The Melancholy Fate Of The Loser

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Other imaginative efforts to propitiate Lady Luck have included a pledge to read 121 consecutive issues of the editorial page of the New York Tribune , a form of punishment that the rival Times denounced as inhumane. In the Cleveland-Blaine contest of 1884, the year in which the leading orator of the Gilded Age, Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, eulogized James G. Blaine as a “plumed knight,” a Blaine stalwart, having lost his bet, was required to get into a suit of armor, don a helmet, put on a shirt of chain mail, and wear a plume for thirty days. It was a tough year for knights.

To return to more recent times, a Chicago man found after the quadrennial fever subsided on November 4, 1948, that he had to shine his brother’s shoes every Sunday morning for six months. Furthermore, the penitential act had to be performed in public, at Milwaukee and Damen avenues, under a sign that announced: “I voted for Dewey.”

There have been a good many walkers. The first was Edward Payson Weston, who walked so well that he turned professional. Weston agreed to walk from the State House in Boston to the Capitol in Washington in ten consecutive days if Stephen A. Douglas lost to Abraham Lincoln. This he did on November 6, 1860. Under the terms of the bet “Payse” Weston had to start out on February 22, 1861, and make it to the Capitol in time for Lincoln’s inauguration. The walker touched the cornerstone of the building in the late afternoon of March 4, a few hours after the ceremony. Even so, the stunt was so remarkable that the next day the Evening Star paid more attention to Weston’s movements than it did to Lincoln’s.

One offbeat wager accomplished an astonishing amount of practical good. It took place in 1864 in the rough mining camp of Austin, Nevada. The occasion was the choice of a mayor. The election had, however, a larger significance because of the tensions of the Civil War. Reuel Gridley, the town grocer, backed a Southern Democrat’s candidacy with a sack of flour. “If I lose,” he said, “I’ll carry the sack a mile to Clifton and back again to the tune of ‘John Brown’s Body.’ And if you lose,” Gridley told Dr. Herrick, who voted Republican, “you carry it to the tune of ‘Dixie.’ ”

The Republican candidate won, and Gridley fulfilled his pledge, accompanied by thirty-six men on horseback, the town fathers, and a brass band. Later, at a local saloon, the idea was hatched of auctioning the sack of flour for the benefit of the sick and wounded soldiers of the Union Army. The auction was held, producing over five thousand dollars in mining stock, town lots, and cash. It was followed by similar vendues all over Washoe County. The sack of flour was carried triumphantly to Sacramento and San Francisco and finally reached New York, earning a total of $275,000 for the Sanitary Commission. The original flour bag, neatly repaired, still exists among the treasured artifacts of the Nevada Historical Society.

Major Poore certainly started something, for unless tradition fails, political flagellation will again crop up in the news after November, 1972, including, no doubt, wheelbarrow pushing. “One may have a hope, a belief, or an opinion,” Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor of England, wrote in the seventeenth century, “but unless he bets he can have no certainty.” Bacon, alas, raised false hopes, since there must always be a loser for every winner.