1933-1941: When Rhode Islanders Ruled The Boston Marathon

Apr 16, 2018

They say never say never in sports, and it’s good advice.  Remember how we said the Patriots would never come back from 25 points down and win Super Bowl LI? How did that turn out? Patriots 34, Falcons 28 (OT), the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

Well, with the 122ndrunning of the Boston Marathon on Monday, I write with complete confidence that Rhode Island runners winning five times in nine years will never happen again.


But a long time ago, it did happen. Yes, there was a time when Rhode Island ruled Boston. Yes, for almost a decade, marathoners from Rhode Island dominated the most famous foot race in the world. Between 1933 and 1941 Leslie Pawson of Pawtucket, a weaver in a textile mill, won three times and Ellison M. “Tarzan” Brown of Alton, R.I.,  a stone mason and shell fisherman, won twice. 

Pawson and Brown were workingmen, not professional runners. Winners in that era were teachers, milkmen, firefighters, cobblers, painters and clerks. Professional runners were decades away. Also, the Boston Marathon in those days was a curiosity event that drew a few hundred entrants, mostly from New England, and not the international spectacle it is today.

In 1933 Pawson led the field of 253 men from rural Hopkinton to downtown Boston in 2 hours, 31 minutes and 1 second, a course record. His winnings? A laurel wreath and a bowl of beef stew. 

In 1938 Pawson won in 75-degree heat, besting the field of 209 starters in 2:35:34. He posted his third victory in 1941, finishing ahead of 156 entrants in 2:30.38, his fastest Boston time. It was another warm day, 72 degrees, and in the second half of the race Pawson overtook former champs Gerard Cote of Canada, John A. Kelley of Arlington, Mass., and Brown. He and Kelley battled over the last eight miles, Pawson prevailing by 220 yards. He was 36 years old and the second man to win Boston three times. Clarence DeMar won seven Bostons.

Pawson, who worked for the Pawtucket Parks Department after his first Boston win, was a familiar figure on the roads of Rhode Island during his career. The 2.48-mile route around Olney Pond in Lincoln Woods State Park was named the Les Pawson Loop in his honor.

Pawson worked until he was 75, long after he retired from running. I interviewed him at his Weeden Street home for the Providence Journal several years after his retirement and remember him as a being warm, modest and dignified. He spoke fondly of his rivalry with Kelley, Cote and Brown. He recalled being wind-burned from the steady easterly that blew the entire race in 1933.

Les Pawson died in 1992 at the age of 87.

Ellison Brown, dubbed Tarzan for his penchant for swinging from tree branches in South County, and Deerfoot by his fellow Narragansetts for his swiftness, might be the most colorful champion in Boston Marathon history. He arrived for the 1935 race in a uniform his sisters had sewn from one of their mother’s dresses; she had died two days earlier. His shoes were so tattered that 21 miles in he took them off, threw them to the crowd and continued on barefoot. He finished 13th.

Brown was leading in the heat in 1938 when he decided to cool off with a swim in Lake Cochituate. Pawson and others passed and left him behind. He showed up for the 1939 Marathon eating hot dogs and drinking vanilla milkshakes. That combination fueled his record run.

Standing 5-foot-7 and weighing just 130 pounds, Brown dethroned Kelley in 1936, winning in 2:33:40 on a sunny day. He also played a prominent role in the coining of one of the instantly recognizable terms in sports. Brown started fast, led by 500 yards at the first checkpoint in Framingham and by 900 yards entering the Newton hills. Kelley charged, caught Brown near Boston College, patted him on the backside as he passed, as if to say “Nice try, Tarzan,” and headed for home. 

That pat re-ignited the competitive fire in Brown. He regained the lead and won handily. Kelley, exhausted, finished fifth. Sports writer Jerry Nason wrote that Brown broke Kelley’s heart, and thus the last of the Newton Hills became known forever as Heartbreak Hill.

Brown became the second Native American to win Boston. Thomas Longboat, an Onondaga from Ontario, Canada, won in 1907, when the route was only 24.5 miles long. 

Brown shattered Pawson’s record on a cold and rainy day in 1939, leading 214 followers in 2:28:51, also an American record. He broke every checkpoint record after the first. He lowered his American record time to 2:27:30 at Salisbury Beach, Mass., in 1940.

Brown and Kelley were named to the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. Brown was disqualified after a German spectator tried to massage cramps from Brown’s legs. Kelley finished the out-and-back marathon route. They were named to the 1940 Olympic team, but the games in Tokyo were canceled after the outbreak of World War II.

Brown won marathons on consecutive days in the fall of 1936. He finished first at Port Chester, N.Y., on Oct. 11 and at the New England Marathon Championship at Manchester, N.H., on Oct. 12.

Brown experienced hard times during and after his career and sold his medals and trophies to support his wife and their four children. He died ion Aug. 23, 1975 after being struck by a van outside a bar in Westerly. Tarzan Brown was a month shy of 61.

Marathoning has changed since the days of Les Pawson and Tarzan Brown.  Boston runners number in the tens of thousands and start in waves. Elite runners are professionals.  Winners are often Kenyan or Ethiopian. Since 1988, 27 of the 30 Boston winners hailed from those two countries.

But 80 years ago Les Pawson and Tarzan Brown were Boston Marathon kings. Believe me, two Rhode Islanders ruling Boston will never happen again.