"King of the Peds" - book review

King of the Peds by P. S. Marshall

During the late 19th century, there flourished a remarkable mania for walking contests. The sports of baseball and tennis were just being invented, American football had not arrived, and basketball had not been thought of. Yet a public fascination with walking exploits was being fed by newspaper reports from America, England, Australia, and New Zealand.

King of the Peds documents the professional sport of walking between 1860 and 1880. This massive book (752 pages, measuring 8 x 11 x 1.5 inches) cannot be taken lightly, either for its weight or its content. The eye-witness accounts, advertising posters, and illustrations cast a mysterious spell which immerses the reader in another time.

Newspapers reported the progress of 6-day indoor walking contests with colorful detail, such as ladies presenting horseshoes of flowers to gallant pedestrians, or urchins climbing to second-floor windows and reporting to crowds outside the Garden. In one case a competitor's wife sees her husband tiring out, so she mocklingly outpaces him around the track and then drags him home. We get police reports about crowd control and fans breaking down doors to get in. The unheated gas-lit arenas are filled with cigar smoke and live band music.

According to the reports given in King of the Peds, The Great Roman Hippodrome in New York later became Gilmore's Garden, then Madison Avenue Garden and finally Madison Square Garden. Many of the events in London were held in Agricultural Hall.

P.S. Marshall reports the major competitions with the following kinds of information: profiles of the individual competitors, the stakes for entry, the betting lines as the race progresses, the daily (sometimes hourly) jockeying of positions, the lap records, the crowd reaction on conclusion, and the financial accounting, including how the gate receipts were divided among the leaders.

There are 126 reproductions of contemporary illustrations in King of the Peds. Most of these are drawings or renderings, but there are a few photographs as well. Many advertising posters are reproduced, and the text from many more is transcribed. There are descriptions, drawings, and even a photograph of championship belts.

Much of the credit for popularizing the sport of Pedestrianism can go to Edward Payson Weston, whose much-publicised cross-country walks drew big crowds and much amazement. Upon entering a town, the crowds would line the streets for miles in order to greet him. On two separate occasions, years apart, he was crushed by delirious mobs. The first case involved a hip injury. The second case forced him to keep his injured arm in a sling while he completed a bet that he could walk 2,000 miles in 1,000 hours around the shires of England - a bet that he lost by 22.5 miles.

The walking contests appear to have begun as exhibitions or races against time on a track. Then challenges, sweepstakes competitions, and the format for six-day events gradually evolved. Eventually, separate formats for running or walking and 12-hour or round-the-clock competition evolved. George Littlewood's two records for a six-day event stood for a century. The running record has been broken, but the "heel-and-toe" record still stands.

You may remember how you welcomed the New Year of 2009. I celebrated by reading King of the Peds until 3:00 a.m.

~ Charlie Duane