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.

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.

Billy Madden is the manager of Gus Ruhlin, the big, strapping heavyweight who came near putting Steve O’Donnell to sleep. Ruhlin, according to Billy, is a comer, and Madden intends to match him against Jack Stenzler, who was formerly Bob Fitzsimmons’s sparring partner.

Syracuse Daily Standard (New York) (1897) 20 May

He was hitting the big time in 1897, with a bout against Jim Jeffries:

Jeffries and Ruhlin. Two Big Fellows Box at San Francisco [...] Ruhlin, the Ohio giant, tops the Californian just one inch [i.e. at 6ft 2.5 in] and weighs in condition 200 pounds.

Salt Lake Tribune (Utah) (1897) 17 July

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:

Saturday. The Glove Fight at Madison Square, New York, between Bob Fitzsimmons and Gus Ruhlin, resulted in the defeat, after the sixth round, of the latter, who was seriously injured.

Anglo-Celt (1900) 18 August, p. 5

Echoes of Big Fight: Fitz and Ruhlin Abandoned Their Usual Tactics... Excuse makers, since Madden’s Akron giant, the mortgage lifter, Gustave Ruhlin, the Swiss, fell before the mighty swat of Robert Fitzsimmons, have been working of nights explaining Ruhlin’s defeat.

Washington Post (1900) 19 August, p. 8

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:

Boxing. Ruhlin Knocks Out Maher. The Akron Giant Gives Peter His Quietus in Two Rounds.

Freeman’s Journal (1902) 2 April, p. 4

Mrs Gus Ruhlin, from a photo in the Library of Congress

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:

For the concluding night of the tournament the most important contest was reserved. It lay between the far-famed sailor lad, Tom Sharkey, and Gus Ruhlin, the Akron giant. Naturally for such an important encounter as this no less than £1,000 had to be offered to secure the match.

Freeman’s Journal (1902) 27 June, p. 4

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:

Finish of Famous Fighters [...] Gus Ruhlin was an ironworker. Capitalist now.’ (20 August, p. 7)

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:

(The world’s 20 Greatest Women, as the Junior Office boy Picks them.) n[ew] y[ork]. Toosdy – andy carniggy started a fine mess of trubbel when he handed out that there list of the world’s 20 greatest men […] Well, i supose you have gessed ere this that i got a list of my own of the dames that has smeared or is smearin their monikers on the pajers of histery in the biggest letters […]

eva tangway

lucrecia borgy

mrs. gus ruhlin


martha washenton


.. some flock of skirts, hey?

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:

"Sarsaparilla Suffragettes" Object to Campaigning in Pugilist’s Saloon. Brooklyn Backs Her […] There was an executive session of the leaders of the Woman Suffrage party in the Metropolitan Building yesterday afternoon, and, according to Mrs. Gus Ruhlin, chairman of the Twentieth Assembly District of the party, in Brooklyn, she was to be placed "on the carpet" before the assembled suffragettes for holding suffrage meetings in the back room of her husband’s saloon at No. 1490 Myrtle avenue, and for placing suffrage banners, mottoes and literature inside the bar [...]

"They have let me know how they feel about me, and I am getting out of the organization with Mrs. Elder. It’s all a matter of class, anyhow, I guess, because Gus was a prize-fighter and now runs a saloon and is not up to their social standard. But perhaps there are some narrow-minded bigots that don’t measure up to my standard, either."

Evening World (New York) (1911) 12 September

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:

Ruhlin Is Willing, Just To Please His Wife. What does Gus Ruhlin say to all this? Big, blue-eyed and amiable, he looks admiringly at the dashing young woman whom he married four years ago, and says "Sure" to everything. And so would you in his place if you had any idea how attractive and efficient an executive Mrs. Ruhlin is […]

One afternoon this week I was in the offices of the Woman Suffrage party, when a very slender, very attractive, very business-like young woman hustled in with a large valise, had it filled with suffrage literature and carried it away again. This was Mrs. Ruhlin getting ammunition for a giant picnic, given yesterday by the proprietor of the Ridgewood Times.

Evening World (New York) (1911) 24 August

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’:

Suffrage Prizefight On. Mrs. 'Gus' Ruhlin Arranges 'Votes for Women' Match. Lady Wrestlers Promised… Mrs. 'Gus' Ruhlin’s benefit prizefight for suffrage is no longer a dream. It will be 'pulled off' at the Long Acre Athletic Club, 29th street, near Seventh avenue, on October 27, the day after the convention of the Woman Suffrage party, which Mrs. Ruhlin left because of difference of opinion over the wisdom of having that same prizefight […] "Thought they was knocked out, hey?" chuckled Mrs. Ruhlin’s husband [… ] "His specialty is looking massive and saying 'Sure' to the lively Mrs. Ruhlin’s conversation."

New-York Tribune (1911) 29 September , p. 3

Obviously the press loved this, though opinions were divided on whether the suffragists did. But Mrs Ruhlin was great copy:

"Now I want all the big boxers to get together and give suffrage a benefit."

"But maybe they’re not suffragists," I suggested.

"I guess they’re suffragists if their wives are!" Mrs. Ruhlin answered. "Jeffries does what Mrs. Jeffries says. Sharkey does as Mrs. Sharkey want him to. I’ll bet Mrs. Robert Fitzsimmons could get Bob to box for anything on earth in half a second. I’ve told Gus I want him to challenge Johnson to a boxing match on the suffrage question."

Evening World (New York) (1911) 24 August

And she was pretty practical too. From the same interview:

"Do you think your husband would have a chance [against Bob Fitzsimmons]?" I asked.

"Oh, I don’t mean a real fight. I mean one of those fights where the men walk into the ring, kiss their hands at each other and one of them falls down – you see."

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:

Dead Man’s Ashes in Campaign. New York. – The ashes of Gus Ruhlin, the noted pugilist, are being used by his widow in her fight against the re-election of Alderman Otto Gelbke of Queens county. At a political rally Mrs. Ruhlin held up the urn containing the ashes of her husband and said: "I am here to speak for my dead husband. If Gus were alive he would be here to speak for himself."

Tensas Gazette (St Joseph, Louisiana) (1913) 5 December

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:

Irish Symparthizers Held for Picketing Embassy at Capital. Mrs. Terence MacSwiney and Eight Others Arrested in Washington For Staging Demonstration at British Embassy [...] Mrs. MacSwiney was garbed in black and bore a banner which read: "England murdered my husband, Terence MacSwiney. Will Americans permit the English Free State to murder his sister, Mary MacSwiney?" [...] The others are Miss Karney, Miss Bessie Quinland, Miss [= Mrs.] Sarah Ruhlin, [etc.].

Sandusky (Ohio) Register (1922) 15 November, p. 1

Joyce and Mrs Ruhlin

Joyce’s reference to Mrs Ruhlin was not particularly complimentary:

U 15.3258-9: My bust developed four inches in three weeks, reports Mrs Gus Rublin with photo.

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:

Bust developed 5 to 10 inches; call or send for circular; wrinkles effaced; complexion perfected; consultation free.

Washington Post (1897) 2 June, p. 5

Bust developed six inches in six weeks; absolutely perfect enlargement guaranteed; personal attention of specialist given by mail until development is completed; 2,000 testimonials; send stamp for sealed instructions.

Omaha Bee (1899) 3 September, p. 18

French Method of Developing the Bust. Mdme. DuBarrie Explains How the Bust May Be Developed 2 to 8 Inches in 30 Days.

Washington Post (1910) 9 October, p. 2

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:

Evening Post (Wellington, New Zealand) (1910)

8 January, p. 14

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.

John Simpson

I am grateful to Alison Sulentic for assistance in tracing the story of the Ruhlins.

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