Best of SI: Looking Back at Opening Day of the First Modern Olympics

Justin Grasso

On the evening of May 29, 1901, Sumner Paine entered his Chestnut Street apartment in Boston’s tony Beacon Hill neighborhood and found, to his considerable consternation, that his wife, Salome, was not alone. She was in her bedroom in the company of Peter F. Damm, a musician ostensibly on the premises to give a violin lesson to seven-year-old Elsie, who was asleep in the next room.

Newspapers later noted that Damm was “without a coat, waistcoat and collar” (though subsequent reports generally mentioned just the absence of his coat, presumably for decorum’s sake). Damm would explain his presence in the bedroom and his lack of gentlemanly attire by saying he was looking at an opera Mrs. Paine had written and, because of an open grate, the room had become unbearably stuffy.

Whatever story he told in the moment didn’t fly. Paine, enraged, squeezed off four shots from a .32 caliber revolver as Damm hightailed it down Walnut Street and across the Common, leaving his coat and hat behind. This being 1901, though, a hatless man outdoors raised suspicion. As one paper noted, the “spectacle of the peculiarly garbed runner speeding it across the turf caused a policeman to halt Damm for an interview.” Damm (whose head narrowly avoided Paine’s bullets) did his best to explain himself. Paine was arrested and charged with assault.

Two months later, a grand jury refused to indict, based on one simple consideration: Had Paine truly meant to do harm, Damm would have been dead, for Paine was a noted marksman—as evidenced by the two shooting medals he’d been awarded at the first modern Olympic Games, five years earlier in Athens.

This is a preview of SI's Daily Cover Story for Monday. Click here to read the rest of "Accidental Olympians" for FREE at Sports Illustrated! 

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