Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

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Walter Dohm: "Taking Advantage of Every Fine Point of the Game"

Walter Dohm: “Taking advantage of every fine point of the game”

The brief life story of a great half-miler of the 1890s


19th Century athletes have had a good press in recent years. Leading the literary field by a lap or two is Peter Lovesey, whose  collection of biographies entitled “Kings of Distance”, published back in 1968, did so much to revive interest in that Victoria era. “Track Stats”, the quarterly journal of the National Union of Track Statisticians in Great Britain, has also done its bit to add to our knowledge, and such industrious authors as Rob Hadgraft, Warren Roe, Edward S. Sears and Jack Davidson have written books of enormous value. Even wider public attention has been brought to bear in the last few months as one of the major athletics venues in London of the late 1800s has been civically honoured with a plaque-unveiling ceremony.  

Even so, some of the champions of more than 120 years ago are inevitably overlooked or only mentioned in passing. Few of even the most thorough students of the sport have ever heard of Walter Dohm, and yet he could have become the greatest middle-distance runner of his generation.  The main reason that his story is not among those that have been re-told in contemporary times is that his life was a tragically short one. Within three years of establishing himself  as one of the fastest half-milers in the World he was dead of tuberculosis.

Walter George’s mile in 4min 12¾sec in 1886 has long been regarded as the iconic middle-distance performance of that century, and yet there were three performances of similar or greater intrinsic value at 880 yards during the 1880s and 1890s. The evidence for this is to be found in the “Scoring Tables of Athletics”, devised by three eminent statisticians – Dr Bojidar Spiriev, Anita Spiriev and Gábor Kovács – and first published on behalf of the IAAF in Budapest in 1982, with updated editions in 1984, 1987 and 1992.   

The basic premise of the compilation, known familiarly as the “Hungarian Scoring Tables”, is to compare all athletics performances by a points-scoring system, following the general principle of the tables for the heptathlon and decathlon; The system has stood the test of time because if we look at the current men’s World records we find the following results: 800 mertres, 1288pts; 1000 metres, 1252; 1500 metres, 1301, 1 mile, 1291. The 1000 metres is, as one would expect, of lower value (and really should be around 2:10.30 for equality), though the 2000 metres, which is also rarely run these days has a higher value tha any of these other four events, with 1311pts.

In the 1880s and 1890s there was very little competition of any consequence at 800 or 1500 metres, and so the 880 yards and one mile were the significant middle-distance events. The “Hungarian Scoring Tables” produce the following results:

1 mile – 4:12¾, Walter George (GB) 1886, 923pts

880 yards – 1:54 2/5, Francis Cross (GB) 1888, 916pts

880 yards – 1:54½, Walter Dohm (USA) 1891, 913pts

880 yards, 1:53 2/5, Charles Kilpatrick (USA) 1895, 941pts    


Dohm almost exactly matched Cross by running 1:54½ at the Manhattan AC grounds in New York on 19 September 1891, and as Cross’s time was mistakenly ratified by the Amateur Athletic Association as 1:54 3/5, Dohm became – technically, at least – the unofficial World record-holder until 1895.A graduate of Princeton University and a member of the New York Athletic Club, Dohm was a renowned competitor a well as being a record-breaker, and there’s good reason to believe that he could have run significantly faster than he did.

One of the most informative writers about track and field in the USA in the 1890s was John Corbin, a Harvard University graduate whose journalistic career eventually led to him becoming a senior contributor to the “New York Times”. He was at Oxford University (where Cross had been an undergraduate) for a spell and wrote most interestingly about what he saw as the differences in the approach to sport between the USA and Great Britain. One of his major outlets was a magazine called “Outing”, and some of his articles are thankfully made available on the internet.

In 1893 he said of Dohm, “One notable feature about all his races was the fact that he used his brain all of the time, taking advantage of every fine point of the game and fooling his opponent whenever possible. He was ‘game’ to the core, and this was shown in one of his races when a man in front of him fell. Dohm stumbled over this man, turned in a somersault, scrambled to his feet, crossed the finish-line, and then fell unconscious”.

Corbin also described Dohm’s record-breaking achievement: “It was a handicap race, and after working through the mass of the field he was pocketed near the finish by two limit men. For 20 yards he was forced to clip every stride, and he only broke through at last about 15 inches short of the World’s record”. This tale does not quite tally with the official result which lists Theodore Turner as finishing 2nd some 15 yards behind. But no matter – the gist of the account tings true. Corbin’s writing never contained any unnecessary embellishment, in contrast to much of the reporting of athletics events in those years.  As a precise measure of Dohm’s achievement, the man he so easily beat that day, Turner, was a very capable runner who would win the AAU 880 yards in 1892 and 1893.  

Turning to the half-mile and promptly surpassing Myers

Walter C. Dohm had been born in Princeton, New Jersey, where his father was a hotel proprietor, on 27 March 1869 and at the famous local university he was coached by Jim Robinson and formed a keen rivalry with William Downs, of Harvard, though this seemed to take the form of them avoiding each other as much as possible. Dohm considered himself as primarily a quarter-miler, but as soon as he tried the half-mile he beat Lon Myers’s US record with 1:55¼ at Travers Island, New York, on 29 June 1889.  

The ICAAAA meeting involving the “ivy league” universities of the USA’s eastern states, was the major fixture of the season and Dohm and Downs traded wins at 440 and 880 yards, with Dohm setting meet records of 50.0 in 1889 and 1:59.2 in 1890. Similarly in the AAU Championships Dohm won the 440 in 1888 and 1889 and the 880 in 1891, while Downs won the 440 in 1890-91-92. When the two of them did finally confront each other at the compromise distance of 600 yards in an unseasonable race in November 1889, Downs was the winner, equaling the World’s fastest time of 1:11 2/5 by the legendary Lon Myers, and according to John Corbin it was Downs who proved the smarter tactician on this occasion.

After graduating from Princeton in 1890, Dohm became a journalist and raced only rarely thereafter, which gives even greater weight to the belief that his half-mile “record” merely hinted at his true ability. He was a perceptive writer for such reputable newspapers as the “New York Herald” and “Los Angeles Times”, and was probably one of the first reporters to make a serious study of training methods for various sports. In the context of baseball he wrote, “While the snow still lies deep on the ground, the collegian who hopes to get a place in the nine commences putting his muscles into shape in the gymnasium. He pulls chest weights, handles dumb-bells and swings light Indian clubs”.

Dohm himself apparently trained hard by the standards of his day, and it was said that this undermined his health, though it should be borne in mind that there was an unfounded prejudice in that era against any intense preparation for competition. A much more feasible reason for Dohm’s decline is that he caught a severe chill attending a football match in November 1893, and this fatally undermined his fragile state of health.

One of Dohm’s other journalistic enterprises had been to write at length about whether it was better for runners to breathe through the mouth or through the nose, which was a subject taken very seriously in those days, and he stated, “Of all the runners of any note whom I have known. I recollect but one who breathed through the nose. This was E.C. Carter, who won championships of England and America in mile and five mile races”. Edward Carter was actually AAU champion for the mile in 1886 and 1887 and AAA champion at four miles and 10 miles in the latter year.

Already by 1892, during which year he married, Dohm was suffering ill-health and he had moved to Denver, Colorado, where it was hoped that the thin air of high altitude would help his respiratory problems, but he died there on 9 May 1894. A fellow journalist, composing an obituary for the “New York World” the following day, said of Dohm, “He was a good writer and earnest worker, a firm friend, honest and conscientious”.

The fastest time for the half-mile was improved by another American, Charles Kilpatrick, in what was, in effect, the first ever official match between US and British athletes, when New York AC met London AC on 21 September 1895. Kilpatrick’s 1:53 2/5 would not be beaten for 14 years.

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