Q&A: Bill Lanouette on The Triumph of the Amateurs

The cover of Bill Lanouette’s book The Triumph of the Amateurs, showing “The Biglin Brothers Racing” by Thomas Eakins.

1 April 2021

Interview by Göran R Buckhorn

Today, rowing historian William ‘Bill’ Lanouette, who contributes articles to HTBS, will launch the book The Triumph of the Amateurs: The Rise, Ruin, and Banishment of Professional Rowing in the Gilded Age. HTBS editor Göran R Buckhorn caught up with Bill Lanouette via e-mail to ask him some questions about the book.

HTBS: Bill, congratulations on your new book, The Triumph of the Amateurs.

BL: Thanks so much, Göran! As well you know, books require much more than an author’s efforts, and you’re part of a lively rowing-history network that I was fortunate to join. That network helped and kept me going when researching this elusive topic.

Bill Lanouette. Photo courtesy of Thomas E. Weil Jr.

HTBS: Please tell us a little about your background.

BL: I was born in New Haven and grew up in North Haven, Connecticut. I learned to row competitively at Fordham College in New York City, and continued the sport in the London School of Economics Boat Club (University of London) when I earned a master’s degree in Politics.

HTBS: Which rowing clubs have you been/are you a member of? 

BL: In Washington DC, where I covered Congress and the White House as a journalist, I rowed at the Potomac Boat Club. Since moving to the Left Coast in 2012, I’ve rowed at the San Diego Rowing Club. Like the Biglins, I enjoy rowing a pair. But with the COVID-19 pandemic I’m content with an erg.

HTBS: How did you come up with the idea of writing a book about the professional oarsmen in America? And when did you start doing the research and writing?

BL: Since I first saw Thomas Eakins’s painting John Biglin in a Single Scull in the 1960s, I had wondered just who this Biglin fellow was. Years later, I learned he was a professional rower and that fascinated me all the more. Professional rowing? Who knew there ever was such a business?

In 1996, Smithsonian magazine asked me to write about the art exhibition “Thomas Eakins: The Rowing Pictures” and for that I began digging to find out more about Biglin and his world.

HTBS: Was it hard to find a publisher for the book?

BL: You bet! At first, big trade publishers found my topic of professional rowing too narrow; and academic presses thought a rip-roaring story lacked theoretical perspectives. But, over the years, publishing has evolved – with now many more specialty houses. Lyons Press had already issued some fine books about rowing, and there the book found an ideal home.

HTBS: Tell us a little about professional rowing in America.

BL: Competitive rowing began among professional watermen and the sport was created by professional scullers rowing match races for prize money – first in England, the USA, and Canada, and then in  Australia. These professional scullers became sports superstars, with their matches publicized widely and betting rampant. Boston was the first to sponsor a city regatta in 1854, and many followed – all with lavish prizes for professionals that attracted bookies and betting.

HTBS: Were the professionals a homogeneous group?

BL: First the English and then the Irish dominated pro rowing in the 19th century. The Irish-Americans in Boston and New York rowed with and against one another, and sometimes attracted English rivals. A famous rivalry thrived for years between the English Ward brothers from Cornwall-on-Hudson and the Irish Biglin brothers from New York City.

HTBS: There seems to have been a lot of skullduggery?

BL: Indeed, the professionals were racing for prizes equivalent to a craftsman’s yearly salary and developed tricks to assure a win – or a loss if they bet against themselves. With its reckless betting mania, greedy financiers, and easily corrupted athletes, professional rowing spawned America’s first – and worst – national sports scandal. You had sabotaged boats, poisoned oarsmen, bribed officials, reckless collisions, secret payoffs, blackmail, rigged betting pools, faked mishaps and illness, and drunken riotous crowds that together ruined professional rowing. For all this professional rowing wasn’t just sanctioned or sidelined. It was banned. No other professional sport has been so destroyed.

The Biglin Four in Halifax in 1871. Clockwise from the top: Barney Biglin, John Biglin, Henry Coulter and Joseph Kaye Jr. From The Triumph of the Amateurs (Photo by William Notman, McCord Museum)

HTBS: You tell the story of the famous professionals, the Biglin brothers. Were they as bad as the other rowers?

BL: No. The Biglins were famous and intensely competitive. But among their 100+ races I documented only one or two likely involved cheating. Their successors were worse in the 1870s and 1880s, ultimately disgracing the sport.

HTBS: Today, the Biglins are still remembered thanks to Thomas Eakins’s well-known paintings of the brothers. How did Eakins come to paint the Biglins?

BL: Eakins was himself a sculler, and his mother and sister also rowed on the Schuylkill River. Boat House Row was a short walk from their home, and when the Biglins came to town in 1872 for the professional pair-oared championship Eakins met them at the Vesper Boat Club and followed their training and their race. Eakins watched and sketched and painted the Biglins practicing and racing on the Schuylkill, then sketched and painted John Biglin in a single on the Delaware River.

HTBS: There were a few black professional scullers, for example Frenchy Johnson. Could Johnson race on equal terms among the white professional scullers?

Frenchy Johnson

BL: Yes. Frenchy was a former slave who moved to Boston and became a trainer for the American champion sculler Charles Courtney. In the 1870s, Frenchy beat the best professionals. In Canada, Robert Berry from Toronto was a successful professional. Frank Hart was a well-known protégé of Johnson’s, and a winning amateur sculler. Black rowers were sometimes described as “the Ethiopian” or “colored” but – like black jockeys of the day – were respected as competitive athletes.

HTBS: Two of the most famous professional scullers on this side of the Atlantic were Canadian Ned Hanlan and American Charles Courtney. Tell us a little about their rivalry.

BL: In 1876, Hanlan won the world professional sculling championship, and a year later Courtney turned pro and quickly became American champion. In 1878, the two raced at Lachine, near Montreal, and near the finish Courtney was stopped by barges that drifted into the course – while Hanlan pulled to victory.

The night before their second match race, on Chautauqua Lake in upstate New York in 1879, Courtney’s shell was sawed in two and he refused to row a borrowed boat. Then early in their third race, on the Potomac at Washington in 1880, Courtney just stopped rowing.

The professional scullers Charles Courtney (l) and Ned Hanlan (r).

HTBS: At one point several of the professional scullers went out with a statement saying that they refused to row against Courtney. What had happened?

BL: Ever since turning pro, Courtney suffered mishaps and ailments to excuse his losses, and he sometimes refused to row or to finish high-stakes races – prompting charges he bet against himself to lose. By 1884, this unreliable and quirky behavior prompted ten leading professionals to boycott Courtney. After this only one or two scullers rowed with him in races that were clearly fixed. 

HTBS: The spectators at a race often bet heavily on the rowers. At one point in the book, you write the public had to be charmed before it could be cheated, and that professional rowing’s corruption grew with the sport’s popularity. Please explain what you mean.

BL: Spectators knew the professionals as sports celebrities, and when pro-rowers no longer had regattas to attract crowds they resorted to other entertainments. Their fans were still eager to bet and the pros devised other competitions off the water.

Advertisement for a Roadsculler Race at Madison Square Garden in 1888. From The Triumph of the Amateurs.

HTBS: So, when the interest for the professional rowers’ races collapsed, how did the rowers and their backers try to reinvigorate the interest for the professionals among the public?

BL: Hanlan and others staged a national tour to amuse their fans by just demonstrating their rowing skills – and charging admission to watch. In theatres, George Hosmer and Hanlan rowed singles on a flooded stage in a melodrama set at the Henley Regatta. In a skating rink, Courtney “raced” Wallace Ross using oar handles to propel wooden boxes on wheels. At Madison Square Garden, 14 famed rowers copied popular six-day bicycle races by riding three-wheeled “roadscullers” around a track for six days. And professional scullers Fred Plaisted and James Ten Eyck brought rowing to vaudeville shows: on stages in the USA and Europe the two operated mechanical appliances that moved miniature sculls to simulate a race.

HTBS: Some professionals turned to coaching. How successful were they as coaches?

BL: Several became legendary, including Charles Courtney at Cornell, Ellis Ward at the University of Pennsylvania, James Ten Eyck at Syracuse, Edward “Ned” Hanlan at Columbia and Fred Plaisted, who coached Philadelphia clubs successfully.

HTBS: Which other professional sports caught the eye of the public when professional rowing died?

BL: Baseball at first, then boxing and football and ice hockey.

John Biglin, 1872. From The Triumph of the Amateurs (Thomas E. Weil Jr Collection).

HTBS: Despite the corruption and their dirty tricks, do you have a personal favourite among the professional rowers?

BL: They’re all colorful characters, but I think it’s John Biglin – for his tenacity and pluck.

HTBS: I have to give you praise for the last chapter in your book about the rise of amateur rowing. In one chapter you manage to beautifully tell the story of more than 100 years of rowing history, including women’s rowing, Olympic rowing, the East Bloc v. the Western rowing culture and much more. Do you think that amateur rowing has anything to thank the professionals for?

BL: A few things come to mind. From the professionals’ era technical improvements such as outriggers, sliding seats, foot-controlled steering, and laminated shell construction are all standard in boats today. The pros were paragons of athleticism who set the exacting standards that are common to the sport today. The professionals in the Gilded Age were financed by syndicates and worked at rowing almost full time. Curiously, that’s what elite rowers need to do today to be competitive.

HTBS: Tell us a little more about the early female rowing pioneers, their programs and clubs.

BL: In New York City, the first women rowers were from rowing families, such as Olivia Roberts, the daughter of boat-builder and professional sculler Stephen Roberts. In Pittsburgh, Lottie McAlice and Maggie Lew raced for gold watches and cash prizes. Women also raced for money on Lake George and at Detroit, and many more rowed for fun at occasional amateur regattas. Wellesley College began a rowing program in 1875, and Smith College in the 1890s.

Wellesley College crew, 1889. From The Triumph of the Amateurs (Wellesley College Archive).

The world’s first women’s rowing club was founded in San Diego in 1892 – called the ZLAC Rowing Club after the members’ initials. Five years later, women in Philadelphia created The Bicycle, Barge & Canoe Club on Boathouse Row. And in 1900, the Oakland Women’s Rowing Club first raced on San Francisco Bay.

Beyond these modest gains, for American women the rowing world only opened up radically after 1972. That’s when the U.S. Congress passed education amendments to the Civil Rights Act that included Title IX. This required schools and colleges receiving federal support to spend as much for women’s sports programs as they did for men’s. As a further boost, since 1997 women’s college rowing has been governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) giving its programs both financial aid and publicity. It may surprise many that in North America today there are now more women than men rowing competitively.

(USRowing reports 52% women 48% men rowing competitively. For youth rowing, it is 53% women, 47% men. For masters rowing, it is 51% women, 49% men. And for the 156 World Rowing – formerly FISA – member countries, the ratio is a close 55% men 45% women.)

HTBS: Thank you, Bill, for taking the time to answer these questions. And good luck with your book.

BL: Thank you Göran for your years of help and encouragement. And for this splendid website.

Bill Lanouette’s The Triumph of the Amateurs: The Rise, Ruin, and Banishment of Professional Rowing in the Gilded Age is officially published today, 1 April, by Lyons Press, (hard cover, 282 pages, and e-book.)

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