By Bob Phillips
19th March 2018
Charles Kilpatrick: The fastest half-mile yet, but then suffering “the mortification,
natural to the human race, of defeat”
Charles Kilpatrick ran in the two most important half-mile races of the closing years of the 19th Century. He won one and lost one. The first occasion carried particular significance because the setting was the match between New York AC and London AC in 1895 which is recognised as the first significant international athletics meeting. The second occasion was labeled as the “Half-Mile Championship of the World” – as was the presumptuous custom with so many professional match races of that era – but for once the outcome lived up to its pre-publicity hyperbole.
Kilpatrick had been born in Albany, New York, on 21 October 1874 and was of Irish-American stock; which is usually taken to mean that either a parent or parents or grandparents were Irish-born. After high school he went to the small liberal arts Union College in Schenectady, which had been founded in 1795. He was then intending to transfer to Princeton University in 1896, though whether that actually happened or not is a matter of debate. The “St Paul Globe” newspaper of 9 August that year enigmatically refers to Kilpatrick being “now in good standing and this renders him eligible to enter into inter-collegiate games”. This may simply be a reference to his having been suspended from competition for a while because he was moving from one university to another, rather than suggesting he had broken any rules.
It’s a pity, though, that he had not made the connection with Princeton earlier because there were four athletes from that university who had gone to the 1896 Olympic Games the previous April. None of them were half-milers, and Kilpatrick – assuming no ill-fortune – would have taken the 800 metres title by a street. The winner there, London-born Teddy Flack, representing his country of adoption, Australia, was no more than a stolid club athlete at best and would not have got within any striking distance of Kilpatrick.
On 21 September 1895 Kilpatrick had beaten the previous fastest time for 880 yards by more than a second, winning at the NYAC-v-LAC match in 1:53 2/5, ahead of the current AAA champion, Frederick Horan, who was not in the same class but excelled himself with a time of 1:55 2/5. On Monday 9 August 1897 Kilpatrick, who had by now turned professional, met up with a rival he had long sought, Edgar Bredin, at London’s famed Stamford Bridge track, and was beaten by a matter of three or four yards. Bredin’s winning time was 1:55 3/5.
Kilpatrick, having apparently abandoned his Princeton studies (if he ever started them), had arrived in Britain with the express intention of challenging Bredin but still remained an amateur for a few weeks more. Kilpatrick based himself at Skerton, near Lancaster, in the North of England, which was the home village of Alfred Tysoe, who would be Olympic 800 metres champion three years hence, though there is no evidence that the two met socially or trained together. Kilpatrick ran in a handicap 880 yards at the Edinburgh Northern Harriers sports at Powderhall on 2 June, which was one of his last races as an amateur, and if so it was scarcely an auspicious one. After a 54sec first lap, he slowed to a walk in the finishing-straight and crossed the line 4th in 2:01 4/5.
Even so, the reporter for the “Glasgow Herald” said admiringly of Kilpatrick, “He is a lovely runner, certainly, and he looks just the man to get half a mile at a swinging pace”. By August Kilpatrick had got himself into better shape and apparently ran a 1:55 time-trial on soft ground. On 7 July Bredin and Kilppatrick met in what was planned as the first of a series of three races at different distances, and Bredin won at 600 yards in 1:13.0 on the Rochdale AC grounds. After Bredin had beaten Kilpatrick again in the Stamford Bridge half-mile the third encounter at Blackburn over a distance of 1000 yards was called off.
Bredin was clearly the better runner, but Kilpatrick received invariably sympathetic coverage from the British press. The “Sporting Life” said of Kilpatrick’s showing in the half-mile, “He misjudged the pace in the first quarter, which should have been run quite two seconds faster. Had that been the case, Bredin would have had a much harder task. Kilpatrick states that he was in no way distressed at the finish and only felt the mortification, natural to the human race, of defeat”. The next day the “Sporting Life” quoted Kilpatrick as saying, “There is one thing I am pleased at, and that is that no one has suggested that the matches savoured of hippodrome, and as the times were fast the public got a good show for their money”.
This rather seems like a coded way of Kilpatrick saying that the two races against Bredin had been fair and above board, and by printing his statement, the ”Sporting Life” apparently agreed.
Early the following year, with the prospect that Bredin and Kilpatrick might race each other again), the “Sporting Life” paid further tribute to the American: “We have seen Kilpatrick run all his races and we may assure him that the sympathy of the pedestrian public is with him as he has endeavoured all the time to do justice to those who have been his friends. This exceedingly fine runner has not met with the best of luck since he arrived in England. He has never really been at his best, and his performances have all been inferior to those he has accomplished on his native soil. He isn’t the first who has been unable to do himself justice out of his own country”.
Kilpatrick was keen to race Bredin again and negotiations were opened by his Leeds-based manager, George Drake, in October of 1897, but the plans never materialized, and Kilpatrick’s British venture finished with two races in the North of England in January 1898 against the Irishman, George Tincler, who was reliably reported to have run a sub-4:09 mile in training the previous year. At 880 yards, at the Rochdale AC grounds on 22 January, Kilpatrick won in 1:57 1/5, and a week later at Ewood Park, Blackburn, Tincler won at three-quarters of a mile in 3:13 2/5.
Returning to the USA, Kilpatrick retired from competition and worked as athletic director at the University of Wisconsin, and then in 1903 joined the A.G. Spalding & Brothers sports-goods company as manager at their 5th Avenue store in New York. His life was a short one. He suffered heart failure at a Harlem railroad station on 5 December 1921, aged only 47.