Those Two Rascals, John and Ellis

John Biglin and Ellis Ward met in a race in 1873. Ward was in the lead when he suddenly stopped rowing and “broke down”. From The Triumph of the Amateurs (The Daily Graphic, July 17, 1873).

9 April 2021

HTBS is grateful to William ‘Bill’ Lanouette and the publisher at Lyons Press for allowing us to publish an excerpt from Bill’s book The Triumph of the Amateurs: The Rise, Ruin, and Banishment of Professional Rowing in the Gilded Age, which hit the book shops on 1 April. This is a sub chapter called “John and Ellis as Rascals: Red Wing and Rockaway” about John Biglin and Ellis Ward, who were members of the two most famous families in professional rowing in America.

John Biglin and Ellis Ward were renowned for their many big-money races in single sculls. But in 1875 both marred their fine reputations by rare public deceits. That May, the Brooklyn Eagle complained how

honest contests are the exception rather than the rule, few races being rowed on the square. . . . The knaves of the oar in this fraud business lose thousands of dollars in order to gain a few hundreds by what they consider “smart” tricks. To such an extent has the evil of “hippodroming,” or “selling” or “throwing” races affected professional rowing, that it has driven all the patronage of the admirers of the sport from the professional arena to that of the amateur. . . .

Regrettably, Ellis Ward soon proved how easily the realms of professional and amateur rowing could be blurred. About the time of that Eagle editorial Ward tried a new form of knavery, off in Minnesota. He wandered west from his home on the Hudson, claiming to be an itinerant carpenter named John B. Fox (Fox was his middle name). Ward disembarked at the Mississippi River town of Red Wing, where he told local boat club members he had “rowed a little once on the Susquehanna River.” But when townsmen saw Ward perform in a shell they rejoiced, and urged him to race in the upcoming state championship regatta. A grocer hired Fox, although some folks were suspicious. “Now and then the new clerk would shift a case of prunes or unpack a box of tinned peaches,” one townsman recalled, “but most of the time he could be found loitering along the river front.” For weeks, Fox gladly helped coach the local rowers, and trained hard in a single.

Ward had imported his own deception, but his hosts more than matched it. When a crew from Stillwater sent photos of its burly rowers, among them lumberjacks, Red Wing put a rowing costume on the town blacksmith, who had never been in a boat before but gladly flexed his bulging muscles. Then Stillwater sent a scout to assess its competition. But once he was recognized, the Red Wing rowers threw a sloppy performance for his benefit. Their charade succeeded. Word spread fast: Red Wing’s oarsmen would be sure losers. This led crews from Stillwater and St. Paul to rate themselves the odds-on favorites, and they were eager to place bets when their steamboat chugged into town. Hundreds of cheering fans rushed ashore, their arrival livened by a peppy cornet band.

“Prominent citizens caught the gambling fever,” wrote one historian. “Money was wagered freely. Respectable citizens who had never hazarded a cent in all their lives, stood along the levee with their pockets bulging with bills. Nearly all the money in the Red Wing banks was drawn out for betting purposes” and one “old-timer” claimed deposits in the First National Bank fell to $50.

Ellis Ward

In the Regatta’s first race, for two miles in singles, Fox grabbed a lead over a St. Paul sculler who was then state champion. Fox sped on. At one point he quit rowing to splash water on his arms and face to cool off. And he sucked a lemon until his opponent caught up. Then, rowing along easily, Fox won by a boat-length.

Next, Fox rowed as stroke for the Red Wing Boat Club four. Their crew won handily, leaving fans from Stillwater and St. Paul broke. The steamboat’s captain had shared their excitement, and lost so much he couldn’t afford to buy the coal needed for the return trip—until a Red Wing man offered $1,500 from his hefty winnings to cover costs.

Performing in town were the Tennessee Jubilee Singers, a student choir that had toured the eastern and midwestern United States. The Singers appeared to raise money for Fisk University, an institution founded in Nashville after the Civil War to educate African Americans. Their concert favorites included gospel and spiritual melodies, Stephen Foster tunes, and patriotic pieces like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

One choir member recognized Fox as professional rower Ellis Ward. When challenged, the New York Times reported, the Red Wing rowers professed ignorance that “the stranger was Ward, and that he was undoubtedly put upon them by ‘betting sharps’ for their own gain. Thousands of dollars were won in this way, and the feeling in St. Paul and other places against Ward is said to be one of intense indignation.” This scheme became national news when the Times headlined,

ELLIS WARD’S LITTLE GAME.
HE RUSTICATES IN MINNESOTA UNDER THE
NAME OF FOX—CASUALLY PARTICIPATES
IN AN AMATEUR REGATTA AND WINS
EVERYTHING—A DISHONORABLE ACT.

The paper stated its “deep regret that Ward should blot an honorable career in aquatic sport by the despicable act of becoming the tool of gamblers to fleece innocent sportsmen.” Minnesota historian Merle Potter later named as conspirators the grocer who hired Fox, a hardware merchant, and a Red Wing grain dealer. But, in time, Ward’s “dishonorable act” was forgotten. Like many a professional oarsman, he went on to become a legendary coach. Beginning in 1879, Ward was hired as the first rowing coach at the University of Pennsylvania, and he continued there with winning results until 1912.

A month after news about Ellis Ward’s guile in Minnesota, John Biglin prompted angry press on his own for a suspicious “performance” in a three-mile singles race at Rockaway Beach, in Queens. When racing for $1,000 and the Championship of New York State, Biglin was the bookies’ three-to-one favorite. But he enriched colleagues who bet against him by feigning an accident as he rounded the mid-course stake boat. Ten Eyck rowed on to win by half a mile.

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

After Biglin’s surprise loss the Eagle headlined its coverage of the race “A Specimen of Professional Fraud.” The sub-head was as harsh: “A Lesson for People who Bet on Professionals.” When the race began, “betting was then $100 to $30 on Biglin. Scores of Biglin’s admirers laid their money out freely. In the meantime several very quiet, innocent looking countrymen were taking the odds every time.” Once begun, the “first mile was simply an exercising gait. It was apparent that Biglin did not care to win.” By this time, “His admirers had no time to hedge, for Mr. Biglin, in water smooth as glass, managed to get foul of the stake boat, then pulled his shell so clumsily as to fill it with water. An amateur could not have gone through such a performance; it required the skill of a professional.” Calling the race “a disgrace” that “will do much toward lessening the confidence of the public in professional oarsmen,” the Eagle reported how a spectator with no money on the race “characterizes it as a ‘—–fraud,’ and the men who were parties to it as ‘no good.’” The paper reported “another gentleman said that there was no doubt it was twenty dollars to five that Biglin could win the race if he wished to. Biglin has given himself away for a very paltry sum.” Still, John’s passion for rowing endured that fall, and he continued to race in singles and pairs.

Two of U.S. most well-known rowing coaches have this to say about Bill Lanouette’s The Triumph of the Amateurs:

“This book is a great read. I learned something new with every page. It’s a colorful and surprising story about our sport.”
Charley Butt, Men’s Crew Coach, Harvard University

“The Triumph of the Amateurs is an exceptionally well written and well researched history of early American Rowing. The description of our American and Canadian professional scullers is vivid; reckless characters looking for fame and fortune. The demise of professional sculling and the blossoming of collegiate and amateur rowing is described in exquisite detail. In the process we get a clear picture of post-civil war American culture. I have never read a more compelling book on this era.”
Steve Gladstone, Men’s Crew Coach, Yale University

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