Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Upcoming "Strong Boy" Talks about John L. Sullivan


What better way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day than learning more about one of the country's first Irish-American heroes? I'll be telling the colorful tale of the hard-hitting, hard-drinking Gilded Age boxer John L. Sullivan at a number of Boston-area institutions this March. Among the scheduled dates are the following:

March 6, 6 PM: Boston Public Library
March 8, 9:30 AM: The Irish Ancestral Research Association (Boston)
March 12, 7 PM: Medford Public Library
March 16, 2:30 PM: Stevens Memorial Library (North Andover)
March 18, 7 PM: Falmouth Historical Society and Museums on the Green
March 19, 7 PM: Thomas Crane Public Library (Quincy)
March 27, 6:30 PM: South End Historical Society

Come on out, and you'll
  • Learn how Sullivan’s incredible career and oversized personality launched America’s modern sporting obsession
  • Travel back in time to the extravagant Gilded Age to witness the birth of America’s celebrity culture
  • Discover how Sullivan’s power and self-confidence transformed him into an idol for a generation of Irish-Americans emasculated in the wake of the horrific potato famine that gripped their homeland
  • Grab a ringside seat to Sullivan’s epic brawls, such as his 75-round bout with Jake Kilrain, and his battles outside the ring with the law, a troubled marriage, and raging alcoholism
  • Explore how Sullivan revolutionized boxing from outlawed bare-knuckle fighting into the gloved spectacle we know today
A full list of events can be found on the Strong Boy web site. I'll be bringing flat John L. in tow. He's bundled up for the winter weather and ready to go.

Hope to see you there!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

How John L. Sullivan Changed America


He was America’s first sports superstar. He was the gold standard of his sport for more than a decade. He was the first athlete to earn more than a million dollars. His rise from the working-class city streets epitomized the American Dream. He had a big ego, big mouth, and bigger appetites. He ate and drank with reckless abandon. He was loud and vulgar. His womanizing, drunken escapades, and constant police-blotter presence were godsends to a burgeoning newspaper industry.

He wasn’t Babe Ruth.

He was John L. Sullivan.

Nearly four decades before Ruth donned a baseball uniform, Sullivan ruled as heavyweight champion from 1882 to 1892. Born to Irish-American parents who fled the horrible potato famine that gnawed away at Ireland, the larger-than-life boxer rose from a working-class Boston neighborhood to become the most recognizable man in America.


Far from being a bygone, sepia-toned relic, Sullivan’s story is a familiar one. Everything we know of modern sports—the hype machine, the press coverage, the hero worship by fans, the pitfalls of celebrity, the endorsements, the greed and ungodly sums of money, the gambling, the intersection of show business and athletics, and the gossip—all appear in Sullivan’s tale. The man known as the “Boston Strong Boy” starred in theatrical productions, sought political office, owned his own bar, and shilled products for advertisers, activities that all seem commonplace for athletes today.

John L. Sullivan’s left his imprint on American culture in three significant ways:

1. John L. Sullivan was the first American sports hero.
If sports are America’s secular faith, Sullivan is not only among the pantheon of athletic gods, he is our Zeus. His decade-long reign coincided with the birth of American mass media, and his oversized personality gave birth to America’s celebrity obsession with athletes. Long before athletes’ private lives became fodder for TMZ, Deadspin, and ESPN, there was Sullivan’s dirty laundry being aired in Richard K. Fox’s National Police Gazette and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

2. John L. Sullivan was the first Irish-American idol.
The legendary spirit of the fighting Irish that was made flesh in Sullivan transformed him into a hero for tens of thousands of sons and daughters of the Emerald Isle who had felt emasculated in the wake of the Great Hunger. At a time when millions of Irish Americans sought respect in their new homeland, Sullivan earned it with his fists. His strength and self-confidence were elixirs for a people who had suffered from malignant shame after the famine, and it transformed him into an Irish-American idol. “Because he meant so much as a minority champion, he prefigured Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King and the many other athletes who became genuine heroes to the people they represented,” says illustrious sportswriter Frank Deford. “The Great John L. is as important a cultural figure as he was a sports idol.”

3. John L. Sullivan modernized the sport of boxing.
The last of the bare-knuckle champions and the first of the gloved title-holders, Sullivan was a transcendent figure in boxing history. By insisting on fighting with gloves under the newly developed Marquis of Queensberry Rules, he revolutionized the sport from barbaric, outlawed bare-knuckle fighting into the gloved spectacle we know today. “The Boston Strong Boy” pulled boxing from the back woods onto the front pages.

My latest book, Strong Boy, tells the story of the self-made man who personified the power and excesses of the Gilded Age. In vivid detail, the 368-page book offers readers ringside seats for Sullivan’s epic brawls, such as his 75-round bout against Jake Kilrain and his cross-country barnstorming tour in which he literally challenged all of America to a fight. Strong Boy also chronicles Sullivan’s battles outside the ring with a troubled marriage, wild weight and fitness fluctuations, and raging alcoholism. While he struggled with personal demons, his life story is ultimately a redemptive one.

Even those who aren't boxing fans will be entertained by Sullivan’s incredible exploits both inside and outside of the ring as they learn about America’s sports-obsessed culture, the seedy underbelly of Victorian society in the Gilded Age, and the rise of Irish America in the latter 1800s.

While Sullivan is referred to in some quarters as the “Babe Ruth of boxing,” Strong Boy readers will discover that in truth, Ruth was the “John L. Sullivan of baseball.”

Copies of Strong Boy, which will be available November 5, 2013, can be ordered online at IndieboundBarnes & Noble, and Amazon. For more on John L. Sullivan, visit the Strong Boy web site at www.strongboybook.com and keep watching this blog.

Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Charitable Irish Society Dinner on St. Patrick's Day


Charitable Irish Society
To Host Annual Dinner
March 17 at Fairmont Copley Plaza

Event To Note Irish Significance In American Labor Movement


Society Ranks As Oldest Irish Organization in The United States

Staged Boston's First St. Patrick's Day Celebration in 1737


BOSTON, MA -- The Charitable Irish Society, founded in Boston in 1737, will hold its annual St. Patrick's Day Dinner on Sunday, March 17, at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston.  Special guest speaker at the 6 p.m. dinner will be John Sweeney, President Emeritus of the AFL-CIO
The son of Irish immigrants and union members, John Sweeney is renowned for his life long dedication to improving the lives of American working people. At the dinner, he will address the importance of the Irish in the American labor movement and 100th anniversary of the Dublin General Strike.   Tickets for the dinner, priced at $175 are available by visiting http://www.charitableirishsociety.org/ or calling 617 330-1737.

Funds raised through the dinner will benefit the Society's Silver Key Fund which provides essential financial aid, housing assistance and employment opportunities to members of the local Irish community.

Ranking as the oldest Irish organization in North America, the Society is credited with having organized the first St. Patrick's Day celebration in Boston in 1737.

A MISSION OF SUPPORT
Since its inception, the Society has maintained a mission: to cultivate a spirit of unity and harmony among Irish residents and their descendants; to aid members of the local community by providing essential financial aid, housing assistance and employment opportunities; and to promote Irish culture in all its forms.  As such, the Society regularly partners with a host of local organizations including the Irish Immigration Center, the Irish Pastoral Centre, The Ancient Order of Hibernians, Cathedral Cares and Nativity Preparatory School.

Commenting on the Society's commitment to community involvement, Society President Paul McNamara said, "By having the ability to respond quickly to a wide range of emergency needs, The Society fills a critical niche that many other charitable groups are not able to meet.  We are proud to note that the Society is an entirely volunteer organization, with our Board working tirelessly to aid those who might otherwise have no means to receive vital assistance."

He added, "The motto attached to our original founding articles is 'With Good Will, Doing Service.' For the past 276 years, the Society has been dedicated to that responsibility -- providing service, whenever necessary, to Irish men and women, both here and in Ireland.

Projects through history have included providing relief during the Irish Potato Famine and supporting the Immigrant Aid Society of 1850.  More recent projects have involved offering financial assistance for critical medical care, assisting with handicapped accessible home conversions, and providing airfare assistance for travel to a parent's funeral in Ireland.

NEW CITIZENS
Since 1996, the Society has played an integral role in "Catch the Spirit-Citizenship," a program that encourages Irish residents to become United States citizens. Workshops covering all aspects of the application process are offered by volunteers from the Society, the Irish Immigration Center, and the Irish Pastoral Centre at sites in Brighton, Quincy, Dorchester and South Boston. The program has seen more than 1,000 citizenship applications processed and submitted to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, resulting in countless new American citizens.
SOCIETY HISTORY
The history of the Society is deeply rooted in the history of Boston and the United States of America.  Boston’s Irish community stretches back to the early 18th century when considerable numbers of Ulster Presbyterians came to New England in search of economic opportunity as well as the religious and political freedom which the Penal Laws denied to dissenters and Roman Catholics alike. 
Early Society Members
A variety of merchants, tradesmen, lawyers, teachers, and artisans from Ulster founded the Charitable Irish Society in 1737 with the express purpose of assisting fellow Irish immigrants in the traumatic process of settling in an unfamiliar city and country.

Noted among the Society's founders are:

• Teacher, painter and engraver Peter Pelham.  Pelham was stepfather to renowned Boston painter John Singleton Copley.  Copley, in turn, was the father of John Singleton Copley, 1st Baron Lyndhurst , three times the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain.

Peter Pelham was termed the "father of fine arts in New England."  In 1737 he applied to the Boston selectmen for "Liberty to open a school in this town for the education of children in reading, writing and needlepoint, dancing and the art of painting upon glass."

• Captain Patrick Tracey, from Newburyport, who operated a fleet of privateers during the Revolutionary War and captured 2000 British prisoners. His son Nathaniel was one of t
he chief financiers of the American Revolution His grandchildren included:  James Jackson, one of the founders of Mass General Hospital as well as its first physician; Charles Jackson, a member of theMassachusetts Supreme Court; and Patrick Tracey Jackson, who built the first complete cotton mill in Waltham.  (Patrick Jackson's father, Jonathan Jackson, a member of the Continental Congress in 1782, was one of the founders of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge.)
•  More recent notable members include President John F. Kennedy, andSenators Leverett
Saltonstall 
and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.



The Silver Key
The original articles of organization of the Society stated that officers would be elected annually and would include a "Keeper of the Silver Key" whose duty it was to acquaint natives of Ireland or those of Irish extraction with the organization and invite them to contribute.

The Silver Key was designed for the Society by renowned Boston silversmith Jacob Hurd in 1738.   Born and raised in Charlestown, Hurd worked from 1723 - 1755 in a silver shop located in Boston on Pudding Lane.

The Silver Key, now
 on loan to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, is made of sterling silver, measures 4.5 inches in length, and is engraved  with the inscription "Georgius II Rex" with an engraving of King George II in profile.  On its reverse side, the key is inscribed  "Hibernia 1738" and is engraved with a crowned harp, the arms of Ireland.  The MFA's permanent silver collection also includes a silver cup, salver, mug, covered bowl, teapots and a sword crafted by Jacob Hurd. 
The Archives 
The archives of the Society are housed in two distinguished collections at theMassachusetts Historical Society (covering the years 1737-1920) and at theBurns Library at Boston College (1920 - present).  Both collections are available to researchers.

For information on supporting or joining The Charitable Irish Society, visithttp://www.charitableirishsociety.org.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Fenway Park's First Game

After this weekend's brutal opening series in Detroit, Red Sox fans like myself are in need of some sort of escape. I'm going to retreat my good ol' safe place: history.

Now, in case you might not have heard, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of Fenway Park. (Oh, did you hear the Titanic went down 100 years ago, too?) Most of the commemoration is focused on celebrating the events of April 20, 1912, when the Red Sox took on the New York Highlanders (soon to be Yankees) in Fenway Park's first major league game.

But that was not the first time that the Red Sox took to Fenway's emerald diamond to play a game. Fenway Park was actually baptized as Boston's baseball cathedral 100 years ago today--on April 9, 1912. The weather was better suited for football rather than baseball when the Red Sox took on a squad from Harvard University in an exhibition game. Snow flurries danced in the air as the hard-core fans entered into a still-unfinished ballpark. Even though it was the first chance that many Boston "cranks" (as baseball fans were called in those days) had to check out the state-of-the-art baseball stadium, the weather was so raw that it helped to keep the attendance to only 3,000. According to the Boston Herald, the sparse crowd “rattled around like a squadron of lima beans in a number eight hat.”

The Red Sox had arrived back in Boston late the prior night from Cincinnati, but they still fielded most of their regulars.  At 3:30 p.m., third baseman and Harvard sophomore Dana Joseph Paine Wingate stepped up to the plate and into the history books as Fenway’s first batter. Red Sox pitcher Casey Hageman promptly fanned Wingate for the first of his nine strikeouts. In the bottom of the first inning, Boston second baseman Steve Yerkes followed with a single to right for Fenway’s first hit.

After setting down Harvard in order in the second inning, Hageman singled home shortstop Marty Krug to score Fenway’s first run. The Boston pitcher kept the Harvard batters at bay all afternoon. The Crimson managed just one hit before the game was called after Harvard batted in the seventh inning. The Red Sox won 2-0.
To commemorate the centennial, the Harvard baseball team will be taking batting practice at Fenway Park today. Not exactly the blowout planned for April 20. Once again the events of April 9 are being lost in the cobwebs of history.

If you're interested in reading more about Fenway Park's first pitch, check out my article about the game in Harvard Magazine. And hopefully, after washing my eyes out, I can get back to watching the Red Sox soon.

Friday, March 30, 2012

This Is Munich


Traveling the world with kids can be a challenge, but exposing children to different cultures and cityscapes is as easy as a trip to the local bookstore or library. As I wrote about in The Boston Globe last year, the enchanting children’s travelogues penned by the Czech author and illustrator M. Sasek, even though most date back to the 1960s, are fantastic introductions to some of the planet’s most enticing cities.

Publishing house Rizzoli has reissued most of Sasek’s titles for a new generation to enjoy, and it has just released an update to the 1961 book “This is Munich.” Like all of Sasek’s stylish books, “This is Munich” features playful ink-and-gouache illustrations of landmarks and quirky street life.

The book is a visual tour of the Bavarian capital that includes landmarks you might expect in a children’s book, such as the Glockenspiel, and those you might not, like the city’s famous beer hall, HofbrÀuhaus, complete with a beer maiden carrying eight huge steins by their handles. That’s part of what I think makes Sasek’s books so special. They don’t talk down to kids, yet Sasek’s subjects and colorful illustrations capture children’s imaginations.

There are plenty of charming drawings of the locals in traditional Bavarian clothing. There’s certainly no shortage of dirndl-clad ladies and men decked out in alpine hats and lederhosen. Kids can also get a flavor for daily life in Munich. The drawings of Oktoberfest are alive with colors, and the image of a train station filled with Sunday skiers dwarfed by a forest of rainbow skis is captivating.

Even adults are sure to learn something from Sasek’s book. Know what the Fohn is? Sasek informs us that it’s "a hot dry wind” that “causes physical discomfort and it has a depressing effect on the nervous system." As proof, he gives us an illustration of Frau Huber, a woman as green as the Wicked Witch of the West grabbing her temples.

“This is Munich” transports you not only to Bavaria, but also back in time to 1961. Illustrations include now-bygone images of horse-drawn carriages delivering ice to taverns and city workers sweeping roads with brooms and shovels.

Rizzoli’s “This is Munich” has 64 eye-catching pages and can be purchased through the Rizzoli web site. And if you do get inspired and make it to Munich, beware of the Fohn. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Join Boston's Truth Squad on April Fool's Day

Interested in learning more about your hometown and having some fun at the same time? On April Fool’s Day (April 1), join Boston by Foot for its brand new quiz and tour event, True Lies & False Facts: A Questionable Tour of Boston. Guides on the hour-long tour will tell some wild and amazing stories—some of which are true and other that are not. Your job will be to guess which is which. The answers will be revealed at the Bell in Hand Tavern, and those who guess the best will win a prize.

The tour starts at 2 PM at the Old North Church. No reservations are necessary. The cost is $20 for non-members and $5 for members of Boston by Foot. Cash bar and snacks will be provided at the end of the tour at the Bell in Hand Tavern. (Here’s a quick study question: The Bell in Hand was named for the occupation of its Colonial founder, Boston’s last town crier. True or false?)

This is the only time Boston By Foot tour guides will ever intentionally lie to you...unless, of course, they're telling the truth!

And if you want to learn more about the true stories behind the Hub, Boston by Foot opens up its annual lecture series and volunteer training program to all who want to increase their knowledge about the city. The first of five Saturday lectures is on April 7 at the brand-new building on Atlantic Wharf. This year’s program focuses on Boston’s architecture and the city’s world-class buildings and spaces. The cost is $35 a lecture or $95 for the entire series.

For more information, visit www.bostonbyfoot.org or call 617-367-2345.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Lady in Black and Tales of Confederate POWs at Fort Warren

Happy Halloween, everyone.

Salem hogs all the limelight when it comes to haunted happenings, but there are plenty of ghostly tales in Boston as well, including out on Georges Island. And this October 31 marks the 150th anniversary of a particularly noteworthy date in the history of Fort Warren, that granite garrison out on Georges Island.

It was on October 31, 1861, that the first Confederate prisoners of war arrived at Georges Island. Colonel Justin Dimick, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican-American War, was told to ready the fort for the arrival of 150 prisoners, so he was understandably shocked when the steamer docked at the island with more than 800 political and military prisoners. Fort Warren was overrun and ill-prepared, which resulted in food rations and prisoners sleeping on floors. A newspaper account from November 1861 reported that when the prisoners arrived at Fort Warren “pity rather than the hatred of the visitors was excited by the sad spectacle.”

What’s remarkable is how Bostonians responded to the plight of the enemy. They donated food, beds, and other supplies to assist the Confederate prisoners, hoping that proper treatment of the prisoners might inspire equal compassion toward Union prisoners of war. The story of Boston’s response to the crisis at Fort Warren and Dimick’s role in ensuring the prisoners were treated humanely is a remarkable one, and you can read more about it in an article I wrote for The New York Times Disunion blog.

While Dimick’s story is little known, if you were to ask anyone familiar with Georges Island what its most enduring story is, they would respond by telling you about “The Lady in Black.” Popularized by historian Edward Rowe Snow, this tale is now an essential part of the island’s fabric. According to the legend, the wife of a Confederate prisoner, dressed as a man and brandishing a pistol, snuck into the fort in an attempt to free her newlywed husband. She succeeded in reaching her husband’s cell, but as they tried to escape the dungeon, Union troops discovered their scheme and notified Colonel Dimick. When the colonel came upon the pair, the wife fired at Dimick, but her gun exploded and killed her husband instead.

 To make a bad day even worse, Dimick had no choice but to order the woman to hang as a spy. Before her execution, she requested that she be properly dressed in women’s clothing. She was given black robes and hanged from the gallows.

Now we never like to have history get in the way of a good ghost story, but there are no recorded instances of Confederate soldiers or Confederate sympathizers being executed at Fort Warren. However, from the Civil War through the Second World War, many a soldier stationed on the parapets claimed to see the frightening ghost of the Lady in Black, who is said to prowl through the fort’s many passageways to this day. As far back as January 1862, the Gloucester Telegraph reported that sentinels keeping midnight rounds saw a spiritual phenomena near some of the rebel graves. The soldiers reported spying the image of an old woman “vindictively frisking about the ruins of an old building from which she was ejected some time previous to her death.”

I’ve yet to have the pleasure of meeting the Lady in Black. But if any of you have seen her, let me know!