In the 1870s, America’s number one spectator sport was endurance walking. All over the country, fans packed reconfigured theatres and opera houses, paying to watch their favorite athletes walk on undersized tracks for days, or even weeks. If successful, the walkers would take home small fortunes. The elite earned even more by making personal appearances at county fairs and touring with theatrical companies.
While men dominated the sport, a small group of women generated their own excitement and controversies, generating national attention.
“The Mania for Walking,” NY Times, February 2, 1879
“Pedestrianism Gone Mad,” NY Times February 14, 1879
“The Pedestrian Fever in NY, Brooklyn, Jersey City, Hoboken and Williamsburg—The Latest Returns,” NY Times, February 16, 1879
“The Pedestrian Mania Increasing,” NY Herald, February 18, 1879
“The Walking Mania,” Chicago Inter-Ocean February 22, 1879
“Walking Matches—Brutal Torture of Women,” Chicago Tribune, March 5, 1879
“The Evils of Pedestrianism” NY Herald, March 17, 1879
“The Pedestrian Craze,” Chicago Inter-Ocean March 19, 1879
“Pedestrian Faints on the Track and Abandons Her Walk,” Chicago Times, March 21, 1879
“[A women’s walking match] is a cruel, brutal, and disgusting exhibition,” NY Herald, March 30, 1879
“The Long Walk; 3,000 Quarter Miles Completed; Ladies to Walk Another 1,000,”
San Francisco Examiner 6/26/1879
“California has the [walking] fever bad. All over the state the matches are constantly coming off for medals, glory and gate money—especially the latter.”
California Advertiser August 16, 1879
But the headlines didn’t even begin to tell the story….
“If I fall helpless or may be dead on the track, then I shall lose my money,” pedestrienne Madame Ada Anderson, NY Times, December 17, 1878.
In the late 19th century, Ada Anderson and a handful of women endurance walkers, called pedestriennes, dazzled America with their on-and-off-the track exploits. As athletes, they performed seemingly impossible tasks of walking days, or even weeks at a time with little rest; success earned them small fortunes and national headlines, failure meant going home penniless.
Top walkers hired coaches, managers and trainers. Their pictures were sold in stores and they made personal appearances. Although initially popular, the sport died quickly due to overreaching rivalries, sex scandals, race-fixing, graft, an extortion attempt that led to a suicide and a murder. Nearly forgotten today, the pedestriennes laid the foundation for modern sports, the revival of the Olympic Games, and the suffragist movement.
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Harry Hall receives his writing award at the 2012 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. On the left is Conference Director George Getschow.