A graduating college student once asked me what was the hardest thing about writing books. I smiled, said I had no good answer, and added that sometimes it came easily, sometimes it didn’t, and you just had to keep working at it. She didn’t like that reply and repeated her question, insisting that there must be one overriding difficulty, something that always worried me. I finally said: “Figuring out what to leave in and what to take out.”
I thought about that exchange as I was reading Harry D. Boonin’s rigorously researched book, Never Tell a Boy Not to Fight (2016), which opens a window rarely seen into the early 20th century history of Philadelphia Jewish boxers. This is the third book about South Philadelphia Jewish history that Boonin has written.
What’s pleasing about Never Tell a Boy Not to Fight is the abundance of those telling, tiny details that reveal larger truths. Among them is effort of boxing writers to coin a new word to describe a curious and noticeable trend in the audience of boxing matches in the 1890s and early 1900s: the growing number of women. A brilliant scribe called those ladies sportresses.
Boonin chronicles the lives of four city boxers whose combined careers spanned the 1890s to the mid-1920s: Isadore Strauss, Sammy Smith, Harry Lewis, and Lew Tendler. Lefty Tendler is the only familiar name, and that’s likely less for his impressive boxing career (145 wins, 16 losses) than his name on restaurants more than a half century ago.
The book begins with Izzy Strauss, the first Jewish boxer to make a name for himself in Philadelphia. Strauss, born in 1873, fought first as an amateur at the Academy of Music. He was 20, and beat all comers in the 135-pound weight class in a St. Patrick’s Day Eve exhibition. Soon after, he turned pro, though he didn’t give up his job as a wagon driver.
Boxing is sometimes called The Sweet Science, but there was nothing scientific or sweet about Izzy. He was aggressive and always charging, delivering punch combinations so fast that opponents were often overwhelmed, leading newspapers to give him the nickname, “The Hebrew Cyclone.” A name like that attracted crowds, both Jewish and not, curious to see a tough Jew in the ring.
In 1893, a crowd of 1,500 spectators filled the Winter Circus, a fighting venue across from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on Broad Street. The Winter Circus also featured performances of horse dancing, aerialists, a comic donkey, a Hungarian band, and a staged stag hunt complete with a pack of hounds. Boxing tickets were 25 cents for the cheap seats, a buck for box seats. Strauss fought in the third of four four-rounders. Newspapers reported that Strauss was about to clobber Tommy Devlin of Manayunk when the police stopped the fight because boxing was illegal in Philadelphia.
Law enforcement and city officials were contradictory about the violence of boxing during the 1880s and ‘90s, and alternately looked the other way or arrested promoters, managers, and boxers. Boonin’s retelling of who’s who in the courtroom and the legalities involved is thorough and a little exhausting. Izzy Strauss was ultimately freed to fight for five more years.
South Philadelphia, a center of Philadelphia Jewish life during the careers of the boxers chronicled here, was rippled with boxing venues, including the Ariel Athletic Club and the National Athletic Club—both on the 700 block of Christian Street—and the Broadway Athletic Club at 15th Street and Washington Avenue, known on the streets as the “Bucket of Blood.” No one was more admired in South Philly than a prize fighter.
Harry Lewis, described by a fellow fighter as “one of those madmen who goes at you like a mouse after cheese,” was born Harry Besterman in New York City in 1886. His family moved to South Philadelphia when he was a boy. He turned pro at 17. He would fight for 10 years, competing everywhere from Denver to Paris. He defeated the British welterweight champion, but that match had not been officially sanctioned as a world title fight so Harry was never in the record books as a champion. He is in the record books, however, as a boxer who struck and killed an opponent in 1906, knocking out Mike Ward in a fight in front of 5,000 boxing fans in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Boonin points out that in the aftermath of a Jew striking a Catholic and killing him no synagogues or Jewish business were burned and nothing in the newspaper or radio accounts tied religion to the tragedy.
In addition to being a prodigious researcher, Boonin is clearly a passionate one as well, wanting so much to tell us about these “mitt wielders” of long ago who, by and large, have been forgotten. In an effort to tell the story, he sometimes empties his notebook and tells us too much. However, as writing sins go, I’d rather have someone tell me too much than too little.
Tell A Boy Not To Fight are available for purchase at the National Museum of Jewish American History store and online HERE.