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A runner faster than a horse

In July 2013, I came across a surprising remark on American materialism made by a European almost two hundred years ago whilst I was trying to find records of one of history’s great long-distance runs in digitised versions of early 19th century local newspapers. I had read on Google books that one author (Edward Seldon Sears, whom I quote at the bottom of this entry) deemed Mensen Ernst’s run from Paris to Moscow in fourteen days to have been highly implausible* and I wondered whether newspapers in French-speaking Switzerland had mentioned the Norwegian’s feat, which Ernst’s early biographer, the German Gustav Rieck, claims in a book first published in 1838 that it took place from 11 June to 25 June 1832.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed at not having found any reference contemporaneous to the Paris to Moscow run, even though I would still be happy to entertain the possibility that this might have been attributable to the fact that I limited my searches to the runner’s name as opposed to perusing through all local newspapers as from, say, 26 June 1832. However, true to Edward Seldon Sears’s assertion that Mensen Ernst was able to capitalise on his fame and subsequently stage one-man shows across Europe (see the quote at the bottom of this entry), I found several instances of such exhibition performances having been organised in French-speaking Switzerland – for instance, in the cities of Neuchâtel, Geneva and Lausanne.

Ernst Mensen_Gazette de Lausanne_vendredi 27 mars 1835_p4[La Gazette de Lausanne of 27 March 1835]

I even found a kind of advertising insert published in La Gazette de Lausanne of 27 March 1835 to announce that Mensen Ernst would take up the challenge of running laps round a famous open space in the capital of the canton of Vaud on 29 March, first on a pair of stilts and then 20 times round the same open space whilst holding a map and a compass in less than 58 minutes. Spectators would reward him for his performance by giving him money. The brief and anonymous account (articles were not signed in those days) published in La Gazette de Lausanne of 31 March 1835 states that he even ran three additional laps (so 23 in all) in only 45 minutes, ‘much faster than a horse’ [‘il en a fait 23 fois le tour en 45 minutes seulement, ce qui, en évaluant chaque tour à 600 pas, représente une distance d’environ 3 lieues franchie avec une rapidité bien supérieure à celle d’un cheval’].

Americans and Europeans, divided by the chink of money?

Although I did not find any mention of the Paris to Moscow run, I came across some interesting comments (published as serialised, anonymous articles) on the American way of life as perceived by a European traveller (whom I found out yesterday by looking up a quote from these comments on the Internet that he was Gustave de Beaumont, a Frenchman who had visited the United States in 1831 with his compatriot Alexis de Tocqueville, who became more famous for his own account of the same trip).

La Gazette de Lausanne_Feuilleton_Moeurs américaines_vendredi 27 mars 1835[La Gazette de Lausanne of 27 March 1835]

In a section on women’s upbringing in the USA, itself part of the more general article entitled ‘Moeurs américaines’ (‘American mores’) published in La Gazette de Lausanne of 27 March 1835, Gustave de Beaumont claims that American men (but I guess he was not referring to all American men given the class and racial segregation that prevailed at the time) were much more money-oriented than their European counterparts: ‘The American, from his tenderest youth, is devoted to business; hardly has he learned to read and write when he becomes a merchant. The first sound in his ears is the chink of money; the first voice he hears is that of self-interest; he breathes at birth the air of industry; and all his early impressions persuade him that a business career is the only one becoming to a man’. (trans. Barbara Chapman, Stanford University Press, 1958).

I find this comment fascinating because it seems to point to some deeply engrained cultural differences between Americans and (continental?) Europeans regarding money and maybe even capitalism. However, this is nothing new: the old adage ‘Time is money’ (early 18th century, Benjamin Franklin inter alia) and a work of sociology (Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1904) spring up to my mind, but I am sure there must be many other such instances. More important is the possibility that sets of cultural values and beliefs (our own little ‘disk operating systems’ as it were) predetermine human action and, therefore, our fate as well as that of thousands and thousands of other species.

*The “as-the-crow-flies” distance from Paris to Moscow is about 1,500 miles (2,414 km). Ernst would have had to cover at least 112 miles (180 km) a day. For comparison, when George Littlewood set the 19th-century six-day record of 623 miles (1,003.8 km) in 1888 […], he averaged just under 104 miles (167 km) a day. Littlewood’s record was made on a carefully prepared indoor track, and he had ample support from his trainers. It is almost inconceivable that Ernst, running alone on poor to nonexistent roads, could have covered more than twice Littlewood’s distance and at a faster speed. In 1999 Norwegian Trond Olav Svendsen and a colleague made an extensive search of 1832 Moscow newspapers but found no mention of Ernst’s feat. Whether valid or not, stories of the run secured Ernst’s reputation, and he then travelled from city to city all over Europe, a one-man circus and folk hero.

Edward Seldon Sears, Running Through the Ages,  Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2001, page 61

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