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by Bob Bryla


When most Americans think of West Point, they naturally think of the prestigious United States Army facility that trains future military leaders. When a wrestling enthusiast hears the term ‘West Point’, he or she is more likely to envision the image of Tom Jenkins, one of this year's inductees. From 1905 until 1942, Jenkins served as the wrestling and boxing instructor at that military academy, following his appointment to that position by President Teddy Roosevelt. The ‘Rough Rider’ once stated, “If I wasn't President of the United States, I would like to be George   Hackenschmidt.”  Coincidentally, Hackenschmidt was the man who defeated Jenkins for the world title in 1905 at Madison Square Garden. 

Tom’s father and his second wife were both from Wales, and they came to Ohio to settle, after the four youngest of their six children had died while the family was residing in Britain. After moving to America, they had two sons, one being the future International Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee, who was born on August 3, 1872 in Bedford, a suburb of Cleveland. Tom’s father had lost his first wife and all of their children to the 1845 Dutch Potato Famine.

Tom Jenkins’ venture on Earth was colorful and challenging, both as a child and as an adult. When he was 8 years old, Tom and several other children attempted to dry some wet gunpowder that they found on the day after the 1881 Fourth of July 4th celebrations. Unfortunately, that explosive resided in a two-foot-long iron cannon, and the boys decided that lighting a fire underneath the cannon would accomplish their objective. They may have dried the gunpowder, but the cannon exploded, blinding Tom in the right eye while leaving him with only partial vision in the left eye. He also suffered other face, neck and chest injuries. His doctor confined him to a dark room for the better part of a year, and further recommended that Tom stop his formal education for fear that reading would further damage the remaining vision in his left eye.

Upon healing, Tom later described himself as becoming ‘Wild Tom’ by causing enough mischief to have him arrested more than a half-dozen times for his pranks and thievery on the streets of Cleveland. Jenkins said that one arrest was due to him helping to throw a policeman into a swamp. Without the ability to read or write, Tom started work at the American Wire & Steel Mill in Newburg, Ohio. When we look at photographs of Jenkins now, he appears to have a physique that would make current natural bodybuilders envious. However, Tom's muscularity was not forged through Eugen Sandow’s physical culture routines, but rather was developed by the vigorous activities involved in making steel. He would routinely work up to 14-hour days, by helping to carry hot 100-pound steel ingots. This work required not only strength but also balance and dexterity to avoid accidental physical injury. 

He had no formal wrestling training prior to his first match. The 18-year-old’s grappling debut took place at a company event because one wrestler did not show up for his scheduled match. Jenkins' fellow steel workers felt that Tom's strength would allow him to make a credible showing against his first opponent, a pro-wrestler named Al Wood or Al Woods, depending on the source. Subsequently, he received a year of thrice weekly wrestling lessons with Luke Lamb, a Cleveland trainer. These classes were provided by the mill’s manager, George Patton, not to be confused with Tom’s later West Point cadet, the future General George Patton.

After his initial bout, Tom continued to work long days at the foundry but took wrestling matches as well. In 1893, the 20-year-old Jenkins left his factory job to pursue wrestling as a full-time career. Tom is quoted as saying that the callouses that he developed by carrying steel were used to lacerate and abrade his opponent’s skin. The ‘strangle hold’ was a punishing maneuver that Jenkins utilized on his opponents, at least when it wasn’t banned for its brutality. During his mat career, Tom would remove his glass eye prior to his bouts, thus surprising fans who may have been unaware of his lack of eyesight on the right side. Having no vision in the right eye and only partial vision in the left eye would be a challenge to obtaining athletic superiority in multiple sports that few could overcome, but Jenkins accomplished that near-miracle feat.

Tom married Anne Lavinia Gray in 1898, and they eventually had two daughters, Edith and Lavinia. Early in his career, Tom’s illiteracy caused him to be financially victimized by his managers. Fortunately, with his wife’s help, he ultimately acquired an honest handler named Harry Pollock. Alternate sources state that is manager from 1895 onward was George Tuohey. Jenkins may have been the only West Point instructor who could neither read nor write at the time of his appointment, but Anne helped him overcome that impediment when he needed those abilities to fulfill his job obligations. From 1912 to 1943, Tom had a second job as the boxing and wrestling instructor at the New York Military Academy in Cornwall-OnHudson, which is five miles from West Point.

By 1902, he was making sports page headlines.


The following Buffalo Courier quote from February 15, 1902 is a taste of the admiration Tom received from contemporary sportswriters: “Clevelander, the American Champion, Wins From Jim Parr, English Champion, in Two Straight Falls…. Tom Jenkins won the world’s championship at catch-as-catch-can wrestling in Convention Hall last night by defeating Jim Parr, champion of England…. The contest was the greatest ever seen in this part of America.” While the Buffalo newspaper called this the world’s championship, the Minnesota St. Paul Globe termed it the ‘International Championship’. 

While Jenkins had rivalries with the top wrestlers of his era, including Dan McLeod, George Hackenschmidt, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Ernst Roeber among others, his nine matches with the venerable Frank Gotch will likely be the most memorable. Tom’s first of nine tussles with Gotch was a private 1900 bou