Annie Kopchovsky
An image in the public domain shows a cabinet card of Annie Kopchovsky, better known as Annie Londonderry, who set out in her early 20s to bicycle around the world. Kopchovsky, a Latvian immigrant who in June 1894, at about age 23, cycled away from her Boston home, leaving a husband and three small children, for a journey around the world that came to symbolize women’s independence. She died of a stroke on Nov. 11, 1947. Image Credit: NYT

The decade before the 20th century began saw an explosion in bicycle sales and cycling in general. The so-called “safety bicycle,” with wheels of equal size and a chain mechanism that allowed pedaling to drive the back wheel, along with the arrival of the pneumatic tire, had transformed cycling from an acrobatic and somewhat perilous enterprise into a pleasurable, less hazardous and even utilitarian recreation. Bicycles were mass produced as men increasingly used them to commute to work.

Especially significant was that women, for the first time, took to the activity, relishing the freedom it gave them from the restrictions of a home-bound existence. Corsets and billowy skirts even gave way to bloomers so that women could ride comfortably. The bicycle was very much a part of the early women’s movement.

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” the suffragist Susan B. Anthony said in an 1896 interview in The New York World with the pioneering journalist Nellie Bly. “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. It makes her feel as if she were independent. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.”

If ever there was an avatar of these combined social trends, “of free, untrammelled womanhood,” it was Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a Latvian immigrant who in June 1894, at about age 23, cycled away from her Boston home, leaving a husband and three small children, for a journey around the world. Though Thomas Stevens, an Englishman, had circumnavigated the globe on a high-wheeler several years earlier, no woman had tried such a feat.

She called herself Annie Londonderry

Keeping her husband and family a secret for most of her journey, she called herself Annie Londonderry and agreed, in exchange for $100, to attach an advertisement to her bicycle for the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Co. of New Hampshire. Her bicycle and her person became a rolling billboard, the first of many moneymaking schemes she would come up with to finance her travels.

Along the way, she signed and sold souvenirs, gave exhibitions of bicycling and delivered lectures to often sizable crowds, whom she had alerted to her presence by sending telegrams to local newspapers in advance of her arrival.

She delighted crowds with tales of her adventures that reporters dutifully reported - tall tales, many of them. One was that she had been waylaid by bandits in France, another that she had hunted Bengal tigers in India, and still another that she had travelled to the front lines of the Sino-Japanese War, where she was shot in the shoulder. She claimed, at various times, to be a Harvard medical student, a lawyer, an orphan, the founder of a newspaper and an accountant. With her gift for self-invention and self-promotion, there was as much P.T. Barnum in her as there was Susan B. Anthony.

Her audacious trip was completed in September 1895, her return to Boston reported on in The New York Times in straightforward fashion. She arrived with a broken arm, having pedaled for hundreds of miles with the injury, which she said was from a fall.

But the journey was not everything it appeared to be. Details were shrouded in uncertainty, largely owing to Kopchovsky’s penchant for hyperbolising.

Indeed, it’s most likely true that she circumnavigated the globe mainly on a bicycle; the evidence is strong that from western Europe through the Middle East, the subcontinent and Asia, from Marseilles to Yokohama, she travelled mostly by steamship.

The first leg of her trip took her from Boston to Chicago, and the last, from San Francisco to Chicago, via El Paso, were accomplished - for the most part, it seems - on two wheels, and thus it is a reasonable claim that she was the first female cyclist to cross the American continent.

In any case her journey was a pioneering one in the history of women’s athletics, in which she cycled thousands of miles.

She was a novice cyclist when she set out, and her first vehicle was a poor one, a clunky tank of a machine weighing 42 pounds. (Most bicycles today weigh 21 to 29 pounds.) She did not discard skirts in favour of bloomers or men’s pants for several months. The roads were often unpaved, and it took her three months to make it first to New York and then to Chicago. By then it was late September, too late in the year to begin a ride across the Great Plains.

Kopchovsky considered abandoning her journey, but with a new bicycle weighing less than half the first one, she instead reversed course, returned to New York (whether she cycled the whole way is doubtful) and took a steamship to Europe. There she rode (with an interval of train travel) with great fanfare from Paris to Marseilles. When she departed on shipboard, bound for Alexandria, Egypt, on January 20, 1895, a crowd of thousands - including a drum and bugle corps and a phalanx of local cyclists - showed up to see her off.

A family member made Annie famous

Kopchovsky’s celebrity, though it lingered through the completion of her trip, was short-lived, and her adventure would probably have remained obscure were it not for Peter Zheutlin, a journalist and cycling hobbyist who, decades after her death, became intrigued by what little he knew of Kopchovsky, his great-grandfather’s sister. For his book “Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride” (2007), he scoured newspaper archives from around the world, dug up family relics and plumbed the memory of Kopchovsky’s only survivor, a granddaughter.

Kopchovsky was born Annie Cohen in Latvia in 1870 or 1871, the daughter of Levi and Beatrice Cohen. The family moved to the United States in 1875, settling in Boston. In 1888, she married Max Kopchovsky, a peddler, and by 1892 they had two daughters and a son.

A bet that she claimed she won

Among the more remarkable aspects of Kopchovsky’s story is that she chose to leave her family to pursue her quixotic quest.

Ostensibly she undertook the trip to settle a bet between Boston businessmen on whether women were as physically capable as men. It was a story she told at every stop, explaining to reporter after reporter that she was to receive $10,000 if she finished her journey in 15 months, in addition to the $5,000 she earned above her expenses along the way. She claimed in the end to have settled the bet and earned her money. But Zheutlin’s reporting cast that story in doubt, and he concluded that there were no such businessmen, nor was there any such wager.

Back in the family fold

She returned to her family when the trip was complete, and never again, evidently, made bicycling an important part of her life. She wrote a highly suspect account of her journey that appeared in The New York Sunday World in October 1895 under the byline Nellie Bly Jr.

She and her husband had a fourth child in 1897, and Kopchovsky left home again for a time and worked as a saleswoman in Ukiah, California, about 115 miles north of San Francisco. When she returned, she and her husband lived in the Bronx and operated a small clothing business, employing 20 people. The business was destroyed by a fire in the 1920s, Zheutlin wrote, and Kopchovsky used the insurance money to start another business in Manhattan, called Grace Strap & Novelty, “with a man named Feldman she met at a Horn & Hardart restaurant.”

Kopchovsky died of a stroke on Nov. 11, 1947. Her husband had died the previous year.

In his book, Zheutlin wrote that Kopchovsky had made her journey out of a desire for fame, excitement and the independence that her conventional societal role had denied her. She loved telling stories, she loved having a story to tell, and she loved representing women as being just as entrepreneurial as men.

“Truly there is no way to measure the impact of her adventure on the larger struggle for women’s equality - to know how many women it inspired or empowered,” Zheutlin wrote. “But Annie’s journey epitomised perfectly the confluence of the women’s movement and the bicycle craze and is, therefore, a small but revealing chapter in the story of women at the turn of the century.”

The New York Times News Service