Edward Payson Weston: The Great Pedestrian

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Absolutely Absorbing Bathroom Reader.

Over the years, sports have changed. Back in the 1860s, before the NBA, NFL, or NHL, you might have been cheering for your favorite pedestrian! Here’s the story of the Babe Ruth of professional walking.


America’s number one pedestrian, Edward Payson Weston, walked his way to fame and fortune in the late 1860s and infected the sports world with a “walking fever” that raged for half a century. Largely because of Weston, walking contests for a time rivaled prize fighting and horse racing as an early big-money pro sport.

Foot racing had been common at country fairs, and distance walkers were setting records before he took up the sport, but Weston’s endurance feats attracted huge crowds of fans, filled the pages of sporting journals, and turned pedestrianism into an international craze.


Weston first gained attention at the age of 22 when he carried out a bet to walk 478 miles from Boston to Washington in ten consecutive days, to attend Lincoln’s inauguration. He started from Boston’s State House on February 22, 1861, followed by a swarm of fans riding in buggies, and walked the first five miles in 47 minutes before setting down to a steadier pace.

Crowds cheered him town by town, and reporters covered every mile of his marathon. A snowstorm slowed him some, and he slipped and fell several times, but plodded on through New England and got as far as New York on the morning of February 27. Most of the time he ate as he walked, although he did manage to sit down to one solid meal each day. Sleep was in catnaps by the roadside or in farmhouse kitchens, and he began each new day walking at midnight.

By the time he reached Philadelphia, Weston was ahead of schedule, so he bedded down for a day in a hotel room. He then walked all night from Philadelphia to Baltimore, had breakfast, and started out in pouring rain to hike the final lap over muddy roads. He made it to Washington at 5PM on March 4, 1861, too late to see Lincoln sworn in as president, but still in time to enjoy dancing at the Inaugural Ball that night.


According to the terms of the wager, Weston collected only a bag of peanuts for his long walk. But he also collected reams of publicity and decided to turn professional. He got his first big fee as a pro, and also created an international sensation, by walking from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in 1867 for a prize of $10,000. To win he had to cover the distance of more than 1,200 miles within a month, not including Sundays, which were eliminated to prevent a public outcry against sporting on the Sabbath.

Nattily dressed in a short jacket, tight-fitting knee breaches, colored belt, silk derby, buff gloves, and red-topped brogans, Weston took off from Maine on October 29 and covered the distance in 26 walking days, with enough time to spare to not only attend church services but also to make speeches to the crowds of admirers along the way. Weston carried a walking stick to chase away hostile dogs, and at one point had to use his fists to beat off a man who attacked him in an attempt to halt the contest. He received threatening letters from gamblers who had bet against him, two attempts were made to poison his food, and he was warned that the only way he would reach Chicago would be “in a coffin.” But he arrived the morning of Thanksgiving Day, his feet hardly swollen, and was still fit enough to address a cheering crowd at the Crosby Opera House that evening on the benefits of walking as outdoor exercise.


For most of his long life, Weston crisscrossed the country’s roads on endurance walks against time for fat wagers and big prizes. He also competed against hundreds of other pros in walking contests at race courses and indoor tracks, where he drew such crowds that he was often paid as much as three-fourths of the gate receipts. Some walkers beat him on level tracks in six-day matches, but few equaled his remarkable feats on the open roads.

He staged an endurance contest walking through snow in New England in 1869, covering 1,058 miles in 30 days. At St. Louis in 1871, he walked part of 200 miles backwards and still covered the distance in 41 hours. In 1874 in Newark, New Jersey, he footed 500 miles in just under six days after doing the first 115 miles of it in 24 hours.

Weston went to Europe in 1876 to cash in on his international fame and spent triumphal and profitable years there in crowd-drawing exhibitions, mainly in England. In London in 1879 he won the Astley Belt, emblematic of world supremacy, by defeating British champion “Blower” Brown in a six-day “go as you please” match that allowed both jogging and heel-and-toe walking. He covered 550 miles in 141 hours, 44 minutes.


At the age of 68 in 1907, after constant years of grueling competition, Weston repeated the walk he made 40 years before, from Portland, Maine, to Chicago. He walked 1,345 miles in 24 days, 19 hours to beat his own early record by some 29 hours. He celebrated his 70th birthday two years later with the longest endurance walk of his life, across the United States from New York to San Francisco.

Weston started from New York on March 15, 1909, hopeful that he would cross the country by “a rather devious route” that would let him cover more than 4,000 miles in 100 days. By then there was a motorcar instead of a horse-drawn carriage to transport the judges and supplies. But Weston disdainfully rejected most of the “modern” comforts offered him along the way and also held onto his own ideas as to what was a proper diet.

He began his days at 3:30 each morning with a breakfast of oatmeal and milk, two slices of buttered toast, three poached eggs, three cups of coffee, a bowl of strawberries, two oranges, and a half dozen griddle cakes. On the road during the day he consumed 18 eggs, each beaten in a pint of milk with a tablespoon of sugar. “If I want a piece of pie while I’m on a walk, I’ll eat it, or griddle cakes, or pudding,” he said. “The stomachs that cannot digest ordinary food are those that are spoiled by high living or no exercise.”


Weston was still at it in 1914 when, at the age of 74, he tramped 1,546 miles from New York to Minneapolis in 51 days. Even after that, he walked in some contests and exhibitions, but devoted more of his time to encouraging others to walk for health, competition, and “the joy of discovering the open road,” warning that motorcars were making people more indolent than ever.

Ironically, the first great pedestrian was hit by a car while he was walking on a street in Brooklyn, New York, in 1927. He suffered injuries that kept him in a wheelchair most of the last two years of his life, and he died in 1929 at the age of 90.


*Daniel O’Leary was an Irish-born Chicagoan who did his first endurance walking as a door-to-door salesman. Inspired by Weston, O’Leary became his greatest rival. O’Leary’s greatest performance was in 1907 in Cincinnati, where at the age of 63 he walked a mile at the beginning of each hour for 1,000 consecutive hours. During the 42 days that it took to complete the test, O’Leary’s longest period of uninterrupted sleep was 50 minutes.

* In 1910 John Ennis crossed the country from New York to San Francisco. Ennis added a showmanly flair by taking time for exhibition swims along the way. After a plunge into the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island amusement park, Ennis started walking on May 23, 1910. He swam in Lake Erie and later swam in the Mississippi on a day he had walked 45 miles. As he made his way westward over the roads, he swam seven other rivers and lakes before reaching the Pacific at San Francisco on August 24. His total cross-country walking time was 80 days, five hours.

* A group known as the Kansas City Hikers made pedestrianism a family affair in 1913. Mr. and Mrs. Morris Paul teamed up with Mr. and Mrs. Gus Kuhn and their five-year-old daughter, Ruth, to walk from Kansas City, Missouri, to San Francisco. They took their time, stopping for as long as five days at some places, and spent a total of 227 days in walking 2,384 miles.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Absolutely Absorbing Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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