By Robyn Marcs, Grants Manager at the Western Reserve Historical Society
Legend has it that in 1894, two wealthy Bostonians told each other that it would be inconceivable for a woman to ride a bicycle around the world in 15 months (and raise $5,000 on her own). The two men bet each other $20,000 against $10,000 that it couldn’t be done. Little did they know that Anna “Annie” Kopchovsky, a Jewish immigrant and young mother of three, overheard this gentlemen’s bet and decided to take actions into her own hands. However, this may have been one of the sensational fictions Annie invented to sell her reason for circumnavigating the globe on a bicycle. As they say in the Netflix show Inventing Anna, “This whole story is completely true. Except for all the parts that are totally made up.”
Anna Cohen was born in Latvia in 1870 and emigrated to the United States with her Orthodox Jewish family five years later. When she was 18, she married Max Kopchovsky, a clothing salesman, and lived in Boston. Within the next four years they had three children together. Anna didn’t really take to her routine as housewife and mother, and she wanted something more out of life than selling advertisement space in Boston newspapers. She later said that she “did not want to spend her life at home with a baby under my apron every year.”
Mrs. Kopchovsky seemed an unlikely candidate for being the first woman to ride a bicycle around the world solo, but her natural charm and determination garnered her several sponsors for her trip. The Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company paid her $100 (about $3,000 in today’s money) to go by the name “Annie Londonderry” during her travels. This offer was gratefully accepted by Anna Kopchovsky who wanted to hide her Jewish identity to combat anti-Semitism that was running rampant throughout the country. It was in this manner that Anna Kopchovsky became Annie Londonderry.
Age 24, Annie set out for her bicycle trip around the world from Boston on June 25, 1894 with a bike donated by the Columbia Bicycle Company. She later revealed that she had only learned to ride her bike three days prior. Annie quickly learned that riding a bicycle in cumbersome skirts was not going to work. She started to wear bloomers on her trip to make it easier for herself, a decision that was somewhat scandalous at the time. On September 3, she had biked to Cleveland with The Plain Dealer announcing that “Miss Londonderry… will remain in this city until this afternoon, when she will start westward…” By September 24, the petite 5’3” and 100-pound Annie had lost 20 pounds and only had 3 cents to her name by the time she reached Chicago. With winter on the horizon and facing crossing the Rocky Mountains solo in harsh weather, Annie bicycled back to Boston and planned to set out on her trip again – but this time heading out from the east. She did stop in Cleveland a second time and gave a talk at the Cleveland Wheel Club and visited the Cleveland Athletic Club according to The Plain Dealer. On November 24, Annie set out for France from New York City on a steamer armed with a new bicycle and determination.
Annie’s new bike, courtesy of the Sterling Bicycle Company, was a men’s bicycle. She stitched her bloomers into tighter-fitting pants – something that definitely made the newspapers and caught everyone’s attention. She also began to embellish her story, telling the European public that she had gone to medical school, graduated from Harvard, was attacked by robbers (but also robbers were gentlemen and would never hurt her), she was an orphan – and even an heiress. She claimed to speak German and Swedish, although she really only knew English and Yiddish. Interestingly, Annie did not mention her husband and children during her travels, giving the impression that she was an eligible single woman. However, her fame was on the rise and she gained sponsorship after sponsorship.
Annie’s charm, charisma, and natural showmanship helped her popularity and tales spread on her way towards Asia. She even spun a tale about how she found herself on the front lines of the Sino-Japanese War, a fun story albeit a fictitious one. She set foot on American soil again in San Francisco on March 23, 1895. Annie even asked a couple of men on a roadside she was passing near San Francisco to pose as robbers in a publicity stunt so she could tell thrilling stories of escape and adventure to those she met along her journey. She pedaled her way through the “Wild West,” making stops in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa before making it to Chicago and completing her trek in Boston on September 14, 1895. It had been one year, three months, and one day since Annie Londonderry set off on her bicycling adventure.
Upon returning to Boston, Annie moved her family to New York City to pursue a journalism career. Interestingly, she never bicycled again after her circumnavigation of the globe, which is understandable as she probably had enough of it for one lifetime! Miss Annie Londonderry settled back into life as Mrs. Anna Kopchovsky, gradually fading into obscurity after her world tour and trying several business adventures in New York and California. She passed away in 1947 and is buried beside her husband Max who had died the year prior. Her epitaph simply reads “Beloved Mother.”
In an article about her bicycling adventures written for The New York World, Annie wrote “I am a journalist and ‘a new woman,’ if that means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.” And she certainly did, even though she massaged the truth on occasion, it doesn’t take away from her remarkable achievement.