In February of 1888, the following headline appeared in several newspapers throughout the Great Lakes region of America:
REPORTERS IN THE RING
Two Chicago Police Hustlers Settle Their Differences According to London Prize Rules.
The articles reported that two journalists, Louis M. Houseman of the Daily Inter Ocean, and Charles Alberts of the Chicago Times, had settled their dispute according to the “London Prize Ring” rules, with bare-knuckles, in a formal, secret boxing match at the school of the noted fencing master, duelist, and pugilist Col. Thomas H. Monstery.
The dispute, it was reported, had begun “over a game of sevenup in the Central station.”
Although the initial flurry of articles were sparse in their detail, seventeen years later, more intimate details of the story were related by Frederic Adams, a professor of aerostatics who had served as a second for Alberts in the fight, and whose reminiscences were published in the New York Sunday Telegraph. Adams recounted,
“These two were rivals in many things, professional and personal, but particularly in poker…One night the usual ‘scrap’ between Houseman and Albert happened about the usual time. One of them accused the other of cheating or miscalling a hand and reached over to seize his cards. Everybody’s checks were on the floor, and somehow Albert had managed to reach the side of Louis’s head. That settled it instantly. We fell upon them, tore them apart and insisted that, if they were going to fight, they should do it in a decent manner, at a proper time and place.”
At this point, Frank Hassler consented to act as second for Houseman, and Adams for Alberts. After first suggesting that the dispute be settled with sabres—a notion firmly rejected by the two principals—it was decided that bare-knuckle boxing would be the mode combat:
“We agreed to make it a bare knuckle fight to a finish—the last that had occurred in Chicago since the fire—and the details of time and place were left to Hassler and myself to arrange. The two principals departed to spread the dark secret of the forthcoming meeting among their friends, while Hassler and I sought out dear old Col. Monstery to secure his services as referee, and particularly the use of his fencing school and gymnasium as a battleground.”
Adams described Monstery thus:
“The Colonel, old soldier of fortune under many flags, incomparable fencer and mighty duellist in his day, was a man whose joy in life it was to promote any sort of fight under all the formal and ceremonious rules that he thought should hedge all pre-arranged encounters. He agreed to be ready for us at any hour, day or night, that we could produce our principals.”
A contemporary article further explained,
“A hundred reporters and others had got wind of the affair and one of the principals refusing to fight before a crowd, it was decided by the half dozen or so most intimately interested that it was best to disperse and meet at 6 a.m. at Colonel Monstery’s. Privately it was announced that the fight would occur at 2 o’clock this morning. The ruse was successful…”
After a full week passed, and the initial press frenzy had died down, Adams recounted,
“Four carriages took the crowd of us down to Monstery’s place, and as it was long after midnight—we had to wake the old chap out of bed. He didn’t mind a bit. He came out rubbing his hands and grinning, bowed low to both the principals, and said a few neat words about his great admiration for courage and the necessity of settling differences according to the code, and went in to light up [the premises].
“Both the principals were in a blue funk when the Colonel made them strip to their undershirts and tied fencing belts around their waists…Houseman was very pale and demanded that Hassler search Albert for concealed weapons, whereupon Monstery remarked that he only permitted gentlemen to contest affairs of honor in his salle d’armes, and that if any such weapons were discovered he would consider himself bound to personally chastise their possessor.”
A contemporary article also noted, “The men…put on fencing shoes and went at it. Both went in for blood.”
Thus the fight began. The 1888 article continued,
“Six rounds were fought, and once for each round, Alberts went down. When he got up the sixth time he had two black eyes, a number of severe cuts about his face, and was willing to quit. Houseman dislocated his thumb, but was otherwise uninjured.”
“To Louis’ credit, be it said, that he made the first attack. He rushed across that fifteen foot space and swatted Albert fairly on top of the head, cutting a gash two inches long…Hassler and the Colonel fixed Albert’s wound with a bit of plaster and we sent ’em in again. They clinched this time and tried to bite. In the breakaway Albert struck Houseman low and kicked him as he went down…Albert had got a punch on his prodigious nose which drew the claret in abundance…”
At this point, Monstery rendered a decision, giving Houseman the fight on a foul. And so the combat came to an end.
According to a contemporary article, “The principals and witnesses [had] pledged themselves to secrecy, but tonight the matter leaked out, and caused a sensation in newspaper circles.”
On February 6th, the following editorial appeared in the New York Daily Graphic:
PUGILISM IS JOURNALISM.
Now let the nation roar, the eagle Scream and the Rocky Mountain bear lash his abbreviated tail in fine frenzy! The fistic fever has at last attacked the journalist. Notebook and pencil have been cast aside and the skin gloves have been donned. The reporter’s desk has been deserted and the ring has been entered. Disputes on paper have been given over to children and questions of circulation and veracity will hereafter be settled in a twentty-four foot ring according to tho rules laid down by the late Marquis of Queensbury.
Reporters Houseman and Alberts of Chicago, who have broken in on the traditions of the past and cast to the winds the pen and ink assaults of their forefathers and supervisors, have a fearful responsibility resting upon them. Already are the reporters of New York thumping sand-bags and wrestling with dumb-bells preparatory to the contests which must now inevitably ensue.
And where will this tend? Will it not enter the editorial sanctum? Will not disputes in the future be left to the arbitrament of the glove? That is the logical conclusion. That must be the ultimate result.
When this method of settlement becomes popular, we shall see that stanch and gallant Republican, Charles Emory Smith of Philadelphia, stripped to the buff and wearing protected tights and protected gloves, doing battle with the muscular editor of the New York Times. We shall behold a fight to a finish in a ten acre loft between those clever and entertaining gentlemen, Messrs. Dana and Pulitzer. The doughty Godkin will dispute the honors of the day with Cyrus Field and James Gordon Bennett, will try to cross buttock Whitelaw Reid…
Oh, but these will be glorious times when, in flesh-colored tights and heads well shaved, the great and mighty minds that direct the destinies of this glorious republic get together and scrap!
Then will the American eagle spread his wings flap his tail and soar off into the blue empyrean dome with a shriek that shall thunder and echo from Greenland’s icy mountains to India’s coral strands, and an admiring world will look on and give a double encore to every editorial thump.
Such sentiment, however, was not quite shared by Frederic Adams. Unimpressed by Houseman’s “win” on a technicality, he finished his reminiscences by noting,
“Albert finally left town as manager of a Midway couchee-couchee dancer, and Houseman grew up to be sporting editor of the Interocean and a notable authority on pugilism. But I’m afraid some of the followers of the game to whom he is high priest and prophet now would lose confidence in his judgment and infallibility if they could have witnessed his first initiation into the mysteries of the squared circle.”
Thus ended Adams’ account of “the last bare knuckle prize-fight contested under former auspices in the Windy City.”
© 2015 by Ben Miller.
Colonel Thomas H. Monstery‘s martial wisdom survives in his treatise on Boxing, Kicking, Grappling, and Fencing with the Cane and Quarterstaff, which was recently published by North Atlantic Books in book form for the first time. This volume contains a new, detailed biography of Monstery, and includes additional writings by the Colonel.
A preview of the contents of this book can be seen in the following article about Victorian-era Self Defense.
Additional articles about Colonel Thomas H. Monstery:
Sources for this article:
Cleveland Leader, Feb. 3, 1888.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, Feb. 3, 1888.
Aberdeen Weekly News, Feb. 3, 1888.
St. Albans Daily Messenger, Feb. 3, 1888.
New York Daily Graphic, Feb. 6, 1888.
Daily Inter Ocean, Feb. 6, 1888.
Daily Inter Ocean, Feb. 11, 1888.
New York Sunday Telegraph, Aug. 26, 1900.