Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport

In the late 1800s, America’s most popular spectator sport wasn’t baseball, boxing, or horseracing—it was competitive walking. Indeed, when a New York arena overbooked, fans rioted.

Excerpted from Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport by Matthew Algeo. published by Chicago Review Press. Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Algeo Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.




Before the Civil War, spectator sports barely existed in the United States. A diffuse rural population, arduous travel conditions, negligible disposable income, a dearth of time for recreation, and a lack of suitable venues made it difficult to attend, much less organize, athletic events. Besides, frivolities like sports were anathema to the prevailing antebellum ethos. “The American work ethic,” wrote the historian Elliott Gorn, “with its roots in republican producer culture, evangelical Christianity, and new capitalist imperatives of growth and profit, impeded the development of all recreations.” Horse races, foot races, and boat races were staged occasionally, but these events rarely proved profitable or noteworthy.

The only spectator sports that prospered in the years before the war were the blood sports: cockfighting, dogfighting, and bare-knuckle boxing. Not exactly wholesome family entertainment, these violent sports were closely associated with gambling, and they operated on the margins of society.

Boxing—antebellum America’s most popular sport—was universally banned. In New Jersey, aiding, abetting, or participating in the “degrading practice of prize fighting” was punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. In Massachusetts, the penalty was ten years and $5,000. In New York, even spectators were liable to prosecution. As a result, matches were organized surreptitiously. Fights were staged in the back rooms of saloons, in rural areas where jurisdiction was ambiguous, on remote islands— even on barges.

An 1849 bout between Tom Hyer and James “Yankee” Sullivan was scheduled to take place on Pooles Island, a desolate speck in Chesapeake Bay. (Today, Pooles Island is the site of Maryland’s oldest lighthouse, but don’t try to visit; it is strictly off limits to the public. For much of the twentieth century the military used the island as a bombing range, and it is littered with unexploded ordnance.) But on the eve of the match, the Baltimore County sheriff caught wind of the plan and sent a posse to the island to arrest the fighters. Hyer, Sullivan, and their backers narrowly escaped by boat. They decamped to a village on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where a ring was hastily erected using rope from the boat’s rigging. The next day, before at least two hundred excited onlookers, Hyer and Sullivan pummeled each other for fifteen bloody rounds. In the sixteenth, according to one eyewitness, Sullivan “was found to be entirely exhausted… and staggered backward toward the ropes. The fight was done.” Hyer took home the $10,000 purse and was declared the “Champion of America.”

Back in his hometown of Philadelphia, Hyer was feted with an impromptu parade down Chestnut Street, a display that dismayed the local prosecutor, who said the fight had excited “the worst passions of the community.” Hyer was arrested and briefly detained, though authorities back in Maryland declined to press charges.

Another generation would pass before boxing finally emerged from the shadows to win public acceptance.

During the Civil War, the first seeds of modern spectator sports were planted by Union soldiers from New York, who exported their favorite pastime to the rest of the country. Before the war, baseball, which is believed to be descended from a British game called rounders, was popular among “gentlemen” in New York City. The first recorded game took place in 1846 at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. The New York Nine defeated the New York Knickerbockers, 23–1.


This lithograph depicts Union prisoners playing baseball in a Confederate prison camp in Salisbury, North Carolina, in 1863.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

By the 1850s, several teams were based at Elysian Fields. Some of the rules, which were devised by the founder of the Knickerbockers, Alexander Cartwright, differed considerably from today’s game. Batters could choose where they wanted the pitcher to throw the ball. Overhand pitching was not allowed. Runners could not steal bases. Nonetheless, a modern fan watching a game played under Cartwright’s rules would have no trouble recognizing it as baseball.

During the war, troops from New York played baseball at every available opportunity, often with improvised equipment, usually before audiences composed of their fellow soldiers. The game was even played by Union soldiers in Confederate prison camps, exposing countless Southerners to the pastime for the first time.

Military leaders on both sides of the conflict encouraged the game as a way to build morale and improve conditioning. “The parade ground has been a busy place for a week or so past,” Private Alpheris B. Parker of the Tenth Massachusetts wrote in a letter home, “ball-playing having become a mania in camp. Officer and men forget, for a time, the differences in rank and indulge in the invigorating sport with a schoolboy’s ardor.”

By the end of the war, baseball had been transformed from a gentleman’s game into a more democratic enterprise in which talent, not class or rank, conferred status. And, in stark contrast to the blood sports, baseball was well regarded, as it was thought to impart such seemingly traditional American values as teamwork and shared sacrifice.

Yet, despite its newfound popularity, baseball did not immediately emerge as a popular spectator sport after the Civil War. For one thing, it required sprawling outdoor spaces, which were becoming increasingly scarce—and prohibitively expensive—in the rapidly industrializing urban centers. As a team sport, baseball also required a sophisticated organizational structure to oversee the formation and regulation of teams and leagues, as well as scheduling, rule making, and the like. It would take another two decades and the efforts of visionary entrepreneurs before baseball would truly become America’s national pastime.


The Second Industrial Revolution, spurred by Henry Bessemer’s invention of a process for mass-producing steel from molten pig iron, profoundly altered America. As the nation industrialized in the decades after the war, cities grew rapidly, public transportation improved vastly, and many workers now had a little extra money in their pockets and some free time on their hands. Now the time was ripe for the development of spectator sports.

Attitudes were changing too. Between 1836 and 1914, more than thirty million Europeans migrated to the United States, largely from Ireland and Germany. These immigrants not only brought with them a fondness for games, but many also saw sports as a vehicle for upward mobility and expressing ethnic pride. No longer were sports anathema.

Another important development was architectural. Before the war, what the historian Steven A. Riess has described as “enclosed semipublic facilities” were practically nonexistent in the United States. This, of course, made it difficult to stage sporting events for paying customers. But as urban populations exploded after the war, cities found it necessary to construct large buildings to accommodate public events, including everything from political rallies to religious revivals and livestock shows. These venues, often called agricultural halls or exposition buildings, would become America’s first big sports arenas.

Also important to the development of spectator sports, however, was the humble roller-skating rink.

In the winter of 1860–61, a thirty-two-year-old New York businessman named James Leonard Plimpton fell ill. His doctor prescribed ice skating, believing the exercise and fresh air would improve his health. It worked. Plimpton began to feel better, but as winter waned, he needed to find a new regimen. So he invented something he called “guidable parlor skates,” which he patented in 1863. Plimpton’s invention, now recognized as the first “quad skate,” was a roller skate with four small wheels on two axles. The skate also featured a revolutionary pivoting mechanism that allowed users to make turns simply by leaning to one side or the other. These are the familiar skates that would make roller derby possible in the following century.

Roller skating had been around for more than a hundred years, but before Plimpton’s invention, the skates were dangerously unwieldy—imagine a ski with two large wheels attached at each end—so the sport was reserved for daredevils and the foolhardy.


This illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper depicts a “fashionable roller-skating rink” in Washington, DC, in 1880.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

The quad skate was infinitely safer and more maneuverable, and it proved wildly popular; roller skating became one of America’s first postbellum fads. (William Tecumseh Sherman was said to be a fan.)

But this new fad required large flat surfaces, so Plimpton began building roller-skating rinks. The first was in fashionable Newport, Rhode Island, so as to woo the in crowd. His idea was copied, and, almost overnight, roller rinks began popping up in cities and towns across the country.

Thousands Gladly Paid to Watch Weston Walk

Edward Payson Weston instantly recognized the profit potential of the new roller rinks, and in 1870 he began touring the country, performing walking exhibitions in rinks from Goshen, Indiana, to New York City. 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. In some rinks, the tracks were so tiny that it took as many as fifty laps to traverse a single mile. To relieve the tedium, Weston often hired a band to entertain the audience, with Weston himself occasionally playing a cornet while he walked. He wore ruffled shirts, and he always carried a riding crop or a cane, an affectation that would become his trademark. 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. In the same rink the following year, he walked four hundred miles in five days, earning more accolades—and a cool $5,000 in wagers and gate receipts. (More than $100,000 in today’s dollars.)

Much was made of Weston’s peculiar stride. He swung his hips with each step, not unlike a modern racewalker. One reporter wrote that Weston walked with “a splendid sweeping stride that carries him over the road like the wind.” Others, however, were less complimentary, saying his gait was “wobbly.” One observer said Weston’s legs were “put on like two toothpicks stuck in opposite sides of a potato.”


Weston walking at a roller rink in New York City in May 1874. His idiosyncratic stride was sometimes described as “wobbly.”
Courtesy of Library of Congress

Many years later, a New Yorker named Alfred Meyer, who as a boy attended one of Weston’s walks around this time, recalled Weston’s form. “As he strode around the track,” Meyer wrote, “I noticed that Weston accentuated each third step, visibly accelerating his speed by so doing. This method brought the extra effort alternately on the left and right foot, with a respite between, since the acceleration fell on the fourth, seventh and tenth step and so on. He also carried in his hand a little whip with which he occasionally switched his sturdy little legs.”

“To boys of my generation,” Meyer added, “Weston was a hero.”

At a rink in Newark, New Jersey, in December 1874, Weston attempted to walk a mind-boggling five hundred miles in six days—an average of more than eighty-three miles a day. So much money was wagered on the outcome that the mayor of Newark, fearing for Weston’s safety, threatened to call out the National Guard, and one gambler was arrested for attempting to sabotage Weston by pouring a chemical on the track. Weston succeeded with less than half an hour to spare: he completed his 500th mile in 5 days, 23 hours, 34 minutes, and 15 seconds (25 minutes and 45 seconds less than six days).

The New York Times called Weston’s feat “the most remarkable on record,” but the sporting press was mostly unimpressed. At the time, periodicals that specialized in sports were aimed at upper-class readers who enjoyed posh pursuits like yachting and prized amateurism above all else in athletics, and Weston’s crass commercialization rankled them. The Spirit of the Times dismissed Weston as a “humbug” fleecing a gullible public, and the New York Sportsman huffed that “any displays with which Weston is connected will be understood by anybody possessed of sense enough to seek shelter when it rains to be mere mercenary exhibitions, and no tests of real merit.” Weston was accused of inventing bogus records to set. His bona fides as an athlete were questioned, and his hubris clearly rubbed some people the wrong way. “That fellow is a fraud,” the Sportsman concluded.

Nonetheless, Weston’s exploits captivated the masses, and soon the nation was infected with what the papers called “walking fever.” All over America, would-be Edward Payson Westons began walking in circles. Pedestrianism seemed to offer the promise of easy riches, as it appeared to require no unusual talent—only the ability to walk.

In towns large and small, races were held in roller rinks for local pedestrians and itinerant professionals. Hopefuls took out classified ads in newspapers seeking challengers: “I will walk any amateur that works for his daily bread at mechanical or any kind of manual labor six days a week, a twenty-four hour race for a $50 gold medal.”

Companies organized pedestrian teams. The best in New York City’s department store league was said to be Lord & Taylor’s. In Saint Louis, the city’s six major newspapers competed in a four-hour race. The winner was James Boyle of the Globe-Democrat, who completed more than twenty-four miles and took home a “handsome gold watch” for his efforts.

Retailers wasted no time cashing in on the craze. Tiffany peddled a “remarkable” new invention called a pedometer. A cobbler named John Welsher devised a new “walking shoe” with built-in springs. As Walter Bernstein wrote in the Virginia Quarterly Review, “It seemed as though the muscles of the nation were making one final, vast, collective effort before being replaced by the internal combustion machine.”

Celebrities caught the bug. New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr., whose father had inadvertently helped Weston discover his “great locomotive powers” when he retrieved that wayward parcel, became one of pedestrianism’s most ardent advocates. Bennett competed too, winning a 10-mile race against a fellow member of the Union Club named John Whipple.

Even Mark Twain was infected with walking fever. In November 1874 he and a friend attempted to walk the one hundred miles from Hartford to Boston. They gave up after just ten miles and took a train the rest of the way. “There was no intention on our part to excite anybody’s envy or make Mr. Weston feel badly,” Twain told a reporter afterward, “for we were not preparing for a big walk so much as for a delightful walk.”


Dan O’Leary. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Pedestrians seeking fame devised all sorts of gimmicks to attract attention. One walked eight miles under water (presumably with the benefit of a snorkel). Another sought notoriety by walking around Boston Common carrying a beer keg. There were one-legged walking matches and backward-walking matches.

The walking mania also inspired more serious challengers to Edward Payson Weston. Foremost among them was a skinny, mustachioed Irishman named Daniel O’Leary.

Dan O’Leary did not enter the world at a propitious time and place. He was born in 1846, in his family’s thatch-roofed cottage near Clonakilty, a tiny village in County Cork on the southern coast of Ireland. It was the eve of the Great Famine. In the first six years of O’Leary’s life, Ireland was ravaged by a potato blight that decimated the population.

The response of the British government, which ruled the island, was inadequate, to say the least. Sir Charles Trevelyan, the British official overseeing famine relief, believed that, since “the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated.” By 1852, an estimated one million people had died from disease or starvation. Another million had emigrated. Ireland’s population had fallen by as much as 25 percent.

Young Dan O’Leary must have witnessed unimaginable suffering, but his childhood was not devoid of pleasure. He enjoyed traditional Gaelic games like hurling (imagine a cross between baseball and soccer, if you can), and he was an avid rower. But the catastrophic famine had ruined his homeland’s economy, so when he was twenty, O’Leary joined the Celtic exodus and sailed for America.

He landed in New York on April 4, 1866, arriving, like so many immigrants, alone and nearly penniless. He made his way to Chicago, where he found a job in a lumberyard. When winter came, he headed south to Mississippi, where he picked cotton on plantations until the spring of 1868, when he returned to Chicago and, like his future rival Edward Payson Weston, became a door-to-door bookseller.

O’Leary managed to make a decent living selling gilded editions of the Holy Bible and Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary on payment plans to the city’s burgeoning middle class, until his life was turned upside down by another catastrophe: the Great Fire of 1871, which killed hundreds, left thousands homeless, and leveled more than three square miles of Chicago. In a sign of the anti-Irish sentiment that permeated the city at the time, the cause of the conflagration was initially attributed to another O’Leary—an Irish immigrant named Catherine O’Leary, whose cow was said to have started the blaze by knocking over a lantern while she was milking it in a barn. Catherine O’Leary was a scapegoat. Theories abound, but the true cause of the fire remains a mystery. The Chicago City Council formally absolved Mrs. O’Leary of all blame—in 1997.

The Great Fire nearly ruined Dan O’Leary. Customers who owed him hundreds of dollars simply vanished. And, with the city reduced to cinders, the demand for gilt-edged books vanished too. To eke out a living, O’Leary was forced to walk many miles out to the suburbs and back each day. It was wearying, but the exercise would serve him well.

In the fall of 1873, O’Leary was shopping in a large dry goods store on Wabash Avenue when he overheard a small group of men discussing one of Edward Payson Weston’s attempts to walk one hundred miles in twenty-four hours.

“None but a Yankee can place on record such a gigantic performance,” one of the men said.

“Hold on—not so fast,” interjected O’Leary in his brogue, “perhaps a foreigner could do it.”

“He won’t be an Irishman, though,” said another man. “Ireland has sent forth good men,” O’Leary replied.

“Yes, wonderful fellows, indeed; they can accomplish almost anything with their tongues,” another man replied sarcastically. When O’Leary attempted to defend his countrymen, the first man cut him off.

“Bully fellow, hire a hall, and get your name up,” he said, provoking laughter among his companions.

“Yes, one in which to walk rather than talk,” said O’Leary.


This biography of Dan O’Leary was published in 1878.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

Flushed with rage, he stormed out of the store, determined to prove an Irishman’s worth in pedestrianism. Presently, he rented a roller rink on the West Side of Chicago and announced his intention to walk 100 miles in 24 hours. He began the attempt at 8:30 pm on July 14, 1874. His only refreshments were ice water and brandy, the latter of which he much preferred. The heat inside the rink was stifling and the track was rickety, but O’Leary met his goal with forty-three minutes remaining. A month later, he rented the rink again, and this time walked 105 miles in 23 hours and 38 minutes.

Emboldened by these successes, O’Leary challenged Edward Payson Weston to a 250-mile walking match, a challenge that Weston laughed off, telling the Irishman, “Make a good record first and meet me after.”

Infuriated, O’Leary set out to do just that. At a rink in Philadelphia in April 1875, he broke Weston’s twenty-four-hour record of 115 miles by walking 116 miles in 23 hours, 12 minutes, and 53 seconds. “Weston will have to look to his laurels,” said the Philadelphia Times, “for all of a sudden, in the height of his fame, a competitor springs up who bids fair to throw his best feats into the shade. This wonder bears the common enough name of Daniel O’Leary.”

Back at the rink on the West Side of Chicago a month later, O’Leary bested Weston’s most cherished record by walking 500 miles in 5 days, 21 hours, 31 minutes, and 50 seconds (2 hours, 28 minutes, and 10 seconds less than six days). That was more than two hours faster than Weston had walked the same distance in Newark the year before. Over five thousand people crammed into the ramshackle building to witness the close of the historic walk. “He showed signs of fatigue,” one eyewitness reported, “but was by no means exhausted at the close and walked the last hours at the rate of one mile in twelve minutes and thirty-two seconds.”

Afterward, a group of proud Chicagoans presented O’Leary with a gold medal proclaiming him Champion Pedestrian of America. Irish immigrants throughout the country exalted in O’Leary’s achievement. Bad poetry being a staple of the times, O’Leary was commemorated in a poem that soon became popular in Irish neighborhoods in New York:

Attend, you loyal Irishmen, of every rank and station,

I pray draw near and lend an ear here in a distant nation;

With right good will I take my quill, and never shall get


To sing the praise of that noble youth—brave Dan O’Leary.

There was now no doubt that O’Leary had made a good record, and in the summer of 1875, Weston finally agreed to a match. The country’s two most famous pedestrians would meet in a 500-mile race.

Although both men were once booksellers, Weston and O’Leary had little else in common. Weston was a teetotaler, a proud Yankee, and a notorious attention seeker. O’Leary was a hard-drinking Irish immigrant, almost reserved, but not immune to the coarser charms of the Wicked City, as Chicago was then known. (By the end of the century, for reasons still unclear, that bawdy nickname would be replaced by one more benign: the Windy City.)

The first great rivalry in the annals of American sports was born. Weston and O’Leary would become the Frazier and Ali of their age.


Matthew Algeois the author of Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure, The President Is a Sick Man, and Last Team Standing. An award-winning journalist, Algeo has reported from three continents for public radio’s All Things Considered, Marketplace, and Morning Edition.