the museum of americana

a literary review

The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery – Fiction by Dan Mancilla

In the shadows of the Union Stock Yards on Independence Day of 1893, Pogue Malone defeated Thomas Bly at Chicago’s Dexter Park Pavilion to become the first recognized Catch-as-catch-can Wrestling Champion of the World. Malone was nineteen at the time and had only immigrated to the United States fifteen months earlier. It was assumed that Thomas Bly would win the inaugural championship. Bly had already held Greco-Roman wrestling titles, won a series of strongman championships, and had been the sparring partner for several boxing champions. Bly’s challenger was to be Robert L. Sullivan, a veteran of the carnival athletic show circuit and an equally accomplished grappler. Pogue Malone’s name was drawn from a hat after Sullivan broke his leg in training.

We know the tale because Pogue Malone’s history is our own. We grapplers toiling away today, some in the limelight, most in obscurity, fighting in half empty armories and gymnasiums, keep the story alive. His legend is our legacy.

He had been working for the Erie & Allegheny railroad, splitting ties and bending rails and fighting in weekly camp matches, when a small-time promoter of ill repute named Beaufort discovered him. Malone quit the railroad and moved to the Bowery of Manhattan to train at Battery Park Athletics, a boxing and wrestling club recently opened by the promoter Duggan O’Malley.

After two weeks of training, Pogue Malone fought his first match and won easily. He went on to compile a string of fifty-two wins in one month’s time, often wrestling four matches on weekends. When the decision to crown a champion was announced, Malone’s name was an afterthought. Malone stepped into the ring on that Independence Day with all of four months experience and humiliated Bly. The veteran had exposed his back. The young Irishman jumped him, knotted his arms into a double chicken wing, and muscled him to the canvas. The pain must have been overwhelming. Witnesses sitting in the front rows claimed to have heard muscles rip free from bone. Fans sitting ten, fifteen, twenty-five rows back clearly heard the sickening snap when Malone, unrelenting, unimaginably powerful, continued to work Bly’s arms. Bly would not submit, so Malone made the choice for him and dislocated both shoulders, snapping bones in both of Bly’s arms in the process. Bly’s second threw in the towel at two minutes thirty-six seconds. Fans not close enough to see (or hear) Bly’s crippling—mostly laborers from the stockyards—rioted, sure that the fix was in, that the match stunk worse than the abattoirs in which they toiled day after day. Some were enraged that Bly went down so easily. He should have been champion. Bets had been placed and wages lost. But for most in attendance, the notion of paying hard-earned money to see a two-minute match was inconceivable and unforgivable. Malone’s coronation took place amidst a hail of trash and a tornado of jackbooted Chicago police officers flailing away with notched billy clubs and well worn saps.

Pogue Malone, or The Pogue as he simply came to be known, the man who each and every one of us wrestling today trace our lineage to, went on to reign as champion for a mythic twenty years. Challengers from every corner of the globe, of every race, creed, and color stepped through the ropes only to have their shoulders pinned to the blood-spattered canvas.

When the promoters first discovered him, Malone was fighting men on rooftops and in sawdust-covered cellars in Hell’s Kitchen, Five Points, and The Battery. They took him out of the city and into the country where they billed him as “The Catholic Terror” and the “Belfast Brawler” and a hundred other names that suited the occasion, that baited the marks. In 1893, the promotions consolidated and crowned Pogue Malone their champion. The great man needed no gimmick. He had earned the right to fight under his own name and upheld that right for the next twenty years.

In the beginning of his unprecedented reign, Malone must have wrestled for less than what he was worth. The way we do today. But with each victory, his power in the business grew. Malone stacked victory upon victory, slowly building momentum, like the beginnings of a landslide, taking on all comers at carnivals and state fairs then taking on seasoned wrestlers, shooters, in sanctioned matches that filled parade grounds and horse tracks and baseball stadiums. We figure it was five years into Malone’s reign when the promoters realized the man wasn’t going to lose. The Pogue must have known this as well, realized his worth, and began naming his price.

It was at this time when a series of accidents occurred. One month before a title defense against the German champion, Franz Goering, several explosions were reported on the block of Malone’s Park Avenue penthouse. Five dogs and an elderly washerwoman were claimed in the accidents, but The Pogue was unharmed. A local promoter treated Malone to champagne and oysters on the eve of a match in Arlington, Virginia. Two members of the dinner party, Malone’s accountant and a distant cousin of the champion’s, fell ill after the meal and died of food poisoning. It was later reported that Malone was allergic to shellfish and had declined the oysters. There was the shooting after a match in Savannah, Georgia. The shot, which struck Malone in the left shoulder and caused only tissue damage, was fired by a man characterized in the local papers as a disaffected veteran of Johnston’s Western Army whose unit had been reduced from four-hundred-seventy-five men to three in a matter of seconds by an all-Irish Wisconsin regiment at Shiloh.

At what point do the promoters begin to see Malone as invincible? And at what point does The Pogue himself believe in his immortality? The “accidents” occur off and on over the next fifteen years of the reign, but most attempts on the champion’s life seem to be half hearted and symbolic at best. In the end, a boy, one we believe to be the son of the great man, accomplished what the promoters never could.

~

July 28th, 1913. On this day—in a match outside of Newton, Iowa—Pogue Malone falls, stricken down in the ring only moments after a three-and-a-half-hour title defense. The exact circumstances of his demise are still debated. All that is for certain is that The Pogue went down for the permanent three on that day amidst a sea of corn tall as the ring, stabbed to death during the post match frenzy. Some say it was a one-eyed promoter Malone had refused to do business with who killed him. Others speculate it was the last man he’d defeated, an alligator wrangler from the Louisiana Bayou; Malone had humiliated the gator wrangler in the man’s hometown by pinning him in less than thirty seconds. Still others are convinced that the assassin’s knife, which pierced Pogue Malone’s heart, belonged to a henchman of Toots Mondello, the Chicago bootlegger. Mondello was a gambling man, and some speculate that he had fixed the fight only to be disappointed by Malone; it’s said that The Pogue’s adversary was to go down in the first hour of the match, not the third. Those who believe it was Mondello point out that it was the Chicago wrestling territory controlled by Mondello’s associate, Lefty Schurs, that prospered following Malone’s death and has continued to prosper to this very day. They point a finger at Smilin Joe Spiceland and his promotion, at our promotion, the Continental Wrestling Alliance, and try to implicate our boss along with Mondello and Schurs simply because our federation operates out of Chicago. But tell us, what promoters didn’t make fistfuls of cash once Malone passed and they reclaimed possession of the belt?

In the ring there are two kinds of matches. There are works, bouts whose outcome are determined beforehand, and there are shoots, straight-up contests. Most who recount these versions of The Pogue’s death are shooting. All these theories are based on some form of truth, some shred of evidence. But there’s another version of Pogue Malone’s death that we wrestlers of the CWA tell the young, the uninitiated. Upon defeating his final opponent—a Pittsburgh mill worker turned wrestler named John Gotch, in a three-and-a-half-hour match—Pogue Malone collapsed in the ring. There is film of the event, now grainy and fractured, that so many of us have memorized frame by frame. A rush of humanity surges toward the exhausted and victorious Pogue. That’s when it has to have happened. When the ring finally clears, Pogue Malone’s bloody body is already being whisked away by six men. He’s taken to the nearest farm house, the Gunderson residence, where he bleeds to death. That evening a doctor makes his way from town to pronounce what everyone already knows, that the wound, a knife strike from a blade of no less than eight inches in length, is mortal. Malone’s body, imposing even in death, lay in state at the Gunderson home for three days before being loaded onto a guarded box car of an eastbound Chicago & Northwestern freight.

What exactly happened in those moments when the crowd filled the ring? This is what we believe: one of the spectators to rush the ring was a strapping farm boy of eighteen. You see him clearly in the film. This well-fed farm boy with red hair (not unlike the champion’s according to those who knew him) pushed through the crowds shouting the champion’s name and brandishing a sharpened Bowie that glinted in the midsummer Iowa sun. That day many people saw the boy with the knife, as was reported in a local paper. Unfortunately, it was also reported that at least ten other men brandished bladed weapons of some sort in those chaotic post-match moments—olive skinned men in pinstripes and fedoras brandishing stilettos, barefooted men in tobacco-stained overalls swinging meat cleavers, a portly one-eyed man in a dirty suit advancing with ice pick in hand. People saw whatever they wanted to in that ring, saw whatever they needed to help make sense of things. Such mirages are commonplace in our business.

It is the redheaded farm boy to whom we’re drawn, like long lost kin. His name was Blanchard, and he worked as a hand on a local farm to support his mother who took in laundry and borders for a living. She had no husband. We believe this boy—as anyone can see in the yellowed photographs—so resembles The Pogue, he must be the son of the champion. The theory works, as Malone wrestled in Newton nineteen years before at the infancy of his title reign. It’s common knowledge that Pogue Malone enjoyed the company of a pretty girl after a match. It’s also well known that The Pogue had a predilection for dark-haired women and that Adeline Blanchard had been a striking raven-haired beauty at the time. So what? some may ask. The town of Newton was a pocket of fair-haired Norwegians as it was a waypoint on the trek to Duluth, St. Cloud, and points beyond for the Scandinavian immigrants disembarking at Eastern ports of call. Raven-haired beauties were more rare in that town than honest promoters are in wrestling.

And as our story goes, when the bell signified the end of the match, the man-child, sensing his chance slipping away, made his move. Possessing all the power of his father, he had no trouble clearing a path to the crumpled champion. He looked down on The Pogue, uttered something, then plunged all eight inches of the blade into Malone. It was said that all eight inches were necessary to skewer the champion’s heart through the layers of well muscled chest.

What must have been going through the mind of the Blanchard boy in those moments before action? We wonder if his true intent was to lay hands on the champion in affection, to introduce himself as a long lost son and embrace the man. Surely the impulse to strike down the great man came on suddenly like the storms that can blacken the prairie sky at a moment’s notice. How could it have been premeditated? Who would have had enough courage and lack of sense to attack him? John Henry and Paul Bunion be damned, they are mere children compared to The Pogue Malone who dispatched men ten at a time, wrestled grizzlies to submission, stopped cannonballs with his belly, towed Pullman cars with his teeth. No, we are sure that the Blanchard boy’s assault was a crime of passion. That Bowie knife he plunged into the champion’s swollen heart had no reason, only pain and rage and loneliness.

Following the assault, the Blanchard boy melted away into the confusion of the crowd, never to be seen again, while The Pogue’s heart poured out onto the ring.

With the demise of the champion, Lefty Schurs and Duggan O’Malley saw the chance to reclaim what they regarded as theirs. To ensure no single man could control the fate of the championship ever again and control the business of the sport to such a degree, Schurs and O’Malley and a conclave of other promoters met in a Kansas City bingo palace not long after Malone’s death. It was determined that there would be three champions, three direct successors to Malone.

In the East, where The Pogue began his career wrestling in the Battery of Lower Manhattan, the line of succession would have to fall to an Irishman. The masses would have nothing less. Danny Boy Gallagher was named champion of the Eastern territories. The Southern territories, known for their preference for beauty over brawn, welcomed “Handsome” Lott Schultz as their new champion. The West was far and away the most vast territory with eastern borders in the Ohio Valley, the Mason-Dixon line to the south, north into the heartland of the Canadian provinces, and west to the Rockies. For a territory that encompassed the smokestacks and stockyards of Chicago, the undeniable Mississippi, the vast ocean of prairies, and the might of the Rockies, a champion who rivaled the imposing scale of the land was essential. For this territory nothing less than a colossus would do. The young giant, King Bondra, would become champion here.

Today the legacy of the regional champions amounts to little more than pettiness, chaos, and ignorance. Wrestlers in New York and Atlanta and Chicago snipe and bicker over who is the rightful heir to the One True Champion. We’re pitted against one another outside the ring as well as in, all grasping at the memory of Malone, all of us struggling to define our relationship to the father. All striving (and falling short) to capture the world’s attention as he had. All going back to those midsummer Iowa days.

How was it to wake that morning after the murder? How bleak the dawn? How oppressive the heat? Word of the assassination spread quickly. Bells tolled from St. Louis to the bay of San Francisco, and men and boys around the country purchased newspapers by the armload, packed saloons and taverns for solace. These rough men, fluent in their own ways of suffering, their dialect often peppered with the accent of scraped knuckles and rotgut-numbed tongues, shuffled into cathedrals and basilicas across the land to call and respond in the more formal language of grief: Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. In the days following Malone’s death, travelers throughout the territories reported shrines of flickering votives. At crossroads well traversed by the athletic shows and in the burning embers of abandoned gypsy camps, devotions to the One True Champion lit in the name of St. Julian, patron of carnival folk, did, indeed, shine in perpetual light.

We often consider the wrestlers’ reactions, for theirs would be far more complex. Some, we are sure, would let loose a collective sigh of relief knowing that their nemesis, their twenty year nightmare, was finally and forever vanquished. Still others would surely have mourned his passing because they knew that with the transition of The Pogue from life to legend they themselves were soon to vanish from memory. Is this when reality ended? When works replaced shoots? Have we not all been going through the motions ever since, trying to recapture something essential that the champion possessed? Always styling ourselves after him. Always measuring ourselves. Always coming up short.

Our thoughts often turn to the Blanchard boy and what must have run through his mind that midsummer morning. We imagine he made it out of town, out of the county, and found some old barn to sleep in. Did he wake in a hayloft and gaze out at the rows of corn emerging from the specter of haze as far as the eye could see and sense that the world had changed forever, that something inside of him had been affirmed or replaced, abandoned, discovered, or freed?

What might any of the Pogue’s adversaries done had they come across the boy that morning? Some may have wrestled him down in a way they never could his father and turned him over to the authorities. Others might have applied a sleeper hold to the boy and finish the job, leaving nothing to chance in the courts. Still others may have congratulated him for achieving a victory over the invincible one. And there are a few, we have to believe, who would do nothing less than stroke the freckle-faced boy on the cheek with a meaty, calloused hand and weep.

~

None of us can say that we knew the champion. Sometimes we question if he was real at all. Those images—faded photos of Malone always off of center, somehow askew as if his momentum could never be captured on the celluloid—are an unreliable form of memory. The splintered and fuzzy film reels struggle to follow the action of his matches. Film can’t capture the power and surprising grace with which the champion moved in the same way that the old-timers’ stories do.

And yet those final frames at the end of the Newton match, after the referee has raised The Pogue’s hand in victory, when the mob rushes through the ropes, have become our rosary—an endless and unchanging series of moments to reflect upon, decades to lose ourselves in. You can make out the Blanchard boy, head and shoulders slumped, emerging from the pack. It’s not a stalk and not a mad dash. He walks with a purpose, resigned to his fate as if he were walking the gallows. Malone has draped a towel over his bloody face. He never sees the death blow, that sickening blow that we watch time and again with heavy and nostalgic hearts. The scene calls to us in the ring, and plays out in our minds night after night in territories yet unclaimed by promoters.

~ ~ ~

Dan Mancilla lives Kalamazoo, Michigan where he’s working towards his PhD in Creative Writing at Western Michigan University. Dan’s fiction has appeared in such publications as The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row, Barrelhouse, The Washington Square Review, River Styx, and Bayou among others. “The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery” is an adapted chapter from Dan’s novel-length manuscript, The Deathmask of El Gaucho.

Read Dan’s contributor’s notes on “The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery.”

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