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Retro Baltimore: The man who rolled 3 miles through Charm City

G Howell Parr, May 19, 191, rolling down Charles Street.
G Howell Parr, May 19, 191, rolling down Charles Street.(Baltimore Sun Archives/Baltimore Sun)

A century ago, Americans fancied fame. World records were their goals, risks be damned.

In 1913, an Illinois man made news by eating 61 eggs in one sitting. Three years later, a fellow in California held his breath for more than 10 minutes. And in 1914, a Baltimore socialite grabbed headlines by rolling three miles down Charles Street, egged on by family and friends.

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G. Howell Parr was 34, the spirited son of a prominent grain merchant, when he set out to roll from the Elkridge Club (now 6100 N. Charles) to University Parkway in Homewood. Though he did it on a bet, Parr loved the limelight. An avid sportsman, he’d bragged in 1913 that he could defeat any woman in tennis. (Suzanne White, 19, the Maryland champion, proved him wrong). But his celebrated roll through the city’s north end caught the public’s eye and made Parr a media star.

The Sun called Parr’s effort “one of the social events of the season” and mused, "Critics should remember that even an undertaking like this, which in itself is absurd and useless, is redeemed by the spirit in which it is done.”

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The newspaper covered the outing, a 15-hour tumble that began at 8 p.m. on Monday, May 18 and ended at 11:10 the next morning. Through it all, Parr never rose to his feet, though he did stop to rest and sip water and broth. Never, as he inched along, hand over hand, did his head ever touch the street.

“If I lay down and rolled, with my face close to the ground, I would get my lungs full of dust and germs and things,” Parr said. He also chewed gum to avoid swallowing grit from the road.

He dressed smartly: a burly wool sweater, heavily-padded football trousers, thick socks and heavy shoes. Linen bandages covered his hands, and friends walked ahead of him, lighting Parr’s way with lanterns and removing the stones in his path.

Was he up to the task? For weeks, in preparation, the 175-pound Parr had gone to the Baltimore Athletic Club where he practiced rolling up to 400 yards a day. Emboldened, he told the media, “Well, I tell you, I am just the finest roller you ever saw — and I shall prove it."

More than 100 men and women gathered to cheer Parr as he began his odyssey.

“He progressed slowly, his face set in lines of determination,” The Sun reported. In the first hour, he went 1,000 feet. By 11 p.m., Parr had rolled one-half mile. Soon after, he crept into a makeshift tent for a rest and an alcohol rubdown as a doctor checked his pulse — steady 72.

On he rolled, past Belvedere Avenue, Cold Spring Lane and through Guilford. Passing vehicles honked in recognition or stopped, thinking he’d been struck by one. As Parr neared the end, the crowd craned its collective necks to glimpse “the man who wallowed in the embrace of Mother Earth for 15,480 feet.” At the line was Parr’s mother, who, fearing for his well-being, approached her son 100 yards from victory and begged him to stop. Parr assured her that he felt “first rate” and finished, rising slowly to robust cheers.

“Worn out? Not a bit,” he crowed. “I did cut my knee slightly. There were many sharp rocks, but that didn’t amount to anything.”

Then Parr went home to his swank apartment at The Latrobe (Charles and Read streets) for a bath, rubdown and 30-minute nap before heading to Pimlico Race Track to collect his winnings.

His roll made headlines nationwide, including the New York Times. The Sun spun Parr’s effort thusly:

"We would not like to see ‘rolling’ become a popular sport, but Mr. Parr’s performance adds not only to the gayety [sic] of the public, without forming a menace to its morals like the tango, but it suggests that members of all classes of society ... are ready to endure hardship and to encounter risk of bodily injury rather than weaken in a test of manhood and courage.

"True, he had emulated some lesser beings of the animal kingdom in his mode of progression; true, he did cut a ridiculous figure as he flopped over about 4,000 times, first on his back, then on his side and then on hands and knees. but he had a balm to soothe any injuries his sensibilities may have received — he had won that $750 from the five scoffers who made up the purse against him.”

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The plucky endeavor labeled Parr for life. When he died of a heart attack in 1945 at age 65, his obituary in The Washington Post recalled him as “the man who wouldn’t take a dare.”

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