Published on January 5, 2013 by Amy
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Ellison Myers Brown (September 22, 1914 – August 23, 1975), widely known as Tarzan Brown, and Deerfoot amongst his people, was a two-time winner of the Boston Marathon in 1936 and 1939. A member and direct descendant of the royal family of the Narragansett Indian tribe of Rhode Island, he also participated in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. He was scheduled to participate in the 1940 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, but these were canceled due to the outbreak of World War II. Tarzan Brown is still 1 of only 2 Native Americans to have won the Boston Marathon (the other was Thomas Longboat of the Onondaga Nation in 1907) and the only Native American to have more than 1 victory in Boston. He was inducted into the American Indian Hall of Fame in 1973.
Tarzan Brown won the Boston Marathon in 1936 and 1939. He took off so fast in the 1936 Boston marathon that the press followed the second runner, John A. Kelley, until the 20 mile mark where Kelley caught up to Tarzan. As Kelley overtook Tarzan—an amazing feat given the steady record break pace Tarzan had set—Kelley patted Tarzan on the back. What followed was a struggle between Tarzan, who took the lead on the downhills, and Kelley, who took the lead on the uphills, until finally Tarzan took the lead again to win the race. This struggle inspired reporter Jerry Nason to name the last Newton hill Heartbreak Hill because Tarzan “broke Kelley’s heart.”
In the 1939, Brown was the first runner to break the 2:30 mark on the Boston Course. After the 17-mile mark in this race he also broke every checkpoint record. In 1939 Brown entered two different 26-mile races within 24 hours of one another, and he won both races.
Tarzan was also renowned for his antics during the Boston Marathon. In his first appearance as a runner in the Boston Marathon in 1935, he arrived in an outfit sewn together from one of his mother’s old dresses by his sisters and he had sneakers that were falling apart. Approximately halfway through the Boston Marathon, Tarzan removed his sneakers and threw them into the crowd and ran the rest of the race barefoot (a total of 13 miles barefoot) and finished 13th. Then in the 1938 running of the Boston Marathon, Tarzan was leading on what was an unseasonably warm day when midway through the race, he ran off the road, waved to the crowd and jumped into Lake Cochituate to swim and cool off. After a while, Tarzan returned and ran the rest of the course, though other runners had already long since passed by. Most notably, fellow Rhode Islander Les Pawson (of Pawtucket) won that year. Pawson was one of Tarzan’s top rivals. Tarzan was also seen arriving just minutes before the start of the 1939 Boston Marathon eating hot dogs and drinking milkshakes just before the race and claimed that he had missed breakfast.
Tarzan was born and raised by Byron and Grace (Babcock) Brown in poverty on the Narragansett Indian reservation in Charlestown, Rhode Island with his brothers Franklin, Clifford and Elwin and his sisters Myra, Alice “Nina” and Grace. In addition to running, he worked as a stonemason and a shellfisherman. He married a fellow Narragansett Indian named Ethel (Wilcox) Brown and had four children. He was killed in 1975 when a van hit him outside a bar in Westerly, Rhode Island.
“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.” — Tom Derderian
“Tarzan ran against people, not against numbers. He probably could have broke other records, but I never pushed him. When you’re in a race you don’t go out for records, you go out to win.” — Tippy Salimeno