To the young men who inaugurated paper chasing in America, the sport must have seemed as delightfully wicked as streaking would to their counterparts a century later. Hot-eyed runners pounding down city streets, leaping hedges, lording brooks and leaving multicolored trails of shredded paper wherever they went constituted the kind of foolishness certain to raise eyebrows among the more sobersided citizens of the late 1870s and early 1880s. And when dozens of equally frantic pursuers were added to the scene, it seems safe to assume that the cry, "The younger generation is going to hell," was heard as often back then as it is today.
The idea of paper chasing first popped up in the United States in the fall of 1877. A group of young and athletic businessmen, gathered around the forward cabin stove of the Sylvan Dell, one of the many Harlem River steamers that carried people to and from their New York jobs, were facing the prospect of another dull winter. Walter S. Vosburgh suggested that they adopt the new outdoor game to amuse themselves and to keep themselves in top condition during the cold weather. A few moments later the Westchester Hare and Hounds Club had been formed.
Although the sport was simple enough, Vosburgh wrote to England for a book of instructions. Shortly after it arrived the first meeting of the Hare and Hounds Club was held, and Christmas Day, 1877 was scheduled as the date for the first paper chase. By the end of the decade, groups of young men all across the Eastern Seaboard were participating in the game.
Any number could play; two, usually, were designated as the hares, the rest were the hounds. The hares, who were given a head start of from five to 10 minutes, attempted to beat the hounds to a predetermined destination by any course they desired. Their only obligation was to drop bits of paper, the scent, along their route. It was a fine elemental competition, but there was one problem: the hares always won.
Harvard students were particularly fond of the new game and, despite a persistent drizzle, more than 300 spectators assembled in front of Matthews' establishment on Dec. 6, 1879 to cheer on 40 hounds pursuing the hares (Manning and Thatcher, both Class of '82) through the streets of Cambridge. After dashing across Harvard Square into Church Street, Manning and Thatcher scaled an eight-foot fence and raced down Palmer Street. The chase continued past the James Russell Lowell home and the Brighton abattoir, where the hares forded a creek and proceeded up Carey Hill in Brookline. While several hounds remained stuck in the mud, the rest charged to the top of the hill where they found an empty sack: the hares had run out of scent and gone for more. By the time they returned to the scene, the hounds had quit in disgust and gone back to Cambridge.
A week later the match was rerun. The route on this occasion went past Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's home—apparently it was not easy to go anywhere in the greater Boston area without passing the residence of a famous poet—and Manning and Thatcher won with two minutes to spare.
Foul weather did not deter hardy paper chasers. When the ground was covered with snow, as it was for the 1880 Westchester Thanksgiving meet, the hares merely changed the color of their scent to red, green and blue.
At 11 on that morning, hares Vosburgh and Frank Banham arrived at Schraeder's Hotel dressed identically in black trousers and blue jackets. The hounds, clad in crimson jackets and dark blue trousers, ceremoniously broke into a chorus of yelps and baying upon seeing the quarry.
At the firing of a pistol, Vosburgh and Banham took off along White Plains Road. A newspaper reporter perched in the top of a tall tree saw them split up—or "throw off," in the parlance of paper chasing—as soon as they were out of sight of the hounds.
Banham pulled off the best ploy of the day when he came to the top of a rocky precipice 20 feet high. Grasping the rock with both his hands, he made a track as if he had let himself slide over the edge. Then he drew himself back, retraced his old footprints in the snow and started off in another direction. When the hounds arrived on the scene, they took the bait and scrambled en masse down the cliff face.
Later it was thought that the hounds were resorting to trickery themselves when several were seen lifting objects from their back pockets to their faces. At first a reporter from The New York Times thought the hounds were peering through telescopes in order to spot the hares. Then he concluded that the objects were "not telescopes, but something better suited to the festive character of the day."
The hounds probably needed a nip or two by the time Vosburgh and Banham were through with them. They crossed a swamp covered with thin ice that cracked beneath each step and ended by covering a dozen miles in one hour and 45 minutes. The hounds pursued across the weakened ice and finished, cold and wet, nearly half an hour behind their quarry.
A year later, with Banham on the other side as the Master of the Hunt, the results were different. The race took place in the general vicinity of Bayonne, N.J., where the entire juvenile population took off after the hares. After passing a group of shooters from the New York Gun Club and following the tracks of the Jersey Central Railroad for several hundred yards, the hares, confident of victory, arrogantly pinned a sign to a fence and started back in the direction of Bayonne. The note read—"Dear Hounds: Goodbye. We are on our journey home. The smell of the dinner has acted exhilaratingly on our gait."
Shortly thereafter they were dismayed to see Banham less than 100 yards behind. After tagging W.I.K. Kendrick, Banham took off after the second hare, Harry Drake. An exciting chase concluded with the hounds' first win.
The high-water mark of paper chasing had been reached. The growing popularity of the less chaotic cross-country racing no doubt contributed to the demise of the sport, and by the 1890s it had been relegated to a child's game that survives today as Hare and Hounds and its variations.
Perhaps it was just as well. Considering the amount of litter the 20th century has produced, it would be preposterous to suppose modern hares could leave a recognizable scent.