Edward Payson, 1839″1929, one of Rhode Island’s most colorful native sons, was born in Providence on March 15, 1839. His father, Silas Weston, was at one time a school teacher and at another a publisher and the editor of a semi-monthly paper entitled The Pupil’s Mentor. Edward’s mother, Maria Gaines, was a talented writer who published several poems and novels.
Edward was the eldest of four children. When he was 15, his father set out for the California gold fields. When Silas returned to Providence in 1854, he brought back only the memories of his exciting adventures out west, so at age fifteen, young Edward became the publisher of his father’s California travelogue and sold it for $15.62 per copy. When Edward was seventeen, Silas left again, this time for new adventures in the Azores. When he returned two years later, young Edward continued his publishing efforts, selling his father’s newest travel accounts. In 1859, Edward printed his mother’s third novel, Kate Felton, with relative success, selling 2,500 copies by advance subscription.
As the Civil War was brewing, Edward made quite a name for himself. In 1861, upon the election of President Lincoln, he wagered that he could walk from Boston to Washington in ten days, in time to attend Lincoln’s inauguration. Although Payson was of small stature and slight build, he made it to Washington for the Inaugural Ball, but arrived about ten hours after the inauguration itself. The trip stirred enough notoriety that Lincoln made a point of meeting with Weston and offering to pay his way for a ride home. Weston declined and, instead, embarked upon a lifetime career as a world-famous professional “pedestrian.”
Although Edward’s publishing business appears to have ended in 1866 with the release of his mother’s final two novels, his walking career took off at a record pace, and his exploits became the subject of world renown. Among Payson’s more famous accomplishments was a walk from Portland, Maine to Chicago (1,326 miles in 25 days). Forty years later, at the age of 68, he made the same walk, beating his old record by 29 hours!
In January, 1879, he claimed a record for walking 2,000 miles. He also won the “Astley Belt” for placing first in a 550-mile, six-day event in London. He went on to claim records for 200, 250, and 300 miles. In all, he participated in over 1,000 professional events spanning nearly seven decades, including two transcontinental walks. His exploits earned him the nickname “The Pedestrian.”
Perhaps Edward’s greatest feat (no pun intended) was his walk from New York to San Francisco sponsored by the New York Times in 1906 when he was seventy years of age. He planned to complete the trip in 100 days. When he arrived in San Francisco on day 104, he proclaimed his tardiness as the greatest disappointment of his life. Undeterred, he walked back–this time covering the route in a blistering 76 days in an era when only a primitive road system existed across vast stretches of America.
Bad luck rather than age ended Edward’s career. While walking in New York City, he was struck by a taxicab. Suffered at the age eighty-eight, this accident confined him to a wheelchair for the remaining two years of his life.He died in 1929 at age 90, beating the average life expectancy for those born in 1839 by 50 years. Even in death, this unique Rhode Islander far outpaced his contemporaries and the odds.
– James P. Marusak, Esq.