There was an excellent article in this month’s Fortean Times, Walking around the World: From the Annals of Human Hyperpedestrianism. This is the first of a pair of articles from Jan Bondeson, and is an excerpt from their book The Lion Boy and other Medical Curiosities.
A few years back, I wrote a chapter in the Odditorium book about a mysterious walker called Harry Bensley. I’ve been obsessed with the story since 1998, when I read about it over breakfast in a Norwich Guesthouse. Over the years I found various English newspapers which described Bensley’s lecture tour in 1908, before he set off. It is claimed that Bensley had almost completed the challenge by 1914, but there is little evidence of him actually making the journey.
Bondeson’s article tells the story of George Matthew Schilling, who was born in Pittsburgh, in 1874. After causing a stir by walking 1000 miles in 21 days, Schilling took another bet and set out on 3rd August 1897 to walk around the world. A boxing-and-theatre impressario had offered a wager of $5,000.
Like Bensley’s challenge, Schilling’s bet had a number of strange conditions, including not being allowed to beg, borrow or spend money. Schilling set off dressed in a suit of newspaper and went from New York to Southern California, where he couldn’t find a ship to carry his dog, causing him to travel yet further to Vancouver. He later travelled Australia, giving talks about his adventures.
By August 1900 Schilling reached Colombo, in what is now Sri Lanka, and reached South Africa in October 1901. Despite an extension due to wars on the way, Schilling lost the bet, and in November 1904 he reached London, giving further lectures around the UK. He remained in Britain for many years, performing stunts to make money. He returned to the US in 1914 and died there in 1920.
The story of Schilling reads like a template for Benson’s adventures, but with more evidence of him actually doing the walk. There are even earlier stories, like a Russian called Greathead, who was bet in a Vancouver club that he could not travel the world without money or luggage. It’s really exciting to learn that Bensley fitted into an ongoing tradition, and a shame I had not found more trace of this myself.
Bondeson’s article is the first of two, and ends with a tantalising mention of “The Masked Walker (who we will meet in a future issue) [who] was a hoaxer who never left England”. Hopefully, Bondeson can settle the story of Harry Bensley.