though already the mother of three and only in her early twenties, worked as an advertising solicitor for several Boston dailies — a vivacious, bright, and attractive young woman and a skilled conversationalist, a woman who could charm even the most frugal customers into buying the newspaper space she had to sell.
She came to the United States in 1875 from Latvia as a young girl of four or five with her parents, Levi (Leib) and Beatrice (Basha) Cohen, and her older siblings, Sarah and Bennett. The Cohens were relatively early arrivals in Boston's Jewish community, for it wasn't until the 1880s that large waves of Jewish immigrants began arriving in America, many fleeing oppression in czarist Russia. Boston's Jewish community was relatively small, however, because the city had a reputation for virulent anti-Semitism. Many Jews remained in New York, where most, like the Cohens, first entered the country, or headed to the midwest or south to Baltimore, Savannah, and Charleston.
In the mid-1890s, about 6,300 of Boston's 20,000 Jews lived in the West End, the largest concentration of Jews in the city, but only a quarter of the neighborhood's ethnically diverse population. The West End was filled with new arrivals from all over Europe who tended to carve out small ethnic enclaves block by block. Spring Street was in the heart of the Jewish community, but within a few city blocks were clusters of Irish, Portuguese, Poles, Germans, Russians, and Italians, and a significant number of African-Americans, as well. It was one of the most ethnically mixed neighborhoods in America, a great churning place of immigrant life; a place where one would hear intriguing stories of faraway places.
In the early twentieth century, Mary Antin described the West End in her memoir, The Promised Land, and her experience, arriving as a young child, was not unlike Annie's: Anybody who knows Boston knows that the West and North Ends are the wrong ends of that city. They form the tenement district, or, in the newer phrase, the slums of Boston the quarter where poor immigrants foregather, to live, for the most part, as unkempt, half-washed, toiling, unaspiring foreigners; pitiful in the eyes of social missionaries, the despair of boards of health, the hope of ward politicians, the touchstone of American democracy.
He may know all this and not yet guess how Wall Street, in the West End, appears in the eyes of a little immigrant from Polotzk. What would a sophisticated sight-seer say about Union Place, off Wall Street, where my new home awaited me? He would say that it is no place at all, but a short box of an alley. Two rows of three-story tenements are its sides, a stingy strip of sky is its lid, a littered pavement is the floor, and a narrow mouth its exit.
But I saw a very different picture I saw two imposing rows of brick buildings, loftier than any dwelling I had ever lived in. Brick was even on the ground for me to tread on, instead of common earth or boards. Many friendly windows stood open, filled with uncovered heads of women and children. I thought people were interested in us, which was very neighborly. I looked to the topmost row of windows, and my eyes were filled with the May blue of an American sky!
Nevertheless, life in these tenements was hard and cramped. Though she was writing about New York, Gail Collins's description of tenement life could apply to Boston's West End, as well: "No one in the tenements had any privacy — apartments looked into one another across narrow air-shafts, and women often carried on conversations with each other while working in the respective kitchens. A husband and wife knew that half the neighborhood could hear them arguing, or making love."
As Annie walked the West End's cobblestone streets, either going to and from work on Washington Street on the other side of Beacon Hill, to shop for necessities, or simply to escape the claustrophobia of a crowded household, she would hear conversations in as many as a dozen languages. The sound of horseshoes hitting cobblestone ricocheted through streets as horses pulled peddler's wagons past four-and five-story buildings, many with storefronts at street level and apartments above.
If the conversations in the West End created a veritable Tower of Babel, the odor of ethnic foods wafting from downstairs shops and upstairs apartments were similarly diverse. The smell of barreled pickles outside a Jewish grocery mingled with the aromas of tomato sauces simmering in Italian homes, cooked sausages from the homes of Poles, and borscht from the apartments of Russians.
Pedestrians ruled the streets. Women in shawls, long-sleeved blouses or bodices, and ankle-length skirts or dresses fondled fruit for sale and cast discerning eyes on cuts of meat and poultry hanging in shop windows. Boys in knickerbockers and caps hawked newspapers and chased one another down busy sidewalks, Men in topcoats and bowlers talked business and baseball; and the Orthodox Jews, identifiable by their long beards, black hats, and payot, long locks of hair near the ears, walked to shul. Kosher butchers abounded in the West End, as did small shops where clothing and shoes were manufactured and sold. The air, already tinged with the aromas of ethnic cooking was scented, too, with leather, fresh meat, and horse sweat. Heavy clothing worn year round, combined with limited facilities for bathing in crowded apartment blocks, meant the streets were filled with human odors as well. The West End was a crowded and smelly place, both for better and for worse.
Though some Jews became prosperous, tenement families like Annie's were the norm. Incomes were modest, with most laboring in small factories, retail shops, or, like Annie's husband, Max, as peddlers of secondhand clothes and other sundries. Consequently, many Jewish women worked as a matter of economic necessity, torn between what most saw as their principal obligation — raising families and instilling a love of Judaism in their children — and the need to feed and clothe those families. Precisely for this reason, material success was greatly admired and revered in much of the Jewish community. Although women especially were expected to devote themselves first and foremost to home and family, their striving for wealth was no sin.
In this regard, Annie was a shvitser (literally, one who sweats, a hard worker), a type of Jewish immigrant for whom America was seen as the place to make a fortune. She certainly had a shvitser's mentality. "Shvitsers allowed nothing to stand in the way of their getting ahead," Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University has written. "They shamelessly abandoned elements of their faith and upbringing, sometimes they abandoned their families Everything they did focused sharply on the goal of making money and achieving success — that, they believed, was what America was all about."
Opportunities for men, even Jewish men, to realize their dreams of wealth were far greater than those for women, of course. With many traditional avenues unavailable to her, Annie hit upon an extraordinarily novel approach to chasing the shvitser's dream. Nevertheless, her Jewish neighbors may have viewed with some astonishment her decision to leave her family for an adventure on a bicycle, for it is one thing to take a job across town to help support the family, and another entirely to leave a husband and three small children to take a dangerous journey from which one might never return. What possessed Annie to make such a radical choice?
AS A YOUNG woman, Annie had already had her share of heartbreak and borne considerable responsibility for the care of others. She was eager to free herself from the narrow confines of family life on Spring Street and, at least for a time, to forge a new identity, one that would carry her to a better life.
On January 17, 1887, when she was just sixteen or seventeen years old, her father, Levi, died. Her mother died only two months later. Her younger brother, Jacob, was then only ten, and her sister Rosa was only eight or nine. With her older sister, Sarah, already married and living in Maine, Annie and her brother Bennett, twenty, became responsible for their younger siblings. Jacob was to die at age seventeen of a lung infection.
Annie married in 1888, the year following the death of her parents, and her first child, Bertha Malkie (known as Mollie), was born nine months later. In 1891, she had her second daughter, Libbie; and her third child, Simon, was born in 1892.
If Annie was at all conflicted about leaving her husband and children behind in 1894, there is no evidence of it; nor did she, later in her life, express regret about her decision to journey far from home on a bike. Indeed, later events would suggest she was not troubled in the least by her impending separation. "I didn't want to spend my life at home with a baby under my apron every year," she would often say.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Around the World on Two Wheels"
Copyright © 2007 Peter Zheutlin.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE: Going Woman,
CHAPTER TWO: Female Paul Jones on a Wheel,
CHAPTER THREE: A Woman with Nerve,
CHAPTER FOUR: Le Voyage de Miss Londonderry,
CHAPTER FIVE: A Girl Globe-Trotter,
CHAPTER SIX: Annie Is Back,
CHAPTER SEVEN: Tour on a Bike,
CHAPTER EIGHT: A Whirl 'Round the World,
CHAPTER NINE: Capture of a Very Novel "Wild Man",
A Note on Sources,