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What You Need You Have to Borrow

Fred Bonine

Earlier this month Andrew Gelman and I kicked around the topic of who have been the oldest famous people ever, not counting people famous for being old. This led to an interesting sub-discussion of how to measure what “fame” is, triggered I believe by my genuine uncertainty regarding the present fame of Henry Kissinger.

What percentage of current day Americans could identify Kissinger with some level of specificity, say as an important member of the Nixon administration, or as a Nobel Peace Prize winner? I have no idea, but would take a wild guess that the number is in the five to ten percent range. (Your equally wild-ass guesses are of course more than welcome. Or is there any evidence on this question? I’m not looking for it, as I’ve done enough random internet sleuthing this morning already).

Anyway, Andrew has a fascinating followup on all this, inspired by a dive down the cyber rabbit hole, after he heard “Crimson and Clover” on the radio and looked up Tommy James’s Wiki page. He discovered James is from the small southwestern Michigan town of Niles, Michigan. I went to high school about 50 miles from Niles, in Kalamazoo, and I’m unduly prideful about the fact that I already knew Tommy James was from Niles, because I too had looked up his Wiki page a couple or three years ago, probably after hearing Crimson and Clover on the radio. Or maybe it was I Think We’re Alone Now. (Check out the page for glimpse of among other things just how mobbed up the pop music record industry was in the 1960s).

This semi-random cyber-adventure led Andrew to further explore the topic of what fame is, by looking at the hyperlinked Wiki list of famous — or “famous” — people from Niles, Michigan. Looking at his post on that extremely recondite topic, I fell down my own rabbit hole after reading this part of it:

Fred Bonine: I’d never heard of the guy before this, but, hey! of all the people on this list, he seems the most impressive to me. Holding the world record for 35 years . . . how is that even possible? And then to see a million patients—that’s really something. If I had to pick one person to represent Niles, Michigan, it would be Fred Bonine.

I was curious about this world record so I noodled around on Wikipedia . . . “In 1886, Bonine set a world’s record with a time of 10.8 seconds in the 110-yard dash. The record stood for 35 years until it was broken in 1921 by Charley Paddock.” 10.8 seconds, that’s not bad! How were things going at the Olympics? In 1896, it seems that the winning time was 11.8 seconds, which seems kinda slow, actually. It didn’t go below 10.8 until 1912. But then we can list the 100 meters world record progression (which Wikipedia amusingly refers to as the “Men’s 100 metres world record progression”), which starts with a bunch of guys doing it in 10.8 at many different places, from 1891 through 1903, then it drops to 10.6 in 1906 and 10.5 in 1911. Bonine’s not listed at all, even though 110 yards is actually a slightly longer distance than 100 meters! Whassup with that! Maybe Bonine’s 10.8 was clocked by someone with an itchy stopwatch finger, I have no idea. I’m kinda thinking he didn’t really do it in 10.8 seconds, but who knows?

So yeah, Fred Bonine. Bonine’s New York Times obituary in 1941 claimed that he was a famous ophthalmologist, who drew patients from all around the country and even the world to the small town of Niles, to visit his offices in a modest three-room suite, located above a drug store. Indeed, according to the Times, Bonine saw 1.5 million patients during his nearly 50-year career as an internationally celebrated eye doctor.

I’m a little surprised that this 1.5 million number, unlike the purported track world record, didn’t set off any alarm bells for Andrew. I mean does that figure sound even halfway plausible? So I dug around a bit.

It appears that, in regard to fame, Fred Bonine’s greatest claim to that commodity wasn’t his medical work, but rather that he held the unofficial world record in the 110-yard dash for 35 years, between 1886 and 1921, with a time of 10.8 seconds. The world record in the 100 meters — the standard shortest sprint distance at the international level even then — did not go below 10.8 seconds until 1906.

As Andrew points out, 110 yards is actually slightly longer than 100 meters: 100.58 meters to be exact. So Bonine’s record was doubly unofficial. First, because official track and field world records did not begin to become certified by the sport’s governing body until 1912. Second, while until the middle of the 20th century American track and field sprinting and middle distance events tended to be run at the rough imperial equivalent of the standard metric distances, i.e., 220 yards instead of 200 meters, 440 yards instead of 400 meters, and 880 yards instead of 800 meters., etc., 110 yards was never a standard event distance for world record purposes, and indeed I can find no evidence that this distance was ever run as a part of standard competitions of any kind.

The shortest standard sprint event contested in America was the 100 yard dash, until the 1970s, when apparently metric distances were no longer considered too communistic or something, and everybody converted over to the standard international distances (200 meters instead of 220 yards etc.).

Anyway, starting in 1912, official world records started being certified for the 100 meter and 100 yard dashes, respectively. Bonine claimed he had set the 110 yard sprint world record while he was a member of the University of Michigan football and track teams; indeed, he said he was the captain of the latter squad.

These feats are memorialized in among other places this story from the October 23, 1925 San Pedro (CA) Daily News. What is a story about Fred Bonine, purportedly world famous eye doctor, and holder of an extraordinarily impressive athletic achievement — imagine remaining the unofficial fastest human on the planet, or at least tied for that honor, for 20 years! — doing in a small town California newspaper in 1925?

The answer turns out to be, in all likelihood, that the only real reason Fred Bonine became one of the most famous — or “famous” — people from Niles, Michigan, is because of the greatest heavyweight championship fight that never happened.

This was the planned 1926 meeting between Jack Dempsey and Harry Wills. In the 1920s Dempsey was either the most famous or the second-most famous athlete in America: I suppose Babe Ruth might have been more famous, but I would put my money on Dempsey. You’ve probably heard of Dempsey, but unless you’re a boxing trivia geek of the first order you haven’t heard of Wills. (Correction: You may have heard of Wills if you read all of Erik’s grave visit posts, as you definitely should).

Wills may well have been the greatest fighter of his era, but he never got to fight Dempsey. You see, Wills was a black man, and if there’s one thing much of white America wasn’t interested in even momentarily contemplating, it was the idea of a black man defeating a white superstar like Dempsey for the title of manliest man in the most masculine of all sports (It’s hard today to even grasp what a big deal the heavyweight boxing championship was in America a century ago. Imagine being Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, and Tiger Woods, all rolled into one sports figure).

Nevertheless in the early and mid-1920s many fight fans considered Wills to be the obvious #1 contender for Dempsey’s heavyweight crown. Indeed, some boxing mavens accused Dempsey of dodging Wills, which he hotly denied.

Finally, in 1925 a contract for the two to meet was negotiated by Floyd Fitzsimmons, one of the leading promoters of the day. The contract called for Wills to get $50,000 — this would be the equivalent of close to a million bucks today, just in inflation adjusted terms, and much much more when adjusting for the relative economic conditions between then and now — while Dempsey was to be paid the staggering sum of $350,000.

This contract was signed in Fred Bonine’s Niles office. Why? Fitzsimmons was from Benton Harbor, a little less than 30 miles away; indeed Dempsey had fought his first title defense there four years earlier, in a Fitzsimmons-promoted event. So Fitzsimmons knew Bonine. And, supposedly, Bonine had saved Dempsey’s eyesight after a fight, and they became good friends as a result.

The Dempsey-Wills fight was a huge deal, both in sporting terms, and in broader sociological terms, because of the race angle. It didn’t come off, in part because Fitzsimmons was apparently unable to raise the funds to guarantee Dempsey’s purse, but probably in larger part because so many (white) people weren’t interested in seeing America’s paragon of racial superiority potentially humiliated in the ring by a colored man.

OK so what does this all have to do with Fred Bonine’s fame, previous or subsequent to his minor role in the most famous of heavyweight championship fights that never happened?

Today, almost all of the extant documentary record about Bonine can be traced back to or references his role in the Dempsey-Wills aborted fight. The reason, I suspect, is that all the “facts” that made Fred Bonine famous, or at least Niles, Michigan famous, are somewhere between wild exaggerations and total fabrications, cooked up by the creative promotional machine surrounding big time boxing in America in the 1920s (Boxing back then was kind of sleazy business, believe it or not).

Here’s why I suspect this is the case:

First, Fred Bonine was never on the Michigan football team. The Bentley Historical Library has a very comprehensive all-time roster of everyone who has ever been on a Michigan football team — including players who never saw the field – and Bonine isn’t on it. Just to be extra sure I checked the rosters for all the individual seasons when Bonine could have been attending Michigan. He’s nowhere to be found on any of them.

Second, here’s what the San Pedro Daily has to say about Bonine’s athletic exploits in Ann Arbor:

Dr. Bonine attended the University of Michigan in the early eighties and was a member of the football squad. It was while there I that he established the dash record which stood until Charles Paddock clipped a fraction of a second from it in 1921. He “was medical advisor to the American Olympic team at Stockholm in 1912, and is credited with having captained the first athletic team to go to New York from the west, this being in 1886.

The problem with this story, it turns out, is that the University of Michigan didn’t even have a track and field team until 1898 at the earliest, so Bonine’s captaining of it a dozen years earlier is as fictional as his college football career.

The real story has the following components:

Bonine traveled to New York in 1885 to compete as an individual representing the University of Michigan in the IC4A (the predecessor of today’s NCAA) championships. He won the 100 — not 110 yard — dash, in a time of 10.6, thus becoming, per the Bentley Library, Michigan’s first individual national champion in any sport. Now that’s pretty impressive in its own way, but if you know anything about track and field, you’ll recognize that the difference between a 100-yard time of 10.6 and a 100 meter time of 10.8 is simply immense.

What does this kind of gap signify at this level of athletic performance? Basically, it’s the difference between a world champion and a state high school champion. So for example the functional difference between 10.6 100 yard time and a 10.8 100 meter time is almost as large as the difference between the current world record for the 100 meters, and the current Michigan high school state record time for that distance.

Another piece of evidence of what Bonine’s performance meant in terms of elite sprinter performance in that era is that, among the first 30 100 meter winning times recorded by winners of the annual IC4A championships between 1876 and 1905 — remember, these are the best American college sprinters of their day, not the best sprinters, period — Bonine’s time ranks tied for 24th with two others, while only three winning times were slower.

Apparently, the roots of the claim Bonine made 40 years later that he had run a 10.8 110 yard race can be traced to an event the next year. A commenter to the original version of this post discovered the following:

The May 25, 1886, edition of the New York Times reported that Bonine ran the 110 yards in 11 seconds flat at a meet in Ann Arbor. The following month, on June 16, the Harvard Crimson ran a story with this quote: “The Spirit of the Times publishes a letter from Dr. Swain of the University of Michigan, in which a full account of Bonine’s records for 50, 80, and 110 yards is given.” (The shorter distances may be split times). “They seem well authenticated, but there was an inequality in the track of three feet each way.”

Apparently the uncertainty surrounding Bonine’s performance — which in any event was recorded as 11.0 not 10.8 — kept it from ever being accepted as the record for the distance, which was attributed to Harvard runner Wendell Baker, who ran an 11.2 at about the same time. This remained the unofficial record — again there were no official records until 1912, and there was never an official record for the 110 yards — until Robert Cloughen ran the 110 in 10.8 in 1910. This was the record that it was generally reported Charley Paddock broke in 1921.

Baker and Bonine ran against each other at the 1886 I4CA championships. Bonine won his heat in the 100 yards in 10.8 — this would translate into about a 11.6 time for 110 yards, making the claim that he ran an 11 flat 110 yards, let alone one in 10.8, earlier that year all the more improbable. Neither Bonine nor Baker won the final, which was taken by another Harvard runner. (Something to keep in mind in regard to all these numbers is that at the time the practice of timing sprints with stop watches was very new, and the standards for how this should be done were probably fairly loose and inconsistent, thus making recorded times less reliable than they would become subsequently, as standard practices became more consistent).

Finally, the Bentley library’s discussion of Bonine’s career does not mention him ever setting any world record, let alone holding it for 35 years, which would be a remarkable omission if in fact Bonine’s claims 40 years after the fact were true.

In other words, I would say that, as a matter of Bayesian inference, we can be pretty sure that Fred Bonine’s claim in 1925 that 40 years earlier he had been the fastest human on the planet is, to use another technical term, complete bullshit, possibly springing fully formed, Athena-like, from the febrile imagination of Floyd Fitzsimmons and/or his army of publicists.

My guess is that what happened is something like this: Bonine told a publicist for the fight that he had been the fastest college sprinter in America way back in the day, and the publicist then cooked up the world record malarky, conjuring up an imaginary non-standard sprint distance record that couldn’t be checked as readily as a claim about the 100 meter world record, not that anybody would be checking anything until 97 years after the Fight That Didn’t Happen, when some obsessive blogger would dig into the actual historical record. Or perhaps the by-then aging Bonine had a conveniently fuzzy memory of the meet where he supposedly ran the 11 flat time, and then he or the publicist shaved off another couple tenths of a second from this already-dubious claim, to make for an even better story.

Just for the heck of it, the publicist then put Bonine on the University of Michigan’s famous football team — in the 1920s college football was an enormously bigger deal than the nascent NFL — or maybe Bonine also invented this autobiographical flourish himself. Or maybe Bonine made up all of it from start to finish. We’ll never know.

Which brings us to Bonine’s career as a world famous ophthalmologist.


Bonine later became a nationally known eye doctor. Each year, tens of thousands of patients from around the world reportedly sought treatment at Bonine’s office above a corner drug store in Niles, Michigan.  Bonine regularly treated as many as 517 patients in one day and regularly saw 200 patients in a day. Hundreds lined up each day, none with appointments, to see him, with each being charged the same fee of two dollars for a first visit and one dollar for subsequent visits. Special buses from Chicago to Niles ran twice a week to bring patients to see Bonine.  Several restaurants, gift shops, and hotels in Niles reportedly “owed their existence to the patronage drawn to this small city by his fame.”

Here’s the San Pedro Daily in 1925 again:

Pretty fixtures, an elaborate suite and a dressy front are not in “Doc” Bonine’s scheme of specializing. Around one big room is a row of chairs for the afflicted. and when it is filled those who come later must stand. There are three rear offices. —-two it the dark room is excluded. The doctor’s methods of bookkeeping are a mystery. He does not spurn the up-to-date equipment, but he makes no show with it. For many years one section of the wall paper in the front office was covered with pencil marks, it being a hobby of Dr. Bouine’s to “measure” his patients for height against the wall, drawing a mark at a point parallel with the top of the head. He had many idiosyncrasies, but none more vexing of those who come long distances to consult him than the habit of going out when and where the spirit moves him. It was not unusual for him in past years to walk from his office, filled with patients, and remain away the rest of the day. A sudden urge to attend some sporting event in another part of the country will take him away, leaving an office filled with people.

Okey dokey.

If you were told there would be no math, you were told wrong.

Combing through the various newspaper items referenced on the Wiki page and otherwise available via Google, it appears that Bonine’s medical practice ran from about 1890 to 1938, when he had to retire because of a stroke. Assuming a typical working year of 250 days, that would require Bonine to see an average of 133 patients per day, for all the working days over a nearly half century stretch.

Assuming he was working an average of ten hour days, back when men were men, that’s still less than five minutes per patient (It appears from all the descriptions of Bonine’s office that he was the only doctor in it).

More puzzling still, where exactly were all these people coming from? The only city of any size within 20 miles of Niles was South Bend, Indiana. I estimate that the average total population within a 20 mile radius of Bonine’s office over the course of his fabulous career was about 75,000 people. Even if we make the wildly optimistic assumption that fully one percent of everybody that lived with 20 miles of his office — and 20 miles was a long distance in the late 19th and early 20th century — visited the famous eye doctor in any given year, that would still mean that 98% of his 33,000 [!] annual patients would have to travel a minimum of several hours each way, and indeed very often a multi-day journey, just to reach the good doctor’s modest storefront operation.

I mean how long would a “special bus” from Chicago to Niles take to get its patients from the Windy City to Niles and back again in 1925, given the motor vehicle technology and the primitive roadways of the day? I’m guessing that was a ten-hour round trip, and that’s probably optimistic. And Chicago was by far the closest major city to Niles — Detroit was and is twice as far away: 200 miles, a distance to travel which in the early 20th century was roughly equivalent to what flying to Europe would be today. And I’m guessing there were plenty of ophthalmologists in those cities even then. (Side note: What did an ophthalmologist even do back then, I mean besides standard things like test your eyesight and prescribe glasses? In other words, what sort of supposed special treatments would draw 33,000 people per year from around the world to Niles, Michigan?).

Check it out: According to his obituary in the Newspaper of Record, Dr. Bonine over the course of his career saw a total number of patients equivalent to, by my calculations, 1.74% of the total average population of the entire United States during the years of his practice. Of course this omits all the people who traveled from overseas to see Niles’s most famous eye doctor.

Also, the money: If the good doctor was charging his patients just two dollars per visit, as various sources assert, he was still grossing well over one million dollars per year, in 2021 dollars, just from patient fees alone, not counting whatever profit he was making on his magic elixirs etc. I mean if he was making that much money in Niles, imagine what he could have made if he had set up shop in Chicago or Detroit, where people wouldn’t have to undertake a Lewis and Clark style expedition just to see him, assuming he hadn’t high-tailed it that particular day, after a sudden urge to attend a sporting event in another part of the country. (He did make enough bank to afford this sweet ride however).

I mean I don’t doubt Bonine had a very successful local practice and everything, but what probably happened is that he took the single busiest day his office ever had, doubled that figure, and then the Dempsey-Wills fight publicist multiplied that figure by all the days between 1890 and 1925, including Christmas and New Years. Or something like that.

OK this has obviously gone on way too long, so some general points.

I think what’s going on here is that the classic American institution of the publicity/grift machine behind the sports-entertainment industrial complex, and the equally ubiquitous institutions of relentless small town boosterism, combined to transform a narrative of strictly local interest — successful college athlete becomes successful local professional and businessman — into something vastly more grandiose, i.e., long time world record holder in one of the most glamorous of all athletic events goes on to become nationally and internationally famous doctor.

It’s obvious that, to continue these statistical speculations, the latter series of events is almost infinitely more improbable than the former.

One mystery, it seems, is how did the combination of what were almost certainly wildly exaggerated claims — the number of patients Bonine actually treated over the course of his career, his purported national and international medical fame, the “saving” of Jack Dempsey’s eyesight — and outright total fabrications — his track world record, his Michigan football career — somehow migrate all the way from the publicity for the Dempsey-Wills fight in 1925 to a New York Times obituary 16 years later?

I really have no idea what the answer to that question might be, other than to speculate that maybe being a 33rd degree Mason — how many degrees are there anyway? — might have something to do with, as might the fact that Bonine seems to have had an almost Kardashian-like genius for constant self-promotion.

A final note: This whole absurd saga is a nice example of the kind of fake history made possible by Wikipedia, which is on the whole an immensely valuable Internet site to which I contribute money and you should too, but which inevitably lends itself to this kind of thing.

I’m pretty sure that 20 years ago Fred Bonine was a completely forgotten figure. How did he end up famous — or Wikipedia famous anyway — again? I bet the answer is that some local Niles, Michigan, history buff decided to let the world know the Amazing True Story of World Record Breaking Track Star Who Went On to Become One of America’s Leading Doctors, while neglecting to check out whether any of this stuff was, you know, true.

There are various lessons that can be drawn from all this but that’s more than enough for now.

. . . Apparently it isn’t. Commenter Charlie Sweatpants:

The article was created in May of 2012 by Wikipedia user “Cbl62”, almost fully formed. Only minor edits have been made since (mostly categorization changes). And who might Cbl62 be? Who knows? But they do Wikipedia articles for an awful lot of Michigan football players (Go Blue) and old timey people, of which there is often overlap.

Obviously I don’t know how Cbl62 stumbled across Bonine. But it’s quite possible that Cbl62 found Bonine because he came up in a search as a member of the Michigan football team, which was only noted in newspaper articles because of Fitzsimmons PR machine. Bullshit echoing through the ages.

So it seems likely the article was created by a Michigan football fan, because Bonine was a famous former Michigan football player, except for the part about being a Michigan football player.

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