Edward Payson Weston lost a bet with a friend on the outcome of the 1860 election. Weston thought Stephen Douglas would best Lincoln as he had in the 1858 Illinois U.S. Senate race. Under the terms of the wager, Weston would have to walk from the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston to the Capitol in Washington in 10 days to attend Lincoln's inauguration, a distance of 478 miles, which is the equivalent of 18 marathons. He lost a bet and became a national hero. The New York Times caught wind of the story. Its coverage launched the career of America's star athlete of 19th century. Lincoln shook hands with the 21-year-old walker after Weston arrived at the inaugural ball.
After the long walk, he went to work as a writer for the New York Sun. He also wrote and self-published a book on his 10 day walk, which proved to be good publicity for the sport that he had by accident imported from England. Within a decade of Weston's walk on Washington, walking -- pedestrianism -- became the national pastime as spectators paid to see six-day races at Madison Square Garden and other venues. However, betting fueled the interest in these long walks.
Born on March 15, 1839 in Providence, Rhode Island, to a teacher and a writer, Weston joined the circus at an early age, traveling with a circus until he was struck by lightning. While recuperating, the circus fired him. He then sold books door-to-door. Fame was fleeting.
But he liked to walk, and his popularity encouraged him to walk professionally. In 1867, George P. Goodwin made a $10,000 wager with T.F. Wilcox on whether Weston could walk 1,200 miles from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in 30 days. They agreed to pay him $1,000 plus a bonus of $2,000 miles if he were able to walk 100 miles in one day, just under the length of four marathons. On his 10th try, he made it. Weston beat the deadline by a few hours, however there was tragedy. Along the way, four horses died pulling the wagon of the judges who made sure he walked the whole distance. Along the way he dined with former President Millard Fillmore and future President Grover Cleveland in Buffalo.
He became America's best, holding records for covering the most distance in the shortest time. Fake Westons began popping up.
Weston was short of stature and slight of build, but he was dapper and walked in an exaggerated style, dressing as a gentleman and carrying a cane. Athleticism alone never sells a sport. One writer compared him to Muhammad Ali because of Weston's flair for self-promotion.
While he set records for walking in exhibitions from city to city, the real money was in races held in arenas. Like early stock car racers, walkers did laps along a dirt track (easier on the feet). The rules were simple: whoever walked the longest distance in six days won. The races began on Monday and continued until the finale on Saturday. Because of blue laws, no racing was held on the Sabbath.
The sport was not as clean cut as modern minds may assume. Despite being a fierce advocate for temperance, Weston admitted in 1876 that he chewed coca leafs during his competitive walks. Cocaine was legal then, but frowned upon.
His chief rival was Dan O'Leary, who walked straight backed. His main appeal was his working class, Irish-American background. By the end of the decade, O'Leary was the American champ as Weston competed and toured England frequently. In America, the sport was integrated, as Frank Hart of Haiti entered a six-day race on April 10, 1880, winning the O'Leary Belt by walking a record 550 miles over six days. That is better than three marathons a day. O'Leary backed Hart financially. Hart even got a product endorsement from a cigarette company. Hart's nickname was Black Dan.
Attendance at these events was incredible. In the 1878-1879 season, Sir John Astley, sponsored five international races for lucrative prize money and a championship gold and silver belt inscribed with the words “Long Distance Champion of the World.” The showdown at Madison Square Garden made Astley a small fortune as O'Leary, the U.S. champion, and Americans John Ennis and Charles Harriman, walked against Charles Rowell of England.
More than 100,000 people crammed into the original Madison Square Garden over the six days from March 9-15, 1879. The crowd collapsed a balcony, and yet people kept paying 50 cents for a ticket -- $1 on the final day. Spectators expectorated on rivals and Rowell -- who led the race by a large margin from Day One -- became a target of much abuse. After an assailant attacked Rowell on the track, Ennis announced to the crowd, “I want you to understand that if this man is injured, I will leave the track and not walk another mile.” The two then walked a lap together amid much cheering. As the winner, Rowell received $20,000, Ennis received $11,800, and Harriman $8,200. O'Leary received nothing having dropped out of the race. The real money was in the gambling. As Rowell left the arena a draped in an American flag, Weston told him he would meet him in London for the next leg of the tournament in June. Rowell accepted the challenge,but later stepped on a nail, which left him as a spectator as Weston walked away the winner in a romp of 550 miles -- 50 miles longer than Rowell's walk in New York.
Weston's victory was a surprise. Bettors set his odds at 40-1. At 40, he seemed past prime. Other walkers had learned to walk in the straights and run in the curves. In London, Weston staged a comeback, as after eschewing running in the curves for years, he showed a fresh mastery of the tactic.
But in the final showdown, again at Madison Square Garden, Rowell won the belt over O'Leary, Hart of Haiti, a German and a Canadian.
However Weston was the showman. He loved the limelight and befriended P.T. Barnum, Gambling scandals of races fixed and bicycle racing soon ended pedestrianism's reign as the most popular sport in America, relegating it to irrelevancy, but Weston continued to walk until he was 88. That was when tragedy and a taxi struck him in 1927, rendering him unable to walk. He died two years later at age 90 -- or 40 years longer than the life expectancy at his birth in 1839.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.