One of the most famous reporters of the late 19th century, Nellie Bly had a knack for cutting any subject down to size. She came by train to Belfast, New York, to take on the reigning heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan for The New York World. Below is the lengthy article she wrote upon her return to New York City.
Ms. Bly is part of the Honorary BKBHOF Inductee Class of 2014.
If John L. Sullivan isn’t able to whip any pugilist in the world, I would like to see the man who is. I went to Belfast NY to see him last week and I was surprised. Why? Well, I will tell you.
I have often thought that the sparring instinct is inborn – in everything – except women and flowers, of course. I have seen funny little spring roosters, without one feather’s sprout to crow about, fight like real men. And then the boys! Isn’t it funny how proud they are of their muscle and how quiet the boy is who hasn’t any? Almost as soon as a boy learns to walk, he learns to jump into position of defense and double up his fists.
We reached Belfast about 7:30 o’clock in the morning and were the only passengers for that place. Mr. William Muldoon’s house, where Mr. Sullivan is training, is in the prettiest part of the town and only a short distance from the hotel. Fearing that Mr. Sullivan would go out for a walk and that I would miss him, I went immediately to the Muldoon cottage.
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.
I rang the bell, and when a colored man came to answer, I sent my letter of introduction to Mr. Muldoon. A handsome young man, whose broad shoulders were neatly fitted with a gray corduroy coat, came into the room, holding a light gray cap in his hand. His face was youthful, his eyes blue, his expression pleasing, his smile brought two dimples to punctuate his rosy cheeks, his bearing was easy and most graceful, and this was the champion wrestler and athlete, William Muldoon.
“We have just returned from our two-mile walk,” he said, when I told him I had come to see Mr. Sullivan. “Mr. Sullivan is just being rubbed down. If you will excuse me one moment I will tell him.”
In a few moments Mr. Muldoon returned, followed by a man whom I would never have taken for the great and only Sullivan. He was a tall man, with enormous shoulders and wore dark trousers, a light cheviot coat and vest and slippers. 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.
“Miss Bly, Mr. Sullivan,” said Mr. Muldoon, and I looked into the great fighter’s dark, bright eyes as he bent his broad shoulders before me.
"Mr. Sullivan, I would like to shake hands with you,” I said, and he took my hand with a firm hearty grasp and with a hand that felt small and soft. Mr. Muldoon excused himself, and I was left to interview the Great John L.
“I came here to learn all about you, Mr. Sullivan, so will you please begin by telling me at what time you get up in the morning,” I said.
“Well, I get up about 6 o’clock and get rubbed down,” he began in a matter-of-fact way. “Then Muldoon and I walk and run a mile or a mile and a half away and then back. Just as soon as we get in I am given a showerbath and after being thoroughly rubbed down again, I put on an entire fresh outfit.
“What kind of clothing do you wear for your walk? Heavy?” I asked.
“Yes, I wear a heavy sweater and a suit of heavy corduroy buttoned tightly. I also wear gloves. After my walk I put on a fresh sweater so that I won’t take cold.”
“What’s a sweater,” I asked.
“I’ll show you," he said with a smile and, excusing himself, he went out. In a moment he returned with a garment in his hand. It was a very heavy knit garment, with long sleeves and a standing collar. It was all in one piece and, I imagine, weighed several pounds. “Well, what do you wear a sweater for and why do you take such violent walks,” I asked, my curiosity being satisfied as the strange “sweater”.
“I wear a sweater to make me warm and I walk to reduce my fat and to harden my muscles. Last Friday I lost six pounds and last Saturday I lost six and a half pounds. When I came here, I weighed 237 pounds and now I weight 218. Before I leave here I will weigh only 195 pounds.”
“Do you take a cold showerbath when your walk is finished?”
“No, never. I don’t believe in cold water. It chills the blood. I always have my showerbath of a medium temperature.”
“How are you rubbed down, then, as you term it?”
“I have two men give me a brisk rubbing with their hands. Then they rub me down with a mixture of ammonia, camphor, and alcohol.”
“What do you eat?”
“I eat nothing fattening. I have oatmeal for breakfast and meat and bread for dinner, and cold meat and stale bread for supper. I eat no sweets no potatoes. I used to smoke all the day, but since I came here, I haven’t seen a cigar. Occasionally Mr. Muldoon gives me a glass of ale, but it doesn’t average one a day"
“Then training is not very pleasant work?"
“It’s the worst thing going. A fellow would rather fight twelve dozen times than train once, but it’s got to be done,” and he leaned back in the easy chair with an air of weariness. “After breakfast I rest awhile,” he continued, “and then putting on our heaviest clothes again, we start out at 10:30 for our twelve-mile run and walk, which we do in two hours. We generally go across the fields to Mr. Muldoon’s farm because it is all uphill work and makes us warm. When we get back, I am rubbed down again and at one we have dinner. In the afternoon we wrestle, punch a bag, throw footballs, swing Indian clubs and dumbbells, practice the chest movement and such things until suppertime. It’s all right to be here when the sun is out, but after dark it’s the dreariest place I ever stuck. I wouldn’t live here if they gave me the whole country.”
The ‘Champion Rest,’ the name by which Mr. Muldoon’s home is known, is surrounded by two graveyards, a church, the priest’s home and a little cottage occupied by two old maids.
“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.”
“Do you like prizefighting?” I asked Mr. Sullivan, after he had laid his complaint about the singing cow before Mrs. Muldoon.
“I don’t,” he replied. “Of course, I did once, or rather I was fond of traveling about and the excitement of the crowds, but this is my last fight.”
“Well, I am tired and I want to settle down. I am getting old,” and he leaned back wearily.
“What is your age?”
“I was born the 15th of October, 1858. I began prizefighting when I was only nineteen years old. How did I start? Well, I had a match with a prize man who had never been downed, and I was the winner. This got me lots of notice, so I went through the country giving exhibitions. I have made plenty of money in my day, but I have been a food and today I have nothing. It came easy and went easy. I have provided well for my father and mother, and they are in very comfortable circumstances.”
“What will you do if you stop fighting?”
“If I win this fight, I will travel for a year giving sparring exhibitions and then I will settle down. I have always wanted to run a hotel in New York and if I am successful I think I shall spend the rest of my life as a hotel proprietor.”
“How much money have you made during your career as a prize fighter?”
“I have made $500,000 or $600,000 in boxing. I have made $125,000 from September 26, 1883 to May 26, 1884, when I traveled through the country offering $1,000 to anyone I couldn’t know out in four rounds, which takes twelve minutes.”
“How do you dress when you go in a prize ring?”
“I wear knee breeches, stocking and shoes and no shirt.”
“Why no shirt?”
“Because a man perspires so freely that if he wears a shirt he is liable to chill and a chill is always fatal in a prize ring. I took a chill when I fought Mitchell, but it didn’t last long.”
“What kind of shoes do you wear?”
“Regular spike shoes. They have three big spikes to prevent slipping.”
“How will you fight Kilrain, with or without gloves?”
“I will fight Kilrain according to the London prize-ring rules. That’s without gloves and allows wrestling and throwing a man down. We get a rest every thirty seconds. Under the Marquis or Queensberry rules we wear gloves, anything under eleven ounces. They give us three minutes to a round under the Queensberry, and when the three minutes are up you have to rest whether you could whip your man the next instant or not.”
“Your hands look very soft and small for a fighter.”
“Do they?” He held one out to me for inspection. “My friends tell me they look like hams,” and he laughed. “I wear number nine gloves.”
I examined his hand, he watching me with an amused expression. It looks a small hand to bear the record of so many “knockout” blows. The fingers were straight and shapely. The closely trimmed nails were a lovely oval and pink. The only apparent difference was the great thickness through.
“Feel my arm,” he said, with a bright smile, as he doubled it up. I tried to feel the muscle, but it was like a rock. 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.
“By the time I am ready to fight, there won’t be any fat on my hands or face. They will be as hard as a bone. Do I harden them? Certainly. If I didn’t I would have pieces knocked off of me. I have a mixture of rock salt and white wine and vinegar and several other ingredients which I wash my hands and face with.
“Do you hit a man on the face and neck and anywhere you can?” I asked.
“Certainly, any place above the belt that I get a chance,’ and he smiled.
“Don’t you hate to hit a man so?”
“I don’t think about it,” still smiling.
“When you see that you have hurt him, don’t you feel sorry?”
“I never feel sorry until the fight is over.”
“How do you feel when you get hit very hard?”
The dark, bright eyes glanced at me lazily and the deep, deep voice said with feeling: “I only want a chance to hit back.”
“Did you ever see a man killed in the ring?”
“No, I never did, and I only knew of one fellow who died in the ring, and that was Walker, who died in Philadelphia from neglect after the fight was over.”
Although I had my breakfast before reaching Mr. Muldoon’s cottage, I accepted his proposal to break bread with him and his guests. 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 friend to any idea I had ever conceived of prizefighters and their surroundings.
Yes, and they were all perfectly at ease and happy. At one end of the table sat Mrs. Muldoon and facing her was Mr. Muldoon. Next to Mrs. Muldoon sat my companion, then came myself and next Mr. Sullivan. On the opposite side were the assistant trainers, Mr. Barnitt, a well-bred scholarly-looking man, and Mr. Cleary, a smooth-faced, mischievous man who doesn’t look much past boyhood. Mr. Sullivan’s brother sat opposite Mr. Sullivan. And the wild flowers which graced the table were gathered by these great, strong men while taking their morning walk through the country.
About a mile from Champion Rest, his town home, is Mr. Muldoon’s beautiful farm of seventy acres, which is well stocked with fine cattle. In the rear of Champion Rest are the barn and the training quarters. On the first floor are three stalls, fitted out after the latest improved method, where Mr. Muldoon keeps his favorite horses. Everything is clean and pleasant as in a dwelling house.
In the next room, suspended from the ceiling is a Rugby football, which Mr. Sullivan pounds regularly every day in a manner which foretells hard times for Kilrain’s head. The big football with which they play ball daily is also kept here. It is enormous and so heavy that when Mr. Muldoon dropped it into my arms, I almost toppled over. Upstairs the floor is covered with a white wrestling pad, where the two champions wrestle every afternoon. In one corner is a collection of dumbbells, from medium weight to the heaviest and several sizes of Indian clubs. Fastened to one side of the wall is a chest expander, which also comes in for daily use.
Downstairs is Champion Muldoon’s den. Everything about it, as about the barn, is of a hardwood finish. There is no plaster nor paper anywhere. In one corner of the den is a glass case, where hang a fur-lined overcoat and several other garments. Along the top of the case is suspended a gold-headed cane. In the center of the room is a writing table, with everything ready for use. Along one side of the hall is a rattan lounge, at the foot of which is spread a yellow fur rug. The floor is neatly carpeted, and several rocking chairs prove that the den is for comfort.
The walls are covered with photographs of well-known people and among them several of Modjeska, with whole Mr. Muldoon at one time traveled. 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.
“I don’t make any money by this,” said Mr. Muldoon, in speaking about turning his home into training quarters, “but I was anxious to see Mr. Sullivan do justice to himself in this coming fight. It was a case of a fallen giant, so I thought to get him away from all bad influences and to get him in good trim. This is the healthiest place in the country and one of the difficult to reach – two desirable things. On the way here, we had a special car, but there were more people in our car than in any other. When we go to New Orleans we will keep our car locked and none but Mr. Sullivan’s backers and representatives of the press will be admitted. Mr. Sullivan is the most obedient man I ever saw. He hasn’t asked for a drink or a smoke since he came here and takes what I allow him without a murmur. It is a pleasure to train him.”
“Does Mr. Sullivan never get angry?” I asked
"If you would hear him and Mr. Barnitt sometimes, you would think they were going to eat one another,” said Mrs. Muldoon.
“When he does get angry he runs over the fields until his good humor returns,” said Mr. Barnitt, while Mr. Muldoon said that Mr. Sullivan was as docile as a lamb. They all spoke in praise of his strong will power and his childlike obedience.
“You are the first woman who ever interviewed me,” said Mr. Sullivan in the afternoon. “And I have given you more than I ever gave any reporter in my life. They generally manufacture things and credit them to me, although some a mighty good fellows.”
“When reporters act all right, we will give them all they want,” said Mr. Muldoon. “The other day a fresh reporter came here, and he thought because he was going to interview prizefighters, he would have to be tough, so he said, ‘Where’s old Sullivan?’ That queered him. We wouldn’t give him a line.”
“Yes, he came up to me first and said ‘Where’s old Sullivan?’” said Mr. Sullivan. “And I told him, ‘In the barn’. And he soon got put out of there for his toughness.
At suppertime Mr. Cleary had a great story to tell about his Irish bird trap. He had caught one robin, which Mrs. Muldoon released, and another had left his tail behind him. Then Mr. Barnitt and Mr. Sullivan’s brother told how they had put some feathers in the cage to cheat the bird trapper.
And then the carriage came to take us to the train, and after I bid them all goodbye I shook hands with John L. Sullivan and wished him success in the coming fight, and I believe he will have it too, don’t you?