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From the Madhouse to Muldoon’s House: Nellie Bly’s visit with John L. Sullivan

Nellie Bly meets John L. Sullivan
Publish Date: 08/23/2017
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster
Journalist, writer, industrialist, inventor, and charity worker

Nellie Bly arrived in New York City in 1887 out of work, out of money, and about to accept an assignment for which she had to pretend to be out of her mind.

As groundbreaking an opportunity as it was for an investigative journalist and social activist, hers was no task for the faint of heart. Nellie, however, was up to the challenge, having boldly penned her first published piece for the Pittsburgh Dispatch at the age of 16 in response to a chauvinistic article called “What Girls Are Good For” and later spent six months in Mexico chronicling the miserable living conditions of the general population suffering under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.

Unafraid in the face of risk or controversy, the twenty-three-year-old Bly (born Elizabeth Jane Cochran) was asked by an editor for the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s prestigious daily newspaper, to gain admittance to and write an undercover expose of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island with its famous tramway linking it to the Upper East Side of Manhattan). “I said I could and I would,” Nellie wrote in the opening lines of Ten Days in the Madhouse, serialized in sell-out editions of the World and subsequently published in book form. “And I did.”

After her week and a half-long dealings with the deranged patients “whose tongues uttered meaningless nonsense” and unsympathetic psychiatric staff responsible for the “cruel treatment of the poor things intrusted[sic] to their care” in the dark, dingy confines of the foreboding brick structure at Blackwell’s Island, traveling to the bucolic setting of upstate Belfast, New York two years later to conduct an interview with the hard-drinking, womanizing prizefighter who boasted that he could “lick any sonofabitch in the house” must have seemed like a working vacation by comparison. And to Ms. Bly, as a matter of fact, more accommodating Mr. Sullivan and his host William Muldoon could not have been. “If John L. Sullivan isn’t able to whip any pugilist in the world,” she claimed for the lead-in to her article, “I would like to see the man who is.”

‘The Boston Strong Boy’, not unlike Nellie Bly except for the reasons why, was in need of professional guidance and financial assistance when he too staggered into Manhattan. Though he would have been loath to admit it, what John L. Sullivan required most was some tender loving care (more like tough love) pertaining to the personal and physical aspects of his being, ravaged as it was by his rough and tumble profession, an abominable diet, flagrant abuse of intoxicants, and a recent, nearly fatal malady.

John L. himself described the terrible affliction which confined him to bed for nine weeks beginning in August 1888 as “typhoid fever, gastric fever, inflammation of the bowels, heart trouble, and liver complaint all combined.” Twice given up for dead by flummoxed physicians, it was considered something of a minor miracle that the thirty-year-old Sullivan survived, albeit his recovery was begun hobbling about on crutches for six weeks due to a resulting bout of what he termed “incipient paralysis”.

Before he had even approached anything resembling full recuperation, John L. issued an open challenge to Jake Kilrain on December 7, 1888. A month later, Sullivan met with Kilrain’s backers in Toronto to sign the official articles of agreement for a July 8 bareknuckle brawl which was to be the last heavyweight championship match contested under the London Prize Ring Rules. Additionally, Sullivan had reverted almost immediately back to the detrimental habits that had contributed mightily to his pitiable condition, chasing as many steaks as he could devour in one sitting with whiskey served in beer steins. His training regimen, if you could consider it that, consisted mainly of vigorous walks followed by a rubdown and a three-hour nap. He also planned to set out on an ill-advised exhibition tour which would bring him right into Richburg, Mississippi on the day of the Kilrain fight.

This was serious cause for concern in the eyes of Sullivan’s handlers. That May, according to R.F. Dibble’s 1925 book on John L. entitled An Intimate Narrative, Sullivan was “howling and teetering around a New York hotel bar” just as “Jimmy Wakely, his present manager, entered with William Muldoon.”   

Most famous for his exploits as a Greco-Roman wrestler, Muldoon boasted an extraordinarily diverse and extensive resume with job titles such as farmer, wood splitter, Civil War cavalryman, Indian War soldier, warehouse loader, dock worker, cart driver, police officer, actor, and owner of a “saloon and reading room”, although he soon divorced himself from this last business venture due to the fact that he was by all accounts a no-nonsense teetotaler who personally abstained from and generally abhorred tobacco and hard liquor. In his Sullivan biography John the Great, Donald Barr Chidsey paints Muldoon in the colorless guise of one “who lived always as though tomorrow would be Judgment Day.”

“This man Sullivan was a drunken, bloated helpless mass of flesh and bone without a single dollar in his pocket when I took him from New York to my place,” he stated later.

While Michael Isenberg suggests in John L. Sullivan and His America (1988) that Muldoon might have first met Sullivan on an 1880 trip to Boston, one certainty is that he staged the March 31, 1881 fight between John L. and Steve Taylor at Harry Hill’s in New York City. It appears as though another of Muldoon’s entrepreneurial endeavors was having built “rings for occasional clandestine bareknuckle bouts” which brought about a promotional opportunity in the expanding universe of prizefighting. Sullivan and Muldoon were, like it or not, about to become much more intimately acquainted.

“We had a little misunderstanding, but after a day we were led to bury the hatchet.” This was how John L. Sullivan chose to gloss over, in his memoirs, the almost constant friction between himself and his strict taskmaster who allegedly took the precaution of issuing sternly worded warnings to local bartenders and druggists that under no circumstance were they to cater to the champion’s urges. The ‘Boston Strong Boy’, naughty as he was resourceful, still found a way to break camp on a number of occasions, including a brief rendezvous with the popular singer and “burlesque queen” Ann Livingston.

The gregarious John L. Sullivan rarely encountered a correspondent he didn’t like. He once went so far as to exclaim, “These young newspapermen are alright to me. I’m for ‘em!” Little Carrie author Theodore Dreiser was a beat reporter for the St. Louis Globe as a young man when he was tasked with interviewing Sullivan who urged him to “Write any damned thing yuh please, young fella. If they don’t believe it, bring it back here and I’ll sign it for yuh. But I know it’ll be alright, and I won’t stop to read it either.”

William Muldoon, on the other hand, was suspicious of reporters and undesirous of non-essential visitors who would only serve to further distract the already restless Sullivan. It was rumored that he rented every room in the one and only nearby hotel and barred journalists from his premises except for Ban Johnson, the future founder and first president of professional baseball’s American League. If so, Johnson was not the lone exception to Muldoon’s rule regarding privacy from the press.

Nellie Bly’s train pulled into the Belfast station at 7:30 in the morning, she and her unnamed companion the only passengers to disembark there. The descriptive power inherent to Nellie’s prose comes through as she gives her first impression of Champion Rest, the home of William Muldoon which Bly notes “is surrounded by two graveyards, a church, the priest’s home and a little cottage occupied by two old maids.” She is immediately struck by the fact that “One would never imagine from the surrounding that a prizefighter was being trained there. The house is a very pretty little two-story building, surrounded by the smoothest and greenest of green lawns, which helps to intensify the spotless whiteness of the cottage. A wide veranda surrounds the three sides of the cottage and the easy chairs and hammocks give it a most enticing look of comfort. Large maple trees shade the house from the glare of the sun.”

After being greeted at the door by a “colored man”, Nellie is taken to meet Muldoon, with his blue eyes and a smile that “brought two dimples to punctuate his rosy cheeks”, who informed her that Sullivan was in the midst of a rubdown following their two-mile walk but that he would promptly fetch him for her. “He was a tall man, with enormous shoulders and wore dark trousers, a light cheviot coat and vest and slippers,” Nellie remarked of the individual who she would have failed to recognize as “the great and only Sullivan” if not for Muldoon’s introduction. “In his hand he held a light cloth cap. He paused almost as he entered the room in a half-bashful way, and twisted his cap in a very boyish but not ungraceful manner.”

After an amiable handshake “with a firm hearty grasp and with a hand that felt small and soft”, John L. walked Nellie quickly through his daily workout routine, not only patiently explaining to his curious guest the benefits of the corduroy “sweater” he wore on his early morning runs and walks with Muldoon, but showing her the very “heavy knit garment” he owned “with long sleeves and a standing collar.”

Sullivan lets his guard down around Nellie and, asked his feelings about training, confesses that “it’s the worst thing going.” He grumbles to her as well about the fact that “I couldn’t sleep after 5 o’clock this morning on account of Mr. Muldoon’s cow. It kept up a hymn all the morning and the birds joined in the chorus. It’s no use to try to sleep here after daybreak. The noise would knock out anything.” Evidently the peace and quiet suited Sullivan well enough during the day but was simply too much for a night owl such as himself to handle. “It’s all right to be here when the sun is out, but after dark it’s the dreariest place I ever stuck,” he tells Nellie. “I wouldn’t live here if they gave me the whole country.”

In his first effort to put the champion through his paces, and perhaps humble him in the bargain, William Muldoon had sent John L. to labor in the fields alongside the other farmhands which, needless to say, did not make for a reciprocally agreeable situation. No advocate of heavy weightlifting, Muldoon had Sullivan work instead with dumbbells of varying size to sculpt lean muscle and swinging Indian clubs for increased flexibility and agility. Initially, John L. had been barely able to maintain a dozen repetitions while jumping rope but became so proficient week after painstaking week that 900 successful skips was not out of the question.

Muldoon routinely incorporated wrestling into their sessions, the master grappler imparting a good deal of his vast knowledge onto his student so that John L. could more effectively close the distance on Kilrain and roughhouse the challenger. The two would also toss back and forth a medicine ball (an invention credited to Muldoon) that Nellie Bly mentioned as being “enormous and so heavy that when Mr. Muldoon dropped it into my arms, I almost toppled over.” Football was another daily form of exercise, as was alternating between hitting the heavy bag and the smaller one suspended from an exposed ceiling beam in the barn which Sullivan attacked with a wild abandon that Nellie supposed “foretells hard times for Kilrain’s head.”

To help keep Sullivan limber, Muldoon encouraged him to go swimming although Allegany County was affected, as were many surrounding areas of Pennsylvania and western New York, by the runoff of the Johnstown flood. Sullivan recalled in his memoirs, “The river running through Belfast was filled with debris from all the upper country, and was quite a sight to see.”

A local hangabout identified in Sullivan’s autobiography as “Lauk” was swept away while attempting to navigate through the falls or over a dam where “his body was found some miles below.” This didn’t stop John L. from plunging one day into the raging rapids after one of Muldoon’s English Mastiffs and colliding with a large rock beneath the surface. The direct point of impact was one of his shins which were spiked by Charlie Mitchell and had never healed properly.

Nellie’s query as to whether he liked prizefighting elicited another candid confession from Sullivan: “I don’t,” he replied. “I did once, or rather I was fond of traveling about and the excitement of the crowds.” He then tells Bly “this is my last fight.” Pressed for an explanation, John L. responds, “Well, I am tired and I want to settle down. I am getting old.” By his own accounting, he made somewhere around $600,000 over his career but admitted, “I have been a fool and today I have nothing. It came easy and went easy.” But not all of Sullivan’s earnings were casually pissed away on whiskey and women. “I have provided well for my father and mother, and they are in very comfortable circumstances.” Asked how he might adjust to retirement, Sullivan muses, “I think I shall spend the rest of my life as a hotel proprietor.”

Nellie remarks to John L. that “Your hands look very soft and small for a fighter.” Sullivan, seemingly charmed by this observation, replies, “My friends tell me they look like hams.” Before detailing the composition of rock salt, white wine, and vinegar with which he scrubs his face and hands, he insists that Bly feel his arm, a recommendation she is happy to comply with. “I tried to feel the muscle, but it was like a rock,” she would write. “With both my hands, I tried to span it, but I couldn’t. Meanwhile, the great fellow sat there watching me with a most boyish expression of amusement.”

Having outlined for Nellie the disparity between fights conducted under London Prize Ring Rules as opposed to those endorsed by the Marquis of Queensbury, Sullivan delights in the fact that he is permitted to strike “any place above the belt that I get a chance” and brushes aside Bly’s question regarding concern for his adversary by stating matter-of-factly, “I don’t think about it. I never feel sorry until the fight is over.”

Suppertime arrives and, rather than being asked to please excuse herself, Nellie is extended the courtesy of an invitation to break bread with them. Once again, her recall and attention to detail in relating the contrast between her roughhewn hosts and their surprisingly civilized habitat are astonishing:

“At a nearer view the dining room did not lose any of its prettiness and the daintiness of everything-the artistic surroundings, the noiseless and efficient colored waiter, the open windows on both sides giving pretty views of the green lawns and shady trees; the canary birds swelling their yellow throats occasionally with sweet little thrills, the green parrot climbing up its brass cage and talking about crackers, the white table linen and beautiful dishes, down to the large bunch of fragrant lilacs and another beautifully shaped and colored wild flowers, separated by a slipper filled with velvety pansies-was all entirely foreign to any idea I had ever conceived of prizefighters and their surroundings.”

Muldoon and Sullivan then escort Nellie along a guided tour of Champion Rest which takes them through the horse stalls and the barn house converted into a gymnasium and concludes in the downstairs den where she mentally catalogs the “photographs of well-known people and among them several of Modjeska, with whom Mr. Muldoon at one time traveled.” Helena Modjeska was a glamorous Polish actress who was so smitten with Muldoon upon first sight that she personally arranged for him to undertake the role of Charles the Wrestler to her Rosalind (with Maurice Barrymore, a former boxer and patriarch of the famous family of actors, as Orlando) in an 1883 production of the Shakespearean comedy As You Like It.

Bly additionally recorded, “There are also a number of photographs of Mr. Muldoon in positions assumed in posing as Greek statues. On a corner table are albums filled with photographs of prominent athletes, and scrapbooks containing hundreds of notices of Champion Muldoon’s athletic conquests. Then there are a number of well-bound standard works and the photographs of Mr. Muldoon’s favorite authors-Bryant, Longfellow and, I believe, Shakespeare.”

Referring to the personal expenditures involved in running a training headquarters, Muldoon indicates to Nellie that “I make no money by this.” His assertion conflicts with the less philanthropic version of the story given by Donald Barr Chidsey in John the Great wherein Sullivan’s manager Jimmy Wakely and Charley Johnston, a restaurant owner who was Sullivan’s main money man, jointly offer Muldoon $10,000 to take the unhealthy and uncouth John L. up to his sleepy little village of Belfast and somehow whip him into shape for the Kilrain fight. As told by Chidsey, Muldoon not only consented but said he would accept payment only if Sullivan were victorious. Pertaining especially to a larger-than-life public figure like John L. Sullivan, contemporary readings of antiquated biographies are entertaining but need to be taken with the requisite grain of salt.

Before parting ways, John L. confidentially discloses to Nellie, “You are the first woman who ever interviewed me. And I have given you more than I ever gave any reporter in my life.” What Nellie Bly gave back was an articulate and richly detailed story which would prop open for women the previously blockaded door into sports writing (boxing, specifically) through which Djuna Barnes would follow soon after.

Hailing from the ominously-named New York town of Storm King Mountain (which sounds like something out of Tolkien), Barnes would unleash throughout her 90 years on earth a journalistic tempest with such quirky and controversial Jazz Age works as The Book of Repulsive Women and Ladies Almanack as well as her celebrated 1936 novel Nightwood. Djuna filed a stunningly-composed report for Nellie’s former employer The New York World in 1914 headlined My Sisters and I at a New York Prizefight after attending an evening of bouts in Far Rockaway and followed up with exclusives entitled Jess Willard Says Girls Will Be Boxing For a Living Soon and Jack Dempsey Welcomes Women Fans, both based on private interviews with the current heavyweight champions.   

Enter Margery Miller who, reading The Ring magazine while the other kids in Springfield, Vermont were probably preoccupied by comic strips, grew up a boxing fan just like her father with whom she traveled to Yankee Stadium in 1938 to witness Joe Louis historically avenge his prior loss to Max Schmeling. So enamored was she with ‘The Brown Bomber’ that Louis was chosen as the subject of Margery’s senior year thesis at Massachusetts’ Wellesley College. Her paper was submitted to A.A. Wyn and accepted for publication by Current Books in 1945 as Joe Louis: American before she had even graduated, making Margery’s volume one of the earliest Louis biographies. Miller’s book was favorably reviewed by Ring magazine founder and editor Nat Fleischer (to whom it was dedicated) and Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have stayed up half the night reading it.

Nicknamed ‘Cauliflower’ by her college classmates and having once described her physical stature to an enquiring reporter as “a flyweight,” Margery was subsequently brought in on the ground floor as a staff writer for Sports Illustrated, producing for the fledgling publication’s introductory issue its very first boxing article, a short feature on Rocky Marciano.

Who can forget, in today’s Trumped-up culture with its ridiculous efforts to define and validate “locker room talk”, Mike Tyson’s 2002 on-camera conversation with Max Kellerman which became infamous for his bizarre and disturbing comment to a female reporter who dared break in with a question that “I normally don’t do interviews with women unless I fornicate with them. So, you shouldn’t talk anymore unless you want to…you know.” The chivalrous Joe Louis had a very different attitude toward the matter, relaying an open invitation to be conveyed to Margery after their first encounter: “You tell Miss Miller that if she will call me in advance, I’ll be sure to be wearing my terry cloth robe and she can come back anytime.”

Meandering leisurely through the ensuing decades up to the present moment affords one the opportunity to stop occasionally and sufficiently acknowledge the contributions to pugilistic literature made by the likes of Bev Will, Joyce Carol Oates (even if she scoffs at women’s boxing), Katherine Dunn, Kasia Boddy, Kate Sekules, Mischa Merz, Anna Freeman, Malissa Smith, Sarah Deming, and former professional fighter turned WBAN (Women’s Boxing Archive Network) administrator Sue Fox. Covering from a variety of angles and bringing fresh perspectives to the sport are ringside photographers Mary Ann Lurie Owen and Rebecca Weiss, documentarians Katya Bankowsky, Jill Morley, and Sue Jaye Johnson in addition to television analysts Dana Jacobson, Marysol Castro, and Jordan Hardy to name a few. And then there are the memoirs written by female boxers Jane Couch, Mary Kom, Laila Ali, Katie Taylor, and Nicola Adams with, I can safely assume, many more to follow.

Ruminating on what was commonly referred to during her era as “the manly art”, even Nellie Bly seems to have been inclined toward the view that females were somehow genetically precluded from participating in rough stuff. “I have often thought that the sparring instinct is inborn-in everything-except women and flowers,” she wrote in A Visit with John L. Sullivan. “Almost as soon as a boy learns to walk, he learns to jump into position of defense and double up his fists.” These thoughts seem curious emanating from a progressive-minded woman whose body could hardly contain the bold and adventurous spirit which led her Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, her nearly 25,000-mile journey besting Jules Verne’s optimistically make-believe contrivance by eight days.

Almost a full century later, Joyce Carol Oates advanced these views (or dragged them further backward, if you will) when she wrote, “Raw aggression is thought to be the peculiar province of men, as nurturing is the province of women. The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously-she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous.”

If women’s boxing is considered a “niche sport” today (if not cartoonish or “monstrous”), it existed in the 19th Century on the outermost fringes of prizefighting, generally disregarded as a brutish pastime as it was. Yet exist it did. Two prominent female fighters of the day were Hattie Stewart and Hattie Leslie who were not only identifiable by their shared first name but a common moniker–‘The Female John L. Sullivan’.

In 2014, Hattie, Hattie and Nellie were inducted into the Bareknuckle Boxing Hall of Fame which resides conveniently within the refurbished barns at Champion Rest in Belfast. Its former occupant William Muldoon was enshrined in the BKBHOF’s inaugural Class of 2009 along with his one-time problem child, the ‘Boston Strong Boy’ John L. Sullivan.

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