Grandaddy of Charity Marathons (Massachusetts)

  • Local Projects
  • 1909

In the early years of the twentieth century, Italians were one of the largest immigrant groups in America. So when a tremendous earthquake rocked southern Italy and Sicily in 1908 and killed 100,000 people, Americans leapt to mobilize relief. One of the most significant charitable efforts was centered in Boston, where would-be helpers launched what is now one of the grand philanthropic traditions in our country.

Marathon road races were all the rage in America a century ago, partly due to Johnny Hayes’s gold medal for the U.S. in the 1908 Olympic Games. So when the Boston American went looking for a vehicle to raise money for earthquake relief, the decision was quickly made to organize a charity event around a marathon. The newspaper publicized a January 9, 1909 contest managed by the local amateur athletic association, and Boston businesses covered the costs. It was announced that all proceeds from admission to the grounds where the finish could be viewed would be devoted to the victims in Italy.

Despite freezing temperatures, 108 runners participated, and thousands of spectators turned out. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised (the exact figure is not known). In 1909 currency that was an eye-popping result. The Boston Marathon thus became the first in a long history of charity marathons held all across the United States, which collectively now raise close to $2 billion annually.

Even as the phenomenon spread to other cities, interest has never waned in the cradle of the concept. In 1989 (the year the charity mechanism for the Boston race was formalized into its current structure), 5,000 runners participated in the Boston Marathon; by 2015 that was up to 30,251. The latest year’s charitable haul was $38.4 million, with those funds going to a few dozen local charities ranging from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, to the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, to Boston Children’s Hospital.