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Prohibition: A Case Study of Progressive Reform
John L. Sullivan, The Boston Strong Boy

The following excerpt from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 is from a document placed in the WPA oral history interviews by writer Jerome Power. Power had been a young newspaperman in 1911 when he had the good fortune to interview former heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan. What does Power report about Sullivan's attitude toward drinking? What do you make of Power's reluctance to report on what clearly was very important to Sullivan?

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. . . John L. Sullivan, former heavyweight champion of the world, was 53 years old when I interviewed him, as a young newspaper reporter, in the summer of 1911 while he was stopping at the Claypool Hotel in Indianapolis, Indiana. He shook my hand on that occasion. Without meaning in the least to hurt me, he gave my carpals such a sardining that they still ache at the memory, after all these years. He was that strong, even at 53. . . .

I took a good look at him and saw what seemed like an unusually big Irish policeman, off duty in plain clothes. That was the first impression. Further inspection, however, showed me more - a great deal more. To tell the truth, he did not look as big as my knowledge of his ring exploits had led me to expect. He was tall, but his great shoulders and the paunch which he had developed at 53 prevented this from being apparent at first glance. He weighed, I should judge, well over 200 pounds, but having seen him walk across the room, on the balls of his feet, with all the lightness and grace of cat, I had trouble in convincing myself that even this was true.

He had a well-shaped head - not the "bullet" type of many pugilists - and dark hair which was turning gray. He carried this head at a proud angle which gave emphasis to his prominent jaw. His face was somewhat florid, so that even without knowing who he was, on would have said "Here is a man who has been a hard drinker." He had a fine mustache in the old tradition. Starting below his nostrils this mustache, a few shades grayer than his hair, extended in leisurely fashion over his lip and all the way across his face on both sides. The under edges were a trifle ragged and the curl at the ends was upward. He had a custom of snorting sometimes, as he was about to say something, after which he would stroke his mustache, first on one side, then on the other. I got the idea that this stroking business acted as a sedative on him. . . .

He talked with a perceptible, but not pronounced, brogue. When he became excited, however, this brogue grow thicker. He made small errors in grammar, which stamped him as a man of little education, but remembering how brief his education really was, one had to admit that he talked remarkably well. . . .

"Well, there's nothing to fighting, " he opened up, "Just come out fast from your corner, hit the other fellow as hard as you can and hit him first. That's all there is to fighting."

He laughed, then at once grew serious.

"What I should like to talk about is something else. Whiskey! There's the only fighter that ever really licked old John L. Jim Corbett, according to the record, knocked me out in New Orleans in 1892, but he only gave the finishing touches to what whiskey had already done to me. If I had met Jim Corbett before whiskey got me I'd have killed him. I stopped drinking long ago, but of course, too late. Too late for old John L., but not too late for millions of boys who are starting out to follow the same road. I desire to use the years of life which remain to me to warn these boys, to turn them back. John L. Sullivan, champion of the world, could not lick whiskey. What gives any one of them the notion that he can."

I didn't wish to hear anything about temperance , but the famous scowl was in evidence and the red sparks about which I was telling you gleamed in the dark eyes. You would think twice about trying to stop John L. Sullivan, no matter what he was doing. I listened, therefore, while for the next twenty minutes, without a break, he paced up and down the room talking about whiskey. He talked with eloquence, too. Billy Sunday could have gotten ideas. He snorted and stroked his mustache. Once a small chair got in his way. He kicked it absently, without seeming to use much force, but the chair flew end over end all the way across the large room. When the torrent of words ended, I put my cards on the table.
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View the entire document from which this excerpt was taken from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this page.