At the turn of the twentieth century, "Rough Tom" was the most feared matman in America. The 225 pound former ironworker from Ohio was renowned for his strength and damaging style. Frank Gotch judged Tom Jenkins to be the strongest wrestler he ever faced. Jenkins thought nothing of mixing it up in the roughest fashion possible; his style was wide open at all times with plenty of elbow shots to face and body. When choke-holds became illegal, Tom invented his "jaw-lock" which he used to choke his opponents. While opponents came onto the mat unarmed, Tom's rock-hard sharp calloused hands could and did flay the skin right off a man's face and body. He was a cagey veteran of hundreds of bouts with all the fighting heart of a true champion.
The harsh realities of the times were hard on the Jenkins family. Tom's father, Thomas Jenkins of Wales, returned to his home in Holland from extended mining operations training in Russia to find his first wife and all of his children dead in the Great Potato Famine. He married his second wife, Mary Williams of Wales, in Scotland. They had three daughters who all died quite young in Scotland. Thomas and Mary Jenkins moved to England where their first three sons, Timothy, Abraham and John, were born. Timothy died in England before the family immigrated to Bedford, Ohio. Their final two sons were born in America: Timotheous and then, on August 3, 1872, future wrestling champion Thomas. The Jenkins family moved to Newburg (still in the Cleveland area) when Young Tom was five. The spirited Young Tom needed firm guidance at Woodland Hill School which was backed up frequently by Old Tom's very firm hand at home.
It was a rainy Fourth of July holiday in the summer of 1881 following Young Tom's second grade year that changed his life. Five independent youngsters found their cannon firing salute to Independence Day spoiled by rain-dampened black powder. But the creative cannon battery team came up with a great idea in the early morning hours of July 5th: build a fire under the cannon to dry out the wet powder. The predictable explosion blew the two-foot iron cannon apart injuring four boys. Tom got the worst of it with iron fragments and black powder specks embedded in his broken-jawed face, neck, and chest. Dr. Brooks worked to save Tom's eyesight by confining Young Tom to a quiet darkened room for close to a year. Tom's right eye was blind for life with limited sight in his left eye. Tom's formal education was over when Dr. Brooks told Tom the strain of reading with his weak left eye could blind him totally.
The year 1882 found the illiterate second grade graduate out on the streets of the greater Cleveland area. He entertained himself with pranks and petty theft. Enterprising Young Tom would steal from street vendors and sell his loot to other vendors a few blocks away. It was a fast and busy life for Cleveland's own little Oliver Twist and by the time he was twelve years of age Tom had been in many scrapes and formally arrested eight times. But Tom explained, "There wasn't never no meanness in me. These were just the pranks of a wild kid who was trying to keep busy doing something, but you got pinched easy in them days."
The self-described Wild Kid needed hard jobs to keep him busy and away from trouble. Tom worked as a water and spike boy for a railroad repair crew when he was just ten. He was always energetic but began to build his infamous strength before he was twelve years old working the bellows as an apprentice chain maker. By age twelve he was making tire irons. Then at sixteen years of age Young Tom got the job that would shape him into the rock hard man who could overpower the greatest wrestlers in the world. Tom was promoted to Rougher in Newburg's American Wire & Steel Mill, No. 9. A two-man team of Roughers used heavy tongs to carry white-hot 100 pound steel ingots to grooved rollers. The powerful Roughers had to work quickly feeding the steel back and forth through the fast moving rollers while it was still red-hot. As the 100 pound ingot was pressed out longer and thinner it acquired a wicked curl that would catch and maim or kill a Rougher who was not nimble on his feet. Years of fourteen hour days in this life threatening training regimen built the future wrestler's strength, reflexes, agility, and rock hard calloused hands.
The door to opportunity opened in early 1891 with an exhibition wrestling match scheduled among the events at a benefit for an injured waterboy. When professional wrestler Al Wood's opponent did not show, eighteen-year-old Tom was drafted by his fellow millworkers to fill in. Compensating for his lack of skills with his strength and agility, Tom fought the professional to a draw. This moral victory won Tom fame at work and more: George Patton, a mill manager, arranged for three wrestling lessons a week with Luke Lamb in Cleveland. Tom continued as a full-time Rougher while training with other millworkers on breaks and practicing his new wrestling skills at night.
Beginning his wrestling career slowly while still holding down his Rougher day job, Tom beat professionals Pete Shumacher and Hans Spiegel--both in straight falls. In May of 1893 Tom quit the mill to go pro. Tom proved to be invincible on the mat. In his first seven years of wrestling Tom had yet to lose a single fall but his professional career floundered as he was swindled of his winnings by one greedy manager after another; Tom couldn't read a contract.
In 1898 things turned around. In February he got the best partnership of his life with his marriage to his one true love, Anne Lavinia Gray of England. He also got Harry Pollock as his first honest manager. Pollock arranged Tom's shot at the big time with a match against the great Martin "Farmer" Burns in Cleveland. Tom took Burns in straight falls to make a claim on the American heavyweight title. Tom finished out a great 1898 with the birth of his first daughter Lavinia.
Tom continued undefeated, meeting and beating all championship claimants including a win over Ernest Roeber on July 5, 1901 to set up a winner-take-all match with Dan McLeod of Hamilton, Canada. On November 7, 1901 Tom met McLeod in Cleveland and Dan McLeod pinned Tom in thirty-six minutes. Tom was devastated. By some accounts this was the very first time Tom had ever been pinned in a match. How did he handle this? Tom came back to take the second fall in twenty-two minutes and the deciding third fall in nineteen minutes. Thomas Jenkins, now the undisputed American heavyweight catch-as-catch-can champion, had showed his true mettle.
Tom defended his title against all challengers; even when he had blood poisoning so severe he had to wear a buckled leather brace on his infected left leg. McLeod used the buckles against him in a December 25, 1902 title match until Tom had to forfeit the third fall and his title to McLeod. But Tom healed and came back strongly in 1903 beating Frank Gotch in straight falls on February 22nd and beating McLeod in straight falls on April 3rd to regain the American title. 1904 began with a January loss to Gotch in Bellingham, WA. and a July two to one loss to George Hackenschmidt in England. But 1904 did bring Tom his second daughter, Audrey. Tom finished out 1904 by returning to his old Rougher job in Newburg. With family and friends about him, Tom's health and strength returned and 1905 became the year of Tom's greatest comebacks. February 1, 1905 he lost to Gotch two falls to one but came back to defeat Frank Gotch on March 15th to regain his American heavyweight championship title for the third time. Two weeks after being beaten by Hackenschmidt on May 4th Tom came back to wrestle his greatest match. On May 19, 1905 Tom took the first and third falls to defeat Frank Gotch and defend his national title in an incredibly tough two hour match. The wrestling series between Tom Jenkins and Frank Gotch was one of the most brutal rivalries in all of American sports. Tom was the only wrestler ever to defeat Frank Gotch three times in all-out shoot matches. When Gotch took back the title for keeps on May 23, 1906, Tom was already deeply committed to his new career.
Thomas was thirty-three in 1905 when he faced his greatest challenge. President Theodore Roosevelt had appointed Tom boxing & wrestling instructor of the United States Military Academy at West Point. The tag of "Rough Tom" took on a whole new meaning with the illiterate second-grade educated retired champion assuming the title of Professor at West Point. Tom would be responsible for the finest young educated minds produced in America. Tom later recounted thinking, "They ain't hiring me to teach reading and writin'. All they want outa me is boxing and wrestling, and I can give 'em plenty of that." Tom's patient wife Lavinia spent endless hours helping her husband memorize manuals of West Point regulations. And Tom learned to read and write. And the honest straight-forward plain-spoken Professor had a great career at West Point, training cadets for 37 years. Pop Jenkins was idolized by the cadets. It is estimated that before retiring in 1942 Tom applied his none-too-gentle hands to over 13,500 West Point cadets and taught them how to be tough, both on the mat and in life.
After retirement the old retired champion and West Point legend lived quietly in nearby Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York with his beloved wife and helpmate. Before Lavinia died, Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins celebrated their fifty-second wedding anniversary in 1950. Tom was right at home in Cornwall-on-Hudson. During his West Point years he had put in twenty-five years instructing students at the New York Military Academy prep school in Cornwall-on-Hudson. Tom's elder daughter Lavinia, who had been a career nurse since she was nineteen-years-old, cared for Tom in his last years. Mr. Thomas T. Jenkins died on June 19, 1957 at eighty-four years of age. He is buried with honors at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Postscript: In 1962 George Hackenschmidt wrote of his 1939 visit to Jenkins at West Point, "Tom showed me around the training quarters and I saw his cadets at work. It was a stimulating thing to see the pride of the old-time champion in his work and in his team. The high esteem he held was evident at a glance and there must have been many of those during the war that so soon came (World War II) who look back in gratitude to the strength and endurance Tom's training had imparted to them." Among Pop Jenkins hands-on pupils were George S. Patton, Omar Bradley, and Dwight Eisenhower. George Hackenschmidt recognized that the influence of Tom's no-holds-barred fighting spirit had an effect on our world today far beyond the wrestling mat. Brigadier General John Thomas Corley was one of the most decorated officers of World War II. General Corley related that in the thick of the Battle of the Bulge when his command had been overrun, "I was punchy for want of sleep. I went into a dugout to think. I put my head down on a table and dozed off. I was a cadet again and in Tom Jenkins' wrestling room. I could hear him saying, 'Mister, what do you weigh? You don't have to be as big as the other fellow to win.' I did not surrender the battalion. General Bradley sent tanks and rescued us." While recognizing that Tom was a truly great wrestling champion, the life and teachings of Thomas Jenkins ultimately far transcended his wrestling honors.
- John E. Rauer
Acknowledgement to Mike Chapman, Tom Ellis, Mark Hewitt, & Karl Stern.