Monday, August 28, 2017

Horseshoes in History: Why Did the Forge Cave in Under the World Champion "Fighting Blacksmith"?

This photo of World Champion boxer Bob Fitzsimmons is a mystery. "The Fighting Blacksmith" from New Zealand posed with an anvil wearing his apron. His left foot seems to be on top of a very large horseshoe.

I’m not a boxing fan, but I like a good story. I wish I could say that this story has been passed down through generations of horseshoers around the world, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Bob Fitzsimmons made the headlines more than 100 years ago, when one of the most celebrated sports figures in the world was hailed as “The Fighting Blacksmith”. But he seems to have been erased from the public’s memory, and neither the farrier nor blacksmithing worlds has ever tried to keep his fame alive.

Maybe this story will change that.

The publicity surrounding Conor McGregor preparing for his big fight this weekend brought to mind a previous red-headed Irish boxing champion.

Bob Fitzsimmons, The Fighting
Blacksmith, won three world
championship titles in boxing
Hoof world, meet Bob Fitzsimmons. His impressive life story is well-documented: He was the World Champion in Boxing three different times, at three different weights. He was claimed by four different nations on three continents, since he was born in Cornwall, England in 1863 (to Irish-born parents, so Ireland claimed him, too). His family soon moved to Timaru, on New Zealand’s South Island; he and his brothers became farrier apprentices in his father’s “veterinary forge”.

When a possible career as a professional boxer beckoned, the young farrier moved to Australia to launch his career. And when the world took note of the young “fighting blacksmith”, America was his next destination; he moved here in 1890, to punch and jab his way to the world heavyweight crown.

Bob Fitzsimmons was easy to pick out in a crowd; he possessed an unusual physique. Years of farrier work had developed his arm, shoulder, back and chest muscles into a figure that looked like it had been carved out of marble by Michaelangelo. In fact, he posed for the 18-foot high Peace statue on New York City’s Fifth Avenue Dewey Arch for sculptor D.C. French.

Bob Fitzsimmons must have carried two stamp punches with him in his travels: one of his name and one that was a star. He stamped 47 stars on the ground surface of this draft horse shoe commemorating Mothers Day in 1916. Why 47 stars? Alaska and Hawaii weren't states yet; the US flag had 48 stars in 1916. On the other hand, celestial navigation in the 1800s depended on 47 named stars in the sky, and the champ had spent plenty of time at sea. It may also refer to a Bible passage. It must mean something, since he seems to have made a trademark of shoes with exactly 47 stars. Fitzsimmons stamped his name on the foot side eight times. This historic shoe is currently for sale for $8,500 from JoSports.

But at the waist, Bob Fitzsimmon’s body shape changed; he had narrow hips and very long and thin legs. He must have looked like a crossbred horse, with the front end of Percheron and the hind end of a racehorse. And in the boxing ring, his unique build made him light on his feet and powerful with his punches.

Bob Fitzsimmons traveled in good company. Legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, complete with six shooter, referreed one of his fights in Nevada. President Theodore Roosevelt mentioned in his memoir of the Rough Riders that Fitzsimmons was his friend and that he treasured a horseshoe penholder made for him and inscribed by the fighter.

This is a fine photo, on many accounts. That's Bob Fitzsimmons, second from the left, making a 47-star draft horse shoe in a necktie. The photo, kindly loaned from the Cable Shoers collection, was taken in an unnamed shoeing shop in Omaha, Nebraska. (According to Ruth Ann Cable Bales, her father was not present on this occasion.) Some of the horseshoers were documented as Steve Moore, Jim O'brien, E. Hennessey, Jno. Shaw, Bill Lee, Ed Lee, Lary Driscol and "Pony Boy". Surely the dog posed next to the forge should be remembered by name! The photo was taken on  Jan 17, 1911 by Arthur E. Dunn, a photographer for the Daily News of Omaha Nebraska. (photo used with permission)

In Langtry, Texas, Fitzsimmons bent the iron bars on a lion's cage with his bare hands after winning a fight.

He was tall, and, to top it all, covered with freckles. His hair was naturally red--unlike Conor McGregor’s unnatural need-to-look-Irish red hair. His coloring earned him his second nickname, “Ruby Robert” and, sometimes, “The Freckled Wonder”. He wasn’t immune to vanity, however, and prided himself that his face and body were unblemished by his fighting career. He probably had some burn scars on his forearms and hands from his forgework but his face showed no sign of his sporting career, and his chest didn’t even sport a tattoo.

If it had, it probably would have been an anvil. Or, maybe, 47 stars.

Bob Fitzsimmons in Omaha with an unidentified man, perhaps the shop owner. The dog is still perched on the edge of the forge. Several of Fitzsimmons' souvenir shoes were adorned with 47 stars; some say it was because of the state count (before Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii joined the union) but he continued to punch 47 stars after Arizona's statehood. (Photo used with permission)

Plenty of sports and entertainment figures in history began as farriers or blacksmiths. Glyn David of Wales was both British champion farrier competitor and Welsh welterweight boxing champion.

But Bob Fitzsimmons was different. He made sure he was never very far from an anvil. In fact, he used anvils to great advantage in his travels, seeking out forges in strange towns, where he might be able to make some shoes and keep his arm in shape for boxing. "Where's the nearest blacksmith shop?" he'd ask as soon as he stepped off the train.

Bob Fitzsimmons, left, fighting Gentleman Jim Corbett in Carson City, Nevada. Fitzsimmons is credited by some sources as the first boxer ever filmed in action.

The products of these training sessions, uniquely finished horseshoes, became his trademark. He gave them away to people, all over the world, before his fights. Some are being sold online right now; a trademark star-spangled draft horse shoe is priced at $8,500!

But the most famous shoe in The Fighting Blacksmith’s life was the one he never finished. People loved to watch him at the anvil; they’d follow him from his hotel to his training sessions, which were often held in a forge along the main street of the city where his next fight would be held. His fans would hope for a souvenir shoe.

So it was no surprise when about 300 people crowded into a blacksmith shop in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on January 6, 1906 to watch him not just make a shoe, but to shoe three horses, as well.

Another of Bob Fitzsimmons' souvenir horseshoes, this time commemorating the most famous fight, held in Carson City, Nevada on March 17, 1897, when Fitzsimmons defeated Gentleman Jim Corbett. "From Robert Fitzsimmons To my Friend Timothy L. Sullivan Carson City March 17, 1897 Good Luck."

As Bob pulled the first bar from the fire and laid it on the anvil, you can just imagine the crowd, as one, leaning forward to watch the first blow.

As if on cue, the shop floor collapsed. Bob, the anvil, the three horses and about 100 of the spectators tumbled ten feet to the cellar floor below. Bob’s head was hit by the anvil, and the blood flowed, but he stood up in the rubble and laughed, pushing a horse off his leg, according to the report in the Lead, South Dakota newspaper.

One young boxing fan was seriously, and possibly fatally, injured, in the collapse, according to the New York Times.

An excerpt from the foreword of Fitzsimmons'
book Physical Culture and Self Defense
After his boxing career ended, Fitzsimmons made appearances in vaudeville acts. At his home in Middlesex, New Jersey, he sheltered an elderly Australian veterinarian who had befriended him--and employed his horseshoeing talents--in Kilmore, Victoria during the early years of his dual career. When he heard John Lapraik was in tough straits, Fitzsimmons booked him passage from Australia and gave him a lifetime home and a laboratory where he concocted horse medicines. Fitzsimmons opened a forge in Middlesex where he made souvenir signature horseshoes to sell to the locals. You can walk down Fitzsimmons Street in Middlesex today.

The champion was married four times and kept a pet lion named Senator, whom he walked on a leash. His love life was well documented in the newspapers. Later in life, he took up the sport of pitching horseshoes, and won the world championship in that, as well.

Of course, there's a song about the champion; the YouTube video version of it includes footage of the historic victory over Corbett (click to play):

Fitzsimmons’ legendary career was made even more legendary by the biographical stage play, The Heroic Blacksmith, written by the great novelist, Jack London. He played himself, of course.

Washington state farrier Barry
Rice found this star-spangled
Fitzsimmons shoe at a garage
sale in Bellevue, Washington.
Unfortunately, an antique
dealer beat Barry to the buy,
but he did get to snap this
photo of it before it got away.
I wonder if there are more stars
on the foot side.
Ultimately, Bob Fitzsimmons became an evangelist minister and preached to thousands of people. He died of pneumonia in Chicago in 1917.

But there is nothing legendary about his record; it is well-documented in boxing history and the pages of old horseshoeing magazines. He was the first boxer to win three different world titles: middleweight, light heavyweight, and heavyweight. He appeared in the ring 50 times, and lost only seven fights. He continually credited his forgework and early apprenticeship for his success in the ring.

Maybe there's hope for Bob's memory; a new play about his life has been staged this year in New Zealand (click to play):

Somewhere along the way, the man whose name was as much a household word as Michael Jordan's or Tom Brady's is today faded from the public’s memory. His career peaked long before television, before talkie movies, and even before radio, but he was the real thing, and there are still a few star-spangled horseshoes around to prove it.

Story by Fran Jurga

PS What's the answer to the question in the title of this article? The floor caved in because 300 people crowded into the forge to watch Bob Fitzsimmons make a horseshoe. As the years went by, he became as famous for making horseshoes as he was for winning boxing matches. People who could never afford to pay to see him in the ring could peek through a shoeing shop window and remember the day they saw him swing a hammer. His celebrity preceded him as he traveled to cities for his matches. But it seems like his celebrity didn't survive him, unless we keep his memory alive.


Anonymous, Fitzsimmons in a crash. New York Times, January 6, 1906

Roosevelt, T., 1899. The Rough Riders: An Autobiography (Vol. 153). Library of America.

Fitzsimmons, R., 1901, Physical culture and self-defense. Philadelphia. Drexel Biddle.

Bob Fitzsimmons – Boxing’s First Triple World Champion” by Robert Walsh

The fight, the foul and the lawman”, ESPN, by Kieran Mulvaney, Oct 26, 2013

Fitzsimmons, Robert, biography. Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

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