TOM JENKINS: FROM WILD TO REVERED
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 bout in Iowa, as referenced by the Humboldt Republican newspaper on November 1, 1910. It was reported to have lasted 58 minutes, and Jenkins was considered to be the clear victor. However, we will never know if this match was a legitimate contest or a spirited workout. Farmer Burns, who had a number of matches with Jenkins, was present for this nonpublic session. Not counting the private encounter, Jenkins beat Gotch three times, and lost to Frank on five occasions, although Jenkins once commented, “I beat him the same number of times that he won from me.” Gotch is quoted as saying, “Jenkins was the strongest and roughest wrestler of his time.”
Tom wrestled in America, Canada, England and Scotland during his career. It has been written that he also wrestled in Australia, Belgium, France and Germany and Ireland but substantiation has not been found. Tom’s fame brought him commercial endorsements, including one for Miller Shoes and another for Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey, which he claimed was the only medicine he used during his title reign. Wrestlingdata.com lists Jenkins as having 39 wins and 20 losses in 67 verified matches between 1897 and 1913, but his complete record is currently unknown. His height was listed as either 5’ 10” or 5’11”, while his weight was reported to be 175 pounds when he started his mat career and 225 pounds in later years.
During Jenkins’ ring career, sanctioning bodies for title recognition were not highly developed, but became so decades later. Promoters would organize a world title tournament and declare the winner to be the world champion. Sometimes, sportswriters would declare a certain wrestler as a titleholder, and it was common for wrestlers to proclaim themselves a champion of some region or variety. Therefore, lineages are tough to establish. Tom is generally acknowledged to have held the American Heavyweight title on three occasions in 1901, 1903 and 1905. He was also considered to be the American Mixed Style Heavyweight champion in 1901 and 1905. As noted in the Buffalo article, Tom was considered to hold the world championship in 1902, but many feel that the first ‘real’ world champion was George Hackenschmidt after he defeated Jenkins on May 4, 1905 in a 2-out-of-3 falls match at Madison Square Garden.
Or so the story goes.
Wrestling historians frequently lament about the unreliability of contemporaneous newspaper and magazine accounts. Separating fact from fiction is an unusually difficult undertaking when one explores the mat game and its participants’ past. Ascertaining the actual story of Tom Jenkins’ life is no exception to this generalization. The Spring 1967 and Fall 1972 issues of Assembly, a West Point publication, contained information about Jenkins that raised a number of questions regarding commonly accepted beliefs about his life and career.
Firstly, did President Teddy Roosevelt really appoint Tom Jenkins to his West Point position? According to an Assembly piece, it was Colonel Herman Koehler, who “…. prevailed upon the already famous Tom Jenkins to become wrestling instructor and coach at West Point.” While Roosevelt was the United States Commander-in-Chief at the time of Jenkins’ hiring, whether or not he was specifically involved in that decision may be either by implication or by fabrication. The 1984 book, The Evolution of Physical Education at the United States Military Academy, mentions that records pertaining to President Roosevelt’s 1905 recommendation to increase athletics at the Academy have never surfaced. The same book also asserts that 1906 was the year in which Jenkins was hired. Given Roosevelt’s penchant for wrestling, boxing, judo and other martial arts, it may be a small leap of faith to credit him with Jenkins' appointment, but direct evidence appears to be lacking.
Secondly, did Tom really have no vision in his right eye and only partial vision in his left eye, as is so commonly described? One of the aforementioned Assembly articles stated that Tom actually had partial vision in his right eye and made no mention of his left eye. If that account was factual, the references of Tom removing his glass eye before his wrestling bouts would not be true. It is difficult to believe that after Tom’s 37 years at West Point. the description of his visual acuity would be so grossly inaccurate. The Assembly also stated that to supplement his wrestling instructor’s salary, Tom played pro-football for an Albany team on weekends, and he only gave it up when he was in his fifties. Is it conceivable that a person with only partial vision in one eye and no vision in the other eye could even be capable of playing profootball?
Jenkins also had a series of boxing matches, including a 1901 three-round gymnasium exhibition bout against former world champion James J. Corbett, who was trying to regain his title at that time. The Waterbury Democrat newspaper described that session as “quite lively”, with Jenkins taking at least one punch to the nose “that brought tears to the wrestler’s eyes.” Historian Mark Hewitt devoted a chapter in one of his books to Jenkins and his battles with prizefighters. Mark told me, “His match with Jack Munroe was supposed to be a wrestling match but turned into a no-holds-barred bare-knuckle fight rivaling anything seen in modern MMA.” Is it logical to assume that someone whose eyesight is limited to partial vision in just one eye would risk permanent total visual loss by engaging in vigorous contact sports such as boxing, football and wrestling? Also, if his steel foundry work was as dangerous as references have described, how could he have performed so well, without reported incidents, with such severely limited optical ability? Incidentally, the Assembly stated that his cadets commonly declared that Tom lost his vision from being gouged in the ring by a “vengeful” opponent, and that Tom would never correct them.
In regards to the alleged two-foot long iron cannon that caused his childhood injuries, the Assembly stated that his accidental injuries were the result of a homemade explosive gadget, thereby lessening the likelihood that it was a two-foot long iron cannon. Obviously, both types of devices could inflict substantial physical trauma, especially to a child. The discrepancy may be explained by the hyperbolic writing style frequently seen in newspapers and popular publications of that era.
Thirdly, we also need to consider the possibility that Tom was not as illiterate as is commonly portrayed. For example, if he was eight years old when his accident occurred in July, he likely completed the second grade, and would have had some reading and writing skills. On the other hand, not learning to write until later in life may have resulted in very few signed items of his for collectors to hunt, and we know this to be true. Only one signed photograph of Jenkins has surfaced, and the signature matches perfectly with his signature on a West point document. The handwriting is beautiful and seemingly uncharacteristic of someone who learned to write as an adult with only partial vision in one eye.
The Assembly mentioned a “legendary tale” of Tom wrestling a bear as a “publicity stunt”, but that “Tom never spoke of it.” A 1901 newspaper article recounts Tom’s confrontation with a wrestling bear, who was appearing in a circus at Madison Square Garden. The report states that Jenkins moved toward the bear in an attempt to apply his strangle hold, but the ungloved bear threw a right hook that barely missed Tom’s face. Tom then departed from the encounter stating, “The bear wins.” We can only speculate on why Tom avoided discussing such an interesting and potentially humorous experience. The Assembly also comically commented that Tom did not last long in his boxing role at West Point because, “He knocked out too many cadets.”
In the final analysis of Tom’s life, we are certain of one thing: Jenkins’ influence on his students and his country cannot be underestimated. Col. John Corley was a Company Commander in the Battle of the Bulge, as well as a former pupil of Jenkins. Corley is quoted as stating that his experience with his wrestling instructor helped prevent him from surrendering his battalion when the battle seemed unwinnable. General Omar Bradley, General George Patton, President Dwight Eisenhower, and hundreds of other military and community leaders were beneficiaries of the life lessons that Jenkins conveyed to his cadets. In June of 1967, a portrait of “Pop” Jenkins was unveiled at a special ceremony at West Point, with the intent that it be on permanent display near the gymnasium in which he taught for almost four decades. The artist employed for this work was Everett Kinstler, a renowned professional who painted the official portraits of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.
Tom and Anne, who were married for 52 years, are buried at the United States Military Academy Post Cemetery at West Point in Orange County, New York. Jenkins was 84 when he died on June 19, 1957.