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When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport

by Matthew Algeo

Hardcover, 262 pages, Independent Pub Group, List Price: $24.95 |


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When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport
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Revealing competitive walking as the most popular American spectator sport in the late nineteenth century, this history of pedestrianism explores how the sport bridged cultural boundaries and spawned the nation's first celebrity athletes.

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In The 1870s And '80s, Being A Pedestrian Was Anything But

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Pedestrianism

Billed as "The Great Walking Match for the Championship of the World," the 500-mile race between Weston and O'Leary in 1875 attracted such intense interest that the two pedestrians agreed to hold the match in the largest venue possible: Chicago's mammoth Interstate Exposition Building.

The race was scheduled to begin just after midnight on Monday, November 15, 1875. As the day drew closer, hype began to build. "This approaching trial of physical endurance has excited a considerable interest," the Chicago Tribune noted on the eve of the match, "and its result will be watched with interest by thousands."

The rules for the race were codified in articles of agreement approved by Weston and O'Leary. A team of judges and scorekeepers would be appointed from a list of prominent Chicagoans acceptable to both pedestrians. Admission to the event would be fifty cents. Weston and O'Leary would each be assigned a room in the Expo for resting. The first man to walk 500 miles would be declared the winner. Under no circumstances, however, could the race continue beyond midnight the following Saturday night. This was not merely due to Weston's self-imposed ban on Sunday ambulation; at the time, Chicago, like nearly every other city in the United States (and the United Kingdom, for that matter), had so-called blue laws that prohibited "public amusements" on the Christian Sabbath. Six days was as long as any athletic event could last.

The articles of agreement also stipulated that both competitors must go "fair heel and toe": each was required to keep one foot in contact with the ground at all times. Running was explicitly banned. This was an important distinction. At the time, "pedestrianism" was an ambiguous term that applied to any footrace, whether walking or running. But from then on — in the United States at least — the term would define competitive walking matches exclusively.

The truth was, neither Weston nor O'Leary was an especially gifted runner. Their talents lay in endurance rather than speed. But in time, the true definition of pedestrianism — even the definition of walking itself — would generate great controversy in the sport.

Weston arrived in Chicago on November 11, four days before the race. "He travels in style," the Chicago Evening Journal noted, "being attended by two negro servants." He checked into a suite at the Gardner House, a hotel across the street from the Expo. By now Weston was married with three children, but his family did not accompany him. Like his own father, Weston was frequently absent from his family.

Inside the cavernous Expo, two concentric tracks were laid. The inside track measured 1/7 of a mile, the outside track 1/6. The measurements were certified by Chicago's city surveyor. The tracks were made of pressed mulch, more commonly known at the time as tanbark. To a generation of Americans, "the tanbark" would become synonymous with pedestrianism, just as "the gridiron" is synonymous with football today.

The doors to the Expo opened at 11:00 pm on Sunday, November 14, 1875. Despite the late hour, between three hundred and four hundred people came to watch the start of the race in the dim light of the building's hissing gas lamps. At precisely midnight, Weston and O'Leary approached the judges' table. Weston wore a black velvet suit with black boots. A silk sash was draped diagonally across his chest. In his right hand he carried a riding crop.

O'Leary was dressed more conventionally for an athletic event: white tights, a striped tank top, a brown knitted jacket. He wore "light walking shoes," and in each hand he held a pine stick — because, he believed, they "absorb the perspiration and keep the hands from swelling." Throughout his career, O'Leary would habitually clutch something in his hands when he walked: wooden sticks, corn cobs, pieces of ivory. It became an affectation as familiar as Weston's crops and canes.

Shortly after midnight, Chicago mayor Harvey Doolittle Colvin addressed the crowd. Noting that "Mr. Weston comes to Chicago to go into a contest with a citizen of Chicago," Colvin urged those in attendance to "see that he [Weston] has fair play."

It was a measure of the event's magnitude that the mayor had been invited to start the race, though he was a bit bemused by the circumstances.

"It seems out of place to be here," he said, "a little after 12 o'clock at night, to transact any sort of business."

"As we understand it," the mayor continued, "the man who has walked 500 miles, he has nothing further to do; he is safe to take a rest."

Lots had been drawn to determine track position. Weston would walk on the inside track, O'Leary on the outside. They took their places on the starting line in front of the judges' table. The mayor turned to face them.

"Are you ready, Mr. O'Leary?"


"Are you ready, Mr. Weston?"


"One! Two! Three!" shouted the mayor. The crowd roared. The time on the massive clock in the Expo, reporters covering the event carefully noted, was precisely 8 minutes and 19 seconds after midnight.

The week before the match, O'Leary had announced his intention to cover 100 miles in the first 18 hours of the match, a pace of better than 5.5 miles per hour, and faster than anyone had ever walked that distance. He was probably just trying to psych out his opponent. Shortly before the race began, O'Leary confided to a reporter that he had "given up the idea ... and would simply aim to beat Weston."

If it was gamesmanship on O'Leary's part, it worked. Weston became convinced that O'Leary would get "fagged out" before the race ended. Weston's strategy was simple: slow and steady, he believed, would win the race. It would be a tortoise-and-hare affair, with Weston as the tortoise.

From the start, it was clear that O'Leary, seven years younger than Weston, was the faster walker. He immediately shot out into the lead, completing his first mile in 11 minutes and 3 seconds. It took Weston more than a minute longer to complete his own

first mile.

The two pedestrians had gaits that were as different as their attire. According to one observer, O'Leary walked with a "straight form, quick stride, and bent arms," while Weston seemed "rather to drag than throw his feet." O'Leary held his head up and looked straight ahead, while Weston appeared "to carry his head on his breast and to see nothing but the dirt before him."

By Monday evening, the Expo was crowded with spectators. No grandstands had been erected for the event, so the audience pressed close to the tracks, jockeying for position. Some spectators even crossed the tracks to view the action from within the concentric ovals, much to the chagrin of the competitors. "The irresistible attraction which draws people into places where they have no sort of business to be was never better shown than in the gaping faces which calmly stood in the paths of the men," a Chicago Tribune reporter noted. On several occasions police were called in to clear the way for the pedestrians.

From Pedestrianism, by Matthew Algeo. Copyright 2014 by Matthew Algeo. Excerpted with permission from Chicago Review Press.