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

Tarzan was indeed arrested and bailed out in time to participate in marathon, according to Nason.

Most of the reports about various injuries lose luster when the race itself is considered.

Tarzan – in his typical style – burst out in front, leading the Olympic field for the first 13 miles. At 18 miles he had slowed, but was still a close second.

Then he sat on the grass to catch his breath when a spectator approached him to see if he was alright; at that point one of the official’s cars came by and immediately disqualified Tarzan for receiving aid.

“I know in my heart I could have won that race,” Tarzan said later. But since he was disqualified, he didn’t bother to finish.

“Tarzan Brown ain’t no quitter!”

Tarzan ran the Olympic marathon as he had run other races. He typically raced out to huge leads and then took a rest before continuing on. Local Rhode Island legends abound about Tarzan stopping for a beer or resting until another runner appeared, before continuing on his way.

Though Salimeno tried to train his protégé, the truth was that no one ever told Tarzan Brown what to do. Forget Sinatra, it was Tarzan who did it his way.

His usual regimen consisted of drinking beer and chopping wood. Nason once said Tarzan trained in barrooms and had “some terrific brawls.”

And things did not get more serious on race day.

Tarzan would arrive the day of a race and eat half a dozen hot dogs, washed down by his favorite, orange soda, his nephew, Keith Brown said.

“You know Uncle Tarzan, he’d balance the hot dogs on his arm and wolf them down one after another; afraid somebody was going to take them away from him,” he laughed.

Tarzan returned to Rhode Island after the 1936 Olympics and the reckless champion, used to adulation, found himself the object of scorn. Critics emerged everywhere, disappointed that Tarzan gave up and quit the biggest race of his life.

Tarzan was a proud man and was determined to show the world “that Tarzan Brown ain’t no quitter!”

He did it in a fashion unequaled in world history, by winning two full-length marathons on consecutive days in 1936.

First he won the New York Championship at Portchester and then hitchhiked through the night to Manchester New Hampshire, where he arrived just before race time. There he drank orange soda pop for breakfast and then went out and won the race!

Five days later he collapsed with a double hernia.

The Greatest Long Distance Runner

Everyone was praising Tarzan now, from seven-time Boston Marathon winner Clarence DeMar to Olympic champion Paavo Nurmi, considered one of the greatest runners ever.

Nurmi, who also trained distance runners, said that the marathon was not Tarzan’s best event. He said Tarzan would have been unbeatable if he only ran 10-milers.

Seven-time Boston Marathon winner Clarence DeMar speaks with Ellison 'Tarzan' Brown. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

In fact, in shorter races, Tarzan often set course marks, and once – in an unsanctioned race – broke the world record time.

Now that he had shut his critics up, Tarzan decided to retire. It was only shortly before the 1937 Boston race that he changed his mind. He showed up without any preparation and finished 37th. But, in 1938, he didn’t even finish the race.

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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