Next Thursday, May 13, is Frankie Nelson’s birthday. I discovered Frankie recently, while doing research for my book on how the bicycle changed women’s lives in the 1890s, and I liked her immediately. She was one of the original female bicycle racers, a crack, or scorcher, in the vernacular of the times. First on a high-wheeler and then on the more familiar safety—similar to our bikes today—she raced men and women on indoor tracks for minutes or hours or days on end. She even went up against two men on roller skates, beating them handily.
Frankie was born in 1869. I’m not sure when she died because articles about her seem to have stopped with the end of her racing career. In fact, biographical material on her is pretty sketchy all the way around. One newspaper piece identified her as having been born in Cincinnati, but others have her coming from Brooklyn, which seems to fit her working class style and tenacity—no offense to that great city in Ohio. She very well could have moved to Brooklyn as her cycling career took off because it was one of the centers of cycling in general and women’s cycling in particular.
I have yet to find a photograph of Frankie, either, although I did come across this sketch from the May 3, 1891, issue of the St. Paul Daily Globe. It was part of the Globe’s excellent coverage of a six-day women’s race in Minneapolis, in which Frankie and five other athletes rode three hours a night on six consecutive days to determine the women’s 18-hour champion. Frankie led the race wire-to-wire, traveling a total of 264 miles and 2 laps, a new women’s record. Along the way, she received a basket of roses from the Normanna Skating society in honor of her Nordic heritage. I haven't yet found references to any other prizes or cash rewards that came with her victory.
Organized women’s sports was in its infancy in the 1890s, and participants often were looked at with a mixture of suspicion and disdain. Indeed, the League of American Wheelmen, the powerful body that fought for the rights of cyclists at the time, refused to sanction any racing event featuring a contest that was open to females. But Frankie and other women whose competitive spirits were awakened by the roar of the crowd and the thrill of the chase rode on, setting records and breaking barriers for the female athletes who came after them.
Not surprising, Frankie Nelson’s name doesn’t appear on lists of famous people who share May 13 as a birthday, which includes Stephen Colbert, Stevie Wonder, George Lucas, Bea Arthur, and boxing champ Joe Louis. But it should. As another one of those born on May 13, I welcome her to the club.