Fellow runner and Boston Marathon champ (1957) John J. Kelley wrote about Brown in the introduction to Michael Ward’s book, “Ellison ‘Tarzan’ Brown: The Narragansett Indian Who Twice Won the Boston Marathon:”
The legend of Tarzan Brown, like all legends, loomed larger than life. Yet the man who took his nickname from Edgar Rice Burrough’s famous jungle hero would never settle for static stone. He reveled in the pleasures and the pitfalls of the flesh.
A week after he won his first Boston Marathon the R.I. legislature passed a bill designating an annual holiday in his honor. The now defunct Boston Traveler noted it this way in its sports section:
“‘Tarzan Brown Day’ is New R.I. Holiday”
There are those who thought Arlington’s Johnny Kelley was overidolized after his victory in the B.A.A. marathon last year, but the state of Rhode Island has gone completely daffy over its new tercentenary B.A.A. champion, Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, the Narragansett Indian.
They’re treating him to a round of banquets and festivities which has him dizzy and only yesterday the Rhode Island Legislature went to the extreme with a tasty bit of tercentenary publicity. The boys passed a bill which forever establishes a Rhode Island holiday to be known as “Tarzan” Brown Day. They haven’t decided the date yet. They’re leaving that to the fathers of the Narragansett tribe.
Turns out the tribe changed the name of the day, at Tarzan Brown’s request, to “Indian Day in Rhode Island.” A year later Indian Day was signed into law to be held on June 14, with no mention of Tarzan Brown and no reason why it was moved from April. Records are unclear as to when Rhode Islanders stopped celebrating Indian Day, although there is a statute on the books that states:
25-2-4. Narragansett Indian Day.
The last Saturday before the second Sunday in August shall annually be set apart as a day to be known as the “Rhode Island Indian Day of the Narragansett tribe of Indians.” The day is to be observed by the people of this state with appropriate exercises in public places and otherwise commemorative of the Narragansett tribe of Indians.
In 1939, Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller wrote a letter to Tarzan Brown complaining about his nickname. The emerging Hollywood star had recently agreed to play Tarzan in the movies (his first film was “Tarzan the Ape Man”) and threatened legal action against Brown – even though the runner had claimed the nickname since childhood, long before the swimmer discovered the movies.
Brown’s story has a sad end. He was killed in 1975 when a van struck him in a parking lot outside of a Misquamicut bar called The Wreck.
Tarzan Brown’s legacy includes having one of the more descriptive nicknames in Rhode Island history, although his Narragansett tribal name, “Deerfoot,” was perhaps even more apt. Sports figures in Rhody have a long tradition of terrific names – Nap Lajoie, Gabby Hartnett and Rocco Baldelli in baseball; Lyle Wildgoose, the former Providence College hockey player; and boxer Vinnie Pazienza, who also goes by Vinnie Paz and boxed under the nickname, “The Pazmanian Devil.” Even better are some of our mobsters, known colloquially as “The Blind Pig,” “The Moron,” “Fat Bastard” and “Baby Shacks.”
What is your favorite nickname associated with Rhode Island?