How to Break a World RecordOn January 19, 2022 by Elyse
With a little help from Second Glance History, anyone can travel, pickpocket, write, eat healthfully, break a lease, pull off a practical joke, be a Good Samaritan and even become a juvenile delinquent. But do you know what takes real talent? Breaking a world record. Happily, I’m here to help you with that as well.
What kind of world record, you ask?
Not the daring feat you had in mind? C’mon, this is a history blog. I’m surprised I’m covering any kind of competition at all.
Meet our wannabe champion, James M. Waterbury.
Mr. Waterbury is a young man of pleasing personality and natural musical ability. He has trained himself for such unusual performances by constantly increasing the length of his time spent at a piano until his powers of physical endurance are far beyond understanding.– The Washington Times, May 8, 1904
Otherwise, James is a man of mystery. According to one account, he was born in Kansas around 1878, although a later article suggests his birth year is closer to 1865. Regardless, over a period of four decades, he smashed one record after another with as much gusto as he thumped out those tunes.
By following in his footsteps, you too can secure your place in the history books—as long as you’re not picky about what place that is.
Have an inspiring origin story.
“I learned music because I liked it, and it came rather natural for me. Then I discovered that I did not tire as most musicians do and began playing at endurance contests and have been very successful, never having been defeated but one time.”
No, James, don’t jinx yourself!
“I never play but one endurance date in a week as it takes me nearly a week to recover from the fatigue incident to a contest of this kind. While this may be very properly termed a freak way of earning a living it has proven very profitable for me and at present I am earning more money in this work than I could in any other.”– James Waterbury, quoted in the Topeka State Journal, February 15, 1906
I asked for “inspiring,” not mercenary! Oh well, let’s move on.
Find a rival.
Read in your best sports anchor voice—and then cut me some slack because I genuinely have no idea what a sports anchor sounds like. There’s a reason I was always picked last in gym class.
Introducing our contestants:
Professor Waterbury and Miss Ada Melville began playing in a museum at 9 a.m. His record was fourteen hours; hers was ten hours and thirty minutes. Both were confident of winning. To appreciate the severity of this test of endurance it must be remembered that there is no stop of any sort in the performance for any purpose whatever.
They’re off to the races!
From 9 a.m. until 1:52 a.m., a stretch of sixteen hours and fifty-two minutes, Miss Melville never left her seat, and never once stopped playing.
She’s gaining on him! But wait:
At 1:52 yesterday morning she collapsed. Her hands fell from the keys to her lap, and she was too exhausted to raise them. She was utterly prostrated.
You hate to see it.
The professor himself, after the collapse of Miss Melville, played on for eight minutes, establishing the record of seventeen hours.– The Dalles Daily Chronicle, October 25, 1892
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner! James beat his personal best and set a new world record.
No pain, no gain.
However, victory came with a price. In 1903, James played for 26 hours straight:
When he ceased playing his fingers were a mass of blisters, his nerves shattered and his muscles so sore that he could scarcely walk.– The Waterbury Evening Democrat, August 25, 1903
Kids, this is why you don’t practice piano, no matter what your parents say. In 1912, 21 hours of playing led to what should’ve been a performance-ending injury:
This morning however the forefinger and thumb on his right hand split open but he kept playing with one hand while his attendant bound up the bleeding members.– The Bridgeport Evening Farmer, February 7, 1912
Keep up your strength.
How, you might ask, does an endurance piano player nourish themselves during these marathon performances? While playing for 26 hours in 1903:
In this long stretch Waterbury ate one Swiss cheese sandwich and one ham sandwich and drank freely of whiskey. He smoked cigarettes almost without cessation.
I shudder to think what the clean-living Gladys Mason would say.
If you’re wondering how James managed to do all of that without lifting his fingers from the piano keys, that makes two of us.
He could not roll or light his own cigarettes or hold his own glass of whiskey or his sandwiches. His partner waited on him.– The Waterbury Evening Democrat, August 25, 1903
That partner was also responsible for other duties as assigned.
An attendant will feed Waterbury, comb his hair, bathe his temples and perform kindred offices for him while he plays.– The Sun, January 24, 1904
Give the fans what they want.
The most entertaining part of his performance was when his attendant brought him his meals. He had the pleasure of partaking of his breakfast to the sweet strains of “Navaho,” while a gasping crowd outside watched his man hold a steaming cup of coffee to his mouth, and later deal out the appetizing contents of an interesting tray.– The Washington Times, May 8, 1904
This was how people amused themselves before Netflix. Poor souls.
Ignore the critics.
. . . Even when they hilariously skewer your life’s work.
One of the harshest vicissitudes of the summer season appeared early in July in Hagerstown, Md. A man of the name of Waterbury appeared there and threatened to play a piano for twenty-seven hours without stopping. He almost succeeded in executing his threat, too, for his victims testify that he tortured an unoffending piano for twenty-six hours and seven minutes without a pause. In the confusion that arose when he ceased his persecution he disappeared.
Three or four days ago a man giving the same name appeared in the town of Waynesboro, Pa., no great distance from the scene of the Maryland outrage, and declared his intention to thump a helpless piano for twenty-eight hours without intermission. How nearly he succeeded in accomplishing his wicked purpose is indicated by the statement that he had the piano completely at his mercy for twenty-six hours forty minutes and six seconds.
Inasmuch as the police acknowledge that this man is still at large it is evident that other communities are also in danger.– The New York Mail, quoted in the Evening Journal, September 5, 1910
There’s no pleasing everyone.
Accept defeat gracefully.
J. M. Waterbury of New York is no longer the champion long time piano player of the world. He lost that title. . . the other day to Charles Wright, a Battle Creek musician, who played for twenty-seven hours and forty-five minutes without cessation in a Battle Creek theater.
When Wright passed the record held by Waterbury by one minute he was removed from the piano, placed in an automobile and hurried to a sanitarium, where he arrived completely exhausted.– The Oakes Times, June 10, 1909
All good things must come to an end, and in 1909, it was time for James to step aside for the next generation of piano players.
. . . But in a contradictory cliché, don’t give up. Sequels are all the rage, and by 1912, James was back in the race.
J. M. Waterbury, the indefatigable piano player, made a new world’s record at the Globe theatre last evening, when he stuck to the keyboard until he had rounded out a continuous record of 34 hours three and one-half minutes. . . Waterbury first played somewhat less than 30 hours at Sonnenberg’s piano store here, then the Misses N. Hubbell and Nellie Griffin played continuously a draw of 30 hours and 30 minutes. Waterbury came back to take the championship from the young women.– The Bridgeport Evening Farmer, March 6, 1912
Every comeback story needs some healthy competition.
But in the end, aren’t we all competing against ourselves?
Waterbury, who holds the world’s record of sixty-six hours, eight minutes and thirty-two seconds of continuous piano playing, is trying to beat his own record. “I’ll make it seventy-two,” he declares.– The Indianapolis Times, November 20, 1926
Mission accomplished, James.
ALL TIRED OUT!—And no wonder, for J. M. Waterbury had played the piano for 74 hours, 30 minutes and 5 seconds on a “non-stop” effort before he collapsed in Chicago.– The New Britain Herald, February 3, 1928
Now, you’re armed with everything you need to break your own world record. However, you have your work cut out for you: The current world record for marathon piano playing is 127 hours, 8 minutes and 38 seconds. Your attendant better get the sandwiches and whiskey ready.
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Welcome to Second Glance History! This blog seeks to uncover the people and the stories forgotten by history and give them another read through a modern lens. Join me every week as we examine the differences that divide and the common threads that connect the then to the now.