Minutes before the 1939 Boston Marathon, a Narragansett Indian named Tarzan Brown was seen eating hot dogs and drinking milkshakes.
He wore a running outfit, and he had won the race in 1936. He won it again that day.
The eccentric, mercurial Tarzan Brown dominated the sport of long-distance running in America along with John A. Kelley and Les Pawson throughout the 1930s. He once said,
In my heart I always felt, if I was in shape, I could beat any man living up to 50 miles.
He was born Sept. 22, 1919, into deep poverty on the Narragansett Ashaway Reservation in Rhode Island to Byron and Grace (Babcock) Brown. He grew up in a shack. A sportswriter called him ‘a penniless redskin.’ It was said he didn’t show bitterness about the prejudice toward him, though he wasn’t oblivious to it. He once said he had to go to the barber in New London, Conn., because the barber in Westerly, R.I., wouldn’t cut his hair.
Ellison Brown was his American given name, but his tribe knew him as Deerfoot. He lived up to his reputation. One day in 1926, he followed a well-regarded Narragansett runner named Horatio ‘Bunk’ Stanton along his 20-mile training route. When Stanton arrived he told his trainer, Thomas ‘Tippy’ Salimeno, that some kid had followed him the whole way.
Ten minutes later, 12-year-old Ellison Brown showed up and introduced himself to Salimeno. The trainer told him to come back when he turned 16 and he’d manage his career.
He dropped out of school to learn traditional Narragansett stone masonry from his father. (Narragansett stone fences survive for hundreds of years.)
At 16, he won his first foot race, a 10-mile event in West Warwick. He won many others, sometimes barefoot because he couldn’t afford running shoes.
Along the way he earned the nickname ‘Tarzan’ because of his Johnny Weismuller imitation and his ability to leap from tree to tree.
Intensely proud of his Narragansett roots, Tarzan Brown married a Narragansett woman named Ethel Wilcox.
Tarzan Brown seemed to run whenever he felt like it. He loved the outdoors and would disappear into the woods, living off the land for a week at a time.
One reason he ran was that he hoped to win the attention of an employer. He worked as a stonemason and a shell fisherman, but sometimes had to sell his trophies and medals to feed his wife and four children.
He first won the Boston Marathon in 1936 in a contest that inspired a sportswriter to name a hill in Newton, Mass., ‘Heartbreak Hill.’ Tarzan Brown took off quickly, but at mile 20 Johnny Kelley caught up with him and patted him on the back. They dueled for the final six miles, with Tarzan Brown taking the lead on the downhills, Kelley on the uphills. Tarzan finally went ahead of Kelley on the last Newton hill, breaking John A. Kelley’s heart.
That victory earned him a place on the U.S. Olympic team, but at the games in Berlin he dropped out of the marathon because of an injury. He did get into a fight with Nazi brownshirts in a beer garden.
The year before he had shown up wearing raggedy sneakers and an outfit sewn together from a dress. At mile 21 he tossed off his shoes and ran barefoot the rest of the way, finishing 13th.
In 1938 he ran the race again, but jumped into Lake Cochituate mid-race to cool off.
He won the Boston Marathon again in 1939, the first runner to break the 2:30 mark. That year he entered two different marathons within 24 hours of each other and won both of them.
He retired from running in 1946.
Tarzan Brown was killed on August 23, 1975 after a van struck him outside a tavern in Westerly, Rhode Island.
The annual Tarzan Brown Mystic River Run in Mystic, Conn., has been run every year since 1975 in his honor.
With thanks to Ellison “Tarzan” Brown: The Narragansett Indian Who Twice Won the Boston Marathon by Michael Ward. This story was updated in 2022.