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Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.
Ellison 'Tarzan' Brown running in the 1939 Boston Marathon. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

The Indian From Rhode Island Who Won the Boston Marathon—Twice

John Christian Hopkins
4/21/14

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.

Tarzan Brown with son at Hyde Shoe, 12 Mile Race, Cambridge, MA, 1955. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

“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.

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georgeprice's picture
georgeprice
Submitted by georgeprice on
Thank you, John for this excellent article on one of our many under-recognized heroes. This really lifted my spirit to see Tarzan being recognized in the national Native press. He was widely respected by people from all New England area tribes, not just the Narragansetts. My Wampanoag relatives told me the story a long time ago about how he pulled a muscle mocking the English walk racers back in 1936. Quite a joker--but one must admit, walk racing does look pretty dang funny!

nquit's picture
nquit
Submitted by nquit on
John, I too want to thank you for retelling this legendary story. As a nephew (Ethel's brother George's son) I tell his story to anyone that will listen. Not sure why, but I also hear of Jim Thorpe's accomplishments, but not so for Tarzan. I, like you, have listen intently to the stories and his antics and fot those that never knew they seem crazy or unbelievable. So Thanks for letting the world know about the greatest long distance runner, who happened to be an indian from the Narragansett Tribe. Eric Wilcox
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