Mrs Gus Rublin: boxing and women’s suffrage
U 15.3257-9: Unsolicited testimonials […] My bust developed four inches in three weeks, reports Mrs Gus Rublin with photo.
When Sarah Mulrooney set sail as a servant girl from Ireland bound for New York in September 1898 she can hardly have expected to make a fleeting appearance in one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. In fact, she can hardly have expected to experience many of the things that happened to her in the following years.
Once she arrived in New York, she headed for a relative in Brooklyn. By the time of the 1900 United States census she was living and working as an ‘attendant’ or nurse at the Manhattan State Hospital just north of Brooklyn. During the early years of the century, she met and married the boxer Gustave Ruhlin (not Rublin) and settled down to run a saloon at 1490 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn.1
For Don Gifford (Ulysses Annotated) the significance of this reference to ‘Mrs Gus Rublin’ is ‘unknown’.
And in the blue corner…
Gus Ruhlin was a big name in the States at the time. Throughout the 1890s the ‘Akron Giant’ (he fought out of Akron, Ohio) had been climbing the boxing career ladder. A gentle giant, personable, 6ft 2 inches tall, and of massive build, he was not always successful. But when he was good, he was very good.
Gus was lucky to be under the management of Billy Madden, the boxing promoter who had brought Ireland’s heavyweight hero Peter Maher from Dublin to the United States.
He was hitting the big time in 1897, with a bout against Jim Jeffries:
By 1898 he was successful enough to command significant prize money and major opponents. Unfortunately the biggest names in boxing were just too good for him. He lost against ‘Kid McCoy’ in 1898, then – crashingly – against Tom Sharkey in the same year. Between other exhibition and real bouts he managed to beat Sharkey in a rematch in 1900 but then lost resoundingly to Bob Fitzsimmons – a defeat from which he never really recovered. Even the Anglo-Celt raised an eyebrow over the Atlantic:
Gus fought on for several years after this, but never for the sort of money he could command against Fitzsimmons. In 1902 Billy Madden arranged another bout between his two proteges, Gus Ruhlin and Peter Maher, this time dubbed ‘The Championship of Ireland’. The contest was noted in Dublin, and we know from his references to Myler Keogh (U 8.801, etc.) that Joyce or his father kept an eye on the boxing scene:
Gus Ruhlin, the 'Akron Giant' - http://www.cyberboxingzone.com/boxing/ruhlin-g.htm
Ruhlin won, and immediately set off on a European tour, fighting against some of his old opponents on the top of the bill at the National Sporting Club’s Boxing and Wrestling Tournament in London:
Ruhlin won in eleven rounds, and then went on to an exhibition fight in Dublin before returning to the States, where he established his saloon and made a series of canny investments with the thousands of dollars he had won on the circuit – so much so that by 1906 the Salt Lake Herald could look at how famous fighters had ended up:
Mrs Gus Ruhlin and the suffrage
After her marriage to Gus Ruhlin, Sarah Mulrooney became – naturally enough – Mrs Sarah Mulrooney Ruhlin. They ran the saloon on Myrtle Street, Brooklyn, at the corner of Irving Avenue. There were no children, but the couple were popular hosts and (apparently) successful investors. Things moved along quite quietly, for an ex-heavyweight champion and his energetic wife.
It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to find the Chicago Day Book of 13 December 1911 comparing Sarah, tongue in cheek, with Lucrezia Borgia and Cleopatra:
To the newspapers Sarah Ruhlin was usually ‘Mrs Gus Ruhlin’, though she preferrred ‘Mrs Sarah Ruhlin’ herself. She hit the headlines in late 1911 when she fell out with the members of the staid New York Woman Suffrage party:
If there was one thing Mrs Gus Ruhlin could manipulate, it was publicity. And in fact there were many other things (including Gus himself) that she could manipulate. Once she had left the blue stockings of the New York Woman Suffrage party behind, she set up her own party, the Progressive Political Party, and carried on holding political meetings at the banner-festooned saloon. She impressed the impressionable gentlemen of the press:
There’s no doubt that Mrs Gus Ruhlin was a striking woman. The Library of Congress holds a photo of her:
She ran an innovative campaign for the women’s suffrage movement. Using her husband’s notoriety and contacts, she devised a ‘benefit prizefight for suffrage’:
Obviously the press loved this, though opinions were divided on whether the suffragists did. But Mrs Ruhlin was great copy:
And she was pretty practical too. From the same interview:
The event went ahead, though maybe without some of the events that the press fondly imagined:
New-York Tribune (1911) 15 October, p. 3
With the boxing suffrage benefit behind her, Sarah Ruhlin was ready to move on to new projects in her mission to bring suffrage not just to the comfortable classes but to the masses. Sadly the unexpected collapse and death of her husband Gus at his saloon on 13 February 1912 brought her suffrage work to a temporary halt while she herself fought off legal challenges from his family for a share in the $40,000 she inherited.
By 1913 things were looking clearer – but not entirely resolved - and Sarah had a new scheme. There was to be a grand suffrage march led by ‘General’ Rosalie Jones and her fellow hikers from New York to Washington, to join the parade celebrating the progress of women down the centuries at the Woodrow Wilson inauguration. Sarah didn’t think she could manage the nine-day route march, so she organized a ‘petticoat cavalry’ to leave New York for Washington eight days after the march left on foot. Again the idea appealed to the press in spades, as did her more ghoulish exploit on the political trail – demonstrating against someone who opposed the validity of her husband’s will - later in 1913:
Mrs Gus Ruhlin was never out of the news over the next ten years, though her impact subsided. We find her in 1922 demonstrating under a different banner for an Irish cause outside the British Embassy in Washington with Mrs Terence MacSwiney over the death of Mrs MacSwiney’s husband Terence (the former Lord Mayor of Cork) while on hunger strike in Brixton prison:
Joyce and Mrs Ruhlin
Joyce’s reference to Mrs Ruhlin was not particularly complimentary:
He was probably not citing a particular advertisement. Joyce was fascinated by the minutiae of small ads and what they implied about the degenerate state of society (see, for example, the following articles on this site: He cures fits and That Wonderworker). The generic style of advertisement he elaborated is well documented, especially in America:
Into this framework he slotted Mrs Gus Ruhlin, in the genre of testimonial advertisements. It is unclear how he had heard of her, or why he chose to ridicule her. Perhaps he simply disliked her suffrage antics. Many Dubliners would have been aware of her husband, especially after his visit to the city in 1902. The idea of chest expansion may have come by association with the boxer Gus.
Why ‘Rublin’ for ‘Ruhlin’? Perhaps Joyce was attracted by the link between ‘Rublin’ and ‘Dublin’ – the Rosenbach manuscript has a clear [b]. But more likely he was confused by poor-quality newsprint or a source that had misspelt the surname: this was not unusual in the papers of the day:
(Wellington, New Zealand) (1910)
Whatever the final link, young Sarah Mulrooney’s life shone brightly enough for it to strike tangentially the author of Ulysses as he pieced together the world of Circe.
1 I am grateful to Alison Sulentic for assistance in tracing the story of the Ruhlins.
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