Boston Marathon

2016 Boston Marathon

Legend of Tarzan: Stories about two-time winner have legs

When Ellison M. "Tarzan" Brown won the 1939 Boston Marathon, the crowd at the finish line was smaller — and the prize money was nonexistent.
Abe Fox/Associated Press/File
When Ellison M. "Tarzan" Brown won the 1939 Boston Marathon, the crowd at the finish line was smaller — and the prize money was nonexistent.

The fact and fable long since have become indistiguishable. Did Tarzan Brown jump into Lake Cochituate in the middle of a Boston Marathon or not? Hardtop historians may disagree, but most of the enduring lore and legend about the man comes with witnesses.

Brown definitely tossed aside his shredded shoes in the 1935 race and ran the final 5 miles barefooted. He undoubtedly ran and won marathons on consecutive days in New York and New Hampshire. And Heartbreak Hill, the course’s most iconic point, was so named after he broke Johnny Kelley’s heart there 80 years ago next week.

There were prominent Native American runners before and after Brown who left their footprints on the world’s most famous road race. “Mohawk Bill” Davis finished second in 1901. Tom Longboat shattered the course record in 1907 when a freight train cut off the leaders from the rest of the field in Framingham. Andrew Sockalexis was runnerup in 1912 and 1913. And Patti Lyons placed second in 1979-81. (With the 120th Boston Marathon set for Monday, Harvard will host a conference this Friday afternoon on Native American running at its Science Center.)

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But the lore and legend of Tarzan Brown, the “noble Narragansett” from Rhode Island who won Boston twice and competed in the Olympics, is paramount. He was, one Boston sportswriter said, a “mahogany-hued marvel,” a free-spirited descendant of Wampanoag royalty who grew up in poverty and returned there before he was run over in a parking lot amid a barroom fracas in 1975.

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“He could make himself disappear,” great-nephew John Brown once said. “He could run like the wind. Tarzan Brown was the best of the Narragansetts.”

Ellison Myers Brown was named after his father’s mill owner and the former catcher for the Giants. His tribal name was Deerfoot. His nickname was bestowed by companions who admired his tree-climbing skills.

“He was a man born a few centuries too late, my family used to say,” his grandnephew, Brian Lightfoot Brown, once wrote. “He was known to disappear for a week or two and understood how to survive in the woods alone.”

The outdoors was Tarzan’s playground and running his preferred form of locomotion.

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“Some kid has been following me all the way from Westerly,” said “Chief” Horatio Stanton, who ran Boston several times, told trainer Tippy Salimeno after a 14-mile practice run.

Once Brown began competing as a teenager the word among white sportswriters was that the “penniless redskin” would rather fish than work. But for most of his neighbors on the reservation, a paying job was a fantasy.

“The economy in these depression times provided little for most Americans and nothing for Indians,” Tom Derderian wrote in his definitive history of the Boston Marathon. “They were a conquered people living on the margin, living on the meager scraps tossed out from an impoverished marketplace.”

Competing well against the top distance runners in Boston, his dying mother Grace told Brown before the 1935 race, would make a powerful statement.

“They’re laughing at you,” she said. “They’re saying you’re an Indian. They’re saying you have no job and that all you do is run. They’re making fun of you because you’re an Indian. Show them . . . Run, my boy, and finish.”

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Brown wore a singlet made from one of his mother’s dresses and even without shoes finished 13th. The next year, after having won both the US 20- and 25-kilometer titles, he turned up in Hopkinton as a contender. Kelley, Leslie Pawson and Pat Dengis, the favorites, “could be tomahawked into submission” by Brown, reckoned Globe writer Jerry Nason, who made Brown his “Blue Plate Special” to win.

Brown, after assessing his rivals, decided that none could stay with him.

“From the very start I knew I would win,” he said.

After smashing the record at every checkpoint Brown had a half-mile gap in the Newton hills. Kelley, the defending champion, figured Brown likely would blow up and gave chase. Atop the final rise, about to go by, Kelley tapped Brown on the shoulder.

“I made a big mistake when I did that,” Kelley said decades later. “It was as much to say, ‘Hey, boy, move over.’ It was a terrible thing to do and I still regret it.”

Brown reacted as if given an electric shock.

“Maybe he thought he was going to go by, but I didn’t,” he said.

So he ran Kelley into the ground and had him walking by the Brookline flats.

“I guess you white people can’t say after this that the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” Brown observed after he’d beaten Bill McMahon by nearly two minutes.

Brown was named to the Olympic team along with Kelley and McMahon, but was fortunate to make it to the starting line after brawling with Nazi toughs in a Berlin beer hall.

“I got celebrating a little and some men in white coats tried to put me out of the place,” he said. “They didn’t do too good and the next thing I know a half-dozen guys in black shirts were after me. I guess they took care of me.”

Brown was freed in time for the race and was in contention for 18 miles until he cramped and was disqualified after being assisted by a spectator. Later in the year, to silence critics who’d called him a quitter, he won back-to-back marathons in Port Chester and Manchester.

What Brown won, as everyone did in the amateur days, was loving cups and trophies. There was no money to be made on the road and few jobs to be gotten through the winning. Brown was a skilled stone mason and shell fisherman, but work was scarce. When he turned up for the 1939 Boston race after successive back-in-the-pack, three-hour finishes, Brown had to borrow a dollar at the starting line for the entry fee.

He responded by breezing to an American record of 2 hours, 28 minutes, 51 seconds in the rain, beating Don Heinicke by 2:33. Had the 1940 Olympics not been cancelled by the war, Brown might well have won them. His 2:27:30 clocking in Salisbury Beach was another American record and that year’s world’s fastest time.

There were other races in later years but the big payoff proved elusive.

“Look around at this place where I live,” Brown told a visitor in 1946, when he and his family were living in a two-room tarpaper shack he’d built from dump debris. “See for yourself. You’ll know why I’ve got to do the only thing left to do — win the Boston Marathon race in world-record time.”

Brown finished 12th that year, nearly 20 minutes behind Greek victor Stylianos Kyriakides. What money he made from running came from selling off his medals and trophies one at a time. His final purse, according to a great-nephew, came in 1954 when he collected $5 by beating a young sailor who’d doubted that Brown ever had been a champion.

A decade later Brown was back where he started, doing road construction and odd jobs but living with his wife in a larger shack on 2 acres with a wood stove and an automobile. The noble Narragansett who had an uncommon gift for going the distance still was enduring.

“I live a lot better than my ancestors,” he concluded.