The rise and fall of TOM LONGBOAT

He hated to train, and he was a fool with his money. But for half a dozen dazzling years this Canadian Indian could run farther, faster than any man alive. His downfall was just as swift

FERGUS CRONIN February 4 1956

The rise and fall of TOM LONGBOAT

He hated to train, and he was a fool with his money. But for half a dozen dazzling years this Canadian Indian could run farther, faster than any man alive. His downfall was just as swift

FERGUS CRONIN February 4 1956

The rise and fall of TOM LONGBOAT

He hated to train, and he was a fool with his money. But for half a dozen dazzling years this Canadian Indian could run farther, faster than any man alive. His downfall was just as swift


A TWO-FOOT wooden marker over an Indian grave near Brantford, Ont., is the only monument today to a man who once was the best-known athlete in the world. His was a Horatio Alger story in reverse. For him there was no long struggle against odds, no interminable hours of training for a gradual and painful climb to the top. He started very near the top in 1906 and was not long in reaching it. Then, over the years, he worked his way to the bottom. Literally, his was a story of Public Hero to Garbage Collector.

Tom Longboat became undisputed champion long-distance runner of the world in a little more than two years after his name was first heard outside the Six Nations reserve near Brantford. A cigar was named after him (a high honor fifty years ago) and his popularity reached such heights that police stopped him from taking part in races finishing in Toronto because spectators jammed traffic in the business section. His star was bright but short-lived, and before it faded out Longboat became the world’s most controversial sports figure in the period before the first war.

He was a naïve, long-limbed youth of nineteen, five-foot-ten-and-a-half in height and weighing about one hundred and forty pounds, when he took time out from his farm work on the reserve to try his luck in the 1906 edition of a race sponsored by the Hamilton Herald and known as the Around-the-Bay Race. It was slightly more than nineteen miles, beginning and ending at the newspaper office and extending around Hamilton Bay.

It was the year of the discovery of vitamins the launching of the ill-fated Lusitania, the opening of a new mining camp at Cobalt, Ont. A Canadian, Tommy Burns, was heavyweight champion of the world. Sir Wilfrid Laurier was prime minister. It was a prosperous year, and although Canadians worked ten hours a day for an average annual wage of about four hundred dollars, they could buy an English-made suit for ten dollars, a fur coat for ‘twenty-one and a trans-Atlantic trip for twentysix. Moving pictures had not yet replaced the stage as the standard of entertainment; most families owned a pair of opera glasses; Ethel Barrymore was popular in the New York theatre; Will J. White was Canada’s top comedian, and the people were singing the new hits, Wait ’til the Sun Shines, Nellie, Mary’s a Grand Old Name, and A Woman is Only a Woman but a Good Cigar is a Smoke.

Longboat had developed his running legs chasing cows around the woods and fields of the Brantford reserve. He was a full-blooded Onondaga, one of the six tribes that make up the Iroquois confederacy. At the Caledonia Fair held on the edge of the reserve in the fall of 1905 Tom was an easy winner. Then in 1906 another Indian runner, Bill Davis, began to coach Longboat for the Hamilton Herald race. The favorite that year was John D. Marsh, who had set many distance records in England and was now a resident of Winnipeg. There were about forty contenders.

Longboat stepped up to the starting line wearing a thirly-five-cent cotton bathing suit and a pair of seventy - five - cent rubber sneakers. There was plenty of betting on races in those days, and the odds against the gangling Indian boy were forty to one. It was during this race that Longboat’s peculiar style of running was first noted. He had a long slow stride that was deceiving in its speed and seemed to carry him over the ground with the least possible exertion. He held his arms at an awkward angle, and his feet sometimes seemed to kick out sideways.

The Herald reported the next day: “Marsh was the pacemaker in the early part of the race, but right behind him was Longboat, who occasionally shot to the front just to test his speed. They alternated as pacemakers until the Stone Road junction was reached, when Longboat decided that the time had come for him to cut loose. He left Marsh as if he had been standing.”

Longboat beat Marsh by a full three minutes, and his time of one hour, 49 minutes and 25 seconds was only 42 seconds behind the record—in spite of tie fact that toward the end of the race be had taken a wrong turning and run seventy-five yards before someone turned him back.

Members of the West End YMCA of Toronto convinced Longboat he should join their ranks and represent them in the Boston Marathon, an annual event since 1897 and the only one of the old running classics still held today. But first there was the Ward Marathon Race, for which Toronto Controller J. J. Ward waa putting up a handsome cup. The fifteenmile course started in Toronto at the Canadian National Exhibition track, then along the dirt Hamilton highway, to Long Branch and back. Longboat won in a field of sixty-two, and Canadians began to speak of him as a world-beater.

The Boston event was twenty-five miles in open country, much of it uphill. There were one hundred and twentysix entries, but Longboat was confident. As he climbed aboard the train he told a reporter—with a grin that became his trademark—“No more Tom Longboat. I’m Cyclone Jack now.” Before he was through, the public and the newspapers had many pet names for him, probably the favorite of which was “the Bronze Mercury.”

April 19, 1907, was a miserable day in Boston. Runners had to buck snow, rain and slush. But Longboat won with ease. He finished in two hours, 24 minutes and 24 seconds, a record that stood for four years and was broken only after the course was made easier.

Four days after the race the chairman of Toronto’s Civic Reception Committee met Longboat in Niagara Falls. When their train pulled into Toronto’s Union Station after dark, thousands of jubilant citizens were waiting for it. A ragged parade formed up behind a car that bore Longboat through cheer-filled streets to the City Hall, with torchbearers marching in front and behind.

Mayor Emerson Coatsworth congratulated the youth on becoming “champion long - distance runner of America” and presented a gold medal to him. In the tradition of his race, Longboat was never loquacious. He replied in a voice few could hear. A sports writer said later that under such circumstances Longboat “would smile as wide as a hippo and gurgle his thanks.”

“Von can never convince me that he wasn’t ‘jobbed’,” wrote an American fan. Was Tom Longboat doped in the marathon ?

But Longboat’s greatest day was yet to come—also his worst. It was an era in which the individual champion rather than the team was idolized and, in the fashion of Sullivan and Corbett, the fighters, and Ned Hanlan, the oarsman, Longboat became Public Hero No. 1 to most Canadians and many Americans in a period that came to be known for “the marathon craze.”

He was likable but headstrong. He soon balked at the training rules of the West End Y, claiming, with some truth, that he hadn’t done much training before and saw no need for it now. He broke the Y’s rules against smoking and drinking and was suspended.

But he was not long without a sponsor. Two robust Toronto Irishmen, Tom Flanagan and Tim O’Rourke, joint owners of the Grand Central Hotel, had just organized the IrishCanadian Athletic Club, whose avowed purpose was to promote amateur sport. In reality, however, it was a semiprofessional club with headquarters in the hotel, whose athletes were the objects of heavy betting. Longboat joined the club—sometimes he was called “the Irish Indian”—and his training was taken over by Flanagan, a curly-haired, nattily dressed blade of twenty-eight, one of the smartest promoters of his day.

In spite of Longboat’s reluctance to train, the prospect of representing Canada in the 1908 Olympic Games in London appealed to him. Also, Flanagan had a flair for press-agentry that kept Longboat and the IrishCanadians in the news and found a response in the young man’s ego.

In 1907 Longboat won the Ward Marathon a second time. And there were many other victories: a five-mile race at Caledonia, fifteen miles at Montreal, twelve miles at Sault Ste. Marie. He won so many races all over the country he was giving away medals and trophies to casual acquaintances. Then some question was raised as to his amateur standing. An indignant Toronto fan, J. H. King, wrote to The Sporting Life, of London, Eng., a newspaper called the sporting bible of the day: “It is the method of this club

(the Irish-Canadians) that has caused so much talk . . . What right has any athletic club to have men, practically without means, living in hotels month after month?” He suggested that Longboat fell into the category of “the stall-fed amateur.”

Longboat was indeed “stall-fed.” All his needs were provided by his club, and when its members realized that the Olympic committee would question the Indian’s amateur status if he had no visible means of support, the club set him up as “owner” of a small cigar store on Toronto’s King Street.

The store was intentionally stocked with a supply of fifty-cent cigars so that friends and backers could subsidize Longboat by buying them. The stock was not renewed, however, when it was 'discovered that Longboat was smoking most of them himself.

In November 1907 the Amateur Athletic Union of the U. S. declared Longboat a professional. The AAU president, J. E. Sullivan, said in New York: “Longboat will never run as

an amateur in the United States . . . (He) has been a professional from the time he began his athletic career. He has always been in the hands of a

his manager ... he is taken from town to town by (Flanagan) with bands and carriages and silk hats ... He ran all kinds of races at country fairs for money.”

I he Canadian AAU did not dare professionalize Longboat before the 1908 Olympics—all Canada was confident their Indian brave was the best long-distance runner in the world and Canadian sportsmen would not stand for anyone in their own country interfering with his chance to prove it.

Six weeks before the Olympics, held in July 1908, Flanagan took Longboat with him to Flanagan’s birthplace in Ireland’s County Limerick, combining a holiday with a training program for Longboat on the country roads around the town of Kilmallock. The runner boasted later that although he did a lot of work under Flanagan’s watchful eye, he was able to bribe the dairy maids into spiking his milk with Irish whisky.

The American team used Longboat’s expense-free trip as basis for a protest to the Olympic committee that he was ineligible because he was not an amateur. Newspaper columns by the score were written on this issue. The Toronto Evening Telegram commented: “Canada has been quite sufficiently sacrificed to the Old Country craze for pleasing the Yankees at all costs. If this craze is to be carried out of diplomacy into sport, and Longboat is to be disqualified . . . then every Canadian athlete owes it to his country to leave the Olympian games.”

The committee decided the evidence was inconclusive and Longboat was not disqualified.

A race to the Queen

The Olympic Marathon was the longest race Longboat had yet run — 26 miles, 385 yards, the distance run in 490 BC from Marathon to Athens by a Greek soldier with news of victory. And the day of the race was the hottest Londoners had had for many years. The sun was scorching as fifty-five marathoners from a dozen countries lined up four deep on the east lawn of Windsor Castle. The course lay over winding hilly roads which watering carts and roller brushes had been working on all morning to keep down the dust. Every cottage on the course was festooned with flags and bunting, and thousands of spectators waited in the sun. Another seventy thousand, including Queen Alexandra, waited in the stadium at Shepherd’s Bush where the race would finish three hours after it started.

At 2.33 p.m. the pistol cracked. Longboat, in a white jersey adorned with a maple leaf and the number 72, leaped to the front like a deer and set a killing pace. He appeared to be in perfect condition and led for a few miles, but the hills and the heat and the pace began to tell on him. At the nine-mile mark Lord of England was leading and Tom had fallen back to fourth place. At twelve miles Price of England had taken the lead, followed by Lord, Hefferon of South Africa, Dorando of Italy and Longboat—now in fifth place.

Dorando (his full name was Dorando Pietri) arrived at the stadium first, about two minutes ahead of the Anierican, John J. Hayes. But fifty yards from the finish Dorando collapsed. Track officials helped him to his feet and across the line, thereby unwittingly disqualifying him. The judges

all for then awarded the race to Hayes. But where was Longboat?

At about the nineteen-mile mark he had slowed to a walk, then stopped altogether. He proceeded to the stadium in a car and was carried in on a stretcher for medical attention. Later Flanagan said, “It was the heat that beat him. We lost honestly.” But Canadians and others could not believe he had failed them and rumors were widespread that Longboat had been doped. Only recently a fan (E. V. E. Harris, of Sacramento, Calif.) wrote in a sports magazine: “I had followed

(Longboat) on a bicycle twice while training over the full route and never saw him distressed. You can never convince me that he wasn’t ‘jobbed’ or that possibly $100,000 was not won on his failure.”

Back in New York a pair of promoters, Pat Powers and Harry Pollock, proceeded to capitalize on the intense public interest in marathons, sparked by the Olympics. Powers was probably the biggest promoter of his time. He used to book Madison Square Garden one hundred nights a year, then find attractions to fill it. Pollock was a sports writer whom Powers found useful as a press agent. The pair induced Dorando and Hayes to turn professional and run against each other in the Garden over the full marathon distance. The race took place Nov. 25, 1908, and Dorando won by about sixty yards. Then Powers set out to get Longboat too to turn pro and race Dorando, but another professional had been vainly trying to take on Longboat since well before the Olympics.

He was Alfred Shrubb, reputed to be a perfect running machine, a cocky little Englishman who held all worlddistance records from one and a half to eleven miles. He had turned pro in England, and came to America in 1907 in the hope of running a series of races against Longboat. Flanagan, his eye on the Olympics, had refused. And after the Olympics, in spite of a campaign of taunting and ridicule by Shrubb, Flanagan felt that Longboat had to redeem himself if he was to be successful as a professional.

The Indian proceeded to do just that, winning race after race. He led a field of 153 runners to win the Ward Marathon for the third year in a row. William Stark, president of the Canadian AAU, said, “I think he has since his return (from the Olympics) proven himself the greatest long-distance runner of the century.”

Sports writers and the sporting public began to demand a showdown between Longboat and Shrubb but Powers offered Flanagan a portion of the gate receipts if Longboat would take on Dorando. Flanagan agreed to a race in the Garden on Dec. 15, 1908. It was a sellout.

When the pair stood at the starting line, the lanky Indian towered over the stocky Italian. At the pistol a mighty roar went up. Dorando took the lead with short, jaunty steps while Longboat loped along a few yards behind. The Italian led most of the way, but occasionally Longboat would put on a spurt and take the lead amid deafening applause and cheers. In a couple of laps Dorando would again forge ahead. The heat became oppressive and every half mile or so the runners would take a water-soaked sponge from an assistant and wipe the sweat off their faces without slackening the pace.

At twenty-five miles they were still close together, but Longboat seemed to be weakening. Flanagan then demonstrated his flair for practical psychology: he took Longboat’s fiancée,

a pretty little Mohawk, to the edge of the track. As Longboat came around again he saw the girl, her hands up and both pride and encouragement in her expression. His sinews seemed to take on new strength and lie increased the pace. As the runners vanished around the track there came a roar from the crowd. Dorando, with a bare half mile to go, had suddenly staggered and dropped. Longboat jogged on alone and completed the distance.

It was front-page news on both sides of the Atlantic. In the Toronto Globe, the headline, “Tom Longboat Retrieves His Olympic Defeat,” took precedence over news of the ill-health of pleasure-loving King Edward VII, who died seventeen months later.

Longboat was now a professional and, at twenty-one, recognized as the best long-distance runner in the world. Little Alfie Shrubb again tried to arrange a series of races and challenged Longboat to three races at ten, fifteen and twenty miles. Flanagan refused, explaining that Longboat wanted to be married.

His marriage to Lauretta Maracle, bis Mohawk fiancée, took place with Indian ceremony at the Six Nations reserve on Dec. 28, 1908, and a wedding reception for them was held that evening on the stage of Massey Hall in Toronto at the close of a benefit performance for the couple. Hundreds of people filed up a runway to the stage to shake hands with the newlyweds. Five days later Longboat beat Dorando once more in a marathon race at ! Buffalo.

Longboat’s success started a fad for racing among Indians. Several around that time appeared shyly at county fairs and, after a few wins, went on to bigger meets. Fred Simpson, an Ojibway from Hiawatha, Ont., came sixth in the 1908 Olympic marathon, and in the same race Louis Tewanina, from Arizona, came ninth. Tewanina also ran second in the Olympic ten thousand meters in both 1908 and 1912. Others included Henry Jackson, or Red Hawk, of Penetang, Ont., Black Hawk, of Philadelphia, Andrew Sockalexis, of Oldtown, Me.—third in the 1912 Olympic marathon—A. Jameson, of Woodstock, Ont., Jimmy George, of Beaverton, Ont., Albert Smoke, Silas Isaac, or Little Thunder, from the Six Nations, and Hilton Green, a Mohawk.

Indians were to running what Negroes today are to boxing. But their reputation as natural runners goes back a long way. In the days before the telegraph it is said they were employed by businessmen to rush news of commercial interest from newly arrived ships, sometimes over distances of a hundred miles or more.

Longboat and Shrubb were finally signed to run a marathon in Madison Square Garden on Feb. 5, 1909. At last the two greatest runners of the world were to match skills in what was considered the world’s greatest, race. Twelve thousand people crowded into the Garden. Among them in a box seat were Mrs. Longboat and two Indian chiefs, in full feathered regalia, and a Mountie in uniform—the Flanagan touch. It was the era of the cigar, and so many spectators were smoking it was hard to see across the stadium.

At the pistol, Shrubb shot away amid frantic cheering and gained a complete lap (a ninth of a mile) in the first mile and a half. With a pace of five feet, two inches, Shrubb’s legs pumped like pistons. Longboat, loping along with a stride of six feet, six inches, made no effort to keep up. At the end of ten miles Shrubb was five laps ahead, at fifteen miles he was nearly seven laps in the lead. Every time he gained a lap the shouting was deafening. The heat became so intense hundreds removed their coats and several women had to be helped out of the building.

Longboat’s only chance lay in Shrubb collapsing, and there was no indication of this. During the twenty-first mile Shrubb stopped and changed his shoes while Longboat recovered a lap and a half. The crowd rose to its feet and screamed with excitement. At the end of twenty-two miles Shrubb was still seven laps ahead, but apparently weakening, while Longboat looked as strong as ever. Shrubb walked two hundred yards, then ran again. His trainer gave him a drink and threw water over him. Flashlight pictures were being taken every few seconds. Shrubb walked again.

The noise was terrific as Longboat reduced the lead to four laps in the twenty-third mile. Shrubb began to limp and his lead was reduced to two laps. As Longboat’s steady pace ate up the remaining distance Shrubb began staggering from side to side. Longboat spurted past him, Shrubb made a helpless gesture with his hands and collapsed into the arms of his trainer in the fifth lap of the twentyfourth mile. The Indian trotted the final two miles amid a hurricane of applause.

“He sold me like a racehorse”

Since turning professional, Longboat had been giving Flanagan trouble. “He was all right until he started to make money,” Flanagan said later. “There were times when he did not feel like running, when he refused to train properly and just generally went prima donna on me.”

So b lanagan, who had become manager for Jack Johnson, later to become world’s heavyweight boxing champion, sold Longboat’s contract to Powers for two thousand dollars. This hurt the runner. He complained to his wife, “He sold me just like a racehorse—to make money.”

Then Powers organized the daddy of all marathons—to be held in the open at the New York Polo Grounds which could hold twice as many spectators as the Garden. The race, held April 3, 1909, offered five thousand dollars to the best of six men representing five nations: Longboat, Shrubb, Dorando, Hayes, Matt Maloney (another American), and Henri St. Yves, a dark horse from France, imported by Powers and Pollock and whom no one in America had ever heard of. Another five thousand would be divided among the losers.

Twenty-five thousand people saw Longboat give up in the twentieth mile. Shrubb fell into a walk in the twenty-second, St. Yves won and Dorando came second. Longboat, at twenty-one, was on his way down.

On a Saturday afternoon, May 8, Longboat and Shrubb met again, this time in a fifteen-mile outdoor race sponsored by the Montreal Star on the cinder track of the newly opened Montreal Amateur Athletic Association grounds. The distance was more to Shrubb’s liking than a marathon. He won by about five hundred yards. Longboat went to Shrubb with his big grin and a handshake and spoke the words that became almost habit between them: “You beat me, but I

beat you next time.”

Powers sold Longboat’s contract to Sol Mintz, of Hamilton, for seven hundred dollars—the price was an indication of Longboat’s falling stock —and Mintz immediately arranged for a twenty-mile race between the two rivals to be held on the Toronto Island track on June 28.

At the gun Shrubb set out and dragged Longboat for a mile in 4.38, the fastest mile in an American longdistance race since the marathon craze hit the continent. Longboat dropped back after this but at the fourteenth mile began a sprint that left Shrubb limping. In the fifteenth mile Shrubb quit and Longboat finished alone.

The Indian was now one up. But the score soon tilted in Shrubb’s favor because he would not run the longer distances and was Longboat’s superior under twenty miles. He won a twelvemile bout in Toronto and a sixteenmiler in Winnipeg. The Winnipeg race gave the rubber of five races to Shrubb. During the next three years Shrubb beat Longboat at ten and fifteen miles in Boston, at twelve in Toronto, fifteen in Pittsburgh, ten in Stratford.

Longboat became his own manager and neglected training. A sports editor wrote: “He may dawdle along beating dubs, but any good man will take his measure now.” Tales of his drinking became legendary. In 1911 he was arrested for drunkenness in Toronto and received a suspended sentence.

But Tom Longboat had one more kick in him. On June 8, 1912, he ran a fifteen-mile race on Toronto Island against Shrubb, A. E. Wood and Billy Queal, holder of the American tenand twelve-mile records. They were billed as “the speediest quartette living.” Shrubb, who had sprained his ankle, was forced to quit after leading for five miles. Longboat won by about a foot and set a new record of one hour, eighteen minutes, 10-2/5 seconds, five seconds better than the previous mark set by Wood. Later it was claimed the Island track was short, but England’s Sporting Chronicle Annual still shows Longboat’s time made that day as the record for the professional fifteen-mile distance. (The amateur record is now about forty seconds faster.)

When World War I broke out, Flanagan donned the uniform of a captain. With Col. Dick Greer he formed the 180th Sportsmen’s Battalion and Longboat joined as a private. But army discipline did little to change the Indian’s unpredictable nature. Once when the 180th was assigned to hold back a crowd and permit the 75th Battalion to entrain from Toronto’s Union Station, Longboat was missing when his platoon reformed. Three days later he turned up in Halifax—he had taken a notion to go along with some of his army pals.

Longboat was overseas for the last two years of the war. As a brigade runner he was several times reported dead back home, but he came through unscathed. In February 1917 he turned up in England as Private Longboat of the Canadian Pioneers to run in a six-mile race at Woodford Green. In a field of 105 servicemen he came third.

1 he war ended, but Longboat’s troubles had only begun. He found that on one of the occasions he had been reported dead his wife had married another Indian. She had also taken all the furniture from the two-story cement-block house Longboat had built on the reserve with his early winnings. Longboat recovered his furniture but not his wife, and later he took another squaw, Martha Silversmith, a Cayuga, who bore him four children.

The smart ones got it all

He drifted from job to job—farming in Alberta, working in a steel mill in Buffalo, odd jobs anywhere—and in 1922, now thirty-five, he returned penniless to Toronto and a job in a rubber plant. His name flared again briefly when he challenged Paavo Nurmi, the remarkable Finn, but the AAU refused to reinstate Longboat as an amateur. By 1927 he had hit the low point of his career—a job as helper on a Toronto garbage wagon.

What became of the thousands Longboat won in his prime? In his first three years as a professional he earned about seventeen thousand dollars. Recently I asked this question of Tom Flanagan, now seventy-seven and living in Toronto’s west end.

“The same thing that happened to the money won by Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson and the rest,” he said.

Smart fellows show them how to double their money, and the smart fellows wind up with it all.”

Longboat blew his money on liquor, fancy clothes and foolish investments in real estate. He had no idea how to handle it.

His last race was against Shrubb at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1930. It was a stunt and each man got three hundred dollars. Shrubb, then fifty-three and ten years older than Longboat, jogged a mile and won easily.

Longboat became a mail carrier in Buffalo, N.Y., and in 1946 found he had diabetes. He was treated for a while at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto but soon went back to his reserve. “It was too lonely there,” he told his wife Martha. On Jan. 9, 1949, he died and was buried on the reservation following a service in the Onondaga tradition.

“He was a better man as an Indian than he was trained as a white man,” Flanagan said recently. “I often thought if we could have kept him on the reservation and brought him out just to run, what he could have done would have been even more remarkable.” jç