Pedestrianism is the biggest American sport craze you’ve never heard of. Imagine thousands of rowdy fans, drinking and smoking, packed into Madison Square Garden for days on end. What is this event they are watching and betting on, that’s making headlines in all the newspapers? Men in tights are walking around a track. For six days.
As Mathew Algeo explains in Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport, his well-paced and absorbing new book, long-distance walking races fired up the American public in the decades immediately following the Civil War. The sport began with a simple bet: Edward Payson Weston wagered against Lincoln winning the presidency in 1860 (despite voting for him). When Lincoln won, Weston had to walk from Boston to Washington, D.C. to attend the inauguration ceremony. Weston’s walk “went viral,” in Algeo’s words, electrifying a nation rife with divisions. Crowds met Weston along his route as telegraphs and newspapers reported on his progress from North to South across the Mason Dixon line.
America was a walking nation, Algeo explains, and a working class nation, and pedestrianism united the two. By the time the Irish immigrant Dan O’Leary challenged Edward Weston to a 500-mile walking match in 1875—and won—America found its first spectator sport. Throughout the 1870s, Weston and O’Leary continued to meet up in public spaces—Chicago’s Exposition Building, London’s Agricultural Hall, New York’s Madison Square Garden—to stage these six-day races (avoiding the Sabbath). Taking only brief nap breaks, and refueling with champagne, the men would walk until they had finished 500 miles, or collapsed.
Walking was a sport particularly suited to laborers used to hard work, and challengers quickly emerged to race against Weston and O’Leary, such as Frank Hart, the first black athlete featured on a trading card. Wealthy sponsors backed competitions like the Astley Belt, and thousands of spectators of all classes jammed into crowded halls to watch the men walk, stagger or limp. Predictably, scandals emerged: accusations of doping (with coca leaves) or races that were “fixed” by athletes in cahoots with bookies.
With a storyteller’s voice and a historian’s perspective, Algeo narrates the fascinating birth of American sports culture through the simple act of walking.