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A Walking Fever Has Set In

ISSUE:  Autumn 1980

No one was very surprised on the morning of March 10, 1879, when The New York Times devoted a whole column on page five to the start of a six-day walking race in a city arena. It was also expected that the story should jump to page one the following day, when it occupied two columns, and that, at the height of the race, The Times, of all papers, should give four full columns of its front page to such an event. It was even considered normal that a good part of the city’s business be suspended during the race, while thousands who could not get into the arena jammed the streets outside, waiting for the results. The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, a high-class British weekly, wrote in vain that the walk was “a stupid, dangerous and brutal performance. . .a monstrous and degrading folly. . .a despicable exhibition of silliness and ruffianism.” The United States of America, in those bursting decades after the Civil War, was in the full grip of a long-distance walking craze and didn’t care who knew it.

There was reason, of course, why walking was popular in those days. Roads were terrible, and rail transportation was still on the primitive, or Long Island Railroad, level. It was easier to walk. Journeymen printers and mechanics walked 20 to 60 miles a day, looking for work, and Horace Greeley often boasted that he had walked 40 miles from the rising to the setting of the sun. Actually, walking as a sport flourished long before the great New York race. In 1809, Capt. Robert Barclay of England walked a thousand miles in a thousand hours, and won two thousand guineas in the process. The idea that money could be made out of bipedal locomotion stimulated interest to such an extent that, a few years later, another Englishman won a hundred pounds by racing a horse from London to York. The man won by eleven hours, proving that, for endurance, it’s mankind two to one. Still, pedestrianism did not really arrive in America until 1867. In that year, Edward Payson Weston, a slight young man of 27, walked from Portland, Me., to Chicago, Ill., a distance of 1,227 miles, in 26 secular days. He rested on the Sabbath, and he gained two pounds on the trip. Weston’s walking dress consisted of a jacket, tight-fitting black pantaloons, high shoes with red tops, a round top silk hat, and buff gloves. He also carried a cane. The entire country followed Weston’s walk in the newspapers, and special reporters were assigned to follow him in carriages. The crowds were so thick in many of the towns he passed through that police had to open a passage through the streets for him. Often, he would stop to deliver a lecture on the merits of walking.

When Weston got to Chicago, he was greeted by the largest crowd in the city’s history. They escorted him triumphantly to the Opera House, where he made another speech. “No feat of strength and endurance has ever attracted so much attention in this or any other country,” Harper’s Weekly wrote, the following week. Weston was lionized by society and the masses. To a nation just beginning to feel its strength, he was a perfect example of what its citizens could do, if they had a mind to. It did not matter that there were now railroads running between Portland and Chicago, thus giving Weston’s feat a certain superfluous quality; if anyone was going to walk that distance in record time, it would have to be an American. At the same time, Weston had won $20,000, in bets, for the man who had backed him. He was an excellent symbol of the time. His picture was all over the place. There were Weston shoes, Weston hats, and Weston coats. Musicians composed Weston marches, and young ladies danced to Weston waltzes. “The notoriety attendant upon Weston’s famous exploit has led to quite a pedestrian furor and a walking fever has set in,” a Chicago paper wrote, adding sternly, “We trust it will draw attention from the brutal exhibitions of the prize ring.”

Weston had been in the public eye before but less spectacularly. In 1861, he had launched American long-distance walking, on a small scale, by hiking from Boston to Washington, D.C., as a payoff on a bet he had made that Lincoln would not be elected. He made the trip in ten days. Later that year, after war had broken out, Weston went to work for the North, more or less as a spy. He carried mail and messages, on foot, from New York to Baltimore, where a Union garrison was besieged. His disguise was furnished by Brooks Brothers. Then, in 1870, Weston made a $2500 bet that he could walk a hundred miles in 22 hours. He walked alone on a sawdust track at the Empire Rink in New York. His chief nourishment was Beef tea, crackers, raw eggs, and lemonade. Five thousand people came to see him win by 20 minutes. The next year, Weston made the same bet, the only added provision being that the nourishment this time consist only of champagne. He won this $2500, too, plus a piece of change from a champagne company. This improved his commercial rating but not his amateur standing.The New York Sportsman, the leading athletic publication of that time, wrote that “any displays with which Weston is connected will be understood by anybody possessed of sense enough to seek shelter when it rains to be mere mercenary exhibitions, and no tests at all of real merit. That fellow is a fraud.”

Not everyone shared this austere opinion, although it is true that Weston’s accomplishments usually had a strong financial base. He was often in debt, and his favorite method of regaining solvency was to start off on some long-distance walk with plenty of sponsors. One of his cross-country walks was sponsored by a sewing machine company, a druggist, a photographer, a rubber company, and a clothing dealer, all at the same time. They paid for the necessary trainers and attendants, the food, and the horse and carriage that always accompanied the open road pedestrian. Anything left over went to Weston, who made most of his money by betting on himself. In return for the subsidy, Weston talked up their products in the various lectures he made on the way and also mentioned them in the pamphlets he wrote about himself. On one walk, he distributed a hundred thousand of these pamphlets. Weston was also famous as a lecturer and writer, particularly on questions of temperance. He lectured at Stein way Hall under the chairmanship of Horace Greeley, and his correspondence with Dr. Theodore Cuyler, a well-known minister, lent a high degree of enlightenment to what The Times called “subjects of common interest to the athlete and clergyman.” Once, Weston undertook to tramp the roads at the rate of 50 miles a day, Sundays excepted, for a hundred days, delivering lectures on the joys of a pure cold water drink. A man named Spencer, feeling with some justification that this was carrying clean living a little too far, immediately began a similar walk, sustaining himself entirely on beer. Both men finished strong, leaving the issue still unresolved.


By the early seventies, long-distance walking had the country by the throat. In 1874, no less a celebrity than James Gordon Bennett, the editor and publisher of the New York Herald, walked and won a match for $6000 against a man named John Whipple. The course was from Fifth Avenue and ThirtyEighth Street to the clubhouse gate at Jerome Avenue, in the Bronx. Many commercial houses had their own walking teams, the one at Lord and Taylor holding the championship of the department store league for a while. Hundreds of advertisements, news stories, and challenges appeared in the press. Tiffany regularly ran the same advertisement, inviting public attention “to the American Pedometer, a remarkable invention of Mr. Benjamin S. Church, the well-known engineer of the Croton Aqueduct.” A man named John Welsher advertised walking shoes of his own manufacture—$6.50 plain and a dollar more with springs. The challenges were blunt and to the point. “I will walk any amateur that works for his daily bread at mechanical or any kind of manual labor six days a week, a twenty-four hour race for a $50 gold medal,” one announced in The Sportsman. The New York to San Francisco walk became so popular that for a while it looked as if the covered wagon might no longer be necessary. Rewards fell right and left. It seemed as though the muscles of the nation were making one final, vast, collective effort before being replaced by the internal combustion machine. Even what was then considered ordinary time seems monumental today. “A pedestrian calling himself Prof. E.S. Hidden is credited with walking forty miles in seven hours, forty-three minutes and thirty seconds,” The Sportsman said, sneeringly, in 1878. “It is slow enough to be true.” There was a man who walked eight miles under water, and there was a twelve-yearold champion called “Little George,” from Newark, and there were a flock of women walkers. The New York Ladies Walking Club trained on Thirteenth Street and produced Miss Bertie Le Franc, the first woman to do a hundred miles under 28 hours. The most famous pedestrienne, though, was a Madame Anderson of England, who made her debut at the Mozart Gardens in Brooklyn. She walked a quarter-mile in every quarter-hour for four straight weeks. There was some suspicion that the madame had a double, both because of her phenomenal endurance and her appetite. She would eat every half-hour, while walking, and sometimes downed as many as sixty meals a day. Her favorite snack consisted of eggs and port, chowder, and kidneys with a drop of Bourbon whiskey. Her detractors claimed that no one woman could walk that far while eating like that. Mme. Anderson finally dispelled their doubts by singing and talking as she walked, on the theory that no two women could have exactly the same voice. “She is a marvel of gameness and endurance,” The Times finally conceded. “A wonder in petticoats,” The Sportsman said.

Despite his commercial taint, Weston remained king of the walkers until 1875, when Dan O’Leary appeared. O’Leary was a small, tough Irishman who had lost his job and savings in the great Chicago fire and had decided there might be a living in the pedestrian game. He started off by doing a hundred miles in 23 hours. The following month he did 105 miles in the same time and challenged Weston on the strength of it. Weston refused, stating that Oapos;Leary did not have a big enough reputation. This infuriated O’Leary, who proceeded to rent a hall and break Weston’s pet record of two hundred miles in 40 hours. Weston then agreed to meet him, and they walked a six-day match in Chicago in November of 1875. O’Leary won by doing 501 miles in 143 hours. Weston immediately returned to New York and shortly thereafter set sail for England, claiming he had been the victim of a hometown decision. O’Leary stayed in America, beating everyone in sight. In the fall of 1876, he, too, went to England and again challenged Weston. They finally agreed upon a six-day race for five hundred pounds a side, the winner also to get twothirds of the gate. Sir John Astley, the “Sporting Baronet, “backed Weston, while O’Leary was backed by Sam Hague, an American promoter of minstrel shows. The match was held at Agricultural Hall in London, April 2—7, 1877. O’Leary won by walking 519 miles in 141 hours, breaking the world’s record. This gave him permanent possession of Weston, but there was still doubt about his claim to the international title. Sir John Astley resolved this by offering a hundred pounds and the Astley Belt to the winner of a six-day race that would definitely determine the world’s champion pedestrian. But instead of regular heel-and-toe walking, the contest was to be “go as you please.” Each contestant was free to get around the track any way he wanted, so long as he stayed on the ground. In setting this condition, Sir John was acting as a patriot. American walkers had been beating English walkers with depressing regularity, whereas English runners had been holding their own. Astley hoped that a race in which runners could compete would benefit England. The first race for the Astley Belt was held in London in March 1878. Weston did not enter, at first pleading money trouble and then sickness. Each contestant had to put up a hundred pounds entrance money, and Weston had just filed one of his many bankruptcy petitions, listing $6500 worth of liabilities. The general feeling was that Weston was afraid of O’Leary, who had entered. Because of its international character, the race received columns of space on the front pages of both British and American newspapers. O’Leary was not given much of a chance. He was a heel-and-toe man among runners, and he was the only American in a field of 17 hostile Englishmen. It was, therefore, a victory comparable to Yorktown when Sir John Astley stopped the race two hours before its scheduled end, and declared O’Leary the winner. He had walked 520 miles in 140 hours, and he was far ahead of his nearest rival. The American press was ecstatic over O’Leary’s victory, and some newspapers regarded it as the greatest triumph of republicanism since the French Revolution. To Harper’s Weekly, it was a clear indication of the immediate decline and probable fall of the British Empire. “With this triumph,” Harper’s wrote, gravely, “the effeteness of monarchical institutions becomes more evident to many minds.”

The conditions of the Astley Belt required a title defense within three months of any challenge. The gauntlet was immediately flung down, in America, by John Hughes, an immigrant Irishman who had begun his walking career by following the hounds on foot. Hughes was alternately called “The Tipperary Irishman,” “The Greenhorn,” and “The Lepper.” Although he later became a great pedestrian, he was then no match for Dan O’Leary, who beat him by 93 miles. This was the first six-day match held in New York and, despite the onesidedness of the contest, the attendance was surprisingly large. Immediately afterwards, O’Leary was again challenged, this time by Charley Rowell of Cambridge, England, a protege of Sir John Astley. Weston did not enter this race, either, which was held at Gilmore’s Garden in New York, March 10, 1879. Besides Rowell, who was a runner, the contestants were C.A. Harriman, an enormous and ungainly young man from Maine, and “Honest John” Ennis of Chicago. Harriman had won the American 36-hour walking title the year before. His distance, a mere 160 miles for that time, was not considered exceptional, but he had excited mild curiosity by walking the first hundred miles without a stop. Ennis had just finished walking four hundred miles at Buffalo, and before that had been a run-of-the-mill six-day competitor. O’Leary was both the betting and the popular favorite. He had supplanted Weston in the public eye. “The general opinion is that O’Leary is going to do something big,” The Times noted, before the race. At any rate, the Astley Belt match at Gilmore’s Garden was, without a doubt, the high-water mark of American pedestrianism.


Gilmore’s Garden was the new name for Barnum’s Hippodrome; before that it had been the Union Railroad Station, serving the New York and Harlem Railroads. When the railroad moved out, the place became a site for athletic events and animal shows. It was the largest American arena of the day, and the most important. It occupied the entire block between Madison and Fourth Avenues and 26th and 27th Streets. Even the track for the championship race there was bigger and better than any other track. It was sawdust packed so tightly that it had the resiliency of cork. And the huts along the side of the track, used by the pedestrians for their meals and rest periods, were furnished with unaccustomed splendor. The race was scheduled to start at one o’clock in the morning, and the doors to Gilmore’s Garden were opened at ten that evening. The general admission was 50 cents. By midnight, the arena was packed with ten thousand paid admissions, and the police ordered the doors locked and no further tickets sold. There were still thousands of people outside, clamoring to get in. When news of what was happening reached the crowd, they made a headlong charge at the Madison Avenue entrance. They battered down the outer doors and were going to work on the inner doors, when a squad of a dozen policemen charged them from inside and beat them back with their nightsticks. The carnage was frightful. The police did not stop until they had cleared all of Madison Avenue between 26th and 27th Streets. To accomplish this, they clubbed everyone in sight. At least 70 people were carried off to hospitals; it was one of the worst riots since the war. The next day, The Times commented that perhaps the police had been a little overzealous, but they agreed with the official statement that if the mob had not been beaten back, they would not only have burst into the arena and stopped the match, but would also have torn down the whole front of the building.

Inside the Garden, all was serene. The audience was a dignified and even celebrated one, including many figures of the stage and music hall and the British minister, Sir Edward Thornton. A band played the latest tunes, and a bar underneath the stands did a steady business. The four contestants presented a pretty picture as they lined up for the start of the race. O’Leary was on the rail, dressed conservatively in white shirt and green tights. Ennis was next, wearing white tights, blue trunks and a white undershirt. Rowell wore lavender tights and a blue and white striped shirt that made him look, as The Times pointed out, like a little zebra. None of these three was over five feet eight. Harriman, on the other hand, was well over six feet, and he cut a dazzling figure in white tights and shirt, purple trunks, a purple ribbon over his shoulder and a diamond pin in his shirt front. O’Leary was the oldest at 33, while Rowell, at 26, was the youngest. At a word from the starter, they stepped off at a brisk walk, O’Leary in the lead. Then Rowell broke into a trot and finished the first mile well ahead. His time was nine minutes and 25 seconds. O’Leary was a minute behind.

All through that night and well into the next day, the crowds in the arena watched the race and the crowds outside listened for the results. Bulletin boards with the mile by mile progress decorated the city. By one o’clock the following morning, at the end of the first day’s walk, there were still more than five thousand people in the Garden. Whenever someone left, the police would regulate the new arrivals. It was still too early to determine the outcome of the race, but Rowell was first and O’Leary, to everyone’s surprise, was last. Rowell had done 110 miles in the first 24 hours, having rested only two hours during that period. Harriman had done a hundred miles, Ennis 95, and O’Leary a disappointing 93. Something was wrong with O’Leary, but no one knew what it was. His walking style, which had always been admired for its grace, was awkward and somehow disjointed. He also made more frequent stops at his hut than the other walkers. Being the champion, O’Leary had a three-room house, whereas the others had single rooms. One reason O’Leary needed more space was for the many bouquets of flowers, baskets of fruit, and magnums of champagne he always received. None of O’Leary’s rests seemed to do any good and he fell steadily behind. The rumor began to spread that he was hopelessly out of condition and his trainers had begged him not to enter at all, but O’Leary was not the man to let down his friends. Another story was that he had bet against himself and was throwing the race. This last report inspired several fist fights among the spectators. Rowell also added to the champion’s discomfort by constantly dogging his footsteps. He would circle the track at a run, then slow up and walk directly behind O’Leary for several laps. O’Leary was unable to shake him. This maneuver was considered rather unsporting by the O’Leary sympathizers, some of whom attempted a descent upon the track to dissuade Rowell by force. The police were as active as the contestants. By the middle of the second day, O’Leary was fading fast, and the rumor spread that he had been poisoned. The betting odds had changed drastically. Rowell was now the favorite at two to one. The odds on O’Leary were a hundred to 70, and there were few takers.

The second night saw only a couple of thousand people still in the Garden, but daylight had the place filled again. Senator Blaine of Maine came with a basket of flowers for his constituent, but Harriman was resting at the time and could not appear for the ceremony. The senator said he would return. Speculators outside the Garden were doing a thriving business at 60 and even 75 cents a ticket. O’Leary was now considered virtually out of the race. The truth about his indisposition had become known. He had not been poisoned; he was drunk. His frequent trips to his house had been directed not toward food or rest but toward the champagne bottles. After each visit, it became increasingly difficult to get O’Leary back on the track at all. Once, after downing two bumpers of champagne before his trainers could stop him, O’Leary flatly refused to resume walking. He said he preferred drinking. He was finally thrown bodily out upon the track, but it was obvious, as The Times pointed out, that Dan O’Leary was a broken man. His backers threatened to withdraw their support if he did not come to his senses, and for a while O’Leary consented to take a little solid nourishment. But it was too late. The spirit was unwilling and the flesh too weak. O’Leary’s friends not only gave up any chance of his winning, but even despaired that he would clock the 450 miles required to get a share of the gate money.

Rowell, on the other hand, was traveling like a machine. At the end of 48 hours, he had clocked 197 miles. Harriman was a close second, while Ennis, who had been sick to his stomach from the start, was only a trifle ahead of O’Leary. Outside, it had begun to rain, but the crowds still filled Madison Avenue. The two principal bulletin boards, at the juncture of Broadway and Fifth Avenues and at Broadway and 33rd Street, attracted such crowds that a special detail of police had to be assigned there. Bulletins were also displayed in saloons, and a man could keep abreast of the race by an outlay of only five cents for a schooner of beer and a sandwich. Suddenly, in the middle of the third day, O’Leary came to life. He passed Ennis and crept up on Harriman. Rowell, who had been sleeping at the time, was awakened by his trainers and dashed out on the track to meet the challenge. The crowd went wild, and when the news of O’Leary’s resurgence became known outside the arena, the sound of cheering echoed throughout the city like thunder. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, O’Leary’s spurt collapsed. At three o’clock in the afternoon of the third day, he retired to his house and issued a statement that he was giving up. He had not been poisoned, he said, and he was not under the influence of any intoxicating beverage. He was just too ill to continue.

The news of O’Leary’s withdrawal almost completely overshadowed another disaster that occurred in the Garden that same day. Part of the gallery had collapsed, showering several hundred people down onto the heads of several hundred more beneath. No one was killed, but nine people were seriously hurt. The attitude of spectators and press alike toward this calamity was largely one of irritation. The places of those removed were instantly filled by eager petitioners from outside. The crush was still so great that the admission price had been raised to a dollar, but this exorbitant sum deterred no one. With O’Leary gone, Harriman became the people’s choice. He was only a dozen miles behind Rowell and he seemed the best bet to keep the crown in America. Harriman was not exactly graceful, being tall and excessively rawboned; but he had an appealingly mournful look, gorgeous purple pants, and he was a Yankee. The crowd began to root him home. Senator Blaine returned with his flowers, but Harriman had just retired and could not be disturbed. The senator gave a statement to reporters and left, saying he would be back. Harriman’s popularity lasted until the fourth day, when he began to lose ground. The crowd switched to Ennis, who was an American citizen, even though Irish-born. With the rise in price, the character of the crowd had become even more respectable. Any disorder was attributed to those elements that had entered at the start of the race and had never left. On the fifth day, Ennis passed Harriman, who was obviously begining to suffer. Only electric shocks and judicious doses of milk punch and brandy kept him going. Both Rowell and Ennis had promised that if Harriman failed to make his 450 miles, and they succeeded, they would make up his $500 entrance money between them. This gesture aroused a great demonstration, and Rowell was no longer abused just for being an Englishman. The interest aroused by Ennis’ unexpected showing kept the Garden filled and, except for the small hours of the morning, there were always at least five thousand people in the arena. For the last day, the celebrities turned out in full force and included the British ambassador, a delegation of congressmen, and Gen. Chester A. Arthur, who later became president. Senator Blaine showed up again with his flowers and caught Harriman just as he was going down for the third time. In a moving speech that Harriman was too far gone to pay much attention to, the Senator paid tribute to his country, his native state, the people in his native state, and Harriman in particular. He then draped a garland of flowers around Harriman’s neck. Harriman still had about ten miles to go for his gate money, and Rowell and Ennis both helped him make it. After finishing his 450th mile, Harriman collapsed and was carried off the track. Rowell and Ennis then settled down for their final twelve hours. The crowds were now at their peak. Traffic was entirely stopped within five blocks of the arena. Both Rowell and Ennis were in obvious pain, but they kept up an excellent pace, alternating a walk with a trot and even a run. Ennis was doing his best, but Rowell was also doing his best. At the end of the six days, the Englishman had done an even five hundred miles. Ennis had done 475. Rowell received $25,000 as his share of the gate, and Ennis took home $15,000. Harriman got $10,000. And the Astley Belt returned to England.

No other walking event in American ever again attracted that kind of attention, although six-day races continued to be popular for some time. The day of the straight heel-and-tper was over. “No walker will ever again win a six-day race from a good runner,” O’Leary said after dropping out, and no walker ever did. Rowell lost the belt to Weston that same year but won it back three months later. After that, the runners took over and, by 1880, the record distance for six days was 623 miles. But as transportation quickened, so did public taste. The emphasis shifted from endurance to sheer speed, and by the end of the century the general athletic championships did not include pedestrianism. Weston and O’Leary, however, continued long-distance walking almost until they died. In 1907, the 63-year-old O’Leary walked one mile at the beginning of each hour for a thousand consecutive hours. He was attended by doctors from this country and Europe, and he won $5000 from various medical societies for his feat. Two years later, at the age of 72, Weston tried to walk four thousand miles from New York to San Francisco in a hundred days. The following year, he walked from Los Angeles to New York. The records do not show whether or not he carried passengers.


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