The Molineaux Myth

Luke G. Williams
05/08/2018 3:35pm

Two hundred years since the death of the great black bareknuckle boxer Tom Molineaux, the facts about his early life remain as elusive as ever, argues Luke G. Williams in this adapted extract from his book 'Richmond Unchained'...

The early life of the great black bareknuckle boxer Tom Molineaux - who twice challenged for the Championship of England in the early 19th century and died 200 years ago this weekend - is resolutely mysterious, with existing accounts offering few, if any, solid facts and sources.

Instead, when attempting to ascertain who Molineaux was and where he came from, we are forced to predominantly rely on unsubstantiated and highly fanciful anecdotes, the verification of which remain elusive and probably impossible. One of the most influential accounts of Molineaux’s early life, certainly in terms of the way it has been recycled and recited without question by later writers, is offered by Fred Henning in his 1902 book Fights for the Championship which appears to have been the primary source used, in turn, by American boxing journalist Nat Fleischer in his 1938 book Black Dynamite.

Details and common threads from these accounts seem to have gradually seeped into other sources, with occasional variations and contradictions, to the extent that tracing the genesis of the myths surrounding Molineaux’s life is somewhat akin to participating in a giant game of Chinese whispers.

Despite the fact that, as pieces of historical research, Henning and Fleischer’s accounts of Molineaux’s life are highly problematic, they nevertheless advance a fascinating and compelling narrative, which has formed the basis for what might be best termed the ‘Molineaux myth’. Through force of repetition and, perhaps, an understandably romantic desire for some of the myth’s more delicious and dramatic twists to be true, the ‘Molineaux myth’ has become accepted by many writers and historians as fact, rather than speculation or anecdote. Like many myths, it probably contains kernels of truth, but separating them from instances of invention, embroidery and exaggerated fact is an impossible task.

Henning claims that Molineaux’s surname originated from the family under whose aegis the young Tom was born into slavery in 1784 in Virginia, writing that the family were descended ‘from one of the aristocratic houses to which King Charles had wisely granted lands’. Having stated, in breathtakingly objectionable terms, that Molineaux was born ‘a piccaninny as black as a lump of coal,’ Henning neglects any mention of his immediate family, although Fleischer insists his father was named Zachary and was a ‘tremendously powerful person’. It is Zachary who Fleischer credits with being the founder of pugilism in America, along with his brothers Elizah, Ebenezar, Franklin and Moses. Of these formidable sounding siblings, Fleischer writes that they ‘were men of muscle’ who ‘outclassed all rivals in Virginia’.

Henning focuses on the role of Algernon Molineaux, son of the head of the Molineaux family, in Tom’s fistic development, writing that he took ‘a great fancy to the nigger lad … for he had found him very useful as a body guard, and he had twice backed him to beat others older and more experienced with his fists’. The next stage in Fleischer’s narrative is similar, recounting how, when Tom was fourteen, his father died and, as a result, the youngster became ‘chief handy man around his master’s estate’. Both Henning and Fleischer then describe in almost identical terms how Tom’s first foray into boxing came about, with Henning writing:

‘Algernon Molyneux, whilst with a gay set in Richmond, where his father had a town house, and a number of these gay young sparks met, and the conversation turned upon fighting, when one named Peyton, [7] a young planter, whose father had recently died and left him a considerable amount of money, offered to back one of his slaves named Abe, against any black in Virginia. Molyneux, who was more than half intoxicated at the time, immediately accepted the challenge, and nominated Tom. Stakes were posted and bets were made, and in the morning, master Algernon, when he came to his senses, was rather shocked to find that he stood to lose no less a sum than a hundred thousand dollars.’

Fleischer’s variation on the same tale includes the dramatic flourish of Tom volunteering to try and save his Master’s fortune. In return, Tom was promised his freedom if he won ‘and with that as an inducement, a merry contest was assured’. At this point both writers introduce a sailor named Davis into their narratives, who they claim had fought in England and then trained Molineaux. The problem was, apparently, that Tom was too ‘docile’ in training so, Fleischer claims, ‘Squire Molineaux made an added inducement’ by promising him $100 if he won, as well as his freedom. Diverging from Fleischer, Henning maintains that Molineaux was only offered his freedom once it became clear he was not training properly. According to his account, Algernon was set to flog Tom for his lack of effort in training, whereupon Davis suggested: ‘Promise him his freedom and a hundred dollars if he wins, and I’ll stake my existence that young Tom will thrash any nigger in the country.’

Motivation duly provided, Molineaux trained with formidable alacrity and, on beating Abe, Henning claims that Algernon upped Tom’s reward to $500.

Henning and Fleischer’s accounts then diverge; Fleischer claims that, with his freedom won and money in his pocket, Molineaux was told by Davis about the riches pugilists could earn in England, and resolved to cross the Atlantic, succeeding in getting a job on a vessel in Baltimore, before arriving in Liverpool sometime in ‘the Winter of 1809’ and making his way to London. Henning’s version is that Molineaux ended up in New York, where he styled himself ‘Champion of America’ and stayed for five years, fighting several contests before heading to England.

The majority of accounts of Molineaux’s early life stick closely to Henning and Fleischer’s basic structure, although some are adorned with further details which have fed the ‘Molineaux myth’; for example, Bill Calogero in his 2011 essay Tom Molineaux: From Slave to American Heavyweight claimed that Molineaux’s father fought in the American War of Independence and that Molineaux began boxing in New York’s Catherine Market area around 1804. He even recounts an outlandish claim that George Washington introduced Molineaux to bare-knuckle boxing.

Meanwhile, Thormanby in his 1900 book Boxers and their Battles: Anecdotal Sketches and Personal Recollections of Famous Pugilists claimed that Molineaux was associated with the American diplomat and statesman Thomas Pinckney, declaring he was ‘for several years in the service of Mr Pinckney, the then Ambassador of the United States in London. I have no doubt that it was the fact that his old master held this important appointment in London that induced Molineaux to come over here … Pinckney was a very good friend to him’.

The details may vary, but the truth of Molineaux’s life story remains elusive. It is probable that aspects of the ‘Molineaux myth’ may even have been invented by Molineaux himself, or by his mentor and fellow black American-born pugilist Bill Richmond, as a way of adding to the mystique that surrounded his introduction to English pugilism.

Having entered oral and anecdotal tradition during his lifetime, these details then worked their way into newspapers and books, until it was no longer possible to distinguish between fact and fiction. In fairness to Henning, Fleischer et al, there is reason to believe that at least some of the basics of the ‘Molineaux myth’ may coalesce with the truth; Henning and Fleischer’s birth date for Molineaux of 1784 tallies with newspaper reports of 1810 which give his age as twenty-six, although it is a mystery how Fleischer alighted on the peculiarly precise date of 23 March.

However, other details and assertions, for example that Molineaux was of Virginian birth, are contradicted by sources that were actually written in Molineaux’s lifetime; for example, The Sporting Magazine, described him as ‘a Baltimore man of colour’, while Oxberry in Pancratia referred to him as ‘a native of the State of New York’.

Interestingly, sources during Molineaux’s lifetime are also very vague concerning whether he was ever actually a slave, often referring to slavery only by implication, rather than explicitly. In his first biographical essay of Molineaux, published in Boxiana 1812, Pierce Egan makes no reference to Molineaux having been a slave, although he does imply that Molineaux’s antecedents included a fighter of some sort, which might be the original source of the story of Zachary Molineaux, claiming that ‘the brave MOLINEAUX arrived in England: descended from a warlike hero, who had been the conquering pugilist of America’.

The ambiguity of Egan’s account and other sources means it remains a possibility that Molineaux was a free citizen from a northern state in America, which would tally with the contemporary references to New York and Baltimore, as opposed to a former slave from the south. A further alternative is that he was indeed a slave, but from the north and not from the south. The first explicit reference to Molineaux being a slave seems to be the poem written by Bob Gregson entitled British Lads And Black Millers, published in Boxiana in 1812. In the second verse, Gregson writes in the form of a dramatic dialogue between Molineaux and Cribb:

‘Brave Molineaux replied, I’ve never been denied,
To fight the foes of Britons on such planks as those;
If relationship you claim, bye and bye, you’ll know my name,
I’m the Moorish milling blade that can drub my foes.
Then CRIBB replied with haste,
You slave, I will you baste,
As your master us’d to cane you, ‘twill bring things to your mind:
If from bondage you’ve got clear,
To impose on Britons here,
You’d better stopp’d with Christophe, you’ll quickly find.’

The references to ‘bondage’, ‘slave’ and ‘master’ are far from definitive evidence that Molineaux was a former slave or even claimed he was one; they may instead represent poetic licence or a stereotypical assumption on Gregson’s part that all black Americans must have been former slaves.

Despite its flaws, the ‘Molineaux myth’ and its widespread adoption and acceptance within historical discourse teaches us something vital about human nature, as well as the turbulent history of black experience in America and England. The conventional interpretation of the ‘Molineaux myth’ is aptly summarised by Calogero, who links the myth’s seductive appeal to its relationship to the American dream:

‘Molineaux’s is a quintessential American story, an up-from-the-bootstraps tale in which an individual could rise from abject poverty and, through skill and perseverance, challenge the world’s best. Molineaux was perhaps the first black man to exemplify the American ideal that your place in life is not situated in birthright but created by your acts.’

As Calogero’s interpretation demonstrates, there is a widespread desire for the story of Molineaux’s romantic journey from slave to pugilist to be true, despite the absence of any solid historical documents or verification concerning his early life. However, we should be wary of any attempt to adopt the ‘Molineaux myth’ for ideological purposes; by asserting or appropriating Molineaux as an exemplar of the American dream, who was later abused and cheated by the English in his first fight against Tom Cribb, the ‘Molineaux myth’, for Calogero as well as other American boxing historians, not only attempts to verify the validity of the American dream, but also, albeit at an unconscious level, offers comfort to white Americans by shielding them from the true horrors of slavery.

The unwritten but clear implication of glorifying Molineaux as a ‘great American’ and an exemplar of the American Dream is the insidious implication that if, through strength of will and character, Molineaux could win his freedom, then slavery must have possessed some form of meritocratic dimension. In other words: if Molineaux could escape slavery through endeavour and determination, then so too could other slaves, had they been motivated or talented enough to do so.

A corollary of such sentiments are the revisionist accounts of slavery which declare that it ‘wasn’t that bad’. Such interpretations are not as rare as you might think: as recently as March 2013, the Republican politician Jim Brown declared: ‘Basically slave owners took pretty good care of their slaves.’ Along similar lines, Walter Block has written that: ‘slavery wasn't so bad. You could pick cotton, sing songs, be fed nice gruel ... The only real problem was that this relationship was compulsory.’

Such interpretations must be avoided at all costs, for they obscure several essential truths, predominantly the all-pervading evil of the institution of slavery in the first place. The ‘Molineaux myth’ also obscures an uncomfortable truth for many Americans; namely that when Bill Richmond and Tom Molineaux arrived in England in 1777 and 1810 respectively, the prospects for advancement, wealth and societal acceptance for a black man were far superior in Britain than they were in America.

The War of Independence might have been won and founded on the laudable principles of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, but the English, whose rulers the American patriots had condemned for their tyranny, were far less tyrannical in their approach to black people than the United States, where slavery still flourished, particularly in the south, and was not finally abolished until 1865.

In the final analysis, though, it is vital to remember that the lives of Richmond and Molineaux should not be defined by the respective merits, or otherwise, of American or English society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although both men were born in America and won fame in England, their legacy is not to authenticate the notion of England as a ‘cradle of civilisation’ and ‘inclusivity’, or to validate the concept of the ‘American Dream’.

Rather, their experiences teach us a more personal lesson; a lesson about the awesome powers of determination which exist within all human beings, and how these powers, when marshalled wholeheartedly, can overcome the disadvantage of capricious historical happenstance in order for an individual to make their mark on the world. Only when we recognise this, are we able to see that the achievements of Richmond and Molineaux are theirs and theirs alone, and that to appropriate either man for a nationalistic or ideological cause is a fallacy indeed.

Click here for details on Luke G. Williams' book Richmond Unchained