Friday, March 14, 2014

Happy 175th Birthday, Edward Payson Weston

Edward Payson Weston sets off from the plaza in front of 
the College of the City of New York at noon on 
June 2, 1913, on a walk to Minneapolis. 
Courtesy of Library of Congress 
On this day (March 15) in 1839, Edward Payson Weston was born in Providence, Rhode Island. Weston would grow up to be the most famous professional pedestrian in the United States. In 1867, he won a $10,000 wager by walking the 1,200 miles from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in less than thirty days (excluding Sundays; Weston never walked “competitively” on the Sabbath).

in 1870 he began touring the country, performing walking exhibitions in roller-skating rinks. It was certainly more comfortable than walking outside in the elements. It was lucrative too. He charged up to fifty cents for the pleasure of watching him circumambulate for hours on makeshift dirt tracks—and thousands of people gladly paid. 

He usually walked against time, such as attempting to cover one hundred miles in twenty-four hours. To relieve the tedium, Weston often hired a band to entertain the audience, with Weston himself occasionally playing a cornet while he walked. Weston understood intuitively that the event was about entertainment as much as it was about athletics.

At a roller rink in Manhattan in 1870, Weston attempted to walk one hundred miles in less than twenty-two hours to win a $2,500 wager. He succeeded with twenty minutes to spare. A crowd of five thousand squeezed into the rink to cheer him on for the final miles.

For more than fifty years, Weston staged all manner of walking exhibitions. In the autumn of 1922, he walked the 495 miles from Buffalo to New York City in twenty-nine “walking days” (again no Sabbaths), averaging more than seventeen miles a day. Not bad for an eighty-three-year-old.

In 1927, Weston was hit by a car while crossing a street in Manhattan. He was left crippled and would never walk again. On this day in 1929, Weston turned ninety. Confined to a wheelchair, he declared it “the bitterest day of my life.” 

Two months later he died.

(Read more about Edward Payson Weston and the peculiar history of competitive walking in my new book, Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport.)