“Grand Female Walking Match,” announced the 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 spring of 1889, Washington was entranced by a series of “pedestrian tournaments” at Kernan’s, a theater on the northeast corner of 11th and C streets NW, where Federal Triangle stands today.
The races were the brainchild of James Lawrence Kernan, a Confederate soldier who became an entertainment mogul after the Civil War. Kernan hoped to capitalize on a craze that had begun a decade earlier. 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.
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 six-foot-wide sawdust track 156 feet around — roughly the equivalent of walking around a tractor-trailer. It would take 34 laps just to complete a single mile. The competitor who covered the most miles would win.
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 “Madame” (or “Mademoiselle”) Sarah Tobias, a phys ed teacher from Brooklyn 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 on 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 Evans 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 (one of the most popular brands was Pabst).
The competition was not always ladylike. On Thursday night, Madame 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 at Kernan’s. Nora Evans won the race with 263 miles and walked away with $1,000 — roughly $25,000 in today’s money. Not bad for a week’s work.
Kernan hastily organized several more 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, though unlike the women’s, their physical appearance was not discussed much in the papers.
One entrant, an Englishman named Alfred Elson, was a veteran of long-distance walks who, like many pedestrians, considered alcohol a stimulant. Elson 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. This only heightened interest in the match. The promise of imminent catastrophe was part of the allure of pedestrianism. It was like watching a NASCAR race in super-slow motion. Dillon won the race with 454 miles. Horan was second with 450. Elson was a distant third with 239.
The popularity of the pedestrian matches at Kernan’s was so intense that The Post felt compelled to print an editorial to explain their peculiar appeal:
One who sees a contest of that character for the first time finds a novelty about it, and a charm that leads him to become a constant attendant. One would not think there was any pleasure in watching a half dozen or more lame and foot-sore men or women struggling around an oval sawdust or tanbark track and reeling off mile after mile in their efforts to gain money and fame. ...
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.
What The Post failed to explain was that there wasn’t much else to do in the capital, especially in the late spring and early summer, when Congress was adjourned and the politicians and ambassadors had fled the city’s unbearable heat and humidity. Washington was far from a cosmopolitan city. “The United States … has no capital,” the British diplomat James Bryce wrote in 1888. “By a capital I mean a city which is not only the seat of political government, but is also by the size, wealth, and character of its population the head and centre of the country.” In other words, Washington was a backwater.
Live entertainment typically comprised touring minstrel shows with performers in blackface, as well as forgettable light operas with names such as “The Black Hussar” and “Paradise Flats.” A regular performer at Kernan’s was Al Reeves, who billed himself as the “World’s Greatest Banjoist and Comedian” (by most accounts he was neither). It was from the balcony at Kernan’s that a young boy named Asa Yoelson, perhaps sensing that he could do better than these lame acts, decided to become a performer himself. He changed his name to Al Jolson and went on to perform often at Kernan’s.
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. Just 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. Unlike the penny-farthing, its predecessor with the absurdly oversize front wheel, the safety bicycle was fast and nimble, and bicycle racing soon surpassed competitive walking as a popular spectator sport. As the nation hurtled headlong into the 20th century, 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. Kernan continued to stage races. But then the Panic of 1893 took hold. The stock market crashed, inflation soared and the nation sank into the worst depression it had ever seen. In the spring of 1894, thousands of unemployed workers, led by an eccentric Ohio businessman named Jacob Coxey, marched on Washington to demand jobs.
Kernan’s hosted several more matches, but Washington was in no mood to watch. Nobody had a nickel to spare, much less 25 cents to buy a ticket to a Grand Walking Match. Pedestrianism could not survive the panic.
Kernan’s remained a landmark until it was demolished in 1931 to make way for federal office buildings. Today the IRS headquarters stands on the site where thousands watched walking matches more than a century ago.
Matthew Algeo is the author of “Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport” (Chicago Review Press). To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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