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The Ladies Walked and Walked
Guy M. Lewis
December 18, 1967
Long before the dance marathons of the 1920s, the pedestriennes of the 1870s were setting endurance records
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December 18, 1967

The Ladies Walked And Walked

Long before the dance marathons of the 1920s, the pedestriennes of the 1870s were setting endurance records

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During the following months the activities of pedestriennes were front-page news from coast to coast. In San Francisco they walked for a diamond-studded belt. In Boston the girls competed for a "Bean Pot Championship." A Baltimore contest was for the "championship of Maryland." Few cities, large or small, were without a show. Events were staged in Jersey City, Hoboken, N.J., Newark, Providence, Worcester, Mass., New Haven, Conn., Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, St. Louis, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. At one time female walkers were performing in a dozen or more locations in and around New York City alone, including Brewster's Hall at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street where simultaneous contests were being held on the second and third floors. One walker was able to transfer the location of her show from a Brooklyn theater to Brewster's Hall without interrupting her performance by traveling during her rest periods.

Bookmakers and gamblers welcomed this new opportunity to juggle odds, and, according to the more prudish editorialists, lecherous or otherwise depraved individuals found the walks a source for satisfying demented sensibilities. The shows were very quickly reduced from the status of athletic contests to sensuous performances and freak shows in which ambitious girls and women were exploited for the sake of profit. Crowds were larger if the girls dressed in a great deal of "cheap silk and cotton velvet and spangles" and covered themselves with a number of strategically placed "embarrassing bows."

Some promoters evidently attributed Madame Anderson's success in part to her foreign origin because one contest had participants from Canada, Ireland, England, Holland, Sweden, Austria, Scotland and Denmark. One Madame LaChapelle of Paris was always a popular contestant. But for those who were not attracted by parades of international beauty there were more provincial charmers. Annie Bartell was affectionately called the " Westchester Milkmaid" because there was something "refreshingly rural" about her performance.

Lulu Loomer, dressed in embroidered blue stockings, pleased the men with her cute mannerism of keeping time with the music as she strode the boards. One shocked reporter wrote of Macie Burns, a 15- or 16-year-old girl, that "the spectacle of so young and respectable a lady exhibiting herself before a crowd of young men was not a pleasing one." But less easily outraged fans with more perverted values derived satisfaction from watching the old and infirm limp around the tracks. "Shouts of laughter" greeted one lame woman as she hobbled about the arena, according to a contemporary critic.

While their most ardent fans looked upon the pedestriennes as heroines, in some quarters of society they were regarded less highly. Fanny Edwards did not improve the image of the female athlete when she accompanied her trainer as he was haled before a court for abandoning his wife and children. She even posted the $200 bond for his release. Following the action, the trainer left "with his mistress, while his poor wife sat crouching in an obscure corner of the courtroom, crying as if her heart would break."

Meanwhile, male walking was thriving as ever. In an Astley Belt Championship in March 1879, Charles Rowell of England defeated O'Leary and three other competitors. His prize amounted to $18,398.13, and the other participants, except O'Leary, shared nearly an equal amount of money. Promoters of female shows quickly recognized the value of the Astley Belt formula, and, on March 26, 1879, 18 women began the race for the Walton Belt and a share of the $1,750 prize money. Only five contestants finished what a reporter for The New York Times labeled "the cruel six days' walking match." One 54-year-old woman, in an extremely debilitated condition, was sent to Bellevue Hospital for medical care, rest and nourishment, and another participant was reported to have "lost her mind." Exhausted women lay unattended in their tents because they had no one to turn to for assistance.

Those who condemned the brutality of the show placed the blame upon the merciless trainers and promoters who forced impoverished walkers to perform without proper care, food or rest. Despite the protests, contests were staged frequently until June, but from July to December the number of matches was so noticeably reduced that many thought that the mania had expended itself. Then in the middle of December 1879, in an evident effort to revive interest in the activity, promoters announced the Grand Ladies' International Tournament for the Championship Belt of the World.

The producers of the contest were reformers. Female pedestrianism, as they viewed it, was an athletic contest, not a gaudy, cheap show. They required each contestant to pledge not to engage in quarreling, loud talking, profane or obscene language, either upon the track or in the tent; to keep herself perfectly neat and clean; not to appear on the track in tights without a dress covering them; and to always have her hair neatly arranged. Each walker was permitted to have only one gentleman in her tent, and she was required to have at least one female attendant. Throughout the race the performers were models of decorum, and their costumes were in good taste. In keeping with the "new look" in female pedestrianism the promoters employed guards and police, but there were no disturbances among the orderly and mannerly spectators.

Following this decorous affair, female pedestrianism understandably ceased to exist in the United States as a profitable spectator sport.

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