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

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.

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georgeprice's picture
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
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

Lightfoot92's picture
Submitted by Lightfoot92 on
This is an excellent article written by my cousin, John Christian Hopkins. It showed his first hand experience as one of Tarzan Brown's many grand nephews and grand nieces, among other family members and friends, knew him. I do wish there were more recently written articles or interviews featured, especially with The Boston Globe and The Providence Journal Bulletin having recent articles to help commemorate the 80th anniversary of my Grand Uncle's role in creating the nickname of "Heartbreak Hill". He is a phenomenal icon who has been vastly overlooked, and unrecognized to non-Natives and to Indian Country alike. He deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Jim Thorpe, Billy Mills, Lewis Tewanima and the many other great Native athletes of the past. I'm glad this article was posted, but wish there was more recent and more frequent acknowledgment of my Grandmother's little brother, Ellison "Tarzan" Brown