ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
And if I said Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Cy Young, would you know what I was talking about? That's right, they were all great, old time baseball players. Here is a slightly tougher one: Bobby Jones, Harry Vardon, Gene Sarazen. Bobby Jones should be the giveaway on that one. They were all great golfers in their day.
And now that you are warmed up, here is the real challenge: Frank Hart, Dan O'Leary, Edward Payson Weston. Well, I'd never heard of those people until reading about them in Matthew Algeo's book, "Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport." Hart, O'Leary, and Weston were champion walkers, American sports heroes of the late 19th Century. Matthew Algeo, welcome to the program.
MATTHEW ALGEO: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: And when was the golden age of American - not just walking but American pedestrianism?
ALGEO: The 1870s and 1880s. And what happened was in the decades after the Civil War, there was mass urbanization in the United States. And there wasn't much for them to do in their free time. So, competitive walking matches filled a void for people. It became quite popular, quite quickly.
SIEGEL: You're saying this is a measure of how boring life was at the time that going to watch some guys walk was considered a huge entertainment.
ALGEO: Well, I think there are a lot of people who would say professional football is boring.
ALGEO: But people still watch it. One thing to remember, these six-day walking matches -and the rules were pretty simple, they would just map out a dirt track on the floor of an arena. Many of the matches took place at the first Madison Square Garden in New York and the lap was about 1/7 or 1/8 of a mile. And you could only walk six days because public amusements were prohibited on Sundays. And so beginning right after midnight on Sunday night, Monday morning, the walkers would set off and they would just keep walking right up until midnight the following Saturday.
But people didn't go just to watch the people walk. It was a real spectacle. There were brass bands playing songs. There were vendors selling pickled eggs and roasted chestnuts. There were a lot of celebrities who attended the matches. James Blaine, the senator from Maine, was a fan. So was future president Chester Arthur. Tom Thumb attended many matches. And so people went to see celebrities and see the spectacle, not just to watch the people walk.
SIEGEL: And in the six-day race, the winner would be the person who had walked the farthest distance during that time. So that could be 500 miles.
ALGEO: Yeah, 500. By the end, these guys were walking 600 miles in six days. I mean, they were on the track almost continuously. They'd have little cots set up inside the track where they would nap. But generally, for 21 hours a day, they were in motion, walking around the track.
SIEGEL: Matthew Algeo, let's just stipulate here that the publication dated April 1st on your book is just sheer coincidence. This is not something you've made up. The men I mentioned earlier, Edward Payson Weston, for example, this is a real person. Who was he?
ALGEO: He was one of the most famous pedestrians of the 19th century. He was a bookseller, a door-to-door bookseller from Providence, Rhode Island. And what happened was in 1860, he made a bet with a friend on the presidential election. And Weston bet that Lincoln would lose. And, of course, he lost the bet. And the terms of the bet were that the loser had to walk from Boston to Washington in 10 days to see the inauguration. And Weston did this. And it generated much publicity.
People were fascinated by the idea that somebody would walk from Boston to Washington in 10 days in the dead of winter on these horrible roads. And all along the way, large crowds came out to see him. And after the war, Weston, still famous, decided to capitalize on his fame by taking the act indoors. He would go to a roller rink, say, and attempt to walk 100 miles in 24 hours. And people would pay 10 cents just to come and watch him walk in circles for a day.
SIEGEL: Dan O'Leary.
ALGEO: Dan O'Leary. He was the first great rival to Edward Payson Weston. I call them the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier of their generation. Weston was a flashy guy. He wore ruffled shirts and sashes and capes and carried a cane. And Dan O'Leary was more...
SIEGEL: And sometimes played cornet as he was walking. Yeah, yeah.
ALGEO: He did. He really understood that it was about entertainment as much as it was about an athletic event. Dan O'Leary, on the other hand, was kind of a taciturn guy. He was an Irish immigrant from Chicago. And he would walk ramrod straight upright with his arms moving like pistons.
SIEGEL: And as an Irish immigrant, you assign him a role not that different from what Jackie Robinson did in baseball a century later.
ALGEO: Yeah. He was really one of the first famous Irish-American athletes. And he was from Chicago, which, of course, had a large Irish population. There was almost kind of an internationalist rivalry between the two of them - Weston representing old England and O'Leary representing new America, the kind of pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps America. A guy that was self-made, came to the States with nothing and made the equivalent of $1 million dollars today engaging in these walking matches.
SIEGEL: And Frank Hart, another pedestrian star, was African-American.
ALGEO: Yeah. He was actually an immigrant from Haiti who was a grocery store clerk in Boston and, on a whim, entered a six-day race in Boston and performed so well that he immediately moved up to the major leagues, so to speak, taking part in some of the biggest six-day races in New York. His picture was in the papers, on the front page of papers from coast to coast. The Negro Wonder is what many of the papers called him. It was always mentioned that he was black. But it was an opportunity for him and for other African-Americans at the time to take part in what was largely a white sport.
SIEGEL: Now, like any self-respecting professional sport in America, pedestrianism had a gambling scandal, a fixing scandal.
ALGEO: Yeah. Gambling was a big part of the allure, no doubt about it. You could bet on who was the first pedestrian to drop out of the race, who would be the first pedestrian to, say, achieve 100 miles in a race. There were so many different ways that you could gamble on the walking matches. And so, the pedestrians themselves were often susceptible to attractive offers from gamblers to fix races.
SIEGEL: Edward Payson Weston was actually dogged by, at one point, allegations of taking performance-enhancing drugs.
ALGEO: Yes. He was found to be chewing coca leaves while he walked in a race in 1876. This wasn't strictly illegal, but it was considered unsportsmanlike and outright cheating at the worst. He admitted that he used coca leaves in a race, but he said it was under the advice of his doctor.
SIEGEL: Speaking of the advice of doctors, throughout your book, in many races you described the refreshment that the walkers, the pedestrians would take. The most popular one was champagne.
ALGEO: Yeah. Champagne was considered a stimulant. And a lot of trainers - these guys had trainers - advised their pedestrians to drink a lot of champagne during the race. They thought that this would give them some kind of advantage. The problem was that a lot of these guys would drink it by the bottle. That definitely was not a stimulant, to say the least.
SIEGEL: What do you figure put an end to pedestrianism as a major spectator sport in America?
ALGEO: Well, a couple of things, really. In 1885, an Englishman named John Starley invented what is called the safety bicycle. Before the safety bicycle, bicycles were the penny farthings, with the ginormous front wheel and the tiny little back wheel. And the penny farthings weren't very nimble or fast. But the safety bicycle, which is the bicycle we know today, these were much more nimble, much faster.
And they were much more interesting to watch, especially at the end when the competitors were completely sleep-deprived. There would be spectacular crashes and, of course, the crowd enjoyed that a lot.
SIEGEL: Yes. I'm sure that was a major attraction. Matthew Algeo's book is called "Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport." Thanks for talking with us.
ALGEO: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.