Strange as it sounds, during the 1870s and 1880s, America’s most popular spectator sport wasn’t baseball, boxing, or horseracing—it was competitive walking. Inside sold-out arenas, competitors walked around dirt tracks almost nonstop for six straight days (never on Sunday), risking their health and sanity to see who could walk the farthest—500 miles, then 520 miles, and 565 miles! These walking matches were as talked about as the weather, the details reported from coast to coast.
This long-forgotten sport, known as pedestrianism, spawned America’s first celebrity athletes and opened doors for immigrants, African Americans, and women. The top pedestrians earned a fortune in prize money and endorsement deals. But along with the excitement came the inevitable scandals, charges of doping—coca leaves!—and insider gambling. It even spawned a riot in 1879 when too many fans showed up at New York’s Gilmore’s Garden, later renamed Madison Square Garden, and were denied entry to a widely publicized showdown.
Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport chronicles competitive walking’s peculiar appeal and popularity, its rapid demise, and its enduring influence, and how pedestrianism marked the beginning of modern spectator sports in the United States.
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When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport
By Matthew Algeo
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Matthew Algeo
All rights reserved.
WHISKEY IN HIS BOOTS or HE'S THE MAN
It all began with a wager. One day in the autumn of 1860, two friends were enjoying a meal together when the conversation turned to the upcoming presidential election. One of the friends, a door-to-door bookseller named Edward Payson Weston, believed Abraham Lincoln would lose the election. The other, George Eddy, was convinced Lincoln would win. So they made a bet.
The stakes were unusual: whoever lost the bet would have to walk from the State House in Boston to the Capitol in Washington, a distance of some 478 miles, in ten consecutive days, arriving in time to witness the inaugural ceremony on the following March 4.
It was a lark, really — just banter between friends. "I do not suppose that either of us at that time had the remotest idea of ever attempting such a task," Weston later recalled. Eddy, for his part, later confessed that, if Lincoln had lost, he would "most decidedly have preferred to get excused."
But after Lincoln's victory, Weston decided to see if he was up to the task. As a test, he walked from Hartford to New Haven, Connecticut, on New Year's Day 1861, stopping at houses to distribute book catalogs along the way. He covered the distance of 36 miles in 10 hours and 40 minutes, including an hour-long break for dinner. "I did not feel the effects of the walk at all," Weston wrote. The next day he walked back to Hartford, handing out more catalogs as he went. He made it in 11 hours and 30 minutes. "After this," Weston wrote, "I thought I could walk from Boston to Washington without injury to myself."
Weston wasn't an especially swift walker. He was less than five feet eight inches tall, and his stride, once measured at thirty-three inches, was not exceptionally long (the average is about thirty-one). He typically covered between three and four miles per hour, and at his fastest a little more than six. (The average human walking speed is about three miles per hour. The current world record for the men's 20-kilometer walk is 1 hour, 17 minutes, and 16 seconds, a pace of 9.65 miles per hour, though, as we shall see, race-walkers don't always keep one foot on the ground when they compete.)
But Edward Payson Weston was blessed with almost superhuman stamina.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, on March 15, 1839, Weston was just ten years old when his father abandoned the family to join the California gold rush in the spring of 1849. Later that year, young Weston himself left home to work as a vendor for a traveling musical group called the Hutchinson Family Singers.
Formed in the early 1840s by four of the thirteen children of Jesse and Mary Hutchinson, a farming couple from Milford, New Hampshire, the troupe would eventually grow to comprise all the siblings: eleven brothers and two sisters. At first the Hutchin-sons sang traditional tunes, hoary standards extolling the virtues of patriotism and rural life. "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" was a favorite.
But around 1843, the Hutchinson Family Singers began doing something revolutionary: they started writing and performing their own original compositions. And these were not bland, sentimental songs. Many of them addressed the most pressing social issues of the day. The Hutchinsons sang songs advocating abolition and women's suffrage. These were America's first protest songs. It was as if the Partridge Family had morphed into Peter, Paul and Mary.
Singing about slavery in four-part harmony was controversial, of course, but even in antebellum America, controversy did not preclude commercial success. The Hutchinsons toured the United States and Britain extensively and to great acclaim throughout the 1840s and 1850s. They were paid up to $1,000 per performance, which, even divided thirteen ways, was good money at the time. They spawned many imitators, but none could match their success, much less their social impact. They are forgotten today, but the Hutchinson Family Singers were as influential to their generation as Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan would be to theirs a century later.
When ten-year-old Eddie Weston hit the road with the troupe in 1849, the Hutchinson Family Singers were at the peak of their popularity. The lad traveled with the family for a year, selling candies and souvenirs at their performances. After that, he moved in with Jesse Hutchinson Jr., who was the group's main songwriter and its manager. Weston lived with Hutchinson for about two years, attending school in Boston and working in a local theater. Thereafter he went to school only intermittently.
The young Edward Payson Weston learned quite a bit about show business during his spell with the Hutchinsons, and he would evince a flair for the theatrical for the rest of his life.
In 1852, Weston, now thirteen, returned home to Providence, where he worked variously as a newsboy on a railroad and a steamship, a clerk for a local merchant, and a jeweler's apprentice. In the spring of 1856, he once again left home for a job in showbusiness: he joined a traveling circus. Weston was a fairly accomplished musician — he played the drums and cornet — so he probably performed in the circus band. In any event, his tenure under the big top was soon curtailed by an injury — Weston later claimed he was struck by lightning — and by the end of that year, Weston, just seventeen, embarked on a career in "the book business," as he called it.
Over the next few years he bounced around, from New York City to Hartford to Boston to Worcester, Massachusetts, selling books door-to-door and dabbling — always unsuccessfully — in get-rich-quick schemes. During this period he also worked briefly as an errand boy for James Gordon Bennett Sr., the legendary publisher of the New York Herald.
One day in February 1859, Weston accidentally sent a package from the newspaper to the wrong address. An hour later he realized his mistake and immediately went after the wagon with the wayward parcel. Zigzagging through the teeming streets of Manhattan, Weston ran from the Herald offices near the corner of Fulton and Nassau and didn't stop until he finally caught up with the wagon at Seventieth and Broadway, a distance of more than five miles. "I was so much exhausted," Weston recalled, "that I could not stand for some moments."
It was his first inkling that Weston possessed what he called "great locomotive powers." It was also a rare instance of Weston running, an exercise he professed to detest. "Walking is according to nature in his view," a newspaper would later say of Weston, "but he leaves running to animals differently constituted." When he returned to the Herald with the package, Bennett was so impressed that he gave Weston a raise on the spot.
By the autumn of 1860, when he made the bet with his friend George Eddy, Weston was twenty-one, handsome, and rail thin, with long black hair and piercing dark eyes. He was a dandy, a dapper dresser who draped himself in capes and was rarely seen without a gaudy walking stick. And he was a natural showman, unselfconscious and unencumbered by self-doubt. He would have made a good actor. In fact, he resembled John Wilkes Booth, the dashing thespian whose final act would end the Lincoln presidency.
Having discovered his "abilities as a pedestrian," Weston began making arrangements for his walk to Washington. He carefully plotted his course, which would take him from Boston into western Massachusetts, then south through Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland before finally arriving at the Capitol. He would depart on February 22 — Washington's Birthday — and, by his reckoning, would arrive in Washington late on the morning of March 4 — just in time to see Lincoln take the oath on the East Portico at noon.
But his itinerary left little margin for error. Weston would have to walk nearly fifty miles a day for ten straight days in the middle of winter on roads that were often barely passable in the best of circumstances. Even the slightest setback would jeopardize his chances of making it on time.
For eighty dollars he hired a driver with a horse and a small carriage to accompany him. A friend named Charles Foster agreed to ride along for support.
Then, as Weston recalled, "I bethought myself to devise some means to defray my expenses." He lined up sponsors, a trick he probably learned from the Hutchinsons, but something that was virtually unheard of at the time for what was essentially an endurance contest. He went to New York and convinced the Grover & Baker Sewing Machine Company to pay him one hundred dollars to hand out promotional literature on his walk. A pharmacy, a photographic studio, and a haberdashery also agreed to pay him to hand out circulars. The Rubber Clothing Company furnished him with a waterproof suit. Time and again, Edward Weston would pioneer strategies that have become commonplace in contemporary American sports.
Always eager for publicity, Weston also mailed copies of his itinerary to newspapers along his intended route.
Late on the cold, gray morning of Friday, February 22, 1861, Weston arrived at the yellow-domed State House on Beacon Hill to commence his long walk. He was dressed in blue wool tights and a white blouse covered with a heavy blue coat with brass buttons. On his feet he wore sturdy boots a few sizes larger than his usual size. A large crowd was waiting to see him off. It seemed an auspicious beginning, but things did not get off to a good start.
Weston had a habit of falling into debt, and when two of his creditors in Boston caught wind of his intended jaunt, they sent constables to the State House to arrest him. One creditor was owed eighty dollars, the other ten dollars. Just minutes before noon, the time he was scheduled to leave, he was hauled off to a police station. Weston was a smooth talker — he was a traveling salesman, after all — and he somehow managed to talk himself out of this embarrassing predicament. He was released after promising to pay his debts as soon as he returned to Boston.
At twelve minutes before one o'clock, Weston finally started his journey. He was already forty-eight minutes behind schedule. Several hundred people accompanied him from the State House, down Beacon Street, followed by the carriage that contained his supplies, his friend Foster, and the fliers he was to hand out along the way. A few friends stayed with him until he reached Newton, five miles down the road, less than an hour later.
At 5:45 that evening he stopped at an inn in Framingham for supper. Afterward he went to the parlor to rest but found "a number of ladies" were waiting there to see him. One of them asked if she could send a kiss to the president. Weston said he "had no objection to receiving the kiss," but "could not promise to deliver it to the president." The lady kissed him anyway, as did the others. Feeling "highly flattered," he resumed his journey — but only after distributing some of his sponsors' handouts, as he would do at every stop along the way.
On he walked into the night, through snow and ice, pausing occasionally for a glass of milk or water from the carriage. Clouds obscured a nearly full moon. His way was lit only by a dim kerosene lamp. Around midnight he arrived on the outskirts of Worcester, about forty miles west of Boston, where he was greeted by yet another constable. It turned out Weston had an unpaid debt in Worcester, as well.
The previous summer, Weston had lived in a Worcester boarding house owned by a man named E. T. Balcom. "While there," Weston later confessed, "I managed my affairs very injudiciously, and it may be extravagantly, consequently, I was somewhat involved in debt." In fact, he'd skipped town owing the landlord nearly fifty dollars in rent. "I promised to pay him part of the amount the following November," Weston wrote, "but was unable to keep my promise."
The constable escorted Weston to Balcom's boardinghouse, where he was detained for nearly two hours until "two gentlemen, almost entire strangers" agreed to sign a promissory note for him. Weston then went to a friend's house to rest for about an hourbefore setting out again. It was 3:15 in the morning. Less than a day into his journey he was already nearly three hours behind schedule.
Trudging through snow a foot deep, Weston became deeply discouraged. At one point he directed his team to return to Worcester before abruptly changing his mind. "He seemed to think if he went back at all it would be a failure," Weston later wrote, employing two of his favorite literary devices, italics and the third person, "and if he went ahead it would kill him, yet said that he would sooner die on the road than back down." By the time he reached East Brookfield, Massachusetts, about fifteen miles west of Worcester, it was 8:40 AM.
The proprietor of a hotel in East Brookfield prepared a hearty breakfast for Weston and offered him a bed. Weston slept for two hours and upon arising declared himself "much refreshed." At noon he hit the road again, reaching Palmer, Massachusetts, at 6:20 that evening. Upon reaching Palmer, Weston was surprised to find a large crowd had been waiting for hours in the cold to see him arrive. Word of his undertaking had, to put it in modern terms, gone viral. Telegraph operators along the route were sharing reports on Weston's progress, and newspapers were publishing updates.
On he trudged, south through Connecticut — Hartford, Wallingford, New Haven, Norwalk, Greenwich. In the last town, a six-year-old boy presented him with a gold medal depicting Lincoln, unmindful, apparently, that Weston had bet on the president-elect to lose. In each town the crowds greeting him grew larger.
Walking from Boston to Washington was no picnic in 1861. Roadmaps were unreliable, signage was practically nonexistent, and the state of America's roads at the time was deplorable. Yet Weston kept going, through cold and wind, rain and snow, sleeping just three or four hours a night in roadside inns or the homes of sympathetic strangers. Along the way, "people would come to the roadside and offer him refreshments, and not unfrequently he would partake of milk, also molasses and water." Dogs were his constant nemesis. Weston was deathly afraid of the animals and was often forced to take long detours to avoid them. Shortly after leaving Hartford, he sprained his left ankle trying to fend off a mutt that was chasing him.
At 9:45 on the morning of Wednesday, February 27, five days after leaving Boston, Weston walked across the Harlem Bridge and entered Manhattan. His first stop was the offices of Grover & Baker, the sewing machine company that was his main sponsor. There he curled up on a table and took a nap. At five o'clock that evening he rode a ferry across the Hudson to Jersey City, New Jersey — his only respite from bipedal locomotion since setting out.
By now Weston's walk was attracting considerable attention up and down the East Coast, and when he arrived in Newark the crowd that greeted him was so large and unruly that several policemen had to be called out to maintain order.
Weston captivated the country because the nation empathized with him. America was a walking nation in 1861. The overwhelming majority of people traveled primarily, if not exclusively, by foot. Only the wealthy could afford a carriage — or even a horse; a good one would set you back more than one hundred dollars, at a time when the typical laborer was lucky to earn a dollar a day. More than 80 percent of the population lived in rural areas, where public transportation was practically nonexistent. To put it in contemporary terms, the 1 percent sat when they traveled; the other 99 percent walked. Virtually everyone had, like Weston, trudged many miles over dreadful roads in harsh conditions, whether to attend services at a distant church or to fetch a doctor in the middle of the night.
In 2010, a study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that American adults, on average, take 5,117 steps each day. That works out to about 2.5 miles — and that's counting every single step, from the first one out of bed in the morning to the last one before climbing back in at night. To maintain good health, doctors generally recommend people walk at least ten thousand steps a day — about five miles. A person who takes fewer than five thousand steps a day is usually considered sedentary. The study's authors concluded that "low levels of ambulatory physical activity are contributing to the high prevalence of adult obesity in the United States." America is no longer a walking nation.
It's impossible to say just how many steps the average American took each day in the nineteenth century, but it's safe to assume it was many more than 5,117. For example, the historian Steven Mintz has cited an 1886 survey that found a typical housewife in North Carolina walked nearly a half mile a day — just carrying water.
Excerpted from Pedestrianism by Matthew Algeo. Copyright © 2014 Matthew Algeo. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 Whiskey in His Boots or He's the Man 1
2 Walking Fever OR Perhaps a Foreigner Could Do It 17
3 The Expo OR Not an Absorbingly Entrancing Sport 31
4 Coca or Nature Should Not Be Outraged 45
5 Rematch or Not Silly Little Female Cigarettes Either 67
6 The Astley Belt or More Talked About Than Constantinople 85
7 Pedestriennes or Pioneers 105
8 Terrible Blows or A Crackling Was Heard 119
9 Comeback or A Game Old Ped 155
10 Black Dan or A Dark Horse 165
11 Anti-Pedestrianism OR Bodily Exercise Profiteth Little 185
12 The National Pastime OR King of Harts 197
13 Hippodroming or The Suspicion Was Very General 213
14 Bicycles and Baseball or Too Free Use of Stimulants 219
Epilogue: The Last Pedestrians or Now about Everybody Rides 229