02-15 TABLE of CONTENTS:
QUOTES by Susan B. Anthony and Hillary Clinton.
Enduring a life of hardship, Exilda La Chapelle
was not afraid to clear her own path.
-- by Dahn Shaulis
In the 1870s, hundreds of people participated in professional walking events. These courageous men - and women - of various ages, races and nationalities performed amazing endurance feats, sometimes before enormous crowds. Known at the time as pedestrians, these performers sometimes walked on indoor sawdust tracks for nearly a month with little or no rest. Other times the pedestrians competed in six-day races or journeyed hundreds or thousands of miles cross-country.
Unfortunately, stories about the walkers were forgotten and remnants of their accomplishments disappeared. Buildings where they ambled were demolished generations ago. Photographs of the athletes and champions belts have been discarded or lost. Only preserved newspaper accounts give evidence that these bold performers existed.
The following story of one walker, Exilda La Chapelle, born 02-15-1859, was pieced together from hundreds of news clippings written nearly 120 years ago.
Typical of many pedestrians, Exilda was a young immigrant. According to her accounts, she was born in 1859, one day after Valentine's Day, in Marseilles, France. Little else is known about her family, although it is possible that her father was a doctor, and that she was probably the only child. It is also known that her family moved to Canada when she was very young, though no one can be sure why they emigrated.
What was likely thought as a chance for opportunity turned into disaster, and ultimately changed her destiny. Soon after reaching Canada, Exilda's father and mother both perished. After her parents's deaths, an itinerant uncle became her guardian and they apparently traveled throughout America. Exilda was clearly an intelligent girl, but she did not enjoy school. Rather than being in school, the girl would rather walk. In fact, her desire to walk would become her destiny.
It is not clear whether her uncle became her manager or whether she ran away.
It is evident that by the age of thirteen Exilda was walking for a living. As a "pedestrienne," she probably walked several hours a night, in taverns and small theaters throughout the Canada and the Northern United States. Pedestrian performances were considered exciting entertainment, especially when spectators wagered on the contests. Large numbers of people came to see the girl walk. Yet many spectators and other citizens considered pedestriennes to be "fallen women."
Respectable citizens frequented the performances, but not without disguises. In an atmosphere of smokey saloons, obnoxious men, and cheap hotel rooms, Exilda grew into womanhood quickly.
After two years of walking at night, fifteen-year-old Exilda decided to take the more socially acceptable role of wife and mother. I can't be sure whether her last name, La Chapelle, was her husband's name, or whether it could have been her maiden name, or a stage name. I do know that she quit the entertainment business, stayed at home, and at age seventeen had a child. But misfortune again struck Exilda when her infant son died. Although she had been a pillar of strength as a walker, years later in an interview, she openly sobbed, and admitted that the loss of her son was the worst tragedy of her bittersweet life.
During Exilda's hiatus from walking, the status of women's walking efforts improved.
In 1876, Bertha Von Hillern and Mary Marshall battled each other in six-day races before crowds of thousands in Chicago and New York City, and Millie Rose defeated all-comers in Cincinnati.
In 1877, May Marshall amazed New Yorkers by legitimately beating a male pedestrian in a series of 20-mile performances. During the period large daily newspapers began favorably acknowledging women's walking efforts.
Heartbroken from her son's death, but motivated by the chance to gain wealth, Exilda returned to the walking track in 1877. Although her husband was at least partially supportive of his wife's return to walking, it appears that Exilda determined the racing strategies. The first newspaper account of the walkers return came from the sports daily the New York Clipper. Although the small article, dated November 30, 1878, was not favorable, it at least recognized her efforts: Phil Heck was ungallant enough to defeat Miss Exilda La Chapelle in a supposed fifteen mile walking match, for $50, at Belle City Hall, Racine, Wisconsin. His time was announced as 2h. 35m. 42s.; La Chapelle's, 2h. 54m.
One month later, women's walking exploded in popularity. An English woman in Brooklyn, Ada Anderson, was attempting a seemingly impossible task, to walk 2700 quarter-miles in 2700 consecutive quarter-hours. Towards the end of her month-long endeavor, thousands of people, including well-heeled gentlemen and society belles paid up to $1 apiece to see the walk. Madame Anderson's successful finish was reported as front page news throughout America. Other women soon attempted to break Anderson's record in search of fame and fortune. In New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., women feverishly walked the sawdust rings.
In Chicago, Madame La Chapelle also attempted a great effort. Despite the fact that she looked like a young girl, Chicago newspapers called her "one of the greatest female pedestrians." During Exilda's month-long walk at the Folly Theatre, the newspapers reported extensively on her weight (which began at about 100 pounds and ended at 92 pounds), physical appearance (an assortment of tasteful dresses and leggings), mental disposition (ranging from happy to discouraged), and diet (raw oysters, eggs, beef tea, sherry). La Chapelle's endeavor was a financial success, with thousands of spectators, including Chicago's Mayor Heath.
Towards the end of her record performance, however, Exilda's health declined. Her feet were always sore, requiring frequent lancing of blisters, followed by a covering of lint and cotton. Because she had to walk every fifteen minutes her feet never healed. She also had a bout with headaches and fever, and the tobacco smoke and gas light fumes irritated her eyes.
At one point, Exilda no longer awoke to the alarm bell, and she needed to be rousted by her husband or her doctor. Frequently she walked in a daze, and guards were placed near the theater's pillars to prevent her from walking into them. She also lost her appetite, and could only drink beef tea. Newspaper reports stated that Exilda looked haggard, and that it was doubtful whether she could go much longer.
From January 25 to February 22, 1879, Exilda walked a quarter mile every fifteen minutes. Despite the obvious pain of sore feet and lack of sleep, she never publicly complained. And somehow she gained a second wind. Women patrons presented her with expensive jewelry, and less affluent admirers presented her with bouquets and applause. At the finish, La Chappelle not only broke the previous record, but shattered it, making 3,000 quarter miles. The newspapers reported that when Exilda broke the record, the audience "yelled itself hoarse." Headlines called her performance "the greatest pedestrian feat ever attempted in the West."
Not everyone was pleased with Exilda's performance, or similar performances. In New York, the Women's Christian Temperence Union decried the evil of pedestrianism. In Philadelphia, the medical association called for an end to competitive walking for women, stating that such competition amounted to cruelty. The Washington Post, while favorably covering local pedestrienne contests, compared watching La Chapelle's walk to viewing the Spanish Inquisition. Despite negative press, the pedestrian craze continued, and Madame La Chapelle was preparing for her next walk in New York City.
Gilmore's Garden in New York City was a melting pot of women pedestrians. Most of the women were young immigrants, but a few middle-aged women also entered the race. The sports newspaper Spirit of the Times even reported that two society ladies had entered the competition for "fun and reputation."
The contest included the best pedestriennes in America including Madame Anderson, Sarah Tobias, and Bertha Von Berg. Unfortunately, the contest also included those who clearly were unprepared for multi-day competition. Though the race was advertised as a six-day affair, it actually covered seven days. Bending to the city restriction of women's contests on the Sabbath, the race managers scheduled Sunday as a day of rest.
The excitable Exilda gained an early lead in the first three days despite her husband's admonitions to slow down and pace herself . She also became a crowd favorite for her short bursts of speed. In a sudden turn of events, however, the "fiery French girl" refused to walk another step when she found her husband flirting with women spectators.
Press coverage of the Gilmore Garden contest was often negative. The New York Times reported that several of the untrained women had walked themselves into severe exhaustion. Despite the negative publicity, crowds of up to 8000 people watched the walkers. With Exilda out of the race, Bertha Von Berg claimed the title Lady Pedestrian of the World.
Exilda's next walking exploits came from Platts Hall in San Francisco. In June 1879, she and Fanny Edwards attempted to break Exilda=s consecutive quarter-mile record. La Chapelle and Edwards both received favorable reviews, but the competition was not without controversy. Early on, Edwards=fans claimed that Exilda was being dragged around the track in her sleep by her handlers. Later, one of La Chapelle's handlers was reportedly poisoned by food meant for her. After 3200 quarter-hours, both agreed to a tie, so that they could enter the six-day race at Mechanic's Pavilion. Exilda was so popular in the city that a benefit was held for her, and admirers presented the woman with expensive gifts.
Mechanics Pavilion rivaled Gilmore's Garden in size, with a seating capacity for 4000 to 6000 spectators; the sawdust track was 252 yards around, with tents for each participant.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported in detail about the pedestriennes. In fact, much of what we know about Exilda came from interviews with a Chronicle reporter. The reporter described Exilda as a French-accented woman with a bright boyish face, shingled black hair, and a graceful and swift walk. Perhaps smitten with the walker, the reporter wrote that her size two feet "twinkled in the sawdust."
During the race, however, Exilda was portrayed as a crafty competitor, knowing exactly how to psychologically defeat her opponents. She claimed to the reporter that she now walked solely for financial gain, and hoped to leave racing by the age of 23. The $1000 winner's check that she received would hopefully help her retire.
Although Exilda said that she hoped to retire, she also had a strong desire to vanquish her rival Bertha Von Berg. The Chronicle described the rivalry as the battle of "oil and water," and the September six-day match between the two women was headlined as the "Franco-German" war. In an interview Exilda boldly stated "Von Berg says she'll walk the shoes from me, but I - I say, if she walks the shoes off me I'll walk the blood out of her."
The unseasonally oppressive heat made the race difficult for both women. La Chapelle was better suited for the heat than the larger Von Berg. At the finish of the contest, Exilda had outpaced her foe by more than 70 miles.
Despite her victory and another sizeable winner's check, Exilda did not retire from walking. Instead, she returned for the December six-day race in New York's Madison Square Garden (previously known as Gilmore's Garden). Exilda was outclassed by several younger women, including sixteen-year-old Amy Howard and Sarah Tobias, a physical education instructor. Not content that she was finished, Exilda returned to San Francisco in 1880, competing in a 24-hour race against men. A year later she made a great comeback, walking 343 miles in six days, finishing second to the undefeated star Amy Howard.
However, years of walking with little rest and sleep deprivation, probably took its toll. It is also believed that Exilda had contracted malaria on one of her ship voyages from New York to San Francisco. Although only 22 years old, it seemed that Exilda had walked forever.
A small article reported her last known appearance, a victory in a small race, in Vallejo, California.
Not much is known about women's pedestrianism after the early 1880s. It appears that the sport lost popularity, and women's races became rare. One walker, Sarah Tobias, continued to walk until at least 1889, while others moved into bicycle racing. It was rumored that Bertha Von Hillern was adopted by a socialite family in Boston, and Madame Anderson resumed her previous career of singing and acting. Amy Howard became a song and dance performer with her husband. But sadly, she died in childbirth at age 24. The whereabouts of Exilda remain a mystery. I'd like to believe that she retired to the country home she dreamed about, free to take long relaxing walks whenever she wished.
Today people of all ages continue to walk and hike despite significant barriers. It is hoped that this story of an enduring walker from an age long forgotten will serve as an inspiration for all of us to continue rambling along.
[Copyright: Dahn Shaulis, 1995. This article used with permission. About the Author: Dahn Shaulis is an exercise physiologist, historian, and sociologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Shaulis's current research is identifying social and historical barriers that have constrained older adults from engaging in exercise. You can read more by him on the subject of women pedestriennes in the Spotlight on Women of Achievement articles.]
Susan B. Anthony on Self-Respect
"So while I do not pray for anybody or any party to commit outrages, still I do pray, and that earnestly and constantly, for some terrific shock to startle the women of this nation into a SELF-RESPECT which will COMPEL them to see the abject degradation of their present position; which will force them to break their yoke of bondage, and give them FAITH IN THEMSELVES; which will make them proclaim their allegiance to WOMEN FIRST; which will enable them to see that man can no more feel, speak or act for women than could the old slaveholder for his slave. The fact is, women are in chains, and their servitude is all the more debasing because they do not realize it.
"O, to compel them to see and feel and to give them courage and conscience to speak and act for their own freedom, though they face the scorn and contempt of all the world for doing it! "
-- Susan B. Anthony, 1870.
02-15 DATES, ANNIVERSARIES, and EVENTS
B. 02-15-1820, Susan Brownell Anthony, affectionally known as Aunt Susan. One of the primary figures of the 19th century battle for women's rights and became its best known spokeswoman. Elected to Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1950. An untiring pioneer crusader for women's rights, women's suffrage, Negro suffrage and abolition who traveled this nation constantly for 60 years for social justice. Her last public words: "Failure is impossible."
The magazine The Revolution_ which she edited along with feminist philosopher Elizabeth Cady Stanton during the 1870s-80s, supported equal pay for women, practical education for girls, and an eight-hour work day.
Anthony was asked shortly before her death if all women in the U.S. would get the vote. She said, "It is inevitable. We can no more deny forever the right of self-government to one-half of our people than we could keep the Negro forever in bondage."
B. 02-15-1836, Sarah Fuller, early advocate of teaching deaf children to read lips rather than signing. Taught Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, at her Boston School for Deaf-Mutes, which later became known a the Horace Mann School for the Deaf.
B. 02-15-1858, Marcella Sembrich, Polish coloratura.
B. 02-15-1859, Exilda La Chapelle, pedestrian. [Story above.]
B. 02-15-1860, Annie Blythe West, Japanese government gave her the 6th degree of the Order of the Crown for her 40 years of missionary work in Japan among women, children, and disabled soldiers.
B. 02-15-1876, Ada Everleigh who with her sister Minna operated a brothel in Chicago, "probably the most famous and luxurious house of prostitution in the country" from 1900-1911. At the time there were reported to be nearly 600 houses of prostitution in Chicago alone.
When a reform movement closed the Everleigh house in 1911 because of their fame (others remained open), the sisters retired millionaires.
HIStorians gloss over the open prostitution and white/sexual slavery of the day of pre-feminism. The "good ole days" were not so good for women who were totally "ruined" by rape or perceived sexual misconduct of any kind and often had no other choice than to turn to prostitution to support themselves since women's work seldom paid enough to survive.
QUOTES DU JOUR
ANTHONY, SUSAN B.:
"Marriage, to women as to men, must be a luxury, not a necessity; an incident of life, not all of it."
-- Susan B. Anthony.
"Now why is it that man can hold woman to this high code of morals, like Caesar's wife -- not only pure but above suspicion - and so surely and severely punish her for every departure, while she is so helpless, so powerless to check him in his license, or to extricate herself from his presence and control? His power grows out of his right over her subsistence. Her lack of power grows out of her dependence on him for her food, her clothes, her shelter."
-- Susan B. Anthony.,1875.
"Never another season of silence."
-- Susan B. Anthony.
"Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less!"
-- The motto of the Revolution, the publication of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
"I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."
-- Susan B. Anthony.
"I'm kind of a transition person in the history of our country..."
-- Hillary Clinton on the Larry King Show noting her role as a working woman and mother.
[How long are we going to accept these lies about working mothers being a new thing? My mother worked outside the home more than 70 years ago. Look at HERstory at all the women who worked outside the home... -- IS]
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