There used to be a sport called “pedestrianism” and it kind of invented modern sports. It got replaced in the 1880s by the rise of other sports, such as bicycle racing and baseball. Both those sports out-competed pedestrianism, because they offered more game elements, such as any game elements whatsoever. What did pedestrianism offer? Walking. Competitive walking. Competitive walking for baffling stretches of time (usually six days). There were also little tents by the track where the guys could sleep, a little bit. Usually less than four hours per night. And…that’s pedestrianism for you! Walking. Walking, in the most deranged ways ever recorded.
I’m a big sports fan. I’m an even bigger fan of sports as a source of entertainment. That is their point! I feel many fans forget this, and get lost in the weeds of “my team is bad” or “my team keeps losing” or “my team’s manager fell asleep, on camera, in the middle of a game’s first inning.” Wow. Yikes! Imagine being a lifelong fan of that sports team. Such as me. But I’m actually laughing about that situation, happily.
Anyway, tears wiped, carrying onward: sports are supposed to be fun! That’s their point. So don’t sweat one team’s wins and losses. Sweat the bizarre endless ways the entire sport of baseball is cursed/haunted/bonkers, i.e. fun. Or follow the wisdom of the great John Hodgman, and make rediscovering defunct hockey team logos your sport. Or appreciate the brilliance of professional wrestling: a staged drama, with real physical stakes, where fans pick a favorite combatant and yell about them in (ideally) whichever way that makes them happiest. Because it’s sports! It’s whatever. Sure, yes, the wrestling belt winners are made up. So is money. So is everything in this charade we call life! And the topic of this column (pedestrianism) is a bounteous font of that perfect sports-as-entertainment experience. Pedestrianism is both a fascinating piece of history, and a rich menu of Sports Heroes to get hyped about. So read on, Dear Hotdogger, and CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER WHO IS A WALKER. Only one of these guys can be your mental favorite – and every one of these guys is long dead.
Pedestrianism was a sport from the 1860s to the early 1880s. I hope I did not under-emphasize how bizarre it was. Modern endurance athletes run 26.2 miles for part of a day, and then (with a few nutty exceptions) they stop. Pedestrians walked hundreds and hundreds of miles, with almost no breaks, for close to a week. They did this over and over again. And it all happened because of one guy. A guy who became a mega-famous athlete, with his own cigarette sponsorship, despite looking like a walrus granted humanity by a Disney genie.
Edward Payson Weston loved walking long distances. This is partly because he was a New Yorker, but mostly because it was his kink. I am guessing at the kink part. That is also one of the most educated guesses I have ever guessed. According to the BBC, Weston gained national fame by losing a bet on the results of the 1860 Presidential election. The bet: Weston and his friend each picked a candidate. The stakes: the loser had to walk from New York City to Washington DC to view the Presidential inauguration. In this 1860 election bet, Weston selected unpopular niche hate-monster John C. Breckenridge, who finished 3rd in the popular vote, because he ran in a vote-splitting way that everyone knew was doomed nationally. Abraham Lincoln was not the obvious future winner. But Breckenridge was an obvious future loser. Breckenridge was the guy you pick if you’re losing this bet on purpose, for what I argue was Weston’s walking-based dom/sub kink.
Weston followed through on this hot-and-heavy bet. He spent 10 entire days hiking to our nation’s capital, trailed by national newspaper coverage. Then Weston scheduled competitive walks (!) against other noted walkers (?). The rest was sports history. Weston’s endurance stunts became “pedestrianism”, a competitive sport where guys walked for several days in a row. Initially Weston competed against himself, renting out roller rinks, and charging people 10 cents per ticket to watch him walk 100 miles within 24 hours. In today’s world, that entertainment sales pitch would result in no ticket sales, and one dead guy. Back then, that was sports. The dawn of pro sports. Finally: people had a thing to observe! And they wanted more. Weston gave it to them by competing against other people. He and other pedestrians competed in events like “The Great Six Day Race”, which was guys walking in a circle for six days, with track-side tents for brief naps in moments of weakness. Weston became one of the stars of that horrible competition, earning nicknames like “The Wily Wobbler” (due to his gait) and “Weston The Pedestrian” (due to words sort of rhyming). Weston was also a showboat. According to wonderful writer Matthew Algeo, whose book you should buy, Weston competed wearing a cape and a riding crop. He also walked while playing the cornet. That rules. He stacked the cardiovascular task of walking with the cardiovascular mega-task of mini-trumpet. Why did he do that? I have two theories. Either Weston’s kink evolved to require toys, or he made a heel turn into cornet-based opponent-taunting. Algeo’s theory is the latter.
Speaking of heel turns, Weston pretty much invented the sporting use of performance-enhancing drugs. In 1876, Weston got busted for chewing coca leaves. According to a Google search I am about to regret, coca leaves are the raw ingredient of cocaine. I’m glad I confirmed that. I am excited to say the phrase “one nine hundred hot dog” to an NYPD strike team and their battering ram. Anyway: you should make Weston your favorite pedestrian if you want a bad boy. A guy who says hell yeah, let’s bash. Also Weston did not technically break any rules. Coca leaves were not illegal in the freewheeling 1870s. So he got to keep on competing, instead of weeping in the halls of Congress or whatever. Weston also invented the modern athlete maneuver of saying a doctor accidentally prescribed the PEDs, and he was simply too good of a patient. Whatever Weston’s reasons, he made huge money as a famous top pedestrian, and died pretty much broke because he blew all that money. He also left behind a thriving sport where athletes had trading cards and sponsorships and similar fame. A sport that benefited from Weston’s rivalry with…
Daniel O’Leary was a man of his time. A grim, joyless time. Because as much as we all enjoy a wacky fun guy like Weston, with a brass instrument and an alleged-by-me fetish, we’re talking about a sport from the late 1800s. A terrible era. An era when men woke up at dawn, walked to a factory, and put in a long day of contracting cancer and losing fingers in machines. Then they went home, consumed one gallon of liquor and one loaf of bread, and passed out before waking to do it all over again. Nightmare toil, plus mustaches.
Daniel O’Leary’s vibe is that exact hell-vibe. According to Matthew Algeo, O’Leary was an Irish immigrant (which was sad, then) from Chicago (which was on fire, then). “He would walk ramrod straight, upright with his arms moving like pistons.” That’s not fun…except that it’s mega-fun as a foil to fun rivals. O’Leary provided the “stern juggernaut” vibe we all want from one of out of two athletes. O’Leary did not provide that in the harmless, fictional, Scripts Of Rockys III And IV way. He provided it as his actual personality. He’s like if Kane’s origin story was a newspaper article and police report. Daniel O’Leary was a grim force of pedestrianism. He broke Weston’s early records, then battled him head-to-head (foot to foot?), creating a (White) Ali/Frazier slugfest that supercharged the sport. O’Leary also combined perfect heel-toe strides with the novel tactic of clutching corn on the cobs in each hand. He did not consider this fun, and said it was for sweat absorption. He was all about that kind of anti-charm. O’Leary was almost the real version of that The Onion headline where calm basketball great Tim Duncan gets a shoe deal with Florsheim. Daniel O’Leary’s real life huge sponsorship deal came from a brand of salt.
Going back to that WWE metaphor: imagine if Kane was real, and stern, and inhuman…and also founded the WCW. That describes Daniel O’Leary. After several victories in the first major pedestrianism circuit, O’Leary did the humongous business task of creating his own competing circuit, named after himself. And hey, great news: both circuits had giant shiny championship belts. Precisely like pro wrestling. Where this story is going, [Doc Brown voice] we don’t need metaphors. Here is “The Astley Belt”, won by O’Leary multiple times:
And here’s “The O’Leary Belt”, spread on a table next to one of its winners:
Also hey who’s that guy posing with it? And is he Black? Yes! He is a Black Pedestrian named–
Frank Hart is humongously cool. Might be the easiest pedestrian to make your guy. Rad as hell. For one thing, he earned the nickname “Black Dan”. He earned this by being so good at walking, he reminded people of Daniel O’Leary – and so good at walking, they called him “Black” instead of any of America’s other 1870s words for Black people.
In the run of this column, I’ve glossed over *exactly* how much money was at stake here. How much money could competitive walkers earn? Well here’s a great example: beyond the national product endorsements these guys racked up, and the giant golden championship belts they seized, pedestrian athletes scored huge prize money. In 1880, pedestrian Frank “Black Dan” Hart won a race at Madison Square Garden by walking 565 miles in a six day period. He won $21,567. Here are three rad things about that sum:
🌭: In today’s dollars, he won about half a million USD.
🌭: Despite the humongous racism of 1880 United States society, Frank Hart got to collect those winnings.
🌭: A big chunk of Hart’s $21.5k winnings included a massive sports bet. He bet thousands of dollars on himself, to win. Which was legal! And that legality is kind of better than sports now. Every modern sport bans and shames players for making positive bets on themselves. Or for betting the exact way fans are encouraged to bet. Frank Hart made sports gambling part of his bread and butter, in a way that heightened the drama and embiggened his bank account.
So yes, Frank Hart rules. Frank Hart was also a ring name. He was a Haitian immigrant, born Fred Hichborn, who decided “Frank Hart” was more marketable. Three generations of Canadian wrestlers affirm this to be accurate. So does the English language. “Hart” is almost the word “heart”, with a vowel trimmed out for greater speed and power. That makes the last name “Hart” brave-sounding and cool. Fred (Frank (Black Dan) Hart) Hichborn was both those things, racking up winnings and cigarette sponsorships and national fame despite being an outspoken Black American in the 1870s.
Modern American pro sports is chock-full of racism. Out-in-the-open racism. Colin Kaepernick got screwed in public, Black NFL veterans got “race-normed” out of settlement money, Atlanta won last year’s World Series with their crowds doing a hate-speech arm salute. Our leagues are a space where non-white players aren’t welcome to do anything but play. Frank Hart played 142 years ago. He faced at least some of this. For example, during one of his bids to win O’Leary’s Belt, somebody near the track handed Hart some soda water. Hart drank it. According to historian Kelly Collins, the soda water was poisoned. Poisoned! It contained a substance that makes you sick. Or more likely, dead. In the 1870s, *food* made you dead more often than not. Let alone poison. The thing Hart consumed. And then overcame, to win that race. Because Hart’s response to poison was, in Twitter-speak, “I would simply not die of the poison”. Anyway it’s unclear whether that poisoning was racially motivated. It’s also clear Black athletes continue to face constant racially-motivated obstacles. So if there’s anything I’m excited to root for, it’s Frank Hart. Because here are public statements from before the big race where he won half a million modern dollars:
Hell yeah! Frank Hart said that, and then did that. He beat fifteen white challengers (plus two non-whites), out-walking all comers in front of a massive crowd at Madison Square Garden. A stadium so famous, most non-sports fans have still heard of it. More about that stadium later. First here are…
Folks: I’ve offered you three glorious pedestrians to get into. Also, I appreciate that some of you want somebody more niche. So you can be interesting, and unusual, and so forth. Great. May I suggest:
Charles Rowell – Mr. Rowell’s famous walk was a “trot”. You can see him doing it on the far left of that illustrated group of athletes.
Also perhaps You My Dear Hotdogger are seeking a “hot” athlete to root for. Great news: in his time, Charles Rowell was criticized for his “too fine” physique, and its suggestion that he had done “too much training.” Too much! Cool it with the practicing and fitness, Charles! Who do you think you are, a professional athlete? What a funny time. I want to build a time machine, go back to then, and tell Rowell’s critics about Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s whole deal. It’ll induce a group cardiac event.
Charles Harriman – he’s the second guy in that lineup above. Allegedly his stride was “mechanical”. He was also still doing week-long walks with cash prizes for challengers at age 57. What a robot. I love it. I assume he is still alive today, and still walking, bonking face-first into a wall like a forgotten wind-up toy.
Michael Byrne – in 1880, Michael Byrne won a pedestrianism race against a horse. A horse! He out-walked a horse! Final score: 578 miles to 563. That’s Michael Byrne for you. I don’t have any further information about him. I do have more information about…
Betsy Baker – and sorry folks, this is not the much-belated introduction of a female human competitor. Far as I know there were no female humans in this sport. Betsy Baker was the name of the horse defeated by Michael Byrne. Also I feel she defeated him in the sport of Having Good Sense-ism. Apparently Betsy refused to keep doing pedestrianism on competition day 5 out of 6. Also these guys tried to re-motivate her by feeding her champagne. Which is strange, but less strange than you’d think, because this sport had a key role for…
Champagne producers – As recently as the 1870s (the peak of this sport), champagne was considered a sports drink. Fuel for the greatest athletes. Sort of like that scene in Chariots Of Fire where a rich British guy puts champagne on his track hurdles. In pedestrianism’s case, the champagne was far sloppier. According to Matthew Algeo, pedestrianism’s athletes and trainers (yes they had trainers) considered champagne to be a stimulant (wrong). Pedestrians drank it mid-race (cheers!) to “give themselves some kind of advantage. The problem was a lot of these guys would drink it by the bottle.” Wow! I hope nobody impressionable saw star athletes chug champagne as a health beverage. That’d be terrible. Anyway, go ahead fingers, type the very next chunk of this blog, oh no I see the first few letters, crap crap crap–
Small impressionable children – crap. Algeo says kids loved this nightmare sport where drunk guys walked in a circle for a week. Kids also spent their pennies on pedestrian trading cards, which were the first sports trading cards (!) and were almost always advertisements for tobacco. On top of that, Algeo says “children would imitate the strides of their favourite pedestrians.” Which makes me grateful my favorite childhood athlete was a guy who made gravity seem fake, and not a guy competitively failing a field sobriety test. That hyperlink is way better. It’s Michael Jordan highlights. Which reminds me: I haven’t detailed the last superstar of this sport. Because New York City is a character in this tale! In particular…
I made this hyperlinked bonus show of my good podcast about Madison Square Garden, because it turns out M.S.G. might be the strangest stadium in modern history. For example, today it is the home of the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers and the Foul Helicopter Menace Billy Joel. It is also called “Madison Square Garden” even though it’s about a one mile drive from the also-famous location “Madison Square”.
Whoops! Huh? Why? It turns out several stadiums have been named “Madison Square Garden”. The first was near the park. It was this 10,000-seat outdoor sports stadium:
Built in 1879, it hosted major pedestrianism competitions. Those competitions looked like the “Where’s Waldo” nonsense pictured above. A bajillion people bought tickets. So pedestrianism filled and sustained the first version of the most famous stadium in the United States. Pedestrianism built Madison Square Garden! From there, a couple things happened. Bicycle racing replaced pedestrianism as the primary MSG draw, and replaced pedestrianism as the main racing sport in general. That’s partly because, uh, yikes, whoops, minor detail here: pedestrianism was basically unwatchable? Here’s Matthew Algeo bringing that up late in the game:
Oops! Pedestrianism was a spectator sport that revolted spectators. So it basically vanished by the end of 1881. Bicycle racing became an even bigger draw for MSG, to the point where they installed a velodrome track, and invented a cycling relay race that got so popular, it is called “the madison” to this day. That whole change stuns me! A world-famous stadium began with a totally different purpose! It’s like learning Yankee Stadium started out as a cockfighting pit, before somebody flattened and widened the pit for stickball.
Anyway here is the other change that happened: Madison Square Garden #1 got so popular, and made so much money, rich guys decided to build a better one. MSG #2 was such a lavish indoor stadium, it got funded by JP Morgan *and* Andrew Carnegie *and* the Astor family. It was a whole complex, featuring a theater and a bunch of apartments and a restaurant, in a deluxe 32-story tower (the 2nd tallest building in NYC at the time). Most thrillingly, it’s probably haunted to this day. MSG #2 got designed by architect and Rich Guy Name-Haver Stanford White. Mister White’s hobbies included being rich, living in a suite in MSG2’s tower, and “madisoning” his penis into other guys’ wives. One night, in 1906, that last thing caught up to him. White was dining in Mega-MSG’s restaurant. One of White’s paramours’ husbands walked into the restaurant and shot him dead. In front of everybody! Twenty years later they demolished the whole building and built a new one many blocks away. For…reasons. There’s a golden tower there now.
That’s Madison Square Garden for you: a plutocratic sports-dome with a murder past and a pedestrianist foundation. So thank you, pedestrianism, for sports. It’s a fun thing I goof off about. And thank you for making New York City weird to this very day.
Seanbaby and Brockway started 1900HOTDOG as a way to grift government processed meat subsidies, and along the way accidentally assembled the best comedy team in novelty phone number history. This week all articles are free in honor of the fantastic columnists that make this site a place to be treasured and feared in equal measure.