"Grand Female Walking Match," announced the 1889 ad for Kernan's theater in the Washington Star. "Six days, 12 hours daily. From 12 noon to 12 midnight. Admission to all 25 cts."
It may sound as boring as a congressional committee meeting, but in the late 1880s, people were entranced by a series of "pedestrian tournaments." In other words, walking marathons.
At the original Madison Square Garden in New York, endurance walking matches were wildly popular beginning in the late 1870s. Crowds of 10,000 or more regularly packed the rickety arena to watch men and women circle a one-sixth-mile track for days at a time. For a while, pedestrianism, as it came to be known, was the most popular spectator sport in the United States.
The races in Washington, D.C., were the brainchild of James Lawrence Kernan, a Confederate soldier who became an entertainment mogul after the Civil War. Kernan's was one of the capital's best theaters, boasting a sliding roof, but it was a fraction the size of the Garden, with a capacity of just 2,500, so Kernan was forced to improvise. He removed the seats from the main floor and laid a 6-foot-wide sawdust track 156 feet around.
It took 34 laps to complete a mile. The competitor who covered the most miles won.
The Grand Female Walking Match commenced at noon on Monday, May 27, 1889. A "dozen short-skirted, strong-limbed maidens" toed the starting line, the Star reported. The women's skirts exposed their "sturdy calves" clad in tights. "Most of them were young," the Star's correspondent wrote of the entrants, "and all of them were not ugly."
With the starter's command of "Let her go!" the women set off as a packed house roared. The favorite was Sarah Tobias, a phy ed teacher from New York City who affected a superior, aristocratic air. On the night before the race, a Washington Post reporter asked if she expected to win.
"I shall do my best, and will probably be somewhere near the head when the walk ceases next Saturday night," she answered.
But Tobias faced unexpected competition from Nora Evans, a local woman taking part in her first major walking match. To everyone's surprise, Evans was in the lead Wednesday night. Her "plucky performance" won her the admiration of the officers who patrolled the theater district. That night, Edward Weedon, deemed the most handsome policeman in the precinct, presented her with flowers on behalf of his fellow officers.
"Weedon was not much of an orator," the Post reported, "and the brief address he made was somewhat marred by the fact that Miss Evans had to continue walking and only heard the first and the end of his remarks, a whole lap intervening between his opening and concluding sentences."
To spice things up, Kernan hired a band to play. The atmosphere was electric. Spectators shouted encouragement. Gambling was rampant. The air was thick with cigar smoke, and beer flowed freely.
The competition was not always ladylike. On Thursday night, Tobias and another competitor, Bella Killbury, got tangled up on the track, triggering a quarrel that ended with Tobias punching Killbury. Tobias was arrested. After posting $10 bail, she hurried back to resume her walk, but her odds of winning had vanished.
On Saturday night, it was standing room only. Evans won the race with 263 miles and walked away with $1,000 — roughly $25,000 in today's money.
There were other races. Especially popular was a men's round-the-clock six-day race: The competitors walked from just after midnight on Monday, June 10, until just before midnight the following Saturday, stopping only occasionally to rest inside tents within the oval track.
"The largest number of spectators that has yet been attracted by the pedestrian exhibitions was present," the Post reported. Fourteen men competed.
One entrant, an Englishman named Alfred Elson, was a veteran of long-distance walks who, like many pedestrians, considered alcohol a stimulant. He imbibed liberally the first two days of the race, and by Tuesday night he was so drunk he fell headfirst over the railing that ringed the track, rendering himself unconscious.
By Friday, only three men remained: Dan Dillon, Martin Horan and, far behind, poor concussed Elson. They were a bedraggled bunch: sleep deprived, dehydrated, likely malnourished and perilously close to delirium. Dillon won the race with 454 miles. Horan was second with 450. Elson was a distant third with 239.
It might sound like watching a NASCAR race in slow motion. In fact, at one point the Post felt compelled to print an editorial to explain their peculiar appeal:
"There is the excitement of the crowd, the inspiring strains of music and the gaudy uniforms, and it does a great deal towards arousing the racing instinct in man, and he usually gives full vent to his feelings in uproarious cheering, when after a lively spurt between the leaders one falls back beaten. Once let a man become an enthusiast on long-distance pedestrianism, and he will neglect business and every thing else to follow his favorite pastime."
But pedestrianism's heyday in Washington would be short; the seeds of its demise were taking root even as crowds packed Kernan's in 1889. Four years earlier, an Englishman named John Starley had invented the first commercially successful "safety bicycle," the kind with two same-size wheels and a chain drivetrain that we still ride today.
Bicycle racing soon surpassed competitive walking as a popular spectator sport. Changing tastes and advancing technologies would give rise to a host of new amusements: baseball, boxing, the phonograph, moving pictures.
Pedestrianism would stumble along for several more years. But then the Panic of 1893 took hold. Nobody had a nickel to spare, much less 25 cents to buy a ticket to a Grand Walking Match.