One hundred and four years ago no Canadian scored more media depictions than Tom Longboat. He starred on Pet Cigarettes Company’s promotional trading cards, drawn brown and sockless, poised on a disappearing, curved path. And on the front pages of Toronto’s daily newspapers the five foot, eleven-inch athlete, slender and muscular, and only months past 20, was among the first generation of mass-produced images to saturate the nation.
“Wildfire,” they called him.
The boy had spent all of his days on or around the Six Nations of the Grand River Indian Reserve, in southern Ontario. His dad died when he was five. He spent more hours than most Canadian boys doing chores. He tended to the chickens and a small garden adjacent to their tiny cabin.
His mother thought the world of him. She had named the boy Cogwagee, “everything,” in their Iroquois tongue.
When Cogwagee was very young, he played the games Onondaga kids all across the reserve enjoyed. He played when they could, and that was not often. Cogwagee and his brother and sister had to plow the land by hand, because they didn’t have a mule, then fish Grand River well enough to get through winter
The Six Nations boy often walked all up and down and around the reserve, beyond the river. And far more often than not, the boy ran. Slight, auburn-skinned and tireless, he could be spotted striding toward that one white neighbor’s home, near Brantford, to earn a few pennies picking apples. He could be found striding toward the property of another neighbor, the one who paid him for help with farm work.
As this was all he knew, Cogwagee deeply loved Grand River life. He’d compete heartily at lacrosse, teamed with his brother, or maybe play the Snow Snake Plate game, hurling his flat stick far down the wet and icy ditch.
He was respectful to reserve elders during Council Fire religious ceremonies. He was respectful to the white apple growers and hay farmers who called him by his English name, Tom Longboat. At the Anglican missionary boarding school where he was also called by that name, Cowagee’s demeanor was altogether different.
He chafed at the haircut that was mandatory for entrance. Then he watched with disapproval as his Christian teachers doled beatings to students who dared speak their native Iroquois tongue. There was heavy discipline for playing traditional Indian games and for wearing tribal jewelry. Before all alternatives, they would be struck or humiliated.
And so he ran, away from the missionary school to the home of a nearby family and soon thereafter, into the pages of history.
This summer’s Olympiad will return Cogwagee’s story to the world stage. His uncommon rush to international celebrity came 104 years ago, in London, as he, Johnny Hayes of the United States and Italian Dorando Pietri formed the nexus of an Olympic moment that many say saved The Games.
The Longboat legacy remains misunderstood. It’s too often painted as a story of tragic loss and disappointment. Only in the past two generations, through the intrepid and tireless rehabilitation efforts of a handful of academics, has the nation’s most accomplished runner been rehabilitated.
“He was a product of his time in that he was misunderstood and was put through incredible racism by the white power structure of Canada,” observes David Davis, author of Showdown at Shepherd’s Bay. In his book, Davis chronicles “Marathon Mania,” a phenomenon of the early 20th century that married sport and spectacle in America. A key component is the conundrum that was Longboat’s relationship with his place of birth. “When he burst on the scene, it was like, ‘He’s one of us. Isn’t it great?’ But he wasn’t. They would explain his prowess as being because he was ‘natural.’ It was schizophrenic. Longboat had the opportunity that Jack Johnson didn’t have. [The U.S.] didn’t let Johnson fight for the title. It wasn’t the clear-cut racism.”
Stakes in professional sport were in the midst of being raised when Bill Davis, a Grand River First Nation runner famous for having competed in the Boston Marathon, entered Longboat in a Thanksgiving Day race called Around the Bay. It was 1906, and Tom Longboat could not have appeared more out of place. “Gangling and unsure of himself,” wrote author David Blaikie, “he cut a pathetic picture in a pair of bathing trunks and cheap sneakers on his feet, and hair that looked as if it had been hacked off by a tomahawk.” Bettors had set the odds of Longboat winning at 60-1. For him to win would be a miracle their eyes.
For 24 kilometers the unheralded newcomer used the favourite, a Brit named John Marsh, to set his pace, slowing down and speeding up at the same rate as the Englishman. Then, he blew past Marsh, beating him by four full minutes and nearly setting the course record.
This legendary performance would be the first of many.
The Northeast corridor was a hotbed of distance running, a spectator sport that was becoming more popular each year. From Halifax to Victoria, there spread a motley of road races and so-called marathons. (Today’s official distance—41.8 kilometers—hadn’t yet been settled upon.) With each race, Longboat performed with more record-breaking certainty and drew larger and larger crowds. He won a Toronto marathon by three full minutes, and on Christmas Day in Hamilton he broke the national 16-kilometer-run record by an absurd two-and-a-half minutes.
As a member of the reserve, the trainer Davis had been the most suitable guide for an athlete so insulated from the ways of the increasingly Americanized world. He also understood the First Nations-born training routines of alternating high- and low-intensity runs.
But there were limitations to Davis’ benefit. For one, he was not familiar with the news writers who were increasingly part of the professional sports equation; There were countless better candidates to book the young runner a race day hotel room in some faraway place like Halifax or Boston; and, as an Indian, Longboat’s first trainer couldn’t penetrate the barroom scene where endorsement deals were made.
New York transplant Harry Rosenthal became Longboat’s first official manager, but this union didn’t last long. These were the last days of the gentleman athlete, men with day jobs and an offhand approach to dealing with sport. Amateurism was a social ideal. So, when word got out that the young Indian’s housing was being paid for by the Toronto businessman, they quickly grew into allegations of improper expense money changing hands, and once again in the spring of 1907 “The Onondaga Wonder”—barely literate and having only recently seen an automobile—was on his own.
With an impressive string of circuit wins to his newly famous name, Longboat was no longer anybody’s long shot. Casino and hotel bar gamblers were now betting heavily on him to win the Boston Marathon. The West End Toronto YMCA registered him. He did not speak to the press, but alleged interviews with him were printed anyway. One broadsheet even ran a picture of a First Nations football player and said that it was Tom Longboat. His name was just that famous, his face, still that unknown.
On the nineteenth morning in April, the people of Massachusetts began to flow onto the road out of Hopkinton, 48 kilometers west of Boston. The runner from Ontario was among the leaders of the race’s first miles. As the day moved on these purists of running gave way to followers of the newly devised distraction called spectacle. Tom Longboat blew past a hundred thousand people, one after another. Some cheered. Most would applauded. Young women in Wellesley chanted his name.
He broke the tape on Exeter Street, smashing the course record by five whole minutes. His life would be forever changed. Mass communications remained crude in 1907, but news of this magnitude and timing traveled with speed and force. When Longboat’s train pulled into Toronto, it was clear that the nation had changed, too. Wrote Blaikie in Boston: The Canadian Story, “A sea of celebrating humanity engulfed Longboat as he stepped from the train…The champion was placed in an open car, a Union Jack about his shoulders, and taken to City Hall in a torch light parade. Young women gazed at Longboat in rapture as bands played and fireworks exploded around him.”
Toronto’s civic leaders gave the runner $500 toward his education.
The moment was decisive in launching what would become known across the Western world as Marathon Mania, and as famous as a national celebrity could be, Tom Longboat was it. Arriving as he did at the advent of professional sports, he achieved a marketplace saturation that only Wayne Gretzky, perhaps, would rival. The alchemy of time—past and present—and place made “The Indian Ironman” a national icon, according to Canadian Longboat biographer Bruce Kidd.
“It was in another country, so with Canadian nationalists, this was a major victory,” Kidd explains. “It was always important to win in Boston. The role of Boston in The Revolution brought a degree of symbolic revenge.”
In almost no time, Cogwagee had become the most incongruent of national symbols.
After Boston would come the Olympics, and Longboat could no longer perform without management. And here lay the rub. In 1907, racing contracts, be they horse or Iroquois youth, were hatched in barrooms, a fact that would be no concern, were it not for the Indian Codes.
The Indian Act of 1876 stated that no native could consume alcohol or even enter an establishment where such beverages were being served. (The act also proclaimed that Canadian women who married First Nations men would be considered, officially, Indian.) Longboat’s celebrity had no bearing on his being shut out of the business community that would so shape his future.
Months after the win in Boston, a man by the name of Tom Flanagan came into the picture. Flanagan was a hotelier, owner of the Irish Canadian Athletic Club and, by most accounts, a shameless opportunist and hustler. He would impact the young athlete’s life in ways both positive and detrimental. On one hand, as a hotel operator he was completely dialed in with sportswriters and the businessmen who populated hotel bars. On the other hand, he was completely dialed in with sportswriters and the businessmen who populated hotel bars. When the tavern’s denizens eventually turned on Longboat, he would have an array of opponents tougher than anything he’d found in racing.
Though naive, Longboat must have seen that Flanagan not only had access to the burgeoning sports network that populated taverns, he owned a hotel that housed it. Half the key players would end up sleeping under Flanagan’s roof. The Indian Act said nothing about First Nations people being in hotels. So, Flanagan became his manager.
Flanagan got his runner registered and transported to races, booked rooms and allowed Longboat to focus only on training. More “Indian Ironman” stories began to appear in the Toronto newspapers. An inordinate amount of talk about Longboat was voiced by people who had never set foot on a reservation.
Flanagan had in hotel bar crony and onetime runner Lou Marsh something valuable: a sportswriter in his back pocket. Marsh would pen Toronto Star columns praising the Longboat wit, but in time would clash with the Indian over his style of training, a then-unorthodox mixed schedule of strenuous distance runs and very long walks.
With an assist from the time’s racial stereotypes Longboat came across as lazy to Marsh, a former athlete himself.
Ultimately, this meant Flanagan, too, saw Longboat as lazy. Or at least the manager maintained the option of lobbing laziness as an allegation. As if it couldn’t get any worse, newspaper articles began referring to Longboat as a drunkard, on the basis of some tavern arrests. Biographer Kidd pins it on the Indian Act and the culture of deal making in bars.
“He had to go to talk up races,” Kidd says. “I’ve always attributed his arrests as an occupational hazard of being an aboriginal runner. Evidence is that he wasn’t an enormous drinker.”
Canada’s top distance team had the 1908 London Olympics next on its itinerary. For Flanagan’ runner, the contest was a payday and not a lot more, certainly nothing as worthy of publicity as the Boston race. Flanagan, who was never known to turn away from a side bet, understood the worldwide value of the Longboat name.
Flanagan and Marsh took their racer to Ireland, allegedly to train, and trouble soon followed. For starters, Longboat ran into a buggy and suffered a knee injury that turned out to be minor, yet caused wide speculation. Of more significance to the scandal sheets of London were whispers of illegal cash competitions put on by the runner’s manager. Flanagan’s relationship with Longboat was already in question when he stepped off their train in London.
Marathon fans may know the shocking story of Longboat’s Olympics finish. What’s less remembered is the context of these games and what made the episode so significant.
The Olympic movement was hardly a wriggle. Athletes had not yet competed for their countries, which took nationalistic appeal off the table. For most, the games were a sideshow, deeply ensconced in the shadow of the World’s Fairs that accompanied them.
The previous two Olympiads had been near-disasters. Not many of the world’s top athletes had come, leading to debate over whether the event should even be held again in 1908. England, flexing a bit of its imperial muscle, stepped in at the last moment to host the games. This development, along with the formation of the International Athletic Commission and the advent of national teams, energized expectations.
New forms of media, too, shaped these games. Not only would London be the first filmed Olympiad, words would be sent worldwide via Trans-Atlantic telegraph for the first time, too. Now fans could follow games and races in newspapers and bars, in theaters and town squares. Results reached home in something close to real-time—or at least closer than the glacial media that existed a mere four years prior.
Onto this backdrop stepped Tom Longboat, the best competitor in the planet’s most happening sport. He had become newly controversial after the kerfuffle with Canada’s sports authorities. His fame in Europe was matched by Dorando Pietri, a small, mustachioed dynamo from Italy. The U.S. offered Johnny Hayes, winner of his hometown New York Marathon. All were sons of the poor gatecrashers at the old school of the fading amateur ideal.
It was a brutally hot afternoon and a start-time far later than used in today’s marathons. At half past 2 p.m. on July 24, 1908, the marathoners stepped to the starting line, attending by a throng of spectators outside Windsor Castle. The planet’s news columnists could not have been more feverish.
Alongside South African runner Charles Hefferon, the favored Longboat jumped to the fore and shared an early lead. But he did not look his best. Longboat then stunned the crowd by faltering at the 17th mile. Immediately, speculation began that this marathon, the first at the distance of 41 kilometers, had overwhelmed the Indian. Trailing among the other 80 or so runners were Pietri and Hayes.
To the absolute surprise of fan and competitor alike, by kilometer 19 Longboat, wracked with pain and dehydrated, was done. He would finish the course by car.
With just two kilometers to go, Pietri started to fall apart, obviously dehydrated. Delirious, he entered Olympic Stadium, took a wrong path toward the finish line then collapsed. The crowd, spiked with dignitaries from everywhere, fell into full-scale frenzy. Four more times Pietri fell. Each time, race officials helped him to his feet.
The American Johnny Hayes finished second. Without hesitation, the U.S. lodged a complaint, which was upheld. Hayes was awarded the gold medal.
But the headline went to Dorando Pietri, which compared him to Pheidippides, the race’s inspiration (The mythical courier was sent to Sparta to request help when the Persians landed at Marathon. Pheidippides ran 240 km in two days, delivered his message and fell to his death.) The Italian’s finish called for parallels. One news headline read:
“The myth of the marathon comes to life at the London Olympics”
Talk in Canada, however, was focused on Tom Longboat, and what went wrong. Many theories emerged. One was that he never recovered from the Irish buggy collision. Some thought that the uncommonly hot day did in the favorite. And of course there was the newly-elongated distance to be accounted for.
Longboat’s take never made the papers.
“The white-dominated press never asked [Longboat] about these things,” says the author David Davis. “I think it was mostly the heat. [But] instead of asking what happened, they’d just write a column saying ‘Oh, he failed.’”
Longboat’s biographer, Kidd, believes the most famous racer on Earth was done in by motives more sinister.
“Clearly Flanagan was interested in betting on his own athletes. We don’t know if he was drugged to make him run faster or put him out of the race. To me it was an attempt at match-fixing,” says Kidd. “It was a terrible experience for him. Whatever it is he took, it really knocked the stuffing out of him. In terms of his reputation, it may have hurt. But it didn’t hurt his celebrity.”
Dorando became the toast of Europe, but Longboat would get his revenge after a series of races featuring his Olympic rivals.
On December 15, with more than 10,000 in attendance, the two lined up on a small track at Madison Square Garden. Pietri and Longboat were set to run 262 laps. With four laps to go, Pietri fell on his face. He would not run another step. Exhausted, Longboat crossed the finish line, redeemed. He collected took a prize of $3,750.
When he returned to Toronto, only a handful of people greeted him as he stepped off his train. Days earlier, the train carrying Flanagan—newspaper columns had advised readers against wagering on Longboat —was greeted by thousands. They carried him off on their shoulders.
Within a month Longboat beat Pietri again, this time at the Polo Grounds in New York. Then he beat Hayes. He out-ran every rival on the scene. He married a woman by the name of Lauretta Maracle three days after Christmas and, subsequently, bought a home in Toronto. Still, Tom Longboat stayed close to family on the reserve, to whom he was still Everything.
Despite his performance in sport, Longboat continued to fare poorly in the court of Canadian opinion. The Mania had largely passed and the world had plunged into the first Great War. During this time Longboat served as a distance messenger with the 107th Pioneer Battalion in France. Unbeknownst to the Allied soldier, word that he had been killed in the line of duty traveled across the Atlantic. Longboat returned home to find that his wife Lauretta had remarried.
Longboat ended up losing a good deal of his earnings. When he took work as a sanitation worker for the city of Toronto, the scribes shook their heads over how his fortunes had fallen. The former athlete, however didn’t seem to mind the opportunity to work outdoors and was known for his smiling demeanor.
“When Tom didn’t do so well, it was, ‘He didn’t conform to the white way,” adds Davis. “And this was his ‘friends’ saying this.”
None of it seemed to faze Longboat, who remarried and started a new family. The mother who raised and instilled values in young Cogwagee lived in a home her son purchased with his winnings. And he undoubtedly saw more of the planet and experienced more glory than any First Nations Indian before him.
He had run away, and it had worked. This is what Canada failed to understand about Tom Longboat, who would die of pneumonia, on the Six Nations Reserve—his home—in 1949. His medals were being melted down, for their metals, but the loss was more Canada’s loss than something that devastated Longboat.
“It’s not a sad story at all,” insists Bruce Kidd, whose academic research led to the rehabilitation of Longboat’s name. “It’s a triumphal story.”