Alice Blue Gown and the man who shook the hand of John L. Sullivan

I heard a story told, perhaps apocryphal, that at a dinner party Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, asked each person at the table to recount an encounter with some historical event or character within two generations of the present. She said “She wished to show how people are connected to well known events in history.”

alice-roosevelt-600x350 Alice Roosevelt about 1900

Her story illustrated the basic truth of the proposition. She said that an old gardener employed on her family’s estate “Oyster Bay” had been a rifleman in the Continental army and had rowed George Washington across the Delaware river to attack the Hessians in Trenton New Jersey on December 26, 1776. Her father knew the man when he was a youth and the old man recounted the tale of that cold and stormy night. So here you have a quite ordinary man participating in a historic event which Alice said went to prove her point.

In a personal example, one of my closest friends father was the roommate of Lt. Gerald R. Ford,  the future president. They served together on the carrier Monterey in the Pacific during WWII.

My grandfather Jack Shannon was raised in Arroyo Grande. As a teenager he ran away from home several times, finally making good his escape when he was 17. The stories he told of his journey across the country, riding the rails, working a cattle boat from New Orleans to Key West and his adventures as a roustabout in the circus delighted us kids when we were little. He could tell a great story too. Never having gone to high school, which was common for boys in the 1890’s and footloose as could be, he finally made it out of Arroyo Grande, taking the train across the country to New York city.


Jack Shannon at 18.

Both his mother and father’s family had relatives to introduce him to city life. This was in 1900 and New York was a rip roaring place, particularly to a boy from rural Arroyo Grande. At home, the streets weren’t paved, there were no street lights as electricity had not yet made its way here. Imagine how dark it was at night. The big city held wonders for a country boy that perhaps he couldn’t have imagined. That year the largest city in america had a population of over 3.4 million. Arroyo Grande township which included Nipomo to the Santa Maria river and Pismo, Halcyon and Oceano was just 3,319, why in New York entire tenements held more people than that.

ag 1900  bowery 1900

Arroyo Grande and The Bowery, New York, 1900

“The Gilded Age” it was called after a book by Mark Twain which satirized the period as a time of abject poverty gilded with a thin veneer of gold. New York. The majority of laborers families lived in tenements. Sections of the city were noted by the dominance of immigrant groups. Hells Kitchen on the lower west side and the old five points area of Manhattan where gangs such as the Bowery Boys, Whyo’s, and Five Points gang still ruled. Both heavily immigrant Irish. Upon arriving in New York City, most immigrants found themselves moving into the Lower East Side of the city. Most notably the East Village, Astor Place, Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), Alphabet City, the Five Points, Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Bowery. These neighborhoods were crammed together in the area bordered by Fourteenth Street on the north, Broadway and Pearl Street to the west, Fulton Street to the south, and the East River to the east. How different than Arroyo Grande could you get. Part of lower Manhattan was called the “Tenderloin” after a comment  by New York Police Department Captain Alexander S. “Clubber” Williams, who  gave the area its nickname in 1876, when he was transferred to a police precinct in the heart of “Hells hundred acres.”  Referring to the increased amount of bribes he would receive for police protection of both legitimate and illegitimate businesses there – especially the many brothels – Williams said, “Boys, I’ve been having the chuck steak ever since I’ve been on the force, and now I’m going to have a wee bit of the tenderloin.”

The name became a generic term for a red-light district in an American city; San Francisco, California is among the other cities having a well-known “Tenderloin District”.

In mid-town the mansions of the rich were built cheek by jowl along fifth avenue. The John D Rockefeller’s, J P Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, Jay Gould and the Cornelius Vanderbilts had enormous piles of stone along the exclusive area known then as “millionaires row.”

vanderbilt mansion

The Cornelius Vanderbilt home 5th Avenue and 72nd St, New York

My grandfather first took classes and then worked as a trainer at the MacLevy gymnasium on Henry St,  Brooklyn Heights in New York. The gymnasium was located in the old Saint George hotel, at the time advertised as the largest hotel in the world. Professor Levy as he called himself almost single-handedly invented the physical fitness culture as we know it today. He invented the first exercise machines and marketed them to the public. His rowing machines are still sold and the Mac Levy company survives today as a manufacturer of gymnasium equipment. At the time my grandfather worked there he had three locations, one in Manhattan, one on Long Islands north shore and the Saint George.

The hotel had a huge heated salt water pool in the basement. Mac Levy invented a machine to aid in teaching swimming which, at the time, was not a common skill for city people. Several ferry and ship disasters in the New York area were exacerbated because hundreds of people drowned who couldn’t swim or otherwise they might have been saved. Classes were always full.

Hotel St. George - Clark Street - Brooklyn New York

Hotel St. George – Clark Street – Brooklyn New York

Numbers of the wealthy and influential flocked to the gymnasium to learn the latest techniques in good physical and dietary health. Some of the most famous thespians, athletes and business owners of the day were customers. Consider that Charles Delmonico owner of Delmonico’s restaurant, at the time considered the best in New York and the place to be seen was a customer. He credited Mac Levy with saving his life. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer who owned the most influential newspapers in the world were habitués.


Hearst and Pulitzer

Former holder of both the world boxing championship and the last bare knuckle champion John L. Sullivan, “The Boston Strong Boy,” who had famously said “I can lick any son-of a-bitch in the house,” and proved it too, was often in the gym. Lillian Russell, the most famous actress of her day and her ” friend” Diamond Jim Brady were customers.

              Sullivan Somerville Library                 russell

                          John L Sullivan  and   Lillian Russell

By 1903, Jack was working at the gymnasium in Manhattan. He was an instructor in gymnastics and even as an old man could still do one handed pull and push ups. Jack sent these two pictures below to my future grandmother Annie Gray in Arroyo Grande who was still in high school and she pasted them in her memories book.


Jack was held in high esteem by Mac Levy and was featured in a book published by the entrepreneur in 1904.


By 1905 he was back on the west coast in San Francisco, living across the bay from my grandmother who was attending the University of California at Berkeley. They married in 1908, had two boys and later on three grand children who were always greeted by my grandfather with the phrase “there are my blessed boys” and you were invited to “shake the hand of the man who shook the hand of John L Sullivan.” No small thing when you consider that at the end of the 19th century John L was easily the most famous sportsman in America.  My grandfather loved to tell stories and this was one of his favorites and we loved it.  A family’s history is passed down the generations in oral form as it has always been. It’s the thread that connects John L Sullivan to me and mine.

john l

    John L Sullivan the last bare knuckle champion of the world.


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