From Here to Boylston Street: 126 Marathons and Counting
John Graham had been dazzled by the experience of the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. The first games of the modern era had attracted the world’s top athletes in competition for bragging rights and national pride in the spirit of sportsmanship. He had attended as the United States Olympic team manager, and when the games were over, he wanted to bring something equally inspirational to his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. Graham was a member of the Boston Athletic Association, and it took less than a year for him to convince the club to hold their own Olympic-style marathon. The first Boston Marathon was held on 19 April 1897, marking the beginning of a long, time-honored sporting tradition, which now holds the honor of being the world’s oldest annual marathon.
The Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) had been established in 1887 by a group of men who wanted to promote an athletic lifestyle and community. They built the Boston Athletic Club on the corner of Exeter and Blagden Streets, featuring an array of sporting pursuits like fencing, boxing, bowling, track and field, as well as a Turkish bath. The club also established a country club outside of town. From the beginning, running was one of the preferred sports promoted by the B.A.A., their long runs and track and field meets drawing a crowd as early as 1889.
When Graham began arranging the first marathon, he managed the challenge of marking a route with the assistance of Herbert H. Holton, a Boston businessman. The original course was 24.5 miles long, beginning at Metcalf’s Mill in Ashland, Massachusetts, and finishing at the Irvington Oval in Boston (on modern day Boylston Street). The inaugural race had a starting field of 15 men and was won by John J. McDermott of New York with a time of 2:55:10. Ten of the starters completed the race.
In 1898, Boston College student, Ronald J. MacDonald (a citizen of Nova Scotia), won the race, becoming the first foreign person to win the Boston Marathon. Some cite his win as foreshadowing the decidedly international appeal that this particular marathon would come to have. Before anyone realized, the annual marathons became tradition. They were to be held faithfully on Patriots’ Day (celebrated as a state holiday in Massachusetts on the third Monday of April), running the same course through Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Brookline, Newton, and Boston.
The one early exception to the annual traditional marathon was the race held in 1918. Due to the nature of the ongoing World War, and the high likelihood that there would be a small field of competitors, it was decided that the B.A.A. would sponsor a marathon-length relay with teams comprised of military entrants. There were 10 men to a team, and 14 teams that participated. Each man was to run 2.5 miles while wearing his standard issued uniform. A team from the nearby Army training Camp Devens was able to win handily due to Private Charley Lewis of New Bedford, Massachusetts, who created a big lead during his leg of the race. Lewis may have been running more efficiently, perhaps in part, by pulling long black stockings up over his pants legs.
Nonetheless, the annual tradition continued thereafter, changing in distance and the number of participants. The distance was eventually set to match the Olympic marathon distance which was settled at 26 miles and 385 yards in 1924, causing organizers to move the starting line west to the town of Hopkinton. The field of runners began with a mere 15 runners and is today limited to around 30,000 entrants based on time qualifications. The record number of runners was set on the Centennial Anniversary of the marathon in 1996, totaling 38,708 (limits were lifted for the anniversary).
The winningest male, Clarence H. Demar, from Melrose, Ohio, actually began his Boston marathon winning record in 1912. He was advised against racing due to a heart murmur, but he stayed with the sport throughout most of his life, winning at Boston a total of seven times. He is also the oldest winner to date, winning his last Boston marathon in 1930 at age 41. John A. Kelley competed in the greatest number of marathons, starting 61 races, finishing 58 of them, and winning two. He ran his last full Boston Marathon in 1992 at the age of 84.
In 1966 the race was challenged to be more inclusive when Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb decided to join in on the event. Her application had been rejected, claiming that women couldn’t run more than 1.5 miles per Amateur Athletic Union (A.A.U.) guidelines. Bobbi routinely trained for miles with her husband’s track team and believed she could compete as well as anyone. She ran despite the rejection, hiding in a forsythia bush until she could blend into the crowd of runners near the starting line after the official start. Although she finished the race in a respectable time, she was not given an official time, nor recognition that she participated. She also ran in 1967 and 1968. Her presence was largely supported by fellow runners and the cheering crowd, but she was met with disdain and derision by race officials.
In 1967, Kathrine Switzer would go one step further by registering for the race as K.V. Switzer. The rules had no stipulation that participants had to be male. She trained with the Syracuse cross-country team, having the support of Arnie Briggs, one of the assistant coaches and a mailman at the university. He agreed to train with her and run in the Boston Marathon with her if she could run the distance in training. She could! She recounts that she never tried to hide or disguise herself as she lined up with her number bibs on, next to Briggs, Tom Miller (her boyfriend), and cross-country team member John Leonard. Within the first few miles of the race, they were approached by the press vehicle, which also carried race officials. One official, Jock Semple, ran up behind Switzer and attempted to physically remove the number bib from the back and front of her sweatshirt, roughly trying to pull her off the track. Briggs and Miller, but especially Miller, pushed Semple away and the whole altercation was captured by the press. She finished the race side by side with Briggs and Leonard, but she was denied the recognition of an official time (Tom finished, too, but he hadn’t trained to run a marathon and so ended up behind the group).
After the accomplishments of Gibb and Switzer, and another runner, Sara Mae Berman (who ran unofficially in 1969-1971), the A.A.U. eventually officially changed its guidelines to expand distance running to women. The first “officially sanctioned” Boston marathon open to women was in 1972.
Wheelchair racing was added to the Boston Marathon in 1975, expanding the accessibility to marathon competition even further. The race allows either push-rim wheelchairs or handcycles for these competitors. Vision-impaired runners are also encouraged to participate.
In 1985, new B.A.A. marathon manager Guy Morse took on the challenge of planning the marathon and representing the community outreach mission of the organization. He established a relationship with John Hancock Financial as a sponsor, allowing B.A.A. to create more interest in the marathon by offering prize money to the winners, and expanding the ability to support charities. Up to 30 charities are supported each year.
Tragedy struck the Boston Marathon on 19 April 2013 when two pressure-cooker bombs were detonated on the sidewalk near the finish line. The sidewalk was packed with spectators at the time. Three people were killed: Krystle Campbell (29), Lingzi Lu (23), and Martin Richard (8); 17 people lost a limb either from the blast or due to catastrophic injury; and over 260 were wounded. The world watched in dismay as this time-honored event was disrupted so egregiously with disregard for innocent bystanders. Two brothers, Tamerlan (26) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (19), who were motivated by extremist views, were ultimately hunted down, one dying in a clash with police, and the other caught after a door-to-door manhunt throughout Boston. The surviving brother, Dzhokhar, has been sentenced to death for his role in the bombing. Two police officers were also killed as a result of their actions: Sean Collier and Dennis Simmonds.
In true “Boston Strong” fashion, the marathon has, of course, continued on in following years. Survivors have made it a point to run in the marathon as a means of taking back their love of the sport, some with prosthetic limbs. There were also blips in the events for 2020 and 2021 due to the global pandemic. The 2020 Boston Marathon was held virtually by means of microchip technology that allowed runners to run the marathon distance in whatever location they were at. The 2021 Boston Marathon was held on the traditional course in person, but on 11 October 2021.
The 2022 marathon resumed its usual race day on Patriots’ Day on 19 April 2020, marking the 126th running of the event.
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Massachusetts — the Vital Details
The establishments of the areas that would become modern-day Massachusetts, including Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony, began in the early 17th century. Surprisingly, though governments and practices were just being established, written pre-Revolutionary War era records were created and have survived. Many of the early records are unique and robust, detailing the lives of those pioneering settlers. If one of your ancestors called the area that would become Massachusetts home, you may be one of the lucky descendants to have the opportunity to learn about the lives of your antecedents and the part they may have played or witnessed in the formation of our great nation.
Massachusetts is one of the few areas of modern-day United States holding records which pre-date the birth of our country. This includes vital records, detailing births, marriages and deaths, which were maintained in Massachusetts with widespread compliance much earlier than other states. While other states may not have equivalent records until the time of the Great Depression, Massachusetts had mandates in place about 300 hundred years prior, beginning as early as 1639. These records are maintained at the town level, not county or parish level, as we are accustomed to seeing in most areas of the country. Another unique practice in early Massachusetts is that prior to 1900, vital records were often published in a book form, with approximately two-thirds of the towns’ records being in print and are occasionally still being released. The publication of the town-level records which detailed the births, marriages and deaths of the area residents up to 1850 are referred to as “Tan Books.” The fact that they exist is a wonderful gift for the family historian with roots in Massachusetts, but what makes these unique records even more special is that they are available digitally and can be accessed readily on sites such as Ancestry.com. Before utilizing the “Tan Book” compilations, it is best to review the included key in front of the books to ensure that you understand the multitude of acronyms utilized in the publication. Keep in mind the publications changed over the years, so it’s a good idea to review this key in each book when reviewing multiple publications.
There are also many extant early original records that are readily available, though they take a keen eye and practice to accurately extract all of the biographically pertinent details..
Vital records in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century are just as plentiful for Massachusetts. The great news for family historians is that many of these genealogical gold mines are viewable online in the form of digitized images of the original vital record registers. Many birth records include information regarding the child, as well as their parents, encompassing details such as name of child, date and location of birth, names of the parents of the child, as well as the trade or occupation of the child’s father, along with the residence and location of birth of both parents. The depth of detail in these early records far exceeds that of most any other state of the United State for the same time period.
Thanks to the generations of governing bodies in what has become modern-day Massachusetts, those with ancestors who made their homes there have the great fortune to be able document and learn about their family histories much faster and more accurately than others in early America.
Learn about genealogical fraud in our two part archived series - Don’t Be Gullible: Being Aware of Genealogical Fraud (Part One) and (Part Two).
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Steve Almasy, CNN.com (https://www.cnn.com : accessed 20 April 2022), “Boston Marathon Bombing Victims: Promising Lives Lost.”
Boston Athletic Association (https://www.baa.org : accessed 19 April 2022), “About Us; Boston Marathon, History.”
“Camp Devens Division Team Wins Marathon,” The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 April 1918, digital images, Newspaper.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 20 April 2022), citing print edition, p. 4, cols. 1-4.
ClarenceDemar.com (https://clarencedemar.com : accessed 20 April 2022), “The Story of Clarence Demar.”
“First Cross-Country Run of the Boston Athletic Association,” The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts), 7 April 1889, digital images, Newspaper.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 20 April 2022), citing print edition, p. 6, col. 4.
History.com (https://www.history.com : accessed 20 April 2022), “Three people killed, hundreds injured in Boston Marathon bombing.”
Ailsa Ross, JSTOR Daily, (https://daily.jstor.org : accessed 19 April 2022), “The Woman Who Crashed the Boston Marathon.”
Kathrine Switzer, KathrineSwitzer.com (https://kathrineswitzer.com : accessed 18 April 2022), “The Real Story of Kathrine Switzer’s 1967 Boston Marathon.”
Cole Zercoe, Police1.com (https://www.police1.com : accessed 20 April 2022), “Officer Dennis Simmonds: 5 things to know about the Boston bombing’s 5th victim.”
Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boston1910.jpg : accessed 21 April 2022), digital image of b&w photograph of Fred S. Cameron, Boston Marathon Finish Line, 19 april 1910, “File:Boston1910.jpg;” image uploaded by user Rudolphous].
Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kathrine Switzer, una delle prime donne partecipanti a una maratona (Boston 1967).jpg : accessed 21 April 2022), digital image of b&w photograph of Kathrine Switzer in the Boston Marathon, 1967, “File:Kathrine Switzer, una delle prime donne partecipanti a una maratona (Boston 1967).jpg;” image uploaded by user Yiyi.
“Vital Records of Bolton, Massachusetts to the End of the Year 1849,” database with images, Ancestry.com (https://ancestry.com : accessed 21 April 2022), deaths, image 187; citing, Vital Records of Rockport, Massachusetts to the End of the Year 1849 (Salem, Massachusetts: The Essex Institute, 1924), Marriages, p. 186.
“Massachusetts, U.S., Town and Vital REcords, 1620-1988,” database with images, Ancestry.com (https://ancestry.com : accessed 21 April 2022), birth, Peru, image 7; citing,own and City Clerks of Massachusetts. Massachusetts Vital and Town Records (Provo, Utah: Holbrook Research Institute).
History (https://www.history.com/ : accessed 21 April 2022), “Massachusetts.”
FamilySearch Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/), "Massachusetts Vital Records," rev. 14:27, 12 November 2020.