The Wild & Crazy
(This piece is reconstituted from the presentation at the Rowing History
Forum at Mystic Seaport Museum in January, 2003)
Currier & Ives
Summer Scenes In New York Harbor
If you’re like me, you have a very squeaky clean image of rowing. It is a
sport of honor, pure competition, and strong camaraderie. Whether in victory or
defeat, you respect your competitor and develop a bond with everyone who rows.
Read on and your pristine image will be shattered. In the 19th
Century, rowing had a very dark side. Cheating, interference, throwing and
fixing races, damaging equipment, poisoning and threats of death were known to
occur. The professional rowing crowd in the 1800s would fit right in with the
infamous 1919 Chicago "Black Sox".
The top professional oarsmen were the famous figures of their day. Before
baseball caught the public attention, rowing and sculling races were immensely
popular. Before the 1850s most races were in work-boats and were between the
commercial rowers. Many were the New York Whitehallers who were the
taxis of the day. They would row passengers across the East and Hudson Rivers
for a fee. Being a faster sculler attracted more fares. Races between them
showed professional supremacy.
Some races were between ship’s crews visiting a harbor and local crews.
Such was the case in 1824 when the British frigate, Hussar, was moored
off Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor. Captain Harris of the Hussar put
up a $1,000 prize and challenged any American crew to a race. It just happened
that Captain Harris had on board a fast London-built four-oar and also on board
was a hand picked crew of London watermen. Here’s an account from American
Rowing by Robert F. Kelley, 1932:
The New Yorkers immediately turned to the American Star and
very shortly had a crew of Whitehall men selected… Final details included
the selection of a start off the frigate, one of her guns to call for the
start, with the course to and around a boat moored off Hoboken Point and
return to the finish at the Battery Flagstaff. By the time of the race,
which was held in December, a month hardly associated with rowing in modern
times, a good deal more than the original $1,000 was at stake. The entire
city was aroused, and early in the morning craft headed out on the river and
anchored at advantageous places along the course. Crowds began gathering
along the waterfront until 50,000 stood on the wharves and at the Battery.
In the early afternoon a sudden burst of cheering among those at the Battery
announced that the American Star was shoving off for the race. She
was polished and shining, a small American flag flying at her prow. The crew
wore special uniforms for the occasion, white guernsey shirts, blue
handkerchiefs tied around the head and blue pants. With short, crisp strokes
the crew pulled out to the frigate and rested on their oars. Almost
immediately the British raceboat, owning the possibly boastful name of
Certain Death, was launched. She, too, flew her national colors, and her
crew were attired in the British Navy uniform. Captain Harris himself came
overside to act as coxswain.
The race must have been something of an anti-climax. At the outset,
the American took the lead and clung to it to the finish, the British boat
being 300 or 400 yards behind at the finish…
On the night after the race the crews of both boats were called to the
stage of the Old Park Theater, attired in their racing costumes, and given
an ovation by the audience.
1824 Whitehall -
The boat itself, the American Star, became a celebrity. In 1825 the
boat was fitted with red carpets and silver oars. The occasion was the visit of
General George Washington Lafayette. With a hand-picked crew, the American
Star carried the General from Whitehall (New York City) to Jersey City and
back. Afterwards, the boat was presented to the General and traveled with him to
France. The boat still exits and is preserved at Lafayette's chateau. Mystic
Seaport Museum has a replica named the General Lafayette.
There were two ways an oarsman could profit from a race. One was the
prize, usually cash, but sometimes valuable prizes such as sterling silverware,
gold watches, and even boats and oars were awarded. One prize is described in
the 1873 Aquatic Monthly as a silver championship belt "manufactured by Messrs.
Tiffany & Co., in 1864, at a cost of $200. It is of sterling silver, thirty-six
inches in diameter, two inches wide, and weighs sixteen ounces. Around it are
elegant raised shields, also of solid silver for the purpose of recording each
The second way was the kickback from gamblers. Each oarsman or crew had a
committee of supporters or backers that served as managers. They would make all
arrangements for a race including raising the cash prize. The backers would then
set out to book bets on the race and they would reward their oarsmen for a
successful venture. Huge sums of money were bet and many times less than upright
people bet more than they could afford to lose. If there was a way to influence
the outcome in favor of your sculler or crew then it was tried. Samuel Crowther
wrote in Rowing & Track Athletics in 1905:
The professional racing drew the crowds and created the public
excitement; a race between prominent scullers or crews was witnessed by from
ten to fifty thousand people, and the betting was like that on a horse-race.
The modern police arrangements were unknown, and the referee seldom decided
against the home crew; the patriotism of the small town for its base-ball
team is as nothing compared with the feeling in New York for the Biglins or
other favorites, and that of the Hudson dwellers for the Wards. In match
races each sculler was followed by a pilot barge [usually rowed by eight
oarsmen with a passenger in the bow] from the bow of which some friend urged
him on and at the same time intimidated the opponent; it was win at any
cost. The visiting oarsman had little chance; if the crowd did not break his
boat before the start, he would have to run a gantlet of craft as soon as he
took the lead, and many a man had his boat cut in two by a barge when
leading toward the finish. In one of Ellis Ward’s races on the Harlem
against a number of local favorites, he had to dodge four barges that went
at full speed for him, and, all else failing, the boats massed at the finish
so that he could not cross on the proper side of the stake-boat, and then
the opponents claimed that the race should not be given to him because he
had not finished in the correct place. It was the universal custom for the
leading boat to give the nearest competitor the "wash" and every trick
possible was played. The referee was the sole judge, and if he decided a
race a draw, no matter what the outcome had been, the bets were off, and
there are several recorded cases where such a decision was given simply
because the home crew had been heavily backed and had lost.
The Ward Brothers - Champions
In 1837 the champion sculler, Stephen Roberts, challenged any man to race
in 17 ft. work-boats for $200. Sidney Dorlan of New York accepted the challenge.
The race was in New York harbor from Castle Garden to Bedloe’s Island and back.
Dorlan won the race and the $200, but Roberts wanted a re-row. Roberts won the
re-row and $200. Now the score was one
one and so a third race was scheduled
with a $400 prize. Soon after the start Dorlan felt ill with cramps and did not
finish the race but Roberts continued and won the prize. A rematch was again
scheduled and took place in early 1838. Dorlan led all the way, but near the
finish he was run into by a boat containing Roberts’ friends. The referee’s decision was that it
was not a race and that it should be re-rowed. Dorlan, who thought he should
have been awarded the race, refused to re-row. -
So it goes.
Another tactic used by the unscrupulous backers was to try to influence
the betting odds. Faking an illness just prior to a race is one way to boost the
odds and make for a bigger pay-out after the unexpected victory, but there were
other ways as well. Cleaver wrote in The History Of Rowing about a race
between the Australians, Harry Searle and Julius Woolf, on the Parramatta River
H. E. Searle
Woolf had been defeated by Stansbury a
fortnight earlier, so he was not much in favor with the betting public, and
it looked as if Searle’s backers would have to be content with the bare
prize-money. John Spencer [Searle’s manager] refrained from betting at all
before the start of the race, and instructed Searle to hang back and "feel" Woolf in the early stages, and, as soon as he was sure of his man, to shake
his head from side to side, but not to go to the front until he got a signal
from Spencer, who was in a boat following the race.
The race had barely started when Searle’s
head was seen to wobble violently. This caused loud laughter among those who
had never seen Searle race before. Meanwhile, his commissioners were
snapping up every bet offered, with Woolf still leading and going great
guns. Suddenly Spencer waved a red handkerchief and in a hundred yards
Searle was a length ahead, and the issue beyond doubt.
I think I’d be a bit miffed if I were one of those who jumped into the
betting frenzy just after the start only to realize a minute or two later that
I’d been duped.
Another example of fair-play (or lack of) and the extent that the
participants went to try to protect themselves is described in the 1867 race
between James Hamill of Pittsburgh, champion, and Walter Brown of Portland,
Maine in Newburgh, NY on the Hudson River. Again, Samuel Crowther describes the scene in Rowing
Currier & Ives
Great Five Mile Rowing Match For $4,000 & The Championship Of America
James Hamill vs Walter Brown, 1867
oarsman, was referee; Brown’s people claimed
that no foul had occurred, and, of course, Hamill’s backers asserted their
rights. Ellis Ward had been at the turning boat, and he testified while the
crowd surged about the officials; to increase the excitement, the dock, on
which the crowd stood, fell in, and about half of them went into the water.
When all had been calmed, the referee gave the race to Hamill on the foul.
Four thousand dollars was up as a purse for the five-mile race, and
when boats started, it is estimated that some fifty thousand persons were
gathered on the banks; and the men were both popular and evenly matched, and
the betting was larger than on any previous race in the country. Each sculler had a six-oared barge behind him. In Hamill’s was John Biglin, and
Charlie Moore steered for Brown; Biglin and Moore flourished each a pistol,
and every moment one or the other was threatening to shoot as the opposing
barge happened to come too near the rival sculler. Amid such a volley of
curses the two rowed on. Brown was a very fast starter, and he at once took
a couple of hundred yards’ lead and attempted to give Hamill a wash, but
Hamill, though slow at the start, came up, passed Brown, and reached the
stake-boat four lengths ahead. At that time only one stake-boat was provided
for a race, and the boat that first reached it had the right of way, and the
other man must go around him. Hamill attempted to make a close turn, and the
strong ebb-tide took him hard on the boat and he could not get loose. Brown
was close behind him, and seeing the predicament, headed directly for Hamill,
broke his boat and put Hamill, who could not swim, into the water to be
picked up by his pilot. Then Brown went on down and claimed the race;
Stephen Roberts, the veteran
The supporting barges are seen in this 1880 print of a race between two
scullers (Hanlan and Trickett)
and below the barges in the background after the race.
Back in the mid-1800s there was little difference between an amateur
and a professional. A professional raced regularly for cash and valuable prizes
and made a living doing so. An amateur also raced for the same cash and valuable
prizes but not successfully enough to drop his "day job". An interesting account
of this was at the 1873 Saratoga Regatta when an unknown sculler, Charles
Courtney, from nearby Union Springs entered the Amateur Singles. He had won a
local race in Union Springs and was only noticed by a few Saratoga citizens as
being a very fast sculler. He had no difficulty in winning his race and received
a nice sterling pot, but he was concerned because he only brought $15 with him
and his hotel bill would be much more. Margaret Look in Courtney, Master
Oarsman-Champion Coach quotes Courtney:
After the race I went up to pay my board, and asked what the bill was.
"Well, young man," said Mr. Moon, "come with me into the sitting-room and
we’ll settle up." We went in and he sat down at a table and pulled out a
roll of bills and counted them out. "There!" he said, "I won three hundred
dollars on this race – you take half of it." He insisted upon my taking the
money, and he didn’t charge me a cent for the board besides.
Then [before Courtney left the hotel] James H. Brister of Union
Springs came to my room and said he had placed a little on the race and as I
had done all the work I ought to have a share in the result. He had won six
hundred dollars and gave me half of it. I felt like a Rothschild. I never
had so much money before. I left Saratoga with $450 in my pocket, besides
the fifteen dollars I had brought. I tell you, I never let go of that money
until I got home.
So, the Saratoga Amateur Champion took home over a year's worth of wages
for his success in the race.
Charles Courtney – Amateur Champion
Sculling Race on the Monongahela River, Pittsburgh,
Perhaps it is worth taking a look at the
popularity of 19th Century rowing. Competition between watermen
became very popular with the public soon after the formation of the republic
where tens of thousands of people earned their livelihood propelling watercraft
with oars. From fishermen and whalers to pilot gigs and life-savers, from naval
frigate tenders and harbor ferries to Whitehall taxis and ships’ provisioners,
many people pulled an oar for a livelihood. This led to contests, although
fairly disorganized, and caught the public’s attention and interest. With this
attention and interest grew the opportunity to make a quick dollar by betting on
the outcome. This was the fuel that fed the popularity fire and through the
first half of the 1800s larger and larger crowds were drawn to the match races.
The Civil War checked the growth because of
its consuming demand for manpower and energy, but soon after the war’s
conclusion, the public’s interest grew with tremendous enthusiasm. Maybe the
single most notable event occurred in 1869 when Harvard sent a letter of
challenge to both Oxford and Cambridge to a race on the Thames. Cambridge
declined but Oxford accepted. The race to be in coxed-fours on the Putney-to-Mortlake
course (4¼ miles).
July Harvard made passage to London bringing with them their manager, own cook,
boat-builder (Elliott of Greenpoint, NY), three racing shells, 50 newspaper
correspondents, and numerous Harvard officials and supporters. After arriving in
London four more shells were offered to the Harvard crew. In the end, a shell
Elliott brought over from New York in pieces, was assembled and used in the
The Harvard accommodations were at the White
House on the embankment and daily drew dozens of visitors and hundreds of
spectators. It wasn’t long before the Harvard men realized that this was going
to be a huge public event and that they needed to take precautions to ensure
that nothing foul occurred. The Harper’s Monthly of December, 1869 gives a very
good description of all the preparations for the race.
The two chief dangers that seemed to threaten our
men from outside sources were, tampering with what they ate or drank before,
and interference in the race itself. The former was guarded against with
great care for ten days beforehand, by having a double allowance of
food and drink coming into the house, one through regular channels, the
other by secret means and the hands of Harvard men only. Though the
suspicion was day by day materially reduced, the feeling still was that we
should be very much chagrined if drugging the food, or any thing else in our
power to foresee, was not prevented. The men with whom we were to row, or
their friends, we never thought of mistrusting. It was only the tools of
betting men whom we had reason to fear.
Meanwhile back in the States, many
communities followed the race preparations with keen interest. Some even went so
far as to plan celebrations should the Harvard crew win. The H Book Of
Harvard Athletics by J.A. Blanchard describes:
The New York City Hall had
been decorated with flags in anticipation of victory, and they had prepared to
fire one hundred guns to celebrate the defeat of England. Harvard for once was
the great popular American University, representing the entire country, and her
crew was looked on with enthusiasm even in its defeat.
The Aquatic Monthly
of July, 1872
In the city of Milwaukee preparations were
instituted for a grand pow-wow in case the American crew should be
victorious. A public meeting was called at the City Hall, a salute of fifty
guns was to be fired, and the ringing of bells and blazing of bondfires,
were to add their effects to the general rejoicing.
The race was a great one. The London Times
reported one million spectators on the banks of the Thames. Harvard led for the
first two miles and then Oxford gradually drew ahead. Rowing & Track Athletics
describes the scene.
At Barnes Bridge, five furlongs from the finish,
two lengths of clear water separate them. For miles back the dense mass on
shore has been swaying and struggling, and now, like a mighty river, is
sweeping on over fields and fences, ditches and hedges, wild, mad with
fierce excitement, yelling at every breath, and with all its might. Seven
hundred and fifty thousand people are said to have been there that day.
Never, but once in this generation, has such a crowd been seen in England,
and then when the Prince of Wales first brought his wife home. The Derby Day
can not compare. All previous water fetes sink into insignificance.
Click here to see Illustrated London News image of the race finish
The fifty American correspondents pounded out
their stories for the American press to be telegraphed across the Atlantic. The
New York Times filled nearly their entire front page with the story including a
map of the course. This was the thrilla on the Thames.
Within months all across America, hundreds of
boat clubs were founded. Dozens of colleges formed rowing clubs. Rowing races,
boxing matches, and horse races were the most popular events in the country.
College races and sculling matches were more popular than ever. The professional
scullers became the super-stars. Lurking at these events
were the gamblers, ready to take money from the public any way they could.
Currier & Ives 1869 print of the Harvard-Oxford crews
The Great International Boat Race Aug. 27th 1869
A Colorful Toronto Sculler Becomes World
On an island in Toronto Bay lived a family who owned and ran a hotel. The
innkeeper’s son would soon become the superstar athlete similar to what we see
today at the highest level in professional sports. His name was Edward "Ned" Hanlan. His first press came in 1860 when, at the age of 5 years, the Toronto
Colonist wrote about his rowing across Toronto Bay. This would be the first
of thousands of inches of print written about the sculler who would be known as
Boy In Blue.
In 1876 he won some local regattas with ease and attracted the attention
of a few money men. Twenty men, such as Colonel A.D. Shaw, the American consul,
formed the Hanlan Club. These were Ned Hanlan’s advisors and business
managers making race contracts, arranging for prize money and essentially
promoting and cashing in on his success.
At the 1876 Centennial Regatta in Philadelphia, Hanlan decided to test his
skills in the Professional Sculling Championship. It was rumored that he had to
make a hasty exit from Toronto because of a minor scrape with the local police.
In Philadelphia some of the best scullers in the United States had entered and
little attention was given to the northerner. It would be the last time
that his name would be mentioned without igniting a fierce discussion about his
The race is described in The Canadians-Ned Hanlan
by Frank Cosentino:
Only 21 years old and
entered in his first international competition, Hanlan delighted his fans by
winning his first heat. But it was the race of the second heat, against the
American contenders Fred Plaisted and Pat Luther which amazed the crowds and
made Ned Hanlan the center of attraction. During the race, Hanlan actually
stopped rowing and peered ahead. He would allow the American to creep up
even with his stern and then accelerate with a long, powerful stroke, leaving
Plaisted huffing and puffing and thoroughly incensed as the crowds cheered in
Fred Plaisted - 1877
In many of the newspaper accounts of his races to follow, his long, smooth
and powerful stroke was described as it is above. He was also referred to as the
master of the sliding seat, a new invention introduced a few years earlier. His
style, rhythm, length and power allowed him to win many of his races with ease.
But not all races were to his liking.
On July 5th, 1877 a Boston newspaper described the professional
scullers’ race at the July Fourth Regatta with 30,000 spectators at the edge of
The Race Of The Day in which the
greatest attention seemed to be centered was that for the single-scull
wherries. The entries for this race embraced many of the finest professional
scullers in the country. The distance was 2 miles with a turn and the prizes
were $150, $50, and $25 respectively. Entries were, in order of starting
position: Fred Plaisted, James A. TenEyck, Alexander Braley, James Kelly,
Frenchy Johnson, John McKeel, M.J. Ahern, Edward Hanlan, D.D. Driscoll of
Lowell, William McCann, P. Driscoll, and George Hosmer. As the scullers took
their position Hanlan seemed either at a loss to know where he belonged, or
inclined to fish for a better boat position. He was finally assigned next to
All took the water together at 5:37
PM. After proceeding about a dozen lengths, Plaisted shot to the front,
closely followed by TenEyck and McKeel, while Johnson, DD Driscoll, Hanlan and
Hosmer were working hard to get an advantage over each other. After pulling
about a quarter mile it was evident that Hanlan and Johnson would surely foul,
and they did finally, just at the very time Johnson seemed to be crawling up
on Plaisted. Johnson was leading Hanlan slightly when it happened, but which
of the two was to blame could not be definitely ascertained, although each
laid the responsibility on the other. Both straightened out after about 10
seconds of time and the race from here to the stake was close between them,
Johnson having rather the best of the Toronto champion, although Plaisted
continued to lead. What transpired among some of the scullers at the upper
stake was quite exciting.
Plaisted made the mile in 6 min. 20
seconds, just three lengths ahead of Johnson and had squared away for home
when Hanlan was nearing the stake. The latter, either with intent or not
knowing he should turn the stake from the right to left, got directly in
Plaisted’s way, whereupon Plaisted yelled out to the judges: "See what that
man intends to do to me!" meaning Hanlan. Mr. Fitzgerald, one of the judges,
cautioned Hanlan to get out of the way, adding "You have done that on
purpose," whereupon Hanlan replied in a manner that was exceedingly
unbecoming, and continuing his course struck Plaisted’s boat with such force
that at first it was thought the latter would have to give up the race. During
this time Johnson had been delayed at the stake and was waiting with TenEyck
and Driscoll at his side Hanlan ran into him also. Frenchy called the
attention of the judges to the fact. The boats laid still for several seconds,
with McKeel, Hosmer, Braley and Ahearn awaiting a favorable chance to turn,
and all again got under way after Hanlan, who had been lying abreast of the
stake, was told to pull home by the judges. The struggle home for first place
was terrific, each man pulling all he knew how. Frenchy, who was second, in
his eagerness to win, rowed very close to the stone wall after leaving the
sluice, and had it not been for the crowds along the wall, would have run into
it. All came down in good style, Plaisted crossing the line about a length
ahead of Johnson, with TenEyck third, DD Driscoll fourth, McKeel fifth, Hosmer
sixth, Hanlan seventh and the rest close upon one another.
Hanlan claimed a foul after the race and the judges met at the Union Boat
Club for a hearing. The judges decided that the foul was the fault of Hanlan.
Below is an example of a typical professional race. It was a 4 mile race
in Brockville Ont. July 1st 1878 - $500 for 1st, $300 for 2nd and $200 for 3rd
place. Scheduled to race was Ned Hanlan-Toronto, A. Elliott-Toronto, Fred
Plaisted-Boston, John Kennedy-Boston, James TenEyck-Peekskill, Pat
Luther-Pittsburgh, William McKen-Toronto, and James Riley-Saratoga. These were
many of the best scullers in America in 1878.
Printed from The Brockville Rowing Club-100 Years of Rowing
Most of Hanlan’s races went like his race with Wallace Ross in Toronto
Bay. Hanlan met the rising star from Saint John, New Brunswick in October for
$300 per side. The public eagerly followed each day’s training by both scullers.
Betting was fierce with the New Brunswick public betting as high as 10:1 in
favor of Ross while the Toronto bookmakers snatched their bets. On October 16th,
after a weather delay, the scullers took to the water. Twenty-five thousand
spectators gathered for the race. Again, The Canadians-Ned Hanlan
describes the scene:
Hanlan and Ross were in their
respective quarters when word came that the race would be rowed that day. When
Wallace Ross walked out to take his place in his boat, polite applause greeted
him. When Hanlan appeared, wearing his traditional blue shirt, a loud and
sustained cheer arose from the waiting crowd, getting louder and longer with
each step he took. There was no question who was the favorite, the pride of
At the start, Hanlan opened a good
lead. The two oarsmen were a contrast in style: Hanlan with his long, smooth,
loping sweep of the oars gliding ahead; Ross with his short, choppy, slapping
effort lurching forward with every pull of the oars. When Hanlan began to
steer off course, Ross was able to catch up. But Hanlan soon corrected his
error and used his powerful sweeping stroke to spurt ahead by six lengths.
Again he started to steer far out of his lane, while shouts of "stop" and
"back in" rose above the din of cheering. Hanlan stopped, looked around, saw
his mistake and turned back to the course.
Back in his proper lane, Hanlan was
drawing farther ahead with each dip of his oars. At the turn, four kilometres
up the course, he had opened up a gap of 10 lengths. Once around the turn and
headed toward the finish line, Hanlan stopped and looked around, first to see
where Ross was, then to survey the huge throng milling on the shore and
cheering from packed decks of the steamers. A roar went up from the crowd.
Then while Ross went by, heading for the turning buoys, Hanlan acknowledged
the cheering, kissing his hand three times to the crowd, and started to row
again. Each section of the huge crowd roared its approval as Hanlan came into
view. Ross seemed disheartened and fell farther and farther behind, while The
Boy In Blue alternated between stroking powerfully and acknowledging
the cries of the crowd. Soon he was 20 lengths ahead, and by the end of the
race, Ned Hanlan coasted to the finish line 30 boat lengths in the lead.
For the New Brunswick public, it was
a bitter defeat… Toronto gloried in the victory.
Meanwhile, the other great sculling figure, Charles Courtney, was
capturing every amateur championship around. He went on to an undefeated amateur
record of 88 victories without a defeat. At the same 1876 Centennial Regatta,
Courtney won the Amateur Sculling Championship event, while Hanlan won the
professional event. Courtney turned professional in 1877 and in July he encountered one of his first
distasteful (literally & figuratively) experiences in the professional sculling ranks.
On Greenwood Lake, New Jersey, Charles Courtney and Saratoga sculler,
James Riley, were preparing for their professional sculling match. In
Courtney, Master Oarsman–Champion Coach, Margaret Look describes
"Up to noon today Courtney was in
magnificent condition. He said he never felt so well before a race in his
life. Three or four of his intimate friends and backers were at the little
hotel with him, keeping a close guard over his interests," the Ithaca reporter
"They all sat down to dinner together
at 12:00 o’clock, and Courtney ate a hearty meal, the principal dish being
mutton. After dinner he called the waiter girl and said that he would like a
glass of ice tea. All his friends agree that the hotel proprietor, Mr. George,
stopped the girl, saying that she did not know how to make it, and that he
would make it himself. He did so, and handed the mixture to Courtney, who
drank only part of it, saying, ‘That’s the worst tea I ever drank.’ A moment
afterward he said, ‘I feel very bad.’ And rising from his chair, vomited his
Courtney immediately fell into a
state of collapse and had to be assisted upstairs and put to bed. A fierce
pain attacked him in the pit of the stomach and gradually a burning sensation
mounted to his throat, remaining there. His hands and feet became cold and
clammy, tears ran from his bloodshot eyes, and a cold perspiration broke out
on his forehead. Finally he fell into a complete stupor, from which it was
impossible to rouse him, even with vigorous shaking. This description was in
the special dispatch to the New York Times.
Messengers had been sent for
physicians and medicine, but it was two hours before Dr. Olcott, who lived
across the lake, arrived. One of the afternoon trains brought Dr. Ward of
Newark, New Jersey and Dr. Nicholas of New York, who were pressed into service
immediately. Their treatments were a huge mustard plaster on his stomach and
chest, some camphor, brandy and water and paragoric. He did not rally,
however, for a long time.
A steady stream of anxious people
gathered in the hotel and filled the staircase leading to Courtney’s room, but
only a few were admitted to his room, one of them being Riley. When he saw his
big, muscular opponent writhing in pain, Riley said, "This man is sick, and I
will not row him. I want a well man to row with, and we will postpone it until
Monday or later."
Then Riley went downstairs, where he
was met by some of his friends and backers. One of them, Oliver Johnson, in a
loud-mouthed manner, said, "Let the sucker come down and row you," going on to
say that Courtney’s sickness was a sham…"
Frank Brown, the referee, decided in favor of Riley and announced that the race
would be rowed at 6:30. Courtney could not show and the race and purse was
awarded to Riley. -
So it goes.
It didn’t take very long for the Courtney backers and the Hanlan Club to
arrange for the clash of the two sculling titans. A race at Lachine, Quebec was
set for October 3rd, 1877 with a prize of $10,000. Again, we go to
Margaret Look in Courtney, Master Oarsman–Champion Coach:
Train after train had brought in an
estimated 20,000 visitors. Flags were flying at the quarters of the
contestants, vendors followed the crowds to the shore line and to every
vantage point along the river. After the storm and other delays, at 4:15 the
steamer finally gave four whistles, the signal for the contestants to appear.
Hanlan was the first to come to the
starting point. He wore a blue shirt with red trimming, and a red cap. He was
followed by Courtney who had on a white shirt with the blue star in the front
and a sky blue cap. Both men had heavy, dark mustaches, popular in that era.
They dipped sculls together, Hanlan
pulling 31 strokes a minute and Courtney 38. The lead, always slim, changed
hands several times, with the pace seeming to get faster and faster, as the
two shells sped "fairly hissing through the water." The cheers from the
spectators were deafening.
There are several versions of what
happened as the men reached the last two thirds of a mile of the course. One
account said that Hanlan spurted ahead by three boat lengths, then Courtney
pulled harder and faster and kept gaining on Hanlan. There was still time for
Courtney to win, but some obstacles, said to be barges, had drifted into the
lanes. Both oarsmen had to change course to avoid them. Hanlan paused and
Courtney paused, too, but longer. Hence Hanlan won the race by a boat length
and a quarter…
The debate over fairness of the race,
the possibility of foul play and the chance that it may have been "sold"
continued in both countries.
The legitimacy of the race was never resolved and a great opportunity to
promote an even bigger race was presented. Mr. A.T. Soule of Rochester,
proprietor of the Hops Bitters Manufacturing Company, offered $6,000 to the
winner of a new match between Hanlan and Courtney to be raced on Lake Chautauqua
in Mayville, New York. A 5-mile race with turn was set for October 6, 1879. The
town of Mayville began preparations. Construction of a grandstand for 50,000
spectators was begun. A railroad spur was constructed along the shore so that an
observation train over one-half mile long could follow the race.
As race day approached 25,000 spectators arrived the day before the race,
but the race was postponed to October 16th because Hanlan’s boat
broke. The spectators decided to stay and wait there the extra ten days. The
crowds grew and grew for the event on the 16th. Accommodations and
facilities were stressed and anticipation grew with each passing day.
Courtney, Master Oarsman–Champion Coach describes the scene:
The morning of the 16th
found Jamestown almost a ghost town, because everyone was on his way to the
northern end of the lake. Storekeepers [in Mayville]
were just opening their doors, and the hotel kitchens were getting breakfast
ready, when rumors spread that during the night Courtney’s boats had been
sawed in two.
Speculation was rampant. Who had
sawed the boats? Would the race be rowed? What of the bets that had been made?
Mayville was in an uproar.
When two Jamestown reporters went to
Courtney’s headquarters at the Cornell residence, Courtney said, "Boys, they
sawed my boats in two. Then he explained that he was awakened at 5:30 that
morning by Bob Larmon, his nephew, and Burt Brown, both of them amateur
oarsmen, who had been hired to help with the boats. These two men had told
Courtney that they left the boathouse at 6:00 o’clock the evening before to go
to Mayville for supper and on an errand. When they left they locked the
boathouse door on the lake side with a padlock and hooked the rear door, then
put a nail over the hook. When they returned from Mayville, they found the
rear door had been forced, the nail broken, and both boats cut in two. The
racing shell was sawed nearly through, in diagonal direction 12’ 10" from the
bow. The practice shell was sawed entirely through 6’4" from the stern.
Courtney told reporters that he had
told Blaikie [referee] the week before about the offers he had received to fix
the race. He also said his life had been threatened, and for this reason he
had been carrying a gun the last few days. Courtney showed reporters some of
the threatening notes he had received. One was signed "Jack and Jill," and the
other bore the name "Justess."
The little community of Mayville had
never seen such "sharpies" before. "Every swindle known to dishonesty was
practiced with impunity at Mayville," the Jamestown reporter wrote. The
Syracuse Courier said, "The developments of today created a feeling of
widespread disgust, the result of which will be to discourage public attention
in future sporting events…." Other papers echoed this feeling, saying that the
real victims were the spectators who had no way of knowing whether a
competition was honest or not, but now would probably consider all contests
crooked. They predicted a quick demise for many spectator sports. The editor
of the Troy Times, Charles S. Francis who was a skilled sculler and
Cornellian said: "It seems as if never since the firing on Fort Sumter did an
event so arouse the anger of the American people. In every city, village and
hamlet, wherever a telegraph wire or a newspaper penetrated, the storm of
Yes, the suspicion of fixing and manipulating races was strong and
widespread. Especially since the Mayville fiasco came soon after the Riley
Affair. The book, The Canadians–Ned Hanlan describes
The Town of Barrie
was holding its second annual regatta on Kempenfeldt Bay and had invited an
American, James H. Riley, to row against Hanlan. The champion
agreed, against his better judgement. He was not in good condition after his
recent trip across the Atlantic, and halfway through the course Hanlan had to
stop. Riley was stunned and refused to cross the finish line. He had obviously
placed bets on Hanlan and would lose his money if he won the race. The judges
were flabbergasted by the whole affair, ruled the race a draw and ordered a
re-row. Hanlan declined, preferring to forfeit the prize money.
Ned Hanlan was a colorful personality. Pleasing the crowd was important to
him. He felt a little showboating would play well with the spectators even
when huge sums of money were at stake. In November of 1880, Hanlan was matched
against the World Champion, Edward Trickett from Australia. The race was set for
the Thames in London. Hanlan was tremendously successful in North America and
the Trickett race was his opportunity to become World Champion and a
lot of people could make a lot of money with his victory. We go to The
Canadians–Ned Hanlan again:
The Hanlan-Trickett race was the most
discussed and anticipated rowing championship ever held to that time. From
Australia, bookmakers received an estimated $100,000 in bets. The difference
in size between the two oarsmen was enough to attract large sums from the Antipods [Hanlan 5’ 8"-150 lb and Trickett 6’ 5"-195 lb]. Hanlan’s undaunted
supporters eagerly countered all wagers on Trickett. On one day alone, $20,000
was wired from New York in support of the North American champion. In Toronto,
the betting on the native son was so intense that one of Hanlan’s advisors,
Mr. H.P. Good, organized a group wager. Two days before the race a line-up two
blocks long trailed down Yonge Street from the Bank of Montreal offices.
Approximately $42,000 was raised and wired to England to back The Boy In
Blue. For every Canadian and American dollar, however, there was an eager
Australian or Englishman ready to match it. But odds, which had been very much
in favor of Trickett when the race was announced, began to even out as the
November 15 event approached.
Edward Trickett, Australia vs Edward Hanlan,
Race day dawned damp and murky.
Showers fell but failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the British public. Along
the shores or watching from one of the bridges which crossed the river, an
estimated 100,000 people.
In some ways, the November 15 race
was a study in gamesmanship. Hanlan seemed so completely oblivious to any
pressures. Aware that the Governor-General of Canada had requested that news
of the race be telegraphed to him immediately and that newspapers from coast
to coast were writing of this race as an event of national importance, Hanlan
simply said, "I can assure you that I will do my best, not only for myself and
friends but for the honour of the country across the water, which I love so
At 12:30, the starter’s signal was
followed by four splashes of water and a deafening cheer from the spectators.
The race was on. Trickett, relying on a shorter stroke and the power of his
immense arms, started with 40 strokes per minute to Hanlan’s 36. His slight
lead at the beginning was quickly wiped out as the full force of Hanlan’s
stroke took effect. Reaching the Soapworks, a landmark one and a half
kilometres beyond the start, Hanlan’s steady stroke had opened a lead of two
lengths, and the pace was such that Trickett seemed to be straining to
maintain his arm-wearying tempo. A cheer went up from the huge crowd. Hanlan
seemed to enjoy his reception so much that he steered off the course. Anxious
shouts filled the air, until, with one hard pull of his left oar, he was back
on course, still two lengths ahead of Trickett.
At Hammersmith Bridge, about
one-third of the way down the course, Hanlan had opened up a three-length
lead. On the bridge above the oarsmen, an ecstatic jumble of people clambered
from one side to the other in their attempt to get the best view. The cheering
which had been continuous ever since the oarsmen came into view abruptly
stopped and was replaced by a murmur of puzzled speculation. Hanlan had
stopped rowing! Trickett, sensing that something had happened, turned, saw the
gliding Hanlan boat and set out to close the gap. Pulling even with his
contender, the Australian watched in dismay as Hanlan picked up his pace and
again spurted into a three-length lead. The spectators along the shore and
above the bridge shouted their appreciation for Hanlan’s prowess. The outburst
was even louder when Hanlan let his boat drift near the bank and nodded his
head to the delighted spectators. Between Hammersmith Bridge and Chiswick,
about half-way down the course, Hanlan stopped rowing, leaned back and calmly
surveyed the scene. Trickett relentlessly rowed on. Pulling even with Hanlan’s
boat again, Trickett watched in disbelief as his opponent, with a few powerful
strokes, re-established his three-length lead. About 15 minutes into the race,
Hanlan spotted William Elliot, whom he had defeated for the English
championship the year before, watching from a boat. Without hesitation, Hanlan
rowed over towards him, asked how he had spent the year and generally caught
up on what had happened since their last meeting. By this time, the crowd was
in a frenzy, and Trickett was straining to take the lead. His conversation
finished, Hanlan leaned overboard, scooped up a handful of water and wet his
face and powerfully made his way back into his race lane. As he approached the
Bull’s Head Hotel, the headquarters of the Canadian contingent, Hanlan
stopped, removed his handkerchief and waved it to the spectators. He seemed to
be reserving one item of conversation for each group of spectators along the
With one and a half kilometres to go,
Hanlan had again opened up a three-length lead. Trickett was obviously beaten.
He had rowed steadily from the beginning, unable to take advantage of any
rests and forced to sprint against his will when it looked as if Hanlan were
in trouble. The all-out cheering which accompanies a tight contest had died
down. Though those who had bet on Hanlan were still urging him on, those who
had bet on the Australian seemed resigned to their loss and only occasionally
raised their voices in more of a plea than a cheer.
Suddenly, the cheerers pleaded and
the pleaders cheered. Hanlan appeared to collapse. He had slumped forward, his
oars drifting, his boat slowing down under the burden of his weight and drag
of the oars. Trickett turned to see his competitor and, filled with new hope,
began to pull harder. Nothing like it had ever been seen on the Thames. The
challenger in the lead was seemingly helpless, as the champion, arm-weary from
the constant strain, sought to regain the lead and his title. All around
sounded the confused din of thousands who couldn’t believe what was happening.
As Trickett pulled even with Hanlan, he cast a glance over to the motionless
challenger. At that moment, Hanlan raised his head and flashed a smile at the
champion. Trickett was shattered. Grabbing his oars, Hanlan gave a wave to the
crowd and pulled away once more. In the final yards of the race, Hanlan was
rowing consecutive strokes, first with his right oar, then with his left, as
the boat zig-zagged toward the finish line. Cannons erupted, whistles blew,
bells pealed for Hanlan. A very downcast Trickett slipped from sight, retiring
to his quarters. It was reported that he took sick and refused to see anyone.
The Australians were a glum lot. Not
only had their man lost the world title, but they had also spent so much money
on the wagers that many did not have the fare necessary to return home. It was
only through the quiet action of former Australians living in London that a
fund was started to return the stranded to their homeland.
Edward Hanlan crushed Trickett for the World Championship. Muhammad Ali
wasn’t the first athlete to show such superiority and be able to toy with his
opponent. Why was Hanlan so determined to embarrass Trickett? It seems that
Hanlan was incensed because Trickett and his friends were cocky and
mocking him during training. - So it goes.
The following year, 1881, Hanlan met Australian, Elias Laycock back on the
Thames in London. Laycock insisted that clauses in their contract be included
that forbade Hanlan from mocking him in the race or embarrassing him in
any way. In a personal letter that I possess from Hanlan to Colonel Shaw while
training for the match, Hanlan states that he’ll "make Mr. Laycock hop over this
course [or] I am not Edward Hanlan". Hanlan raced seriously and went on to win
Hanlan defeating Laycock - 1881
However, his rematch with Trickett in 1882 on the Thames followed the
antics of the 1880 race. Hanlan played with Trickett during the race and then
crossed the finish with almost a minute and a half lead. To add insult to
injury, Hanlan turned his boat around and rowed down to Trickett, still on the
racecourse, turned around again and beat him back to the finish a second time.
Hanlan went on to defend his World Champion title until August 16th,
1884, when Australian, William Beach, defeated him on the Parramatta River. For
the next decade professional rowing slowly died because of the chicanery and the
attention that other sports, such as baseball, were now commanding. By the turn
of the century, professional rowing was history and the cheering crowds, the
money wagered, and the superstar status of the scullers and oarsmen were mostly
So it goes.
William Beach - World Champion, 1884
19th Century rowing – immense popularity, huge crowds, vast
sums of money, great excitement and many dirty tricks.
American Rowing by Robert F. Kelley, G.P.
Putnam's Sons, NY, 1932
Rowing & Track Athletics by Samuel Crowthers
and Arthur Ruhl, The Macmillan Co, NY, 1905
The History of Rowing by Hylton Cleaver,
Herbert Jrnkins, London, 1957
The H Book Of Harvard Athletics,
John A. Blanchard, 1923
Aquatic Monthly, ed. Peverelly, July
The Canadians-Ned Hanlan by Frank Cosentino,
Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd. Ontario, 1978
Courtney, Master Oarsman-Champion Coach
by Margaret K. Look, Empite State Book, NY, 1989