#815: Dan O’Leary, the Plucky Pedestrian

July 12th, 2017

As mentioned before, I collect old, weird books. The older and weirder, the better, from 1880s children’s math textbooks to disco-era restaurant guides to old pulps and manuals for radio station technologies and sound effects in the 1930s.

It’s a cheap hobby — by nature, no one wants these weirdos. But every Ahab has his white whale, every Gatsby his Daisy. My obsession is, at some point in my life, holding a copy of 1878′s “Biographical Sketch of Daniel O’Leary, Champion Pedestrian of the World: Together with a Full Account of all his Great Walks in the Past” by John E. Tansey.

It’s a story about Chicago’s professional pedestrian Dan O’Leary.

In the 1870s and 1880s, one of the most popular sports in the nation was pedestrianism. Crowds would flock to watch stars like the “Plucky Pedestrian” Dan O’Leary or “Wily Wobbler” Edward Payson Weston walk.

Sometimes it was long distances, like when Payson kicked off the sport by walking from Boston to D.C. because he bet against Abraham Lincoln and, as his forfeit, had to watch the inauguration.

Other times it was competitive, like in 1875 when Irish-born Chicagoan O’Leary challenged Weston to walk in around a dirt track at the old Interstate Exposition Building (torn down in 1892 to make way for the Art Institute) until someone reached 500 miles. The race lasted six days, with the papers providing daily coverage of the race for those who couldn’t get tickets to the throng.

Weston, who lost, would later claim Chicagoans sabotaged him and threw pepper in his face, but rematches would keep putting the Irishman on top.

England would in 1878 create “the Astley Belt” as the sport’s Stanley Cup/Lombardi Trophy/Olympic Medal equivalent, and pedestrian megastars like Australian William Edwards, New Zealander Joe Scott, Haitian Frank Hart and Scotsman George Noremac (really George Cameron, but he decided to start spelling his name backwards to be more distinctive) came from around the world to compete.

O’Leary would a year later try to bring the sport’s focus to America, creating a competing O’Leary Belt to be determined by a walk-off at the newly minted Madison Square Gardens. Riots even occurred around races, in New York in 1879 and London in 1887.

There were social effects from the weird two-decade sporting fad. O’Leary’s protege Frank Hart was an early black sports hero. Women also made their way in the sport. A New York Times editorial after the Supreme Court struck down women’s right to practice law in 1876 even made a link, however spurious, between professional pedestriennes and women’s rights.

“To-day it is the walking match; next it will be the coveted Bar. After that, who shall tell how soon the ballot will come?”

And there’s a book out there about how some Irish guy living in Chicago, Daniel O’Leary, Champion Pedestrian of the World, was near the center of it all.

Amazon lists the book as either unavailable or out of print and apparently it’s one of the 25 million digitized-but-not-available Google Books. There are copies at the university libraries of Notre Dame and Tulane, but I don’t know how much I want to exploit my still-technically-have-a-professor-ID-but-haven’t-adjuncted-in-years status. The Chicago Public Library website doesn’t have it listed.

I don’t even need to own the thing. I’d just like to hold it, leaf through its pages, see if it gives any clue to the reasoning behind this head-scratcher of a sport.

Holding a book about a long-dead competitive walker might seem an odd goal, but if this story proves anything, there are weirder things one could strive for.

Learn about Chicago’s role in the 1800s cycling craze

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You are currently reading #815: Dan O’Leary, the Plucky Pedestrian by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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