William Muldoon: The Solid Man
by Bob Bryla
Belfast, New York received its name from the port city and capital of Northern Ireland. It previously had been part of the Town of Caneadea, and its name was changed in 1825 due to a large influx of Irishman. Among those immigrants were Patrick and Maria Muldoon, who immigrated to the southwestern New York State hamlet in the 1830s. Depending on the source, the Muldoons had between seven and ten children, and their son William was born on May 25th, most likely in either 1845 or 1852. Details regarding William’s early years vary widely and many facts of his life, including his year of birth, are unable to be confirmed by historians.
Muldoon’s early years have been described in terms of physical excellence as a result of both strenuous farm labor and sporting activities. It is commonly reported that at 16 years of age, Muldoon joined the Union Army as a drummer boy and remained a soldier until the war’s conclusion in 1865. Some references including Find-a-Grave state that Muldoon was born in 1852, but if that birthdate is correct, it would mean that he entered the Civil War at nine years of age. Muldoon is stated to have distinguished himself as a wrestler when impromptu matches would take place during idle times at the military encampments, and such a feat would be virtually miraculous for a pre-teenage boy. The 9-year-old soldier
scenario may be true but not for Muldoon. John Clem, who is acknowledged to have been 9 years old in 1861 when he tagged along with the Union Army as a mascot and drummer boy, may have been the inspiration for Muldoon’s very similar claim. Incidentally, Clem was allowed to formally enlist in the Union Army at age 11.
There is, however, some dispute among historians whether William Muldoon ever served in the Union Army at all. There is speculation that Muldoon credited himself with Army activities that were actually the heroics of his brother, John Muldoon. As a matter of fact, William Muldoon's name is not inscribed on the memorial to the Civil War that was erected in Belfast, New York, but his brother John's name is on that monument. Interestingly, William Muldoon paid for the majority of the expense for that Civil War monument. So, the entire concept that William Muldoon learned wrestling in the U. S. Army camps during the Civil War may not be as certain as is commonly accepted.
When the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870, Muldoon allegedly went to France and enlisted in the French army. While he was overseas, he reportedly met Gordon Bennett, who was the publisher of the New York Herald newspaper. Bennett is credited with being responsible for inspiring Muldoon to pursue a full-time professional wrestling career by assuring Muldoon that he would one day become a world champion in that sport. However, no reliable evidence has been found to document any aspect of this story.
At some point between 1866 and 1876, Muldoon found his way to New York City, where he worked various jobs including those of a bouncer and of a livery cart driver. Muldoon was said to have a quick temper in the early and middle parts of his life, but supposedly these emotional outbursts diminished as he matured. He began competing on the mat in small clubs until he was invited to wrestle at New York City’s premier wrestling showcase, Harry Hill’s Variety Theater. In 1876, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) hired Muldoon and it has been stated that he later established the first Police Athletic League (PAL), which is still in existence today. He stayed on the force for six years, then opened a gymnasium, and also a bar, which became a hub for both athletes and businessmen.
During his career, Muldoon faced most of the top-flight opponents of his era including Donald Dinnie, Clarence Whistler, Sebastian Miller, John McMahon, Matsuda Sorakichi, Jack Carkeek, and Thiebaud Bauer, among others. On January 26, 1881, Muldoon wrestled Clarence Whistler
in a Greco-Roman match that lasted 9 hours and ended in a time-limit draw. The bout was held at Manhattan’s Terrace Garden Theater and is considered the longest match for that type of wrestling. Muldoon is reported to have worked a twelve-hour shift for the NYPD immediately before beating Edwin Bibby at New York’s former Post Office Building on March 2, 1881.
Circa 1890, Muldoon traveled throughout the United States with a wrestling booth and would offer $25 to any man who could stay 15 minutes with him. His last official public bout was on December 17, 1892, against his protégé, Ernest Roeber, to whom he later bestowed his world Greco-Roman championship upon retirement. That title had been conferred upon Muldoon by Richard K. Fox of the Police Gazette. In 1894, Muldoon made his final return to the ring for a charity exhibition match against Roeber at Madison Square Garden.
In 1896, Muldoon played Charles, the wrestler, in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It and appeared as ‘The Fighting Gaul’ in the Broadway play, Spartacus. His acting career extended into 1909, when he returned to the stage in a benefit for America’s oldest theatrical organization, The Lambs Club.
Muldoon was divorced at least one time and supposedly was married at least two times, although he claimed to be a bachelor. He adopted his secretary as noted by the New York Times article entitled, MULDOON, 86, ADOPTS HIS SECRETARY, 43; Athletic Commissioner Takes Court Action to Make Woman Employee His Heir. AIDED HIM FOR 12 YEARS Margaret V. Farrell of Brooklyn Active in Management of Health Institute at Purchase. No biological children of his have been identified.
William Muldoon has not only been inducted into several wrestling halls-of-fame, but also has been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) in Canastota, New York. He had a strong connection to boxing including John L Sullivan’s successful bareknuckle battle against Jake Kilrain in 1889. The Great John L. had been following a lifestyle that was not compatible with
a competitive athlete, let alone a world champion boxer. Muldoon brought Sullivan to his farm in Belfast and forced Sullivan to stop drinking, eat properly, and exercise in a manner suitable for retaining his world title against Kilrain. Statues of Muldoon and Sullivan currently stand at the Bare-Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame, which is located in the barns where Muldoon helped rehabilitate the ailing champion. Belfast, with its current population of approximately 1,700 residents, is now suitably nicknamed ‘Knuckle Town, U.S.A.’.
Another boxing interface was the fact that he was the very first chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. The NYSAC was organized in 1920-1921 to establish ethical and legal protocols for the sports of boxing and wrestling. Since Muldoon was known for his integrity, he was chosen for this new position. He was dubbed ‘The Iron Duke’ for his tough stances on maintaining a strict code of conduct. He held the chairmanship until the mid-1920s but lost it after not approving an interracial bout between Jack Dempsey and Harry Wills. He did, however, remain on the Commission until 1929.
Sullivan's success in the Kilrain match showed that Muldoon had the ability to help people regain their health and fitness, and he later opened Muldoon’s Olympia Hygienic Institute in Purchase, New York. Many famous people came to benefit from the knowledge and discipline that Muldoon could impart. President Theodore Roosevelt even sent his Secretary of State, Elihu Root, to him for fitness training.
A hardcover book about Muldoon’s life entitled, Muldoon, the Solid Man of Sport - His Amazing Story as Related for the First Time by Him to His Friend, Edward Van Every, appeared in 1929. However, since the biographical information was imparted by Muldoon and his writer-friend, parts of it need to be taken with a degree of skepticism.
In 1931, Muldoon was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1933 at the age of either 81 or 88, thus leaving wrestling historians with another enigma.
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