Clinging to the undercarriage of a speeding train. Getting punched in the face for two bucks. Leaving a hospital bed to run a marathon. All just another day at the office for the gutsiest journeyman athlete of the early twentieth century.
The odds were against Bill Kennedy when the gust of wind blew him off that roof. One moment, the bricklayer was applying some finishing touches to the Des Moines Coliseum. The next, he was plunging sixty-five feet toward the unforgiving sidewalk below. At age twenty-five, Bill appeared destined to become a statistic: Des Moines’s second bricklayer fatality that week, and one of an estimated 800 nationally that year.
Probably, Kennedy did not ponder these stats as he sailed earthward. But if, as neuroscientists say, our perception of time slows down during traumatic moments, he might have cursed himself and wondered: How did a kid from the streets of Harlem end up on a rooftop in Iowa in the first place?
* * *
“$2.00 to the Loser”
Actually, the streets of Harlem were muddy paths clogged with cows and chickens when Kennedy was a lad, in the 1880s. The diverse New York City neighborhood was in essence a rapidly growing frontier town. Stockyards alternated with gasworks. Modern brick tenements were being erected alongside old wooden shacks, all accommodating waves of Irish and Jewish immigrants as well as African-Americans. William J. Kennedy, the second of nine children, went to work at age seven, selling newspapers on street corners. One of his brothers died at age six, possibly of the tuberculosis that plagued the overcrowded district.
By the time Bill was nine, in 1892, his father, Larry J. Kennedy, had moved his brood out to another frontier: Port Chester, a tiny but bustling factory town in New York’s Westchester County. There, “L.J.” plied his trade as a bricklayer and eventually became a moderately successful contractor, overseeing the construction and enlargement of factories, schools, hospitals and libraries across the region.
As L.J. had learned stonemasonry from his own father, an Irish immigrant, so he in turn taught bricklaying to Bill and his other two surviving sons (one of whom was my great-grandfather). Bill took up the trowel and went to work as an apprentice at age thirteen. He grew up on his father’s building sites, learning how to mix mortar from lime, sand and water; how to cut bricks to a desired size with the trowel or a hammer and chisel; how to use a level, plumb rule and straight edge; and the other secrets of a trade dating back thousands of years. Bill pushed heavy wheelbarrows full of bricks, and he carefully measured and staked cord lines where the walls would begin. Wearing a cloth cap on his head and a button-down shirt and tie under his work overalls, he would stoop over to pick up a brick from its pile, place it on the mortar bed, and tap it into place, then stoop to pick up a new brick, over and over, hundreds of times a day.
The young Kennedy learned how to build walls, staircases, chimneys and walkways. And like his old man, he learned to cuss, chew tobacco and appreciate his union, the Bricklayers and Masons International. He also learned to drink beer with the older “brickies” after work — which was emphatically unlike his old man, a near-teetotaler. The ebullient Bill and the hot-tempered L.J. would butt heads over this issue often.
At age fourteen, Kennedy began moonlighting as a prizefighter. Technically, the sport was still illegal in New York, but the state’s 1896 Horton Law created a loophole for private “athletic associations” to stage “exhibitions” of “sparring.” In practice, outfits like the Coney Island Athletic Club charged spectators admission fees (temporary “membership” dues), gamblers bet on the outcomes, and combatants were paid under the table. Teenagers such as Kennedy fought on the warm-up undercards. “$3.00 to the winner, $2.00 to [the] loser,” he later recalled in a letter to a friend. “I was the loser far more often than the winner.”
The big-money headline bouts were brutal affairs. “They fought not in a scientific manner but in true slugging form, and the way they thumped each other made the sports howl with delight,” the Police Gazette reported of one heavyweight battle at Coney Island. “Maher beat his opponent’s bruised eye into a jelly-like pulp.” Several fighters died during the Horton Law era. Moreover, those howling “sports” — the cigar-chomping, derby-clad gamblers who attended these de facto prizefights — could be rough characters, and brawls and even riots broke out after some events.
Seeing no future in that world, Kennedy would hang up his gloves after a few years. However, it was in training for boxing that he realized he enjoyed running, simply legging it up and down the paved streets of Port Chester and the dusty country roads nearby. He stopped running, too, as he entered adulthood — in those days, grown men just didn’t run around with no apparent aim. But in time, he would take up that pursuit again, with a passion.
Bill’s mother died when he was fifteen. For the next couple years, the widower and his oldest son would struggle along, living and working together, bereft of the tempering influence of the woman they’d loved. Bill and his brother Joe increasingly enraged their father with their late-night carousing. Finally, when Bill was seventeen or eighteen, he and Joe, two years younger, hopped a freight train bound for the West.
In many ways, Bill Kennedy would be on the road for the rest of his life.
* * *
“Meet Me in St. Louis”
The Kennedy boys were part of a great westward movement, one that took advantage of the trails already blazed and the rails already laid. In contemporary parlance, they were “hoboing,” sneaking a ride by train to a new town, where they would then seek work. (Even perennial hobos looked down on “tramps,” who had no intention of working.) Though the brothers returned to their native New York City at some point, Bill soon beat his way west again, and he spent years traveling and working around the country.
To avoid detection, “land stowaways” like Kennedy often spent a whole trip “riding the rods” — hanging on to the brake rods or beams underneath freight or passenger cars, just above the wheels. If this seems like courting disaster, it was: In the two decades around the turn of the century, at least 32,000 hobos or tramps were killed on American railroads, whether by falls, encounters with railroad “bulls” (private security officers) or other misfortunes.
During the course of his travels, Kennedy had one close call, when he dozed off and slipped from the rod of his freight train on the approach to Cleveland. He suffered severe cuts on his right arm, but lived. When he could, he chose to ride somewhere safer, such as the feed box of a cattle car. (Even though, he later wrote, “You can’t sleep very well with [the cattle] eating your bed from under you.”) Sometimes, he would hop off in a town to grab a bite to eat — for example, the free pretzels that saloons offered with a schooner of beer — or to sleep someplace stationary, like a livery stable or a ten-cent flophouse.
Excepting one stint as a deckhand on the Great Lakes, Kennedy plied his trade, laying bricks. And there was nearly always work for a good bricklayer at a time of industrialization, population growth and urbanization. The union provided job leads as well as a social network, so Kennedy seldom lacked food or friends, whether he found himself on the West Coast, in the upper South or, more typically, in the Middle West.
During a layoff one spring or summer day in 1904, Kennedy was taking in a baseball game, probably drinking a beer while sitting on a wooden bleacher seat. In between innings, a brass band struck up the popular song “Meet Me In St. Louis.” What a swell idea, Kennedy decided: The twenty-year-old’s next destination would be St. Louis, Missouri, just then hosting a World’s Fair.
Kennedy quickly concluded that St. Louis was his kind of town: It was built almost entirely of brick. This was owing in part to a city ordinance after a devastating 1849 fire, and in part to the region’s rich clay mines. (The city had about a hundred brick factories at the time.) Also, it was an exciting time to be in St. Louis — the World’s Fair did not disappoint. Judging from his written recollections, Kennedy rekindled his youthful passion for athletics while attending the 1904 Olympic Games, which took place in the middle of the Fair. In particular, Kennedy and others were taken with the (then) twenty-five-mile “Marathon race,” still a new sport. Although the race that St. Louisans saw was marred by cheating, doping and other scandals, it nonetheless inspired a local version the following year, the Missouri Athletic Club All-Western Marathon.
Kennedy soon joined the small band of enthusiasts of this extremely niche sport, going for training runs on the roads outside St. Louis — which outraged some flummoxed, firearm-toting farmers who didn’t want their daughters to see men gallivanting in what they took as “undergarments.” In 1907, Kennedy entered the Missouri A.C. marathon for the first time. He finished in the back of the pack, but he kept at it. In 1908, while in Arkansas for work, he beat a horse in a ten-mile race.
Though Kennedy continued to follow his trade wherever it was in demand, St. Louis remained his base. In 1909, he began to truly put down roots there when he moved into the boardinghouse of Lizzie Herbert, a single mother with three daughters. The eldest of these quickly caught Kennedy’s eye. A pretty, eighteen-year-old redhead named Nellie, she took a liking to the gregarious bricklayer, who stood at but five and a half feet tall but was described by contemporaries as “picturesque.” A courtship blossomed, and the couple were soon engaged. In May, Kennedy signed on with the St. Louis–based C.L. Gray Construction Company, who paid union wages, to build some kind of convention hall in a neighboring state. The young man’s prospects were good as he traveled to Iowa that spring to help build the Des Moines Coliseum.
* * *
But for the Grace
The planned Coliseum would take up an entire city block, rise four stories high and hold up to 10,000 people. Overlooking the Des Moines River, the venue would in ensuing decades host tractor shows, corn growers’ conventions and speeches by four U.S. presidents. Kennedy was one of twenty bricklayers to work on the building, along with thirty carpenters and other tradesmen and laborers.
On the breezy morning of Thursday, October 21, 1909, the Coliseum was nearing completion. Under a clear blue sky, the bricklayers were standing on a narrow platform on the lower level of what was becoming a two-tiered roof. Kennedy was scraping excess mortar from a portion of the new south wall that rose above him and jutted farther south than the part of the roof holding his platform. This meant Kennedy had to grasp the wall with his left hand, lean over and stretch himself a bit out over the street, while reaching upward to scrape the mortar with the trowel in his right hand. It was the kind of dangerous work a bricklayer had to do sometimes — just the other day, a fellow “brickie” had fallen to his death from another Des Moines building barely two miles away.
Between eleven a.m. and noon, the breeze turned blustery, and as Kennedy pulled himself back to a standing position, a thirty-mile-an-hour gust caught him and threw him off balance. Kennedy lost his footing and fell from the platform. It was a descent of sixty-five feet to the sidewalk. He probably passed out before hitting the ground. In an incredible stroke of both good and bad luck, a month earlier a city official had asked the site’s foreman to remove some sidewalk barriers, what with the work appearing nearly done and a state fair about to increase foot traffic. So there was no reason for an unfortunate tailor named John Holmquist to suspect, as he walked down the sidewalk past the new Coliseum, that a 130-pound bricklayer was about to drop from the sky.
The falling body landed on Holmquist’s head and shoulders, driving the tailor into the ground and snapping his neck. “Kennedy rebounded from Holmquist’s body and landed with considerable force upon the sidewalk,” reported the Des Moines News. “Holmquist’s body lay prostrate on the walk, eyes staring into the sun.” He was dead, leaving behind a wife and five children. Kennedy was “seriously injured,” reported some papers, but apparently only stayed in Mercy Hospital for one week. “Slightly hurt internally, with no broken bones,” Kennedy wrote later.
* * *
Church on Time
His bones intact, Kennedy returned to the Herberts’ boardinghouse in St. Louis only to have his heart broken. Nellie had moved out and married another man. Whether it was the accident itself that frightened her, or simply the months on end that the bricklayer had to spend away from her, she had decided to break off the engagement. This created an opening for Nellie’s younger sister Jessie. The middle child, perhaps Jessie had always been jealous of Nellie; perhaps she now took pity on the jilted Kennedy. In any event, living in close quarters again, their relationship suddenly became more intimate. In October 1910, Jessie realized she was pregnant. The couple married on Halloween. He was twenty-six years old; she was sixteen. They continued to live in her mother’s house.
Things started off on the wrong foot when Jessie complained that the engagement ring Bill hastily bought her wasn’t as big or fancy as the one he’d given her sister. Jessie wasn’t to lighten up with age. Though the couple stayed together for the rest of his life, raising two daughters, all indications are that it was a rocky marriage. Younger relatives and in-laws would remember Jessie as “emotional,” “an odd duck” and “a Tartar.” For his part, Bill stayed on the road as much as, if not more than, ever.
This was not only for work, but also for Kennedy’s vocation, competitive running. (Very often, a trip would combine the two.) He returned to New York to run the Yonkers Marathon in 1911. The next year, he came in fifth in the St. Louis Marathon, his first time among the prize winners, and close enough to have nearly qualified for the 1912 Olympics.
A career year followed. In the space of ten weeks in 1913, he won the St. Louis Marathon, the Chicago Marathon, and three road races of nine, eleven-and-a-half and fifteen miles, finishing second in another fifteen-miler. His Chicago win came during a deadly summer heat wave — the thermometer hit ninety-eight that day, and Kennedy lost twelve pounds during the race. “Not all the nuts are in the strong wards,” cracked one sportswriter.
Indeed, many Americans of that era still thought of marathon running as a daredevil “stunt” rather than a sport. Most of the races drew but a few dozen competitors. A city wouldn’t close off roads for their sake, so the athletes had to contend with horse, bicycle and automobile traffic, or sometimes pause altogether for a railroad crossing or funeral procession. Over the course of his running career, Kennedy was knocked down by an auto on two separate occasions, the second time requiring stitches on his face.
The conditions were relatively better in Boston, home to the nation’s oldest annual marathon, first run in 1897. There, sports fans and the press respected marathon runners, treating them as athletes, not nuts. With some Midwestern triumphs under his belt, Kennedy set his sights on the marathoner’s holy grail, a victory at Boston.
But come race day in April 1914, Kennedy wasn’t at the starting line in Ashland, Massachusetts. He was in Chicago, Illinois, where he’d gone to work but ended up fighting for his life. In December, he had contracted typhoid fever, which killed 276 people in the city that year. For thirteen weeks, Kennedy lay in Chicago’s Post Graduate hospital, suffering from fever, delirium, headaches and diarrhea. He recovered, but he wasn’t out of the woods when he walked out of the hospital, prematurely gray at age thirty.
“Most people survived the bout(s) with typhoid, but only by the skin of their teeth,” according to one study of mortality in Chicago between 1850 and 1925. “The typical typhoid survivor was so weakened and compromised by the disease that he or she would later succumb to some other infectious disease like tuberculosis, or die of kidney or heart failure.”
Competitive running seemed out of the question. “His battle for life has reduced Kennedy to a shell,” pronounced the Chicago Tribune. “It is doubtful if the marathon star ever will be able to condition himself for another grind.”
To top it off, Kennedy was broke and owed the hospital about five hundred bucks. He had no health insurance, and he was in no condition for construction work, but he did have friends. The bricklayers and amateur athletes of Chicago organized a fundraiser for Kennedy. When the proceeds were tallied, he had enough to pay his medical bills. Not only that, but one of the locals got him a job selling sporting goods in a department store, so that he could earn a living while taking it relatively easy, for the time being. The name of the store, on Chicago’s State Street, had to be a good omen: The Boston Store.
By the next year, 1915, Kennedy was back in bricklaying shape. And despite warnings from most of the doctors at Post Graduate, he had resumed running. He started modestly, but eventually worked his way up to twenty miles. In April, he applied to the Illinois Athletic Club, which he had joined before contracting typhoid, for expenses to travel to Boston for the marathon on Patriots’ Day. But club officials wouldn’t pay expenses for a runner whose best days were behind him. They knew the toll typhoid took on a body, saw Kennedy’s gray hair and wizened face, and dismissed him as over the hill.
That wouldn’t stop Kennedy. About a week before the race, he wrapped his track suit and running shoes in a newspaper and, with thirty cents in his pocket, climbed into a cattle car on the South Side. He traveled for five days, sometimes hoboing, sometimes paying his fare. Later, he liked to recall a crucial pit stop in Albany: “Before Prohibition it was the custom with most breweries that an out-of-town visitor could sample their product. So, paying my respects, I was the recipient of four schooners of brew, my vitamins for the day.” He arrived in Boston, riding on the roof of a baggage car three days before the marathon, and secured a bricklaying job to pay his way back.
The next morning, the Boston Globe ran a big feature, with cartoon illustrations, relating how Kennedy had thumbed his nose at his skeptical club and made his own way back east. “Incidentally,” the Globe noted, “he abhors the idea of enriching the coffers of the railway magnates.” Kennedy instantly became a local celebrity. He only finished fifteenth in the marathon that year, but in 1916 he came in sixth, cheered with “continuous salvos” by the Boston fans.
* * *
On April 6, 1917, the U.S. officially entered the war in Europe, and the Boston Marathon, held two weeks later, turned into an especially patriotic Patriots’ Day celebration, with up to half a million spectators waving American flags all along the twenty-five-mile route. The runners favored to win were two Finns, one of them a 1912 Olympian. Finland was then part of Russia, one of the Allies. Nevertheless, the home crowd didn’t want to see any kind of foreigner win, at this of all times. “We must repel the Finns,” Kennedy told the Globe before the race.
And it was Kennedy, wearing a homemade stars-and-stripes bandana, who beat the odds and finished first, in two hours, twenty-eight minutes, and thirty-seven and one-fifth seconds. This career-crowning achievement is the moment “Bricklayer Bill” Kennedy is known for, his entry in the sports history books. But for Kennedy, along with many of his fellow amateur athletes, this was just the first blow in a fight for America’s honor. After helping to build the Navy’s training camp in Hingham, Massachusetts, Kennedy volunteered with the Army’s 23rd Engineers, a road-building regiment. “Bill is over [the draft age] and has a wife and two children, but he wanted to serve his country,” wrote the Globe, “and his wife backed him up in his resolve to enter the service.”
Kennedy reported for training at Camp Meade in Maryland in December 1917. His regiment, five thousand strong, was made up of civil engineers and technical college graduates as well as tradesmen, laborers and contractors. All were put to work on a major expansion of the camp, to accommodate the thousands of servicemen still arriving. When not building barracks, they drilled like soldiers, using shared rifles left over from the Spanish-American War.
Five months later, they landed in France, where Kennedy’s company started work building a dam in the port of Saint-Nazaire, in preparation for the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force. During the course of that project, Kennedy was promoted to sergeant. In August, the 23rd Engineers moved east for the main American offensive. Led by General John “Black Jack” Pershing, half a million Americans and 100,000 French assaulted the German stronghold of Saint-Mihiel. Kennedy’s company camped at Belleville, just seven miles from the front line. In the middle of a weeklong rainstorm, the men opened up two quarries and worked night and day on a road through Griscourt, despite a constant stream of troops and trucks, and on a road to Pont-à-Mousson, which was under fire from the Germans’ outer forts at Metz.
“Traffic conditions made road work exceptionally difficult,” according to an official history of the 23rd. “A cut-off and bridge were constructed by continuous work for three days, relieving traffic from the line of direct artillery fire.”
Frustrating for the educated engineers and the skilled tradesmen like Kennedy, there was little time for perfectionism. The conditions “precluded any refinements in road building,” wrote the unit’s chronicler. “The principal work done consisted in ditching, the scraping off of mud—a considerable item—the building up of the shoulders, the patching of holes and ruts, and widening.”
Despite what often seemed like chaos on the ground, Pershing’s planning paid off: The Germans abandoned Saint-Mihiel and retreated. The 23rd got to work rebuilding roads in the devastated No Man’s Land. Kennedy was struck by the sight of hungry, bearded soldiers recently freed from German prison camps. “I was going into Metz,” he recalled, “and they were straggling along the road looking for an Allied camp to get something to eat.”
Kennedy’s company was preparing for the next offensive, and some “over-zealous” reconnaissance details even found themselves behind German lines on November 11, when they learned that the armistice had been signed. The war was over.
* * *
“I’d Rather Give Up Bricklaying”
It was at least a year before Kennedy and other AEF troops returned home. The engineers took part in massive reconstruction efforts in France. To boost morale, an Olympic-style athletic festival was held, the Inter-Allied Games. Kennedy not only competed but also coached. “One word from me and they did as they pleased,” he joked of his charges. His team of soldiers finished second in a forty-mile relay race from Château Thierry to Paris, Kennedy himself crossing the finish line. He was a favorite to win the Inter-Allied Marathon, but the night before the race he was hospitalized with a knee infection. Between surgery and recuperation, he missed the event altogether.
Kennedy returned home in December 1919, his two years’ service giving him leadership experience that he soon burnished as a bricklayers’ union president in Mississippi County, Arkansas. The area would become notorious for a lynching the following year, and it could hardly have been hospitable to anyone like Kennedy at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was gaining power by stoking fears of Catholics, labor unions and alcohol. Perhaps that sealed it: By the end of 1920, Kennedy had moved with Jessie and their kids to his old hometown of Port Chester, New York.
There, Kennedy again worked with his father and brothers, and he eventually became a contractor on his own. He also served as an Amateur Athletic Union official, president of the International Marathon Runners Association, Post Commander of the Port Chester VFW, and co-founder of the Port Chester Marathon. At last rooted geographically, he settled into a second act as a businessman and an advocate, promoter and elder statesman of road running.
Kennedy continued to make his annual pilgrimage north for the venerable Boston Marathon. “Sometimes they ask me why I don’t give up marathoning,” he mused to a reporter in 1941, when he was pushing sixty. “I always tell ’em I’d rather give up brick-laying. Honest, I get more tired laying bricks than I do running these things.”
Running scratched Kennedy’s itch to move. But the rambling days of his freewheeling youth were over. No more riding the brake rods or sleeping in cattle cars. Kennedy had traveled enough to last a lifetime.
Well, maybe not entirely. In 1936, he managed a berth on the S.S. Manhattan, traveling with the U.S. Olympic team to Berlin. But that’s a whole other story.
* * *
Patrick L. Kennedy is a writer and editor in Boston. He is co-authoring—with his father, historian Lawrence W. Kennedy—a book about their relative Bricklayer Bill and the Boston Marathon, to be published by the University of Massachusetts Press. Patrick can be reached at email@example.com.