“Tell me about the rabbits, George”

Very early in the DVD The Six-Day Bicycle Races, it’s revealed that one of the earliest 6-day champions, a certain William “Senator” Morgan, hailed from North Carolina. Further inquiries on my part cast a shadow on the claim that Morgan hailed from North Carolina, but his life trajectory proves to be rather fascinating. Morgan won the 1886 Minneapolis 6-Day event in an era when the races were solo affairs and truly an exercise in sleep deprivation. As far as I can tell, this is his only significant victory. He appeared in other events in 1887 and then seems to have simply disappeared from the world of competitive cycling.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw quite a confluence of interests between the cycling and the internal combustion engine realms. Of course, a pair of bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio incorporated mechanical expertise gleened from cycling into their maiden flight at Kill Devil Hills, NC. Albert Champion, 1899 Paris-Roubaix victor, moved to the United States and started the Albert Champion Company (later known as the AC Spark Plug Company) to further his own motorcycle racing career having abandoned his cycling endeavors. Soon, Champion’s company’s spark plugs graced the engines on high-performance race cars and airplanes before ultimately being absorbed into the General Motors conglomeration. Similarly, William “Senator” Morgan re-emerged in the early 1900s as an avid car-racing advocate while employed as a writer for the highly influential magazine The Automobile. Morgan can be credited with promoting the Speed Carnivals, annual wintertime auto time trials held on Daytona Beach starting in 1903. Over the next 10-odd years the fastest cars from Europe and the U.S., piloted by members of the European and American aristocracy, convened in Florida each winter. Amazingly (at least to me, I know next to nothing about performance autos) a Mercedes roared through the 1 mile speed trap on the beach at 141.732mph in 1911, a world land speed record for any ground transportation medium.

While William Morgan may have long-since abandoned cycling as a competitor, he still appeared to be involved with cycling’s governing body in an editorial capacity. A humorous story appeared in the New York Times in September, 1911…a story told by Morgan talking about the insanity of the rulebook governing competitive cycling. It seems that our sport has had “Stupid” as its middle name for more than 100 years:

“The other day we were talking about reminiscences, which pertained to those pioneers in the automobile industry, who graduated from the bicycle field. All were entertaining, but the one they liked best was told us about a prize given by a Connecticut club at a bicycle tournament, which was won by C.S. Henshaw, now manager of the Metropolitan Thomas Motor Branch. It seems that Mr. Henshaw, who was a member of the Riverside, Kings County, and Greenwich Wheelmen, won a pair of rabbits as a prize. According to the League of American Wheelmen rules, if he disposed of those rabbits he would professionalize himself. So the rabbits grew and multiplied as only rabbits can, and Mr. Henshaw, getting alarmed, sought our advice. He asked if in our opinion he could sell, dispose of, or get rid of these rabbits without inviting George D. Gideon, who was the best advertisement the Quaker City ever had, to jump on him. We quote from an article in the American Wheelman, of which I was editor, published at the time of this controversy:

‘We waded through the L.A.W. racing rules and can find nothing that meets this rabbit case. Gold and silver medals do not breed, otherwise there would have been something in the rules forbidding the disposition of their offspring, neither was there anything which said that livestock won as prizes could not be boiled or roasted. We know that Welsh rabbit is good, if well cooked, with a bottle of Bass on the side. Rabbits are often used as peacemakers, for we have had them many a time without their consent with old dog “Bogle” who has been sleeping under a plum tree on the old farm for twenty-three years. The Racing Board must let our Riverside Wheelmen friend out of this awful predicament, or else we shall have a regular Australian rabbit plague on Manhattan Island.

‘Chairman Gideon has been written to for his opinion inasmuch as he lives in the country and is, no doubt, well up in rabbitology. One gentleman from Chicago offered his advice: “The rule involved reads as follows: Anyone selling, trading, realizing money on prizes won. Now, what is the matter with selling the offsprings as fast as they come to pay for the feed of the old lady and gentleman? This would not be selling the original prizes or realizing cash on same”.

‘Another gentleman from Indianapolis said: “L.A.W rules are like a basket of speckled peaches, luscious and sound to look upon but rotten to the core.[emphasis mine, too funny…] Perhaps on those productive trees, the minds of the Racing Board, sound fruit is ripening. One man was not expelled for accepting a check as a prize because it was not money until cashed, so Mr. Henshaw is exempt from the charge of racing for a divisible prize until their families commenced to arrive. Amateurs are not allowed to realize on their prizes, so the prizes should not be allowed to realize on amateurs. We can appreciate the owner’s feeling because rabbits have long ears, you know, and you also know what that means”.

It was not known whether Mr. Henshaw was considering the advisability of taking the poor debtor’s oath, which was sure to have been forced upon him, if he had not been allowed to dispose of the ill-advised prize. George Gideon finally owned up that he was not up in rabbitology, but he pleaded guilty to knowing a rule when he saw it, so he wrote: “The owner can dispose of the product of his original prize in any way or manner he pleases, but he must at all times be prepared to show me those two old rabbits.” That settled and closed the case. Mr. Henshaw was allowed to enjoy and employ his rabbits of the second and other generations with safety. It was not long thereafter that he discontinued cycle racing and embarked in the automobile trade and whether this complexing rabbit case hastened his decision to make the change is not known. Mr. Henshaw won the Greater New York bicycle championship during the nineties and the world’s motor pacing tandem championship at the Pan-American Exposition in 1902. He was the first to use motor pacing machines on the Metropolitan tracks, including Madison Square Garden.”

A relative of mine on my mother’s side of the family was a professional cyclist in Newark, NJ at about this time, and I recall reading that his progression from amateur to professional was due to an infraction of the amateur code…no doubt something akin to this rabbit silliness.

Comments (1) to ““Tell me about the rabbits, George””

  1. …”of rabbits and l.a.w.men”…ok, that IS a stretch on steinbeck’s title…
    …but again you have given us some fascinating reading…c.s.henshaw should have made up a nice rabbit stew & invited the august heads of the ‘league of american wheelman’ to lunch to discuss his constantly multiplying predicament…

    …while mentioning men of letters, as you know, a great number of literary giants, including hemingway, w.somerset maugham, huxley, d.h.lawrence & even james joyce, have utilized the bicycle quite literally to move a story along…

    …the young henry miller, who would have been 20yrs old in 1911, wrote wonderfully of his encounters w/ the great frank kramer & other 6-day stars like oscar egg & eddie root, even pacing them on training rides in the nyc area…it seems our fledgling writer had aspirations to be a six day star like his heroes, but ultimately decided the pen was mightier than the wheel…

    …miller describes in “my best friend” from “my bike & other friends” that during that period of his life, the well cared for, fix gear, six day bike that he bought second hand at madison square gardens, was his real true pal…people might borrow one of two other bikes but no one rode the six fix but he…

    …miller obviously enjoyed riding throughout his life, as he mentioned his wheels during his time in paris w/ anais nin & later again on california’s wild coastline at the time of his “big sur invocation”…

    …anyway, a tip of the old cycling cap to any of the erudite wordsmiths who’ve shared some of the beauty of the wheel for time immemorial…

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