The Biography of Henry Ernest Buermeyer

Henry Buermeyer



     I know of no other "Buermeyer" in our lineage that had such a direct and pronounced impact on American society. Henry's contribution toward the formation of the New York Athletic Club, the first organization promoting a healthy, physical lifestyle, was a positive effort that became the cornerstone for amateur sport throughout North America.

     His personal achievements were equally impressive. He was a referee in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. He fought in the Civil War. He was the first American amatuer heavyweight boxing champion, recording the first official knockout at Madison Square Gardens. Numerous swimming and shot put (during his time referred to as "putting the shot")medals added to swimming and running championships; the first amateur athlete to win a national competition in the 100 yard dash. He witnessed a great city rise up from the banks of the Hudson River and he shared the same ground with the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Wild Bill Hickcock. The footsteps he left were deep and lasting. The "Buermeyer 500" was created to commemorate New York's most recognized athlete and continues to this day.

     Many thanks to the New York Athletic Club. They provided the autobiography that Henry wrote just prior to his death in 1922. And also, heartfelt thanks to the New York Public Library for the images used to illustrate Henry's story.

-Eric Buermeyer

     Youth finds pleasure in anticipation, Old Age in recollection; therefore it is natural for old people to talk of themselves and their past actions, and I will indulge it without fear of being tiresome to others who through respect for Old Age might constrain themselves to give me a hearing since this may be read or not, according as one is interested.

     I write this biography hoping it may prove interesting to some members of the Club, the organization of which in 1868 has turned out to be one of the most important events for the good of the Nation. In the older days, there was no organized athletics, and the founding of the New York Athletic Club with the contests it staged, and the athletes it developed caused athletics to become fashionable, making it possible to build up that system, which succeeded in organizing athletic clubs all over the country.

     By promoting lives of self-restraint and regularity, by precept and example the New York Athletic Club fostered a type of young American manhood which gave us our soldiers for the recent World War, troops which were a surprise to our European neighbors. The same influences produced the athletes which won for America such distinction at the Olympic Games at Stockholm.

     Age is but a succession of folly and of wisdom. My life is what I made it for better or for worse. At times I think with pride of the days in which I tried my strength against my fellow-men, happy to strive and toil, glad that I should be alive. In looking back over my life I realize very fully that it has been, in general, a contented and happy one. I have been an athlete, soldier, sportsman and a man of affairs, happily married to a most worthy help-mate for twenty-five years.

     I am now an old man and feel the effects of the normal action of age. Life has but one meaning - to go on, ever on. A long sleep awaits at the journey's end. We must meet what comes to us in manful and friendly fashion, being strong and just, so that as we pass through the Valley of the Shadow, which means to me that my individual spirit must go back into the great ocean of spirits, we may meet the summons calmly, when Death beckons away. My duty, as I see it, is to conform. The best statement that I can make of my creed is, I accept.

     While serving in the Union Army during 1861 and 1864, I have met death often, and I have seen many of the officers and enlisted men of the 83rd, New York Regiment, stricken down on the field of battle, but the bullets seemed to avoid me for some time.

     Once, on picket duty at night on the bank of a stream, I looked into a revolver in the hands of a cavalry officer. My musket was loaded and cocked and the bayonet was upon it. My finger was on the trigger, the bayonet was close to the officer's chest as he leaned forward to give me the countersign. It was a close shave for the officer. He was not aware that the picket line had been shifted, nor did I know that one of our scouting parties was out, so I thought it might be a party of Confederate cavalry.

     Death looked quite near to one, perhaps to both, of us, if the correct countersign had not been given to me. As it was the incident passed off harmlessly. I have seen painful sights in my time. Soldiers shot for desertion; men dying all about me; gaping wounds in torn and mutilated bodies; of men suffering agonies yet smilingly awaiting Death's approach, as did the young aide-de-camp, and the enlisted man whose cots were near mine when I was in the hospital at Washington, D.C.

     I mention these various experiences because I have seen only a few show signs of physical fear when about to meet Death. I am satisfied that it is not death that men fear so much as the violent separation of spirit and body.

     If a man had faith that his spirit was to go back to the great ocean of spirits, he would more frequently take a chance of losing his own life to save the life of another, or if attempting to do some act which might make him famous.

Broadway and Marketfield 1800     I was born August 19th, 1839 at the corner of Broad and Marketfield Streets, New York City. The house I was born in was destroyed by the great Conflagration of 1845.

editor's note: This was one of New York's most destructive fires; nearly 300 buildings were destroyed at an estimated loss of $7,000,000.

     Shortly after the fire my father leased the property at the corner of Broad and Pearl Streets, then known as the Broad Street House.

     When quite young, the Battery Park was my playground and I learned to swim at the Rabiniau Bathhouse, near Castle Garden. At an early age I was also instructed in the art of sculling by a Whitehall boatman and competed in a sweepstake race in double-scull working boat from Castle Garden to and around Ellis Island and return to the Garden. I was then sixteen years old. The following summer I purchased a seventeen foot racing boat and practiced sculling on Gowanus Bay. I soon developed speed enough to successfully compete with any sculler from Brooklyn.

Fraunces Tavern 1854     I had several American, English and Irish acquaintances who took part in wrestling, boxing and pedestrian races for money, and in this way I became interested in those sports, and have kept them up more or less ever since. At this time I know, personally, every boxer, wrestler and oarsman in the city, and most of the local politicians.

     I was educated at the Mechanics Institute School on Chambers Street, where the Municipal Building now stands. Mr. M.C. Tracy was the principal of the school, and while a pupil of the school I won a gold medal for proficiency in penmanship and bookkeeping, and graduated in 1854.

     After leaving school, because of my surroundings, I was ambitious of becoming strong and capable, and thought hard work a good way to become so, I worked about two years at Isaac Hall's forge on Front Street, swinging a sledge, handling chains and anchors, also doing shipsmith's work. When I quit that job I was fully the peer of all my shop mates in strength and endurance. I had, however, contracted the habits of chewing and smoking tobacco and also, as prohibition was unknown in those days, I was accustomed to take a drink of hard liquor with my shop mates.

     I secured a situation with Messrs. Rivera & Hall, import and export merchants in the West Indian trade, and while thus employed in their office, I realized I must have more exercise to keep well. I joined the Gebhardt Gymnasium on Broadway near Bond Street, and did some gymnastic work under the instruction of a German trainer, and lots of other exercise after class work.

     I then became a member of Charles Ottingon's gymnasium on Crosby Street. It was the nightly resort of people fond of sport of all kinds, but more interest was taken in boxing than in any other form of exercise. *Ottingon was known to be the best teacher of boxing in New York. He might almost be said to have been the father of prize-fighting in America. He had boxed with Tom Hyer, Yankee Sullivan, John Morrissey, John C. Heenan and won a match from Van Slyck, a noted teacher of boxing. No one succeeded in getting the best of him.

editor's note: Charles Ottingon was also the first trainer for the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

     At that time there was no definition of amateur athletics, nor had they any acknowledged status. I was soon known as one of the strongest men exercising in Ottingon's gymnasium, and also his best boxer, and was always selected to box anyone who called there to tryout the best we had. One of these was the ten middle-weight prize ring champion of America, and there were a few others not so prominent. I was always successful in convincing my opponent that I had real ability. Ottingon became interested in me and gave me much practical knowledge in the art of countering, and hitting hard with both hands, to say nothing of the confidence which his tuition implanted.

     Ten years before the founding of the New York Athletic Club, which has been such a factor in the athletic life of this country, I was looked upon as America's exponent of boxing. This was before the Civil War, at which time there was no distinction between professionals and amateurs. This distinction was not made until years after the formation of the New York Athletic Club. I had become sufficiently prominent to attract rivals who searched over the city to find a worthy opponent for me.

May, 1861

The 9th New York Regiment marches past a large crowd of on-lookers. 21 year old private Henry Buermeyer is part of the procession and will eventually become a 1st Lieutenant with New York's 83rd Volunteer Regiment.


     In May, 1861, I enlisted in the Federal Army for the War, becoming a member of the 9th New York Regiment which was afterwards named or called the 83rd New York Volunteers. This Regiment won a name for bravery and efficiency in battle with the Army of the Potomac, second to no other Regiment in the Union Army. The Regiment's losses in killed and died of wounds was 165, missing 174 and wounded 423, making a total list of casualties of 762. I served as an enlisted man, carried a musket for nearly two years and was then promoted to be First Lieutenant of Company F.

     *I was wounded on the left foot at the battle of Antietam. The wound was but a slight one and I was lame for about two weeks only.

*Editor's note: General Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North culminated with the Battle of Antietam, in Maryland (or Sharpsburg, as the South called it). The battle took place on Wednesday, September 17, 1862, just 18 days after the Confederate victory at Second Manassas, 40 miles to the southeast in Virginia. Not only was this the first major Civil War engagement on Northern soil, it was also the bloodiest single day battle in American history.

     I was again wounded at *Spotsylvania Courthouse. After being knocked down by the shot, I managed to get on my feet and walk a few steps, then I fell again and lay there till the stretcher bearers took me to the field hospital. At this time the wound was considered so serious that it was feared I might lose my left leg. The knee joint was badly swollen. I convinced the surgeon, however, that it might be possible to save the leg.

*Editor's note: (May 8-19, 1864), Civil War conflict between Union troops led by Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia. Despite heavy losses suffered during the Battle of the Wilderness, Grant pushed his troops on toward Richmond, where they clashed with Lee's army, with both sides suffering heavy losses. Although Grant lost more men and he gradually withdrew, the battle resulted in no real victory for either side.

     I was sent from there to the hospital at Washington, D.C. from where I was invalided home. When the 83rd New York Volunteers returned, having completed their three year' service with the Union Army, I was able to get around with the aid of a cane, and was mustered out of the Army in 1864.

     I did very little boxing while in the Army, although I was a sort of champion on the Regiment, and usually met aspiring boxers of other Regiments having little difficulty in convincing them that my claim to the Championship was good. I had one fight with bare knuckles with a husky butcher of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. He was very insulting in regard to the New York Regiments.

     I took off my knapsack and coat and we went at it. He was a rough and terrible fighter. I quickly got on to his mode of fighting and in one round made him squeal and ask for help from the two friends who accompanied him.

     In the 83rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, we had about eight hundred men, some were drafted, some were substitutes. There was among the substitutes a two hundred pound man, who in competition made it quite uncomfortable for middle-weight boxers pitted against him with boxing gloves. I was present one day when such a contest was going on. One of the defeated boxers said to me, "This man is in good form, won't you put on the gloves with him." I said, "No, I do not think it is the correct thing for an Officer to do/"

     The person who spoke to me laughed and glanced to the onlookers plainly wanting them to understand that I was afraid. This made me quite angry and my uniform coat and cap were off in a moment, and I faced the big fellow in a glove contest. I was very vicious and gave him the best I had. He was a sorry looking sight when I got through with him, and a day or two later he deserted from the Regiment.

     After recovering from my wound, and regaining my normal health, I began exercising at Ottignon's Gymnasium. It was there I first heard of the fine achievements, and great all round strength of W.B. Curtis, who was destined to become my life-long friend and companion.

     Mr. Curtis had been in the Union Army, having enlisted for the war in 1861. He was later promoted to a Captain in the Regular Army, and became Assistant Adjutant General on General Turchan's Staff. He had been a member of the Metropolitan Rowing Club of Chicago and was one of their racing crew which competed in a match race of ten thousand dollars over a five mile course at Toronto, Canada. It was afterwards decided that this race did not make any of the crew professionals.

     After Curtis left the Army, he became a member of the Chicago Board of Trade, speculated heavily in wheat and had made and lost considerable money. I was introduced to Curtis by Kehoe, the Club-maker. Curtis came to see me working in the gymnasium. He became interested, and showed me many very difficult gymnastic feats. His dumb-bell work surprised me. I was at that time doing some heavy club swinging, and ambidextrous work with a 135 pound dumb-bell. Curtis said he was sure I was stronger than anyone he knew, and was the first person among the strong men he ever met who did not overestimate his strength.

     Curtis and I became fast friends, were practically inseparable. His remarkable union of splendid qualities, physical and mental, endeared him to me, and his knowledge of Literature brought him in close relation with men of great prominence. "He was a man, take him for all and all, I may never look upon his like again."

     I recognized him as my chief. His supreme characteristic was his attachment to his friends, his unselfish devotion to them and his extreme modesty. Curtis greatly increased my interest in amateur athletics. Together we went to Finley's Track on Sundays and holidays, and made all our rowing and gymnastic friends in the different boathouses and gymnasiums acquainted with each other. This resulted in Curtis, Babcock and myself working in union to bring about the formation of the New York Athletic Club.

     In 1871 the Club held it first race for the Club's single sculling championship; built its first cinder path, and leased ground on the plot of lean bounded by Third Avenue, 130th Street, Lexington Avenue, and Harlem River, There we arranged the first handicap meeting ever held in America. During this year, challenge after challenge was given and accepted and Club Championship medals for success in sculling and other athletic events were awarded after contacts that were frequent and interesting.

     In 1877 a large boathouse was built on a scow on the shore of the Harlem River. Just at the rear of the grounds, and formally dedicated with appropriate ceremonies. July 21st. On August 25th, 1877, the Club gave the first meeting for the award of the amateur swimming championship of America. In January, 1878, the Club founded the amateur boxing and fencing championship of America, and in 1879, enriched the program by adding the wrestling championship.

     In 1882 the Club rented the Crescent Club gymnasium for the use of its members, and in 1885 we erected the line clubhouse at the southwest corner of Sixth Avenue and fifty-fifth Street. In 1888, the Club occupied the grounds, track and boathouse which then formed the magnificent Summer home on Travers Island, and in 1898 the club moved into their new city home, then the finest in the world on 59th street, facing Central Park.

     In the earlier days of the Club's history, there was no athletic club membership, and nearly all of the Club members could be found at the track and boathouse on Saturday's Sunday's and Holidays, doing athletic work and running and swimming. In this way the members had many enjoyable days, plenty of exercise as well as sport, and the contests among them were interesting as well as instructive. The ideas of recent days are different. Speed seems to be the great factor now sought for. Exercise and good fellowship among themselves does not have so strong a hold upon the younger element as in the early Seventies.

     During 1874 I had a severe business reverse, which left me in a cramped condition, after a satisfactory settlement with my creditors, so I begun to looking about for a situation. Charles Roosevelt, who was an old friend of mine and fellow athlete interested himself considerably and urged me to go to help him with his sheep ranch, which he expected would prove quite profitable. I agreed to go out West as Mr. Roosevelt's representative and spent four months on a cattle ranch and eight months at a sheep ranch. The life agreed with me, but things did not work smoothly or pleasantly. I wrote to Mr. Roosevelt, who was in Europe at the time, and told him I could not be of much service to him there, and he urged me to return to New York during the year 1876.

     My experience in the West were of some interest. The day I arrived at Cheyenne I took a walk through the town and happened to pass by a citizen of the place, who it seems was quite prominent in that locality. The man eyed me sharply. After we passed we both turned back at the same time to look one another over. My feeling was that if he wanted to start anything I would meet him half-way. I learned soon after that this was Wild Bill who had a reputation of being a good shot, but a rather bad citizen. Wild Bill was killed in the Black Hills not long after while acting as Sheriff.

     The Western men called me a tenderfoot, and I found them a breezy lot. Most of them did not care to answer any inquires regarding their peculiar names or give any details of their previous life. But all of them were kind, good hearted and generous to me. Occasionally some of them would draw the long bow as to their ability as good shots or runners for short distance. Some said they could box, and I would give them at times a chance to win a few dollars, at any game they wished but none of them ever won anything from me. Sometimes they would practice revolver and rifle shooting, and I found them all very quick to draw, but their marksmanship was generally not very accurate.

     A dramatic event occurred at the First amateur boxing for the United States Championship held at *Madison Square Garden in 1878. In the heavyweight class there were five entries: Buermeyer, NYAC, Joe Denning, Greenpoint Athletic Club, Lee, of Boston Athletic Club, Pilkington, a Broadway Policeman, member of the New York Police Club. Buermeyer, NYAC was of course none other than myself.

*In 1878 it was called Gilmore's Garden before adopting the name Madison Square Garden in 1881.

     The finish in the trials was certainly spectacular and startling. The heats were drawn in this way, Denning and the Policeman, Buermeyer along with Pilkington, Lee drew a bye, Denning bested his man, them Pilkington and I came on the platform Captain Alexander S. Williams had charge of the games. He ordered Pilkington from the platform saying he was no match for me. This caused some delay. Lee and his friends seemed very anxious to take Pilkington's place, and I was quite satisfied to have it so.

     I never had seen him until we shook hands. He was certainly a fine specimen of a man, about six feet tall. His weight was one hundred eighty-five pounds. He had sloping shoulders, large muscular legs, and he looked to me to be well trained. I was six feet tall, had square shoulders and my legs looked light when compared with his, but I was better developed above the waist. We shook hands and stepped back.

     Stepping in for a left hand lead, I slipped and received a heavy clout on my left ear. It stung me severely. I felt sure he would try the same thing again. I could hit just as hard with either hand, and knew a straight left was quicker than any sort of cross counter. I stepped in as he started his clout, giving my left hand punch all the power I had in arm and leg, and my blow reached him before his touched me. My punch lifted him off his legs, and he fell backwards with his heels in the air. His head hit the stage with force, he straightened out on his back, legs and arms wide apart, his face turned to the right and white foam appeared from his lips.

     The entire house became deathly still, a real knockout had never been seen in the Garden before. Professor Judd, a Masseur, took many minutes to bring Lee to and then help him off the stage. Captain Williams then stepped on the stage and stopped all the rest of the boxing, saying that the exhibit was too brutal.

     It was misfortune to give to the public its first experience of an amateur knockout, like all new experiences it was so surprising as to be a shock. In later years it has lost its novelty and it thrill and frequent knockouts by both amateurs and professional shock no one, although none of them had been quite so spectacular as the knockout I administered to Lee. I thought that Lee's head struck the floor so hard that it made him unconscious for a long period. The blow he received would probably have quieted him for a minute or two only, but my ability as one having the punch was exaggerated by the sporting press in the accounts of the games.

     I talked with Lee afterwards and found he was very much disappointed at the showing he had made, and he asked for another bout. I offered to gratify him any time, any where for a prize. He said he would come in for the Championship Meeting of 1879, and I told him I would be there. I received a letter from him about a week before the entries closed for the Tournament of 1879 and I answered it stating that I had entered for the heavy-weight championship, but I heard nothing more from Mr. Lee.

     The finals were to take place a night or two after (and)held very quietly for fear the police might interfere. A store was hired on one of the side streets and this was used for the purpose of the meeting. The store had been a place for religious meetings and the walls were decorated with scriptural quotations and extracts from favorite hymns. Denning did not show up nor did Lee, and the heavy-weight boxing championship of the United States for 1879 was awarded to me, H.E. Buermeyer.

     I met Denning some days afterwards and he explained to me that he tried to get to the finals on time but the ferryboat from Greenpoint, NY got stuck in the ice and drifted about for so long a time that when he reached New York City it was too late for him to appear at the meeting. He was much disappointed as he expected to give me more boxing than I wanted. I then asked him to make a date and find a place near where he lived where we could meet for a trial of our abilities and invite a few friends to see the show. He named the Goats Head, a tavern kept by a friend of his who had been present at the meeting in Madison Square Garden. The time was to be 8 O'clock p.m.

     I went there alone and found the tavern, which had a large back room behind the bar. Denning with two of his friends arrived on time. We got into our gymnastic clothing and began the bout I kept jabbing his head back with a straight left, but this did not seem to effect him much. Apparently he had a very strong head. I thought I could finish him with a one-two, left and right, but as the second blow was started he ducked forward bending his knees and received the blow on the top of his head.

     He ducked so quickly that as my blow reached, my right fist was not properly closed and though the blow staggered him it hurt my hand so much that I could not use it for hitting after that. I said nothing in regard to it and jabbed him so hard and so frequently that he and his friends acknowledge that I beat him fairly.

     After I won the United States heavyweight Championship in boxing in 1879 (there being only my entry in the heavyweight class) I quit the game, but there had been those who were disappointed at my doing so, and to gratify them I put up a sign at John Wood's gymnasium on 28th Street that I would be there every Wednesday night to box anyone who would like to try that form of exercise. After many years, finding that I had met no one who could remain with me more than two rounds, I considered myself a real champion of amateur boxing, having never been bested at that game.

     Form now makes the Champion. It is not only what one does but the way in which it is done which secures the approval. It is different to see why the champions of many years ago were unable to get better results than they did. They were as big, strong and powerful as any for the champions of today. One exception that may be made was of George R. Gray, whose performances had never been much surpassed. Only one or two professionals have been better than Gray. McPherson, a Scotch athlete was one of them. There was a friendly trial one day between them at the old Mott Haven Athletic Grounds, and McPherson put the shot two yards beyond the then amateur record of 48 feet nine inches.

     The marvel of shot putting was a New York boy weighing about one hundred thirty-five pounds. He developed most remarkable form by practicing alone and studying it our himself. At a junior championship meet he put the shot 46 feet. All the improvement can't be easily seen in the records of the earlier championship meetings.

     I won the shot-put at 32 feet 9 inches. I equalled this three successive yards and moved it up to 37 feet 4 inches. Had I known the best manner to put the shot I might easily have put it ten feet beyond my former mark. Any high-school weight thrower of today could do better with about half the weight and strength of the old time champions.

     My best performances are, running, a hundred yards in 10 1/2 seconds, shot-put 37 feet 4 inches, dumb-bell, right and left hand in use at the same time 98 and 97 pounds, hand lifting, 1200 pounds, swimming a hundred yards, breast stroke, 1 min. 23sec.

     Having gone through life with considerable share of felicity, I am induced to say that were it offered me, I would have no objections to living the same life over again as the beginning.

     My recollections would be incomplete without stating I have had the good fortune to win the New York Athletic Club championship at running, walking and swimming, and have been awarded thirty-five medals which are now in the trophy room in the New York City home at Sixth Avenue and Fifty-ninth Street.

     In 1903 I retired from business with a modest but assured income. In 1900 I was elected President of the National Skating Association and also President of the Fresh Air Club. In 1912 I was the only invited guest to accompany the American athletes into the Stadium at the Stockholm Olympic Games. I was invited to the Olympic games but I felt obliged to decline.

     I have been often asked to mention some rule which might guide those who hope to attain eighty odd years of life and enjoy health and activity, but I have sense enough not to give such advice. I have always been rather a rapid eater, and smoke both pipe and cigars from time to time, and I have always used liquor as I found I needed it. Yet, since Prohibition Law went into effect I found it no trouble to abstain.

     To my mind, now that the race has been run and it is all behind, it seems to me as I am drawing nearer to the night of Eternal Silence I am still interested in all that passes around me and will be to the end.

     At the Fiftieth Anniversary banquet of the New York Athletic Club held at the Hotel Astor, I was among the guests of honor, Major Hammond paid tribute to me as being the only surviving member of its founders, and in the name of the Club, and its three thousand members, he presented me a loving cup engraved as follows:

     "Presented to Harry E. Buermeyer, the only living member of the fourteen organizers of the New York Athletic Club on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the organization, September 8th, 1868- September 8th, 1918, always a staunch supporter of the Mercury Foot, honored and beloved by all. May his life and loyalty ever be an example to its members."

     I was much affected by the good will of my fellow club members, and I tried to make some suitable reply, but alas I was almost completely dazed, and for a few moments could scarcely speak. Finally, I had to content myself with saying " I thank you all most heartily from my heart." And this was said with tears in my heart and with tears in my eyes.

Editor's Note: The life and times of Henry Buermeyer took place during an extraordinary period in American history. Not only did Henry witness the birth of America's greatest city, but he also participated, front and center, with events that molded America into a great nation. Surviving the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War was, in itself, a miracle, and then carrying on later in life: a major influence on New York's lifestyle, is an impressive accomplishment that deserves respect and admiration.

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