Publish Date: 09/30/2021
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster
“I like to fight,” exclaimed Hattie Stewart, whose portrait graced a full page of the November 11, 1887 edition of the Police Gazette. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Stewart left little room for doubt from an early age that it was not her lot in life to be a wallflower or shrinking violet. “As a girl in school,” Hattie crowed, “I was always fighting with boys.”
Even if she was sketched in one newspaper account as being “built from a mould made for casting a man,” Stewart was said to have had a face that was “round and attractive” as well as “sincere” eyes and a “pleasant” speaking voice from which “the vernacular of the pugilist and sport sounded strange.”
Nevertheless, pugilism was Stewart’s business—and business was good. So much so that, by September 1890, she had little left to prove beyond issuing an ultimatum to her fistic contemporary Hattie Leslie, who had earned a significant measure of notoriety by defeating Alice Leary in an illegal prizefight on Navy Island near her hometown of Buffalo, New York that resulted in moral outrage and legal action.
Not only did Hattie Stewart and Hattie Leslie have a first name in common, the two women each laid claim to an identical fighting moniker. The one thing they would never share, as it would turn out, was the same ring at the same time. Thus, the dispute over who had the legitimate right to call herself the ‘Female John L. Sullivan’ forever remained an unsettled bit of business in the annals of boxing history.
Hattie Leslie returned to the theater circuit following her controversial 1888 bout with Alice Leary and the subsequent trial, both of which got her name in bold type in periodicals all around the country. Her act consisted of swinging the Indian clubs and giving her husband John a solid thumping in their vaudevillian sparring sessions which could in no way be categorized as baggy-pants farce.
“Three times she knocked me out in four minutes,” John had no problem admitting. “My nose has been galley-west times without number. Of course, she’s awful sorry afterward but that doesn’t help me.” A reporter sent to interview the couple before a performance at Brooklyn’s Grand Theatre posed what turned out to be a dumb question. “Do you like the life?” he innocently asked Hattie. “Watch me when I’m on,” she offered by way of terse response. After taking the stage later that evening, she proceeded to knock John silly, hitting him with an uppercut that the flabbergasted journalist swore “literally lifted her partner off his feet.”
Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve of 1889, Leslie found herself at the People’s Theater in Cincinnati to engage in a catch-as-catch-can wrestling match against Ethel Marks, the wife of a local “sporting man.” With a time limit of one hour, Leslie was tasked with throwing Marks four times or forfeiting $100, whereas Ethel would get $25 for each time she was able to put Hattie down. Song and dance man Paul Allen officiated the contest which he would ultimately award to Marks due to the fact that Leslie had successfully thrown Ethel only three times in sixty minutes. Marks had scored the match’s first fall inside of seven minutes with Hattie rallying for three in a row but unable to gain the upper hand for a fourth and decisive time before the clock expired.
The crowd was large, enthusiastic, and evidently eager for more. Hattie and Ethel would be back the very next Saturday to turn in an encore performance. During her stay in Cincinnati, Leslie was rudely accosted by some dimwit who was quite ignorant of who he was messing with until he found out the hard way. “It cost me $75 to pay for the plate glass window through which she threw him,” said her husband John. He concluded with a chuckle, “The dude has had panes in him ever since.”
The fact that Hattie Leslie was touting herself as the women’s world champion by virtue of her victory over Alice Leary, not to mention that she was being referred to as the ‘Female John L. Sullivan’ in the bargain, did not agree with the already disagreeable Hattie Stewart. Not one bit.
“I know John L. Sullivan well,” Hattie Stewart boasted, “and have had a friendly set-to with him with soft gloves.” One can well imagine that Stewart did a damn sight better than simply holding her own while locking horns with her male counterpart, taking into account that the five-foot-ten Hattie was spoken of as “the wielder of a pair of hefty hands that have rocked many a rival to slumber, both male and female.” She possessed “a wicked left and a vicious right,” one newspaper article reported, “and there are not many men in the country who have any desire to put on the gloves with her.”
Her German parents both of Pennsylvania Dutch stock, Stewart inherited her predilection toward athletics of the hardscrabble variety from her father, a member in good standing of the Turner Society—which promoted physical fitness and liberal politics above all else—where he was trained in the ways of wrestling, fencing, and club swinging. Hattie was welcome to attend the Turner Society meetings and it was there that she took up club swinging and fell in love with an instructor with whom she moved to Norfolk, Virginia after they had married to work together in a neighborhood gymnasium. She learned boxing from him and, in turn, spent three years instructing the Norfolk females on how to use their fists to fend for themselves. “Those Southern women are pretty tough too,” Stewart remarked. “They can put on the gloves with any man. All they care for is horse racing and sports.”
After working up a boxing act together, Hattie and her husband decided to leave the gym, if not Norfolk, and take their show on the road to variety theater stages across the country. “The act was something new to the public and any number of imitators sprang up,” professed Stewart. “Including Hattie Leslie.”
Their routine was a rousing success and the couple was invited back to Chicago’s Park Theatre every season for several consecutive years. Hattie was subsequently asked to join the athletic company run by Police Gazette publisher Richard K. Fox, wherein she participated in exhibitions alongside the esteemed likes of Jake Kilrain, Charley Mitchell, and Reddy Gallagher, to name a few.
During an 1885 stop in Houston, Stewart was challenged by Annie Lewis, a “female pug,” to use Hattie’s terminology, whom she dismissed as “another imitator of my act.” Well before they ever met, Lewis had gotten on Hattie’s bad side by claiming to be the “champion female boxer of the world.” Even so, Stewart first offered to spar with her for amusement’s sake. She admittedly had an ulterior motive, which was to “take the conceit out of her.” Annie, however, insisted on going ten rounds in a legitimate bout under Marquees of Queensbury rules with $200 at stake. Hattie was more than willing to oblige.
“After we had fought one minute of the second round I located her jaw with a swift right, and she took a brief trip to the milky way,” recalled Stewart of their fight at a local variety hall. “She was out for half an hour.” A rematch between Hattie and Annie in New Orleans also ended prematurely, only this time because the fight was halted not by the referee but by the sheriff, who put an immediate stop to the proceedings.
“Most of the women I meet in the ring are no good,” Stewart opined. “They won’t stand up and give the people the worth of their money. After one or two rounds, if they get a ‘straight’ in the head, they go off crying.” She was completely happy to square off against male opponents, but her husband was not in favor of the idea if only because of the no win scenario it presented whereby, as Hattie elaborated, “it is no credit to them if they knock me out.” On the other hand, if she were to emerge victorious, the audience was sure to cry foul, suspecting a contrived outcome.
Regardless, Stewart recalled beating “a big bruiser named Jones in Missouri” once, as well as having “fought several ‘draws’ with men.” One of those stalemates came opposite George LaBlanche, the ‘Fighting Marine’ who had been Hattie Leslie’s second for her unlawful 1888 fight with Alice Leary. There was no question that LaBlanche was worse for wear after he “ran afoul of a left hook in the fourth round,” according to Stewart, and having his eye closed by a thumb with which he may have come into contact accidentally. Then again, perhaps not. Her account of their scrap leaves one to ponder.
Prior to this, Stewart had been given a six-round decision over a “clever 133-pounder from Frisco” by the name of Jack Dempsey, not to be confused with either the future heavyweight champion or the ‘Nonpareil’ middleweight titleholder. To this list of fistic accomplishments, Hattie added, “I’ve had some unprofessional fights with men, too.”
There was the baggage handler named Kinney on the Pittsburgh & Cleveland Railroad who made the mistake of attempting to wrestle Stewart’s dog out of her arms when she refused to pay an extra fee for taking the Great Dane aboard. “I had to knock him down and lick him before he’d give up the dog,” said Hattie. She and her husband were both arrested and “lost one night’s work, but we didn’t have to pay a fine.”
There was also John Raynor, manager of the Coliseum in Kansas City who became a little too adamant that Hattie split a bottle of wine with his sporting friends who occupied a private box in his theater one evening. “He got saucy and I made him do a bit of ground tumbling,” Stewart later reflected. “I have seen John several times after that walloping I gave him, and we laughed over it.”
Additionally, there was Billy Manning who learned that Hattie was not a woman to be trifled with while negotiating articles of agreement for a fight between Stewart and his wife Rose in Hattie’s Chicago hotel room. I’m not sure whether Hattie ever did tussle with Rose Franklin, but her husband Billy took a beating for the both of them whatever the case may be. “We had an argument over the terms of the match, and I made a roughhouse finish by using Billy’s 158 pounds for a feather duster,” Stewart bragged. “I shot a right over on Bill’s jaw and finished him with a left on the other side of his face.” Hattie claimed, “I don’t like doing these things. But men must be decent, that’s all.”
The November 27, 1887 edition of the New York World, carried a brash challenge put to Hattie from an Alice Robinson out of Pittsburgh for a fight to the finish with each side putting up $1,000. Stewart promptly replied and heard nothing further on the matter. “I think she is bluffing. They say she is jealous of me because I was too familiar with her first husband,” Hattie stated. “That’s the way it is with these bluffers,” she continued. “They wait until I’m hundreds of miles away and then offer to fight me.”
Out of options for potential competitors by the following January, Stewart took matters into her own hands and issued an open challenge in the Buffalo Morning Express. “I will fight any woman in America, Europe, or Australia, to the finish, for $1,000 a side, with hard or soft gloves, at any place or time that she may select,” the declaration read. “Arrangements to be made and money to be deposited with Richard K. Fox of New York, or with the Buffalo Morning Express.”
There was one woman more than any other, very conspicuous by her silence, who Hattie Leslie wanted to get a piece of inside the ring. By September 1890, she had determined that enough was enough. “I have often challenged Miss Leslie,” groused Stewart, “but she worked the Corbett racket—fought with her tongue and in printer’s ink.”
The time for tough talk and cheap speculation had expired. This grudge, she vowed, needed to be reconciled. The stakes were to be $500 a side, the women’s world championship, and the unwritten entitlement to the distinction as the ‘Female John L. Sullivan.’
“I have seen the challenge to me from Hattie Stewart, stating that she would allow me $100 for expenses, but she has no money up,” wrote Hattie Leslie in response to the public provocation from her namesake. “Now, I will make an offer to Hattie Stewart that I will fight her, Police Gazette rules to govern, with gloves weighing not over two ounces, bare hands preferred, and I will give or take $200 for expenses. We can get police protection, and if Stewart wants to fight in San Diego, Cal., she will have to get the same. Now let Stewart put up her money with the Police Gazette, and I will cover it, and I will fight her three months after the articles are signed. This is no bluff. Signed, Hattie Leslie, Champion Female Pugilist (not boxer) of the World.”
Two full years would pass with both women going about their separate business rather than crossing paths and trading blows. Hattie Leslie had instead fought and defeated a female boxer from Brooklyn known as “Greggy” while in the midst of her theatrical ventures. In September 1892, Hattie was busily putting together a troupe of female athletes with whom she would embark on a tour of Europe when she was stricken with typhoid fever. Her condition declined rapidly throughout the course of the next week and Hattie would die in Milwaukee with her husband John at her bedside. She was just twenty-three years old.
Although the question of “Will the real Female John L. Sullivan please stand up?” was ultimately decided not by a knockout blow but by typhoid fever, Hattie Stewart was, nonetheless, the last woman standing. No competitor, it seemed, wanted any part of her. This sentiment was made abundantly clear, for example, by Minnie Besser, a prizefighter from New York upon whom the distinction of ladies middleweight champion had been bestowed.
“I am, however, anxious to win higher honors, and am willing to meet any woman in the world, except Hattie Stewart, for a purse and side bet,” said Minnie, who contrary to these statements, previously claimed to have fought to a draw with each Hattie, Stewart and Leslie. “That muscular lady, I admit, is too big for me,” she asserted as to Hattie Stewart. “Despite her size, she is quick as a flash with both hands and very spry on her legs. She is, in fact, the very best lady boxer I ever saw. Indeed, I think she could make almost any man I know of, save a few of the tip-toppers, hustle for a victory.”
“I am an advocate of boxing, and it has long been my ambition to set myself up in New York or some other big city as an instructor in physical deportment, with boxing as the feature,” a now forty year-old Hattie Stewart mused in 1898. “I can fence, swing clubs, and teach calisthenics, but boxing is my hobby.”
In a contemplative frame of mind at this stage of her life, Hattie continued by saying, “I have often been asked if boxing is too mannish for a woman. Not any more than riding a bicycle, playing golf or handball, or swinging clubs, and these are some of the athletic sports in which the up-to-date woman indulges.” With the Suffragette movement still five years away, Stewart seemed to be helping lay the philosophical groundwork. “Boxing is even more beneficial exercise to a woman than tennis, golf, or bicycle riding. It exercises a certain amount of self-reliance in the woman of today. The woman is becoming less dependent and more of a wage-earner every day.”
Reflecting on the legacy she hoped to leave behind, she offered this: “Who knows but what I, Hattie Stewart, may one day occupy the same position in the history of the female prize ring as Figg, Broughton and Cribb in the chronicles of the old London ring.”
Hattie Stewart would undoubtedly be happy to learn that, in 2014, she was among the first group of women to be acknowledged for their achievements by the Bareknuckle Boxing Hall of Fame. Located in Belfast, New York, the BKBHOF is housed within the same barn used by John L. Sullivan to train for his 1889 championship fight against Jake Kilrain, the last to be contested under rules of the London Prize Ring.
What she would have to say about sharing the honor with Hattie Leslie is anybody’s guess, and likely not fit to print.
A Female Pugilist: Hattie Stewart, The Thumper, Talks to a Reporter (St. Joseph Gazette-Herald, January 26, 1888)
Hattie Stewart, the Female Slugger (Livingston Enterprise, April 14, 1888)
Contest of Female Wrestlers (Chicago Tribune, December 29, 1889)
Will Wrestle Again (Cincinnati Enquirer, December 31, 1889)
Two Female Pugilists: Hattie Leslie Prefers to Knock Out Hattie Stewart With Bare Knuckles (Tacoma Ledger, September 24, 1890)
The Lady Who Scraps: An Interview with the Female John L. (Brooklyn Times-Union, November 17, 1891)
Hattie Leslie Dead (Buffalo Evening News, September 24, 1892)
A Female Pugilist: Mrs. Minnie B. Besser, Champion Lady Middleweight (Champaign County News, September 9, 1893)
Torrid Tales of Fight from Hattie Stewart (Buffalo Enquirer, October 26, 1898)