It was a hot, sticky late August day in 1975 and, like baseball fans throughout New England, my thoughts were on the unlimited potential of the Boston Red Sox and their pair of prized rookies, Jim Rice and Fred Lynn.
The Buckler-Johnston Funeral Home, in Westerly, R.I., was overflowing with Narragansett Indians – some in regalia – mingling with local members of the community and several serious-looking men in dark suits. Like the inside of the parlor, the parking lot out back and the sidewalk out front were crammed with people. There must have been 1,000 people at the funeral of my mother’s uncle, Ellison “Tarzan” Brown.
I knew Uncle Tarzan – or thought I did. I couldn’t recall seeing him sober, or without a wide smile. He was 61, with gray hair and furrowed brow, but he was a hero to the children of the tribe.
We were used to most adults ignoring us, unless we got too loud or rambunctious; but Uncle Tarzan always had time for the kids. He told jokes and tall tales, he paid attention to us.
One of the last times I saw him was the previous winter when we kids were playing outside of Aunt Myra Perry’s house in Charlestown, R.I., and Tarzan came walking down the dirt driveway. Our games broke off as we flocked around Uncle Tarzan.
“I was walking through the woods when I got hungry,” Tarzan told us. “I saw a deer, but all I had was a knife, so I had to chase him. I ran so fast, I went past him and had to wait for him to catch up!”
I always laughed at that story, never thinking there might be some truth in it.
I thought of that story on that August day of 1975 as I looked around at all the people. Even the governor had come! It seemed like a lot of people coming to pay respects to a storytelling old man who had been the hero of many a fine bottle.
“That Indian from Rhode Island …”
I listened to the stories people told, and I was amazed to realize that I had not known Uncle Tarzan, at all.
“He could be stubborn,” my grandmother Myra D. Brown once told me of her younger brother. “One time an old man in the neighborhood gave him a hard time, so Ellison waited behind a wall for him and shot the hat off of his head with a bow and arrow.”
It seemed that even as a young child, Tarzan was the stuff of legend.
He was born Ellison Myers Brown on Sept. 12, 1913, the fifth of eight children. His Narragansett name was Deerfoot, and he lived up to it at an early age. As young Ellison grew up there was another noted Narragansett runner, Horatio “Bunk” Stanton, who was well-regarded in local racing circles.
One day in 1926 Stanton was doing his training, running from Westerly to a ballfield in Shannock, some 20 miles distant. Arriving in Shannock, Stanton told his manager – Thomas “Tippy” Salimeno – about “some young kid” that had followed him all the way.
About 10 minutes later a 12-year-old boy jogged onto the ballfield. He told Salimeno his name was Ellison Brown. Salimeno told Brown to come back when he was 16 and he’d manage his career.
Tarzan dropped out of school to learn stone masonry beside his father, Otis Brown. Tarzan, like many Narragansett men, became an exceptional mason, and many of his works still stand today.
In 1931, 16-year-old Tarzan returned; and Salimeno took the boy to The Arctic, an area around Warwick, R.I., where Tarzan handily topped the field in his first race, a 10-mile event.
Tarzan entered the arena at a time when foot racing was booming, and one of the more popular sports in America. In those days, three-time Boston Marathon victor Les Pawson once said, New England was “the long distance runner’s capital of the world.”
Tarzan won often – though winning wasn’t always his goal.
Former Boston Globe sports editor Jerry Nason once recalled how Tarzan would look over the prizes before a race and decide what place he wanted to finish in, based on what he would get. He wanted something he could sell to get money to support his family, Nason said.
If he could win a nice wristwatch or a radio, Tarzan would “run like crazy,” Nason recalled. And, if he could win two prizes, he “really let out!”
Pawson remembered the ending of one race when Tarzan was “fit to be tied”; Tarzan won and received a trophy while runner-up Pawson got a watch!
My aunt, Faith Burrell, said Tarzan – her uncle – got his famous nickname from his Johnny Weismuller imitation and from leaping from tree to tree faster than most people could run. She is sad when people fail to see his uniqueness.
“They used to say, he had million dollar legs and a 10-cent head,” Burrell said.
In 1933 Tarzan was finally ready to test his skills against the best long distance runners in the world, entering his first Boston Marathon.
Begun in 1897, the Boston Marathon is the oldest continuously-run marathon in the world, and was often used as an elimination race to select the U.S. Olympic marathoner.
Les Pawson set a course record in winning the 1933 Boston Marathon, and Tarzan finished a respectable 32nd. Three years later the talented runner would cross the line first, and also cross the line between talented athlete and legend.
Tarzan finished 13th in the 1935 Boston Marathon – running barefoot! There were numerous tales of Tarzan winning local races while barefoot. It wasn’t a gimmick; Tarzan was often short of money and couldn’t afford shoes!
My mother, Rosalind (Brown) Hopkins, Tarzan’s niece, once told me of arriving in Boston to cheer Tarzan on, only to discover he had no shoes. She bought him a pair before the race started, she said.
In 1936, Tarzan would take his place among the pantheon of Boston Marathon legends. The race started out innocently enough and the official press car, as usual, followed a group of runners thought to be leading the pack.
At the five-mile checkpoint an official timer asked the media representatives what they were doing. When they told him they were following the leaders, the timekeeper was shocked.
“That Indian from Rhode Island went through here five minutes ago!”
In fact, Tarzan Brown had shattered the course record for the first five miles.
The Legend of Heartbreak Hill
He ran “like a bat out of hell,” Nason said.
The press car sped up and caught the Indian and for 21 miles he burned up the course record. But then he slowed his pace. Tarzan’s unorthodox racing style was to run as fast as he could, for as long as he could. The wild style would cause the local press to dub him “Chief Crazy Horse.”
Tarzan did not pace himself, saying later in life that his career ended before he ever knew how to run a race or even train properly.
He dreamed about his races before they were run and in his dreams he always lost, Tarzan said. That spurred him to run harder during the race.
He had built up a huge lead in 1936 and then slowed, jogging along head-down. He might have lost the race except for an ill-advised display of sportsmanship that turned the race into legend – and gave a name to the most treacherous hill along the course.
With his own furious run, Boston legend Johnny A. Kelley – the defending Boston Marathon champ – caught up with Tarzan at the foot of the hills that had defeated many a runner. Nason said that as he passed Tarzan, Kelley reached him and patted him on the butt “as if to say ‘nice run, pal’.”
Tarzan’s head came up, he had no idea anyone else was near him. The Indian lit out “as if someone had stuck a pin in his ass,” according to Nason. That hill was christened Heartbreak Hill.
The original Boston Marathon, called the “short course,” was 24 ½ miles, but the distance had been increased to its current 26 miles, 385 yards in 1926. Tarzan became the youngest to win the longer distance.
Tarzan and The Fuhrer
With his surprising victory in Boston, Tarzan Brown earned a spot on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. He was going to Berlin, where Adolf Hitler hoped to prove the superiority of the Aryan race. But Jesse Owens smashed The Fuhrer’s dreams in record fashion – and Tarzan almost joined him.
Twenty-four years earlier another Indian, Jim Thorpe, won Olympic gold only to have it taken away. Tarzan’s gold was taken away before he could earn it. What happened in Berlin? That was one of the biggest mysteries in the legend of Tarzan Brown.
One story says that on the ship to Berlin he was imitating the awkward style of the British long distance walkers and pulled a muscle; another claimed that Tarzan had taken a hot bath before the race, thinking it would help him relax, and it tired him quicker. Jerry Nason believed Tarzan was bothered by a hernia – and Tarzan did suffer from a hernia later that year. Nason said Tarzan told him he stopped due to a tremendous pain in his gut.
My father, John A. Hopkins, Sr., had a startling story to tell. He told me that Tarzan told him years later that he had gotten into a fight with “some of Hitler’s brownshirts” and was thrown in jail, where he was warned he had better not win the marathon.
Tarzan was indeed arrested and bailed out in time to participate in marathon, according to Nason.
Most of the reports about various injuries lose luster when the race itself is considered.
Tarzan – in his typical style – burst out in front, leading the Olympic field for the first 13 miles. At 18 miles he had slowed, but was still a close second.
Then he sat on the grass to catch his breath when a spectator approached him to see if he was alright; at that point one of the official’s cars came by and immediately disqualified Tarzan for receiving aid.
“I know in my heart I could have won that race,” Tarzan said later. But since he was disqualified, he didn’t bother to finish.
“Tarzan Brown ain’t no quitter!”
Tarzan ran the Olympic marathon as he had run other races. He typically raced out to huge leads and then took a rest before continuing on. Local Rhode Island legends abound about Tarzan stopping for a beer or resting until another runner appeared, before continuing on his way.
Though Salimeno tried to train his protégé, the truth was that no one ever told Tarzan Brown what to do. Forget Sinatra, it was Tarzan who did it his way.
His usual regimen consisted of drinking beer and chopping wood. Nason once said Tarzan trained in barrooms and had “some terrific brawls.”
And things did not get more serious on race day.
Tarzan would arrive the day of a race and eat half a dozen hot dogs, washed down by his favorite, orange soda, his nephew, Keith Brown said.
“You know Uncle Tarzan, he’d balance the hot dogs on his arm and wolf them down one after another; afraid somebody was going to take them away from him,” he laughed.
Tarzan returned to Rhode Island after the 1936 Olympics and the reckless champion, used to adulation, found himself the object of scorn. Critics emerged everywhere, disappointed that Tarzan gave up and quit the biggest race of his life.
Tarzan was a proud man and was determined to show the world “that Tarzan Brown ain’t no quitter!”
He did it in a fashion unequaled in world history, by winning two full-length marathons on consecutive days in 1936.
First he won the New York Championship at Portchester and then hitchhiked through the night to Manchester New Hampshire, where he arrived just before race time. There he drank orange soda pop for breakfast and then went out and won the race!
Five days later he collapsed with a double hernia.
The Greatest Long Distance Runner
Everyone was praising Tarzan now, from seven-time Boston Marathon winner Clarence DeMar to Olympic champion Paavo Nurmi, considered one of the greatest runners ever.
Nurmi, who also trained distance runners, said that the marathon was not Tarzan’s best event. He said Tarzan would have been unbeatable if he only ran 10-milers.
In fact, in shorter races, Tarzan often set course marks, and once – in an unsanctioned race – broke the world record time.
Now that he had shut his critics up, Tarzan decided to retire. It was only shortly before the 1937 Boston race that he changed his mind. He showed up without any preparation and finished 37th. But, in 1938, he didn’t even finish the race.
Nason remembered 1938 as being a steaming hot day, about halfway through the race the press car was watching the four leaders running close together.
“They were looking good, Tarzan looked the best,” Nason said.
Suddenly, unpredictable as ever, Tarzan veered from the course and leaped off a bridge into the lake below!
Tarzan went back to his winning ways, finishing first more often than not. Suddenly, in 1939, Tarzan began to take running seriously.
The year began in Cranston, R.I., when, in a 10-mile race, Tarzan’s time of 50:15 equaled the record set by Nurmi. It was only the beginning.
Tarzan broke the record for the Syracuse, N.Y. Marathon and won both the 15- and 20-kilometer National Championships. Tarzan competed in 25 races in 1939, having the best time in 20 of them! Only three times did he fail to crack the top 10.
It was a chilly April day in Boston, with constant drizzle, and nothing indicated it would be a memorial race. But Tarzan Brown had come to Boston again – and this time he had actually trained.
“I’ve trained for this race for a month,” Tarzan reported. His regimen included running 26-miles from Pawtucket, R.I., to Attleboro, Mass., and ran 17-miles several times, the other times he ran five and 10 miles. He ran twice a week, he said.
“I followed my own schedule, I ran on my own,” Tarzan said. “I don’t follow no diet.”
It drizzled off and on all that day, but the only thunder was in the stride of Tarzan Brown. Unlike 1936, when he burst out at fullspeed, Tarzan paced himself, running evenly, smoothly. This time there was no drama on Heartbreak Hill.
“I just set a pace today today that would carry me along faster than I figured anyone else could run that distance,” Tarzan explained.
With a time of 2:28:51 Tarzan won his second Boston Marathon, becoming the first to complete the longer course in under two-and-a-half hours. And he won a spot on the 1940 Olympics, to be held in Amsterdam.
This is probably the year that Providence Journal writers had in mind when the headline of his eulogy stated, “Forty years ago he was, perhaps, the greatest long distance runner in the world.”
The Race No Man Can Win
Tarzan was looking forward to redeeming himself in the 1940 Olympics, but Fate had other plans. The contests were cancelled because of World War II.
His career was winding down now, as Tarzan’s dash through life was slowly losing its lead to Father Time’s unrelenting pace.
But his legend was established. He lost a national championship race when he stopped before the finish line to remove an offending shoe, he went to great lengths to win bets – biting a snake in half and eating glass, for example.
Hopkins, Sr., was astonished one winter morning when he went over to Tarzan’s house to claim victory. They had bet on who would get their morning fire started first.
There were no tracks near the woods, so, as he approached Tarzan’s home, Hopkins was sure he had won. But as he drew nearer he saw smoke curling from Tarzan’s chimney.
“Rather than going out in the cold, Tarzly had chopped up the inside of his house for firewood,” Hopkins explained.
One story had Tarzan’s famous truck, the silver streak, broken down so Tarzan put it on the railroad tracks and dragged it home. The truck had no head or taillights, no fenders, a cracked windshield, no wipers and the passenger door held on by clothesline.
Tarzan had worked for the Westerly, R.I., Highway Department and, with Salimeno’s help, had been able to find a house in Westerly. But things weren’t always going his way.
“He had some hard, old times,” his sister, Myra Brown, said. Then she chuckled, “But he loved my Johnnycakes and chowder.”
Finally, Tarzan hit on a difficult plan. If he could win once more in Boston – in record time – he might get some financing to buy a truck so he could “make a good living.”
He prepared for the 1945 Boston Marathon. He told Nason that he had trained two-and-a-half months for this final race. He had lost 15 pounds, now weighing 153 and standing 5’7’’.
“Maybe I can win the marathon, maybe I can’t,” Tarzan told Nason. “But I’ll tell you this much – if I’m up there at 20 miles, nobody’s gonna beat me!”
But time had taken its toll; though the heart and will were there, the lightning once in his legs now refused to ignite.
“I won 1,000 trophies”
With his racing career over, life became a struggle for Tarzan. He lost his house in Westerly and moved to King’s Factory Road, in Charlestown, where his shack was constructed by nailing boards up to four trees he found in a square. His family bathed in a nearby brook, at a spot Tarzan had widened by hand. There was no electricity. He took on odd jobs to provide for his family – cutting wood, delivering coal, stone masonry and handyman.
When he was running, people couldn’t do enough for him, he complained. But after he stopped he couldn’t even get a haircut in Westerly, Tarzan lamented. People would pay a “tree expert” $75 to remove a tree from their yard, but Tarzan said he was lucky if they’d pay him $20.
“I won 1,000 trophies, but sooner or later they all turn black,” Tarzan said.
He had sold or given away most of his trophies over the years.
“If only I could get someone to back me, and be square about it,” Tarzan said.
His last race took place in 1954. A young sailor doubted the old man’s story about once being a great runner and bet $5 he could beat Tarzan.
After years of winning trophies and laurels, Tarzan took home $5 in his last race, which he ran in old workboots.
In 1975, Tarzan was at The Wreck bar in Misquamicut, R.I., with some other Narragansett tribal members. Some of the Indians got into an argument with a 26-year-old Connecticut man. In the parking lot the man jumped in his van and sped off – running over Tarzan Brown.
The race was over.
But while mortal man must die, legends live on forever. In 1973, Tarzan had been elected to the National Indian Athletic Hall of Fame, in Lawrence, Kansas.
So, I guess I can truthfully say that greatness runs in my family.
(The author is the great-nephew of Ellison “Tarzan” Brown)