This Day in Jewish History

1894: Annie 'Londonberry' Begins Her Bicycle Journey Around the World

Annie Cohen Kopchovsky set off from Boston in a bid to win $5,000 if she made it around the world on a bike.

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On June 24, 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky set off from Boston, Massachusetts, in an attempt to circumnavigate the world on a bicycle. The mother of three, still in her mid-20s, had been selected by “two clubmen of Boston” (as a local paper put it), who had made a wager over whether a woman was capable of accomplishing such a feat. To date, the journey had been accomplished by one man, Thomas Stevens, in 32 months. Kopchovsky’s challenge was to finish in 15 months.

Annie Cohen had been born in about 1870 in Riga, in what is today Latvia, and immigrated to the United States while still a child. She married Max Kopchovsky in 1888, and when she set off on her 42-pound Columbia bicycle, she was leaving behind – temporarily – three children under the age of 6. If she succeeded, she would be rewarded with $5,000.

For a fee of $100, Kopchovsky also accepted the sponsorship of the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company, of New Hampshire. She was required to place a placard advertising the product on her bicycle and for taking on “Londonderry” as her last name for the duration.

Although Kopchovsky’s contract with her sponsors placed a number of restrictions on her, the conditions of the wager did not specify how much of the trip had to be spent astride her bike, riding. If one examines a map of her journey, it becomes clear that much of her journey was spent at sea, accompanying, but not peddling, her bike. Nonetheless, even as a passenger, it was highly unusual for a woman to travel unaccompanied in places such as Egypt and Yemen, Sri Lanka and Saigon, Singapore and Yokohama. For her return trip from San Francisco to Boston, from March 23, 1895, to September 24 of the same year, she apparently did ride, with many legs of the itinerary being documented in American newspapers of the time.

It turned out that Annie “Londonderry,” as she became widely known during her escapade, was extremely savvy at self-promotion, and had a strong sense of what audiences wanted to hear: In fact, the accounts of her adventures she reported to journalists often bore only coincidental resemblance to the truth. Thus, she wrote in the New York World after her return, she had been imprisoned by the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War, and witnessed, as she as a “Japanese soldier dragged a Chinese prisoner up to my cell and killed him before my eyes, drinking his blood while the muscles were still quivering.” She suffered a gunshot wound in China, and when a wheel was punctured outside Yuma, Arizona, she slung her bike over her shoulder and, turning down offers to board a train, began walking – only to be refused a simple glass of water after she entered Yuma on foot and knocked on the door of the first house she saw.

At least that’s what she said.

Kopchovsky’s trip overlapped not only with an explosion of interest in bicycling among Americans, but also reflected a special connection between this interest and the women’s movement of the turn-of-the century. For women, the bicycle offered freedom and independence, and also presaged a change in the fashion of their clothes. When Kopchovsky first headed west out of Boston, she was dressed in a long skirt. Several months later, after having toyed with giving up the journey altogether, she changed direction and peddled back to New York, now riding a Sterling roadster that was half the weight of the Columbia, and attired in bloomers, an article of clothing that some felt was a harbinger of civilization’s demise. She then boarded a steamer headed for Le Havre, France, and her trip was truly under way.

As the Omaha [Nebraska] World Herald reported, toward the end of Kopchovsky’s odyssey, “Miss Londonderry expressed the opinion that the advent of the bicycle will create a reform in female dress that will be beneficial. She believes that in the near future all women, whether of high or low degree, will bestride the wheel, except possibly the narrow-minded, long-skirted, lean and lank element.”

After her triumphant return, Annie Kopchovsky moved with her family to New York, where, over several months, she wrote up her adventures for the New York World, in a column called “The New Woman.” Thereafter, she departed from the public eye, and when she died, in 1947, few people had heard of her. It was only when a great-grandnephew, journalist Peter Zeutlin, decided to devote himself to excavating her story that the surprising tale of Annie Londonderry came back to life. Zeutlin tracked down a cousin who was a granddaughter of Kopchovsky and her only living descendant, and learned whatever he could about their common relation. He reported his findings in a 2007 book, “Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride.”

Earlier this year, a documentary film about Kopchovsky, “The New Woman: Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky,” directed by Gillian K. Willman, had its premiere.