When Nellie Bly met the Great John L.

One of the hard parts of writing The Boxing Kings was making cuts, especially when they involved removing interesting anecdotes and stories. A story I took out of chapter 1 involves the day when Nellie Bly sat down to interview John L. Sullivan. Their conversation was recorded for posterity.

In May 1889, heavyweight champion Sullivan was in Belfast, in western New York, training for his fight to the finish with Jake Kilrain, which would be held in early July. (Sullivan would prevail after 75 rounds and more than two hours of fighting.) Nellie Bly was by then a famously intrepid young reporter who had caused a sensation with her exposé of sadistic treatment in a New York City mental asylum. Later in 1889, Bly would enter her name indelibly into American culture with her greatest escapade: crossing the globe in 72 days (filing dispatches all the while), thus trumping the fictional Phileas Fogg, hero of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. But while Bly was undoubtedly a headline-seeker, she was also a skillful journalist, and she would prove it when she came up to Belfast to interview Sullivan. She put direct questions to John L. and got revealing answers.

Bly visited Sullivan at his trainer William Muldoon’s home, known as Champion Rest, the beauty and tranquility of which surprised her, being "entirely foreign to any idea I had ever conceived of prize-fighters and their surroundings." Bly was also surprised by John L. Though she noted his enormous shoulders, she found Sullivan himself somewhat shy, twisting a light cloth cap in his hands as he spoke "in a very boyish but not ungraceful manner." Sullivan was apparently disarmed by the novelty of this attractive, fearless young woman asking him whatever she wished.

“Your hands look very soft and small for a fighter,” Bly observed.

“Do they? My friends tell me they look like hams.” John L. smiled. He might not have responded so engagingly had a male journalist made that remark. He asked Bly to feel his arm and made a muscle. She could not get both her hands around it.

Bly watched Sullivan pound a “Rugby football,” a precursor to today's heavy bag, “in a manner which foretells hard times for Kilrain’s head.” She asked him about his diet and physical routine, and about whether he bathed in warm or cold water (warm water, Sullivan said; cold water chills the blood). Did he like training? Sullivan: “It’s the worst thing going. A fellow would rather fight twelve dozen times than train once, but it’s got to be done.”

Did he like fighting? “I don’t. Of course I did once. . . .  This is my last fight.”

Did he feel badly, hitting and hurting other men? “I don’t think about it. . . .  I never feel sorry until the fight is over.”

How about getting hit himself? “I only want a chance to hit back.”

How much money had he made fighting? Bly asked. Maybe half a million, Sullivan said, much of which he’d squandered being a “fool”—but he had provided for his parents.

As Bly moved to leave, Sullivan told her: “You are the first woman who ever interviewed me, and I have given you more than I ever gave any reporter in my life. They generally manufacture things and credit them to me.” Then, as if remembering his reputation for being “always on the level,” he added: “Although some are mighty good fellows.”

"If John L. Sullivan isn't able to whip any pugilist in the world I would like to see the man who is," Bly would write. Waiting for her carriage to depart, Bly shook hands with the champion and wished him luck in the big fight, and she ended her dispatch: “I believe he will have it, too, don’t you?” 

And thus ended the meeting of two of nineteenth-century America’s most self-willed characters.


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