Ellison M. “Tarzan” Brown

Inducted: 1968
Born: 1913
Died: 1975

Ellison M. Brown, the great Narragansett runner of the 1930s, has become a legend, on and off the track, and his exploits gave the Boston Marathon its most distinctive landmark. Reporters too often filled their stories with stereotypes and misinformation about Brown, his running exploits, and American Indians. Yet, to this day, he is considered a hero by his community and other New England Indians.

Brown was born on September 22, 1913, at Porter Hill, R.I., a leading family member on the Narragansett Nation’s Rhode Island reservation. He was the son of Narragansett tribal members Bryan Otis and Grace Babcock Brown. According to stories, the nickname “Tarzan” was given to him early in life. He was a natural outdoorsman who developed an athletic build and significant strength. Unafraid of heights, he loved to climb trees and swing from one branch to another, as well as rope to rope. His strength and balance were so remarkable that it seemed to observers that his athleticism was unlimited. He reminded them of Edgar Rice Burrough’s famous fictional hero, Tarzan. In his own Narragansett community, Brown was known as “Deerfoot,” the same moniker held by Louis Bennett, champion Seneca long-distance runner of the 1860s.

Outside of running, Brown’s life was filled with hardship and disappointment. He grew up in extreme poverty with six siblings, three brothers and three sisters. His brothers died long before they reached old age – Franklin by drowning, Edwin by gunshot, and Clifford by stabbing. Although a fisherman and a mason by trade, Brown was unemployed for long periods. His formal schooling ended in the seventh grade. He hoped that his skills as an unpaid amateur athlete would open doors and provide employment during the hard times of the Great Depression. That did not occur.

In 1926, at 12, the precocious Narragansett runner came to the attention of Tippy Salimeno, a Westerly, Rhode Island resident and trainer of long-distance runners. One of Salimeno’s runners was Chief Horatio “Dunk” Stanton, Jr. To the trainer’s surprise, the 12-year-old Brown nearly kept pace with the experienced Stanton in a 14-mile run from Westerly to a ballfield in Shannock, Rhode Island. Salimeno encouraged Brown but advised him that the Amateur Athletic Union only allowed participants into sanctioned events when they reached 16. In the following years, although without tutelage and proper running shoes, Brown took up formal running, improved his stamina, and learned long-distance race strategies. Salimeno later became his trainer.

Track-and-field events had a resurgence in Indian Country in the early 1930s. At the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Wilson David “Buster” Charles, a Oneida from De Pere, Wis., finished fourth in the decathlon, the premier track-and-field event along with the Marathon. It was not a coincidence that Brown decided to enter the Boston Marathon the following year. Now 21, standing 5’7″ and weighing 138 pounds of muscle, he finished 14th. The following year, he finished 32nd. But in the 1935 Marathon, he received significant press attention and became part of the race’s lore, even though he didn’t medal. His mother had just died, and to honor her memory, Brown wore a jersey made of one of her best dresses. During the last third of the race, he abandoned his running shoes, beat-up high-cut sneakers, either because of discomfort or because they had fallen apart. For the next five to seven miles, he ran barefoot. Even without footgear, Brown finished in 13th place. One of his fellow competitors was Russell George, a highly touted 17-year-old runner from the Onondaga reservation in central New York. George injured his ankle before the Marathon, and he and Brown failed to catch the ultimate winner, Johnny Kelley.

But Brown decisively entered Marathon history with his first win in April 1936, when it drizzled intermittently. Unlike Brown’s previous marathon strategies, where he stayed in the middle of the pack for the first half of the race, he set a pace at the beginning that was so fast that he passed the press vehicles before they reached the first checkpoint. He broke the record for the first five miles of the race. By the 20th mile, his main competitor, once again Johnny Kelley, had caught up to him. Kelley briefly overtook him at the last of the Newton hills, more of a gradually rising slope near Boston College, between miles 20 and 21 of the race. Passing Brown, Kelly patted him on the back. The gesture was ill-advised. Brown suddenly realized that his competitor was now making his decisive move. This was the turning point in this famous Marathon. Brown sped up, and Kelley could not keep up. Jerry Nason, the best-known newspaper reporter covering the Boston Marathon, later referred to the spot as “Heartbreak Hill,” suggesting that “Tarzan” broke Kelley’s heart there. This famous site is now marked by a statue with two figures called Young at Heart. Strangely, both figures are of Kelley as a young and older man. Brown, the winner of the contest, is missing.

On April 21, 1936, 22-year-old Brown arrived at the Rhode Island State House and was met by a roaring ovation from the Rhode Island General Assembly. When asked to speak, he said “I did it for Rhode Island.” Very few people had heard of Ellison the day before, but now he was the talk of the world. Newspapers far and wide were swept up by Tarzan’s story, which often focused on his Indian heritage. Headlines aimed to sell papers, read “Hailed as ‘First 100 Percent American’ to Win Boston Marathon.” 

Brown’s outstanding performance won him a place on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team for the notorious Berlin Summer Olympics hosted by Germany’s new Nazi regime. The track-and-field contingent included African Americans Jessie Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, as well as Marty Glickman, a Jew, at an event designed to bolster the host’s Aryan supremacist ideology. On August 9, on a bright sunny day with the temperature around 71 degrees, Brown was one of the favorites to medal in the Marathon. At the 25-kilometer mark, he was in fourth place. Remarkable film clips of the race, available on YouTube, show him nonchalantly pausing for a drink at an aid station. However, at the 28-kilometer mark, he suffered a severe cramp in his right thigh, and his leg knotted up, forcing him to stop and rub it. Allegedly, he was disqualified when a spectator came to his aid and when he veered off the course, clear rules violations.

Brown later recalled to a journalist: “I didn’t know then it was a rule, but I later found out it was. Anyway, there was no point in finishing the race if I was disqualified. I could have won that Olympics if I’d had somebody to advise me right. I made the Olympic team by winning the Boston Marathon back in April. I didn’t have to do any more running to get on the Olympic team, so for two months I just loafed around. What I know now is, I should have kept on racing, staying sharp, If somebody’d told me right I’d have known early that I’d have only nine days’ training when we got off that boat in Germany. Nine days isn’t much time to train for a big race like the Olympics, but I still think I’d have won it easy if I hadn’t cramped up at 18 miles.”

In disbelief that “Tarzan,” a favorite to medal, had not finished the race, writers have tried to explain what had happened over the years. They blamed it on his taking a warm bath before the race, his pulling a muscle fooling around imitating a British distance walker, a chronic foot injury, or a hernia aggravated in the qualifying trials. A family tradition points to his alleged fight with a Nazi supporter of Hitler in a beer garden before the race and his subsequent arrest. According to the story, he was held in jail overnight and warned by authorities not to win the Marathon.

After returning to the United States empty-handed, he continued running the Marathon, seeking to redeem his reputation by claiming he could run and win two marathons within 24 hours. In the fall of 1936, he delivered on his boast, winning marathons on back-to-back days, first in Port Chester, N.Y., on October 11, and in Manchester, N.H., more than 200 miles away the following day. He also continued to run in the Boston Marathon for the next decade. He was a fan favorite not only because of his great athletic talent but because he had a flair for being unpredictable. In 1937, Brown, somewhat out of condition and suffering from problems with his feet, finished 31st. His 1938 race has entered Boston Marathon lore, although his wife Ethel Mae later claimed the incident happened the year before. Because of the sweltering conditions, Brown abandoned his quest for the championship. He ran off the course, waved to the crowd, and jumped into Lake Cochituate to cool off.

In 1939, Brown reached the pinnacle of his career. He began to take long-distance running seriously again. Training vigorously, he ran two practice marathons a week between Pawtucket, R.I. and Attleboro, Mass., and ran another 17 miles twice a week. That year, he won 20 of 22 long-distance races, setting records in nearly every event! In a ten-mile race in Cranston, Rhode Island, he equaled the world record of Pavlo Nurmi, the Flying Finn, perhaps the greatest long-distance runner ever. Brown also won both the 15- and 20- kilometer races at the United States National Track and Field Championship and a well-publicized race at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park in Queens, N.Y. Brown won the Boston Marathon again on a chilly day in April 1939. In doing so, he eclipsed the race record by more than two minutes. According to several sources, he downed several hot dogs and several soda pop bottles just before the race.

But the world war crushed his hopes for an Olympic rematch in Helsinki. Qualifying for the 1940 Olympic team and favored to win the Marathon, Brown saw his plans end abruptly when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. No Olympic games were held again until 1948, when Brown, then 36, was well past his prime. Brown’s Boston Marathon running days came to an end in 1946. Making a comeback in that race, he finished a surprising 12th. He returned to his work as a mason and fisherman, although he continued to run in challenge races. Until 59, this remarkable athlete also put on exhibitions, sometimes entertaining the crowds by running backward. In financial trouble for much of his later life, like Longboat before him, he was forced to sell his prized medals and trophies to pay for groceries and his medical bills. In 1973, he was inducted into the RRCA Distance Running Hall of Fame.

Brown married a Narragansett woman named Ethel Wilcox and had four children: Ellison Jr., Norman, Marlene, and Ethel. He usually sold the medals and trophies he won while racing to support his family. The economy in these depression times provided little for most Americans and nothing for Indians. They were a conquered people living on the margin. Ellison Myers Brown, born on the margin, saw running as his only way out of poverty.

Many varied accounts of the events on the evening of August 23, 1975, which led to Brown’s death, have been told. Some state that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, waiting for a ride home, or that an altercation may have occurred. However, amidst whatever confusion and circumstances there may have been, he was killed when a van hit him outside a Westerly, Rhode Island, bar, and his injuries proved to be fatal.

There is an annual Mystic River road race named in his honor in Mystic, Connecticut, every fall as part of a conference commemorating past Native American runners of the Boston Marathon and acknowledging the history and significance of running in many Indigenous American cultures. At the 2016 Boston Marathon race, Narragansett tribal member Mikki Wosencroft ran and completed the Boston course as an acknowledged representative of Brown’s family and the Narragansett tribe to honor him and his legacy. 

Ellison M. Brown was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1968. In 1973, he was inducted into the National Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in Lawrence, Kansas.

For additional reading:

  1. Ward, Michael (2006) Ellison “Tarzan” Brown: The Narragansett Indian who Twice Won the Boston Marathon, McFarland & Company, Inc.
  2.  Christian McBurney, “Tarzan Brown of the Narragansett Tribe, Legendary Marathon Runner, smallstatebighistory.com  
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