Thursday, July 10, 2014

Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport


One of the historical oddities I came across in writing Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero was the brief American sporting fad of “pedestrianism” that emerged after the Civil War and reached its height in the late 1870s as Sullivan was beginning his rise to the heavyweight title. Both men and women competed in long-distance walking match races and crazy feats (or "feets" in this case) of endurance, such as the wildly popular six-day races staged in arenas around the country that would start a minute after midnight on Monday morning and end at midnight the following Saturday, giving the competitors’ legs a rest on the seventh day. Top participants in these “go as you please” races could cover nearly 500 miles before they were through.

I love quirky American history, so I’ve been drawn to the books penned by Matthew Algeo on a road trip taken by Harry and Bess Truman in their post-White House days and to the conglomeration of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles—the Steagles—during World War II. Given my brush with the subject, I was eager to read his latest: Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport.

Algeo traces the sport’s rising popularity from a simple barroom bet by New England’s Edward Payson Weston on the election of 1860. Wagering that Abraham Lincoln would lose, he pledged to walk from Boston to Washington, D.C., in time to see the inauguration. When Honest Abe won, Weston got his walking shoes out. Weston proved to be a PR genius, lining up corporate sponsors for his 10-day walk in return for handing out promotional literature for their products (take that, NASCAR) and mailing his itinerary to papers along his route. He arrived a few hours too late for the inauguration but generated enormous press coverage.

Weston continued to do long-distance walks for a wager, such as an 1867 walk from Maine to Chicago that he completed in 26 days to win $10,000. Soon other publicity-hungry walkers followed in Weston’s footsteps and pushed the limits of sleep deprivation. In 1878, for instance, Ada Anderson walked 2,700 quarter miles in 2,700 consecutive quarter hours—more than 28 days—around a Brooklyn music hall. She even spent her down time playing a piano and singing songs to entertain the crowd. (Algeo’s book informs us that competitors had to be polyphasic sleepers, ones who can be survive on short bursts of sleep during the day. Count me out of that group.) The sport reached its apex as pedestrians began to set up match races with other walkers where they would compete toe-to-toe around arenas such as New York’s Madison Square Garden.

As happens every four years during the World Cup, America in recent weeks been once again put on the sporting couch to analyze why it fails to embrace soccer as fervently as the rest of the world. A lack of action that is contrary to the American psyche is often fingered as the cause. So why did Americans during the Gilded Age pay to watch men walk around a track for hours on end, an activity that the Chicago Tribune admitted was “at best not an absorbingly entrancing sport.” Gambling played a role, but part of it was definitely the potential for rubbernecking as competitors pushed the boundaries of safety (think NASCAR again). Algeo writes, “The staggering pedestrians were a source of great amusement, and a six-day race was not an athletic event but a freak show.” He adds, “Sleep-deprived, malnourished, dehydrated, and out of their minds, many pedestrians pushed themselves to the very edge of physical and mental endurance.” In 1879 a walker named Peter Van Ness attempted to walk 2,000 half miles in 2,000 half hours. After his 1,718th half mile, he began to act like a madman and grabbed a revolver from his belongings and shot his trainer and sprayed bullets into the crowd before collapsing into a coma. Although wounded, Van Ness’s trainer ordered “morphine and hot drop” to revive his charge who regained his feet and kept walking. Algeo also points to a Gilded Age “entertainment deficit” and scant opportunities for recreation. “The public was so desperate for entertainment, especially affordable entertainment, that watching half-dead men stagger in circles for days on end was, if not absorbingly entrancing, at least an unobjectionable way to kill time," he write.

It was nice to travel back to the Gilded Age once again in Algeo’s book. Some of the same Strong Boy characters play a cameo role in Pedestrianism, such as “Clubber” Williams, the tough New York cop who always stood ringside during Sullivan’s Madison Square Garden matches and also worked security for the arena's walking races, even using his famous billy club on spectators during an Astley Belt Race in 1879 after a near riot ensued when he shut down ticket sales.

Algeo pointed to the development of bicycling and the rise of musical theater as the death knell of pedestrianism in America. I might be biased, but I would suggest that Sullivan played a major role as well. His rise to the heavyweight title in 1882 coincides with the dip in pedestrianism’s popularity. By becoming a superstar of the highest magnitude and by insisting on fighting legally with gloves under the Marquis of Queensberry Rules, he brought boxing to the masses. By participating in these legally sanctioned fights, Sullivan became the biggest star William Vanderbilt ever had to fill up Madison Square Garden. Sullivan could bang out the Garden in one night, a quick shot of cash in contrast to the week-long pedestrian races.

I really enjoyed this book, although I wished it would have had footnotes. I know most readers don’t care, but I’m always interested in seeing sources in case I’m curious to explore more on a topic. Algeo also can turn a phrase, such as when he noted that for the brutal use of his billy club that Williams never received more than a reprimand—a mere “slap on the wrist for a club to the skull.” A great summer read for history geeks and sports fans alike.

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