Today, football is the most popular sport in America. From high-school through college and into the National Football League, football draws fans into stadiums and into their living rooms more than any other single sport, with over 30 million spectators watching this year's NCAA Championship game between two sets of tigers, an ambush from Baton Rouge a streak from Clemson. But football was in its infancy when Texas Jack was touring America with his theatrical combination, the first college game being played between Rutgers and New Jersey (not yet known as Princeton) on November 6, 1869, just after Jack arrived for the first time in North Platte, Nebraska. When Texas Jack and his friends Donald McKay and Arizona John Burke headed to Mozart Garden in Brooklyn in December of 1878 to see the event that would dominate conversation and become for a time the most-watched spectator sport in the country—walking.
It may seem strange today, with access to football, baseball, hockey, soccer, and hundreds of high-energy competitive sports at our fingertips, but in the late 19th century few events roused public interest and attendance like competitive walking, known as pedestrianism. Pedestrianism rose to prominence after the Civil War and spawned superstars like Edward Payson Weston, a reporter for the New York Herald newspaper, who won a $10,000 prize by walking 1,136 miles from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in 30 days in 1867. Soon, a series of women's competitions were staged, and special indoor tracks were built in some towns as intra-community long-distance pedestrianism came into vogue. Elsa von Blumen competed as a pedestrian in events where she would walk 100 miles. Along with sensational feats of distance, gambling was a central attraction for the large, mostly working-class crowds which came to pedestrian events.
The sport was popular across Europe as well, and in Britain perhaps no pedestrian was more beloved than Madam Ada Anderson. Born Ada Nymand, she left home at 16 to join a theater company and five years later married the man whose name she was most commonly known. During a theatrical career, she was a singer, a clown, and a theater owner. Her lifelong ambition was to become famous—to accomplish something that so one else could. She did not achieve fame or success as an actress but eventually bought a theater in Cardiff, Wales, with her husband, who sadly died soon after in 1877, leaving Ada on the brink of bankruptcy. That year she met champion British race-walker William Gale, who agreed to train her in the sport. After six rigorous weeks of training, she competed in her first event, where she walked 1,000 half-miles in 1,000 half-hours, with no more than 20 minutes rest at one time during the entire three-week trek. There were several days of rain which required her to walk with an umbrella and a lamp but this did not prevent her from finishing.
After a year of winning races in Britain, Ada was determined to make a name for herself in America. An event was planned for Gilmore's Garden (later Madison Square Garden) in New York, until the owner decided that ‘The woman will never accomplish the feat and nor can any woman.’ The event was moved to Brooklyn's Mozart Garden and began on 16 December 1878. As many as 4,000 spectators visited the 189-foot track on which Ada would walk 675 miles (2,700 quarter-miles) in 675 hours (2,700 quarter-hours) before the event ended on January 13, 1879.
During the event, Ada made fans by singing during her rest breaks. Fifty-five miles into the event, she played the piano and sang Giuseppe Verdi's "Back to Our Mountains," which attracted more spectators as word got out. She also entertained the crowd by marking the faces of sleeping spectators with coal or chalk.
Because of heavy wagers on the completion of the event, Anderson required protection in the final days of the walk, with reports of attempted gassing with chloroform denied by Anderson herself. By the final day of her walk, Mozart's Garden was so packed that police had to prevent additional spectators, many of whom were women who the New York Times reported regarded Anderson as "the most wonderful of their sex."
Many famous people stopped by to view Ada's feat of pedestrianism, including General Tom Thumb, a performer in the circus of P. T. Barnum. Texas Jack came to Mozart's Garden with Donald McKay and John M. Burke on December 27th. According to the Boston Globe, "After watching her midnight rounds, Texas Jack broke out in frequent Comanche yells. Mme. Anderson smiled and walked at a lively gait, as though the Indians were on her trail."
Pedestrianism reached its peak in 1878, but Ada competed for the next two years across America, with exhibitions in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Buffalo, New York City, and Baltimore. In England, where she trained and raced, Sir John Astley founded a "Long Distance Championship of the World" in 1878, staged over six days, which became known as the "Astley Belt Races". While marking a peak in press coverage of such races, the Astley Belt Races allowed a wide interpretation of rules, with trotting, jogging, and even some running allowed. The competition was partly inspired by a desire to clean up the perception of the sport as corrupted by gambling interests and led to a push to codify pedestrianism as an amateur sport. The same process was happening to British track and field athletics and gave rise to the modern Olympic Movement.
For more information, check out https://pedestriennes.com/ and Harry Hall's book The Pedestriennes: America's Forgotten Superstars.