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4 Strange Sports In America's Past


In recent pursuits, we have come upon accounts of once-practiced — and somewhat, shall we say, curious — sports that have long since faded into obscurity.

Competitive walking in the 1870s and 1880s, for instance. "In the decades after the Civil War there was mass urbanization in the United States," Matthew Algeo — author of Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sportrecently told NPR. Millions of people were moving into cities "and there wasn't much for them to do in their free time, so pedestrianism — competitive walking matches — filled a void for people. It became quite popular quite quickly."

Such pedestrian contests were rather, shall we say, pedestrian when compared with other peculiar American pastimes of the past. Herewith we proffer a quartet of odd sports:

Gander Pulling

The following account will indeed offend modern sensibilities; no doubt, it also disturbed some citizens at the time of the abhorrence. But it is what it was.

When Thomas C. Fletcher was but a young lad in mid-19th century Missouri, according to the Atlanta Constitution of 1894, he observed rustic gentlemen competing in a sport called "gander pulling."

This was in the days before organized football and baseball, said Fletcher. A group of two dozen or so men would convene at a crossroads store "where 18-cents-per-gallon corn whisky was dispensed." The men contributed $1 apiece to a kitty. They then obtained — by hook or crook — a tough old gander, plucked the feathers from its neck and covered the shorn neck with soap and grease. Then they suspended the goose by its feet from a tree — so it was dangling.

On horseback, the men rode in a circle, and each attempted to grasp the gander's slippery neck — as if it were a golden ring. The man who grabbed the goose from the tree took home the pool of money.

"It was a little rough on the fowl," said Fletcher, who was governor of Missouri in the 1860s, "but as a feat of strength and horsemanship, it was worth seeing."

Mimic Pistol Dueling

Nearly a century before paintball or laser tag, there existed the exotic endeavor of mimic pistol dueling. As reported in the Chicago Tribune in 1909, a French inventor created bullets made of wax that worked in dueling pistols and the Army's standard-issue revolvers. Duelists wore loosely fitting garments and wire-and-glass masks for protection; pistols were fitted with hand shields. Opponents faced each other, at a distance of 25 paces. A director barked the command: "Fire!" Officials were on hand to judge the accuracy of the shots. That same year, there was a New York Times account of a bloodless duel at the city's Athletic Club. Two men — wearing long black gowns and protective masks — faced each other in the gymnasium. "All agreed," the paper reported, "that it was a fine shooting game."

Centipede Vs. Tarantula

At a Columbus Avenue bar in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune reported in 1894, men liked to gather and tongue-wag and wager as they watched a battle-to-the-death between a tarantula and a centipede. "The strange contest takes place, as a rule, in a circular box about two feet in diameter, such a box as cheese is generally shipped in," according to the reporter. "A large pane of glass is laid over the box to prevent the escape of the contestants." During one such contest, 10 men watched as the tarantula killed the centipede — and then died from battle wounds. All of the spectators "were pledged to secrecy," the reporter noted, "as the S.P.C.A. might have concluded to interfere had they learned of the affair."

Telegraph Bowling

By the late 19th century, athletes in America were combining sport and technology in creative ways. Newspapers reported "telegraph bowling" matches between teams in two distant cities. Seattle and Spokane, for instance. Boston and Brooklyn. Buffalo and Chicago. Officials in each city marked the frames and relayed the scores to the opposing team. By 1899, the idea was spreading to other competitions. The New York Times told of a "telegraph revolver match" between gun clubs in Brooklyn and Louisville. Skype darts, anyone?

The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers – Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers – of NPR. @NPRtpj

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.