Left: our house, circa 1890s (photo via Collection of Historic Richmond Town); right: boxer Al Roberts in 1919
The Staten Island Adonis
I’m no heavyweight, but this month (and last month) I’ve been pondering a formerly famous local boxer. This all started for me the morning I woke up with the idea that I should search for our address on Newspapers.com.
I’d noticed that, in turn-of-the-century social columns (and obituaries and crime reports), they were not shy about publishing a person’s address. At BEACH we live and work in a house that was built in 1890. Had anything newsworthy ever happened here?
Later that morning I learned that Al Roberts, “The Staten Island Adonis” once lived in our house. And the reason that newspapers were publishing his address (in December of 1920) was because he’d been arrested and charged with manslaughter. More on that part, later on…
The Honolulu Advertiser published this photo of Al Roberts in the April 4, 1921 issue.
As a boxer, Al Roberts was given a number of descriptive taglines by managers and boxing promoters. “Staten Island Adonis” was just one of many colorful handles, including “Knock Out King,” “Staten Island Heavyweight,” “Babe Ruth of Boxing,” etc. But his real name was Alfred Heidler.
Sadly, we can’t go back in time to see how he lived in our house. We can’t answer questions like “Which room did he sleep in?” or “What did he eat for breakfast? But I was able to learn quite a bit about his boxing career and a little bit about his life.
1920: The Engineer and the Fireman buy a House
Alfred William Heidler was born in NY in 1897. His parents had emigrated separately from Germany in the 1870s and he was one of their seven children. (Four boys and three girls.)
Even before I’d heard of “Al Roberts, the boxer, I already had Alfred and Ernest Heidler’s names as prior owners of our house.
Both brothers worked for the Staten Island branch of B & O Railroad—Ernest as an Engineer and Alfred as a Fireman. Those were their day jobs, at any rate. Alfred began boxing as “Al Roberts” in 1919 and his older brother Ernest served as his manager.
In an early admiring profile, Charles F. Mathison praises Al Roberts for his physique as well as for his record of fifteen knockouts (so far).
Roberts Fine Athlete
A finer specimen of physical development than Al Roberts, the Staten Island heavyweight who has scored fifteen knockouts in seventeen bouts, has not stripped for action since Dempsey entered the ring at Toledo. Roberts is a six footer, weighs in the neighborhood of 150 [not very legible… 160? 180?] pounds and is splendidly proportioned. He is a clean limbed chap, a fit subject for a sculptor, but is only 20 years of age and doubtless has much to learn. He does not devote all his time to boxing, being employed as a fireman on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Charles F. Mathison
The Sun, Sunday, Sept. 7, 1919
At the time this was written in 1919, Roberts and his brother were still living with their mother (around the corner) on Bay Street. I figure that the brothers must have bought their/our house on Beach Street some time in between January and December of 1920.
Winning fights by knocking his opponents unconscious was a big part of Roberts’ branding as an up-and-coming prize fighter.
“It’s my ambition to have a record of knocking out every man I meet,” said Roberts last night. “If I don’t do it the first time I’m going to keep after the fellow till I finally get him.”
Al Roberts quoted in the NY Tribune, Sunday, October 12, 1919
This brutal brand promise served him pretty well up until his fatal knockout of Mickey Shannon.
When Shannon did not regain consciousness, Roberts was arrested for “assault and battery.”
Then, when Shannon died the next morning, those charges were upgraded to manslaughter.
“I am exceedingly sorry it turned out as it did,” said Roberts. “I don’t know what kind of a blow I struck when Shannon went down.”
Roberts posted bail of $2,500. (Did he use his/our house as collateral?)
Eventually, he was exonerated when the coroner’s jury decided that Shannon’s death was accidental.
Mickey Shannon (Ray McMillan)
[The photo press clipping of Mickey Shannon on the right is from Bill Paxton’s book: The Fearless Harry Greb.]
In another article that also mentions Roberts’ Beach Street address, Mathison (who wrote the earlier flattering portrait of Roberts) tells us a bit more about Mickey Shannon:
“Mickey Shannon, victim of the unfortunate accident, was the ring name of Ray McMillan of Eckhart, Md., and he was 21 years old at the time of his death. McMillan, who scaled 196 pounds for his bout with Roberts, was a sturdy youngster and started his athletic career as a football player. He attended the Staunton Military Academy (prep school) two years and was all State tackle for Virginia; he was a student in Davis and Elkins College for one year and was all state tackle for colleges of West Virginia.
Charles F. Mathison, Lack of Ring Padding Cause of Shannon’s Death
The New York Herald, Dec. 9, 1920
Note: Staunton Military Academy jumped out at me. That was one of the schools my great uncle Arthur P. Dickson had briefly attended in 1905. (“An Ideal Home School for Manly Boys”) Neither of them actually graduated from there. McMillan, however, stuck around at least long enough to be noticed.
For some reason, boxers have historically recycled certain “ring names” over and over.
Needless to say this creates a certain amount of consumer confusion.
To me, it looked much more like Al Roberts—than the photos I’d seen of Micky Shannon. Had someone gotten their names switched?
(Deo generously swept that notion out of my head, when he sent me the larger, uncropped version of the photo, below.)
Mickey Shannon (Howard Palmer)
It turns out that this was a different Mickey Shannon, altogether. Although, weirdly, this Mickey Shannon also died during a prize fight under similar circumstances.
His real name was Howard Palmer. And it was during a 1925 Louisville bout with Harry Fay (“The Louisville Slugger”) that this Mickey Shannon lost his life.
Handbill for event at The Stapleton Club Rooms—(not the “Ball of Al Roberts,” but he’s on the bill and it’s same year)
The Ball of Al Roberts
At the start of his career, Roberts was so popular on Staten Island that, in 1920, his “army of friends” actually held a “ball” in his name.
CROWDS TURNED AWAY AT BALL OF AL ROBERTS
The Stapleton Club Rooms* was the scene of much activity and merriment on Saturday evening when the annual ball of Al Roberts Friends and Followers took place. The hall was filled to overflowing and at 10:30 the sale of tickets had to cease as it was impossible to accommodate any more in the hall. Every lover of sport from Holland Hook to Tottenville was on hand to greet “the coming champion.” In the grand march which took place at midnight all the leading clubs were well represented.
SI Advance (Jan. 12, 1920)
*Note: the Stapleton Club Rooms were originally called the German Club Rooms. With WWI anti-German sentiment on the rise in 1917, however, the members thought it prudent to make their club’s name less Germanic. (They also put their statue of the Kaiser up in the attic!)
Roberts’ boxing future seemed bright at first, and plenty of sportswriters speculated about his prospects of eventually fighting Dempsey. Over the years, however, the boxing world decided that he was not a contender, after all.
Gene Tunney vs. Al Roberts
Though not a contender, Roberts was known to be a durable fighter. He demonstrated that trait clearly when he was knocked down and got up six times before the referee stopped the bout, which Tunney was to call one of the toughest of his career. The performance, before a crowd of about six thousand, earned Tunney his best coverage to date including an appraisal by the New York Times writer who covered the fight that Tunney’s victory “stamped the former AEF pugilist as a promising candidate for heavyweight laurels.
Tunney: Boxing’s Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey
Jack Cavanaugh – 2009
“Lank” Leonard‘s article and cartoon about the 1920 Tunney-Roberts bout (Published in The News of Paterson, NJ 1931)
Thornton Fisher‘s 1920 cartoon about the same Feb. 1920 bout (note: irony of unpadded floorboards gag, vis-à-vis Mickey Shannon)
From popular “contender” to “punching bag”
In contrast to the earlier vainglorious branding of “Staten Island Adonis,” writers gradually began to disparage Roberts with less-flattering names like: “busted phenom,” “lumbering Staten Island heavyweight,” “slow-thinking Al Roberts,” “dismal failure,” and “punching bag.”
Al Roberts, the light heavyweight champion of Staten Island … is known as the “Elevator” to followers of the fistic game because of his up and down career in the roped arena …
Perth Amboy Evening News, Feb. 19, 1920
Roberts… was what is known in boxing as an “in-and-outer.” He had beaten some good boys in his class but floundered badly against others.
Thomas W. Mack, “Gentleman Gene” Tunney
The Courier-Journal, January 19, 1929
Boston dried up, and then it was back to New York where the losses continued. Al Roberts, a plodding, unimaginative heavyweight from Staten Island who had lost to the likes of Tunney, Greb, Jack Sharkey, Billy Miske, and others, scored two decisions over Larsen, which meant Larsen was now a punching bag for other punching bags.
Don Stradley, PUNCH DRUNK: THE STORY OF WOLF LARSEN
This Dazzling Time, 2017
Willie Meehan vs. Al Roberts
Thornton Fisher‘s 1920 cartoon of Al Roberts (hypothetically) knocking out Willie Meehan
… our fat and roly poly friend and shipmate, Willie Meehan, was lumbering around the ring in Jersey to win a comedy decision over slow-thinking Al Roberts, while Georges Carpentier looked on and laughed…
Our Navy, the Standard Publication of the U.S. Navy, June 1920
Every time there’s a ferry strike, Staten Island’s heavy-weight challenges Jack Dempsey.
from Bugs Baer’s humorous sports column in the Washington Herald, Oct 15, 1919
“Contenders” with “blue collar” jobs
So many boxers seemed to have held “blue collar” jobs. Marlon Brando as (fictional) Terry Malloy, for example, was a longshoreman in On the Waterfront. Al Wabo (who Roberts knocked out in 1919) worked at the Union Shipbuilding plant on Shooter’s Island.
And Al Roberts (Alfred W. Heidler, Sr.) worked for the Staten Island branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. First as a “fireman” and later as an engineer.
The steam trains were with us for years. You’d hear them coming more than a mile off. The coal heaver on one was a former heavyweight boxing champ, the object of much curiosity by myself and my pals.
John Sampson, A Liverpool Boy Discovers Wild West New Dorp
The Staten Island Historian, Winter-Sping 1997
It’s easy to see how such a physically taxing day job might serve as good strength training for the aspiring boxer.
In 1921 there blossomed in the pugilistic world a new light heavyweight sensation, Al Roberts, locomotive fireman on our division. He startled the boxing world with a record of twenty straight knockout victories, which is a better record than any of the present-day aspirants for the Dempsey crown…
The most remarkable thing about his record is that Al was a steady worker on the railroad and after some of his hardest battles he was out working on his run the following day.
… as Al is only twenty-six years old, has never dissipated or abused himself, he may surprise the world yet by fighting his way to the championship.
B and O Magazine – Volume 14 – Page 94
Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company – 1926
Al Heidler Retires
We don’t know exactly when Roberts (Heidler) stopped boxing.
One inaccurate 1945 sports column claimed that he hung up his gloves in 1920 (after Mickey Shannon’s tragic death) and never fought again. Not so. He was still boxing at least until 1926.
We do know, however, that Alfred Heidler retired from the railroad in 1960.
Arrested for Dice Game
In 1922 Roberts was arrested at a Staten Island ball game (along with 14 others) for playing an illegal dice game.
The article mentions that his brother “offered to put up real estate valued at $50,000 for the release of the men.”
If you assume (as I do) that the “brother” mentioned must be Ernest, then it stands to reason that the “real estate” used as collateral to pay their bond was most likely their house (our house) on Beach Street.
In 1926, he and his brother Ernest sold the house to Amandus Reschke.
By 1930 Alfred Heidler is married and living with his wife around the corner on Van Duzer Street. Later they move to a house on Metropolitan Avenue where they raise three boys.
Ernest at Beach Street
We haven’t said much about Ernest, but it’s only because Ernest was not as famous as his little bother, Al.
In 1911 the NY Times reported that he’d discovered a woman’s body on the train tracks in Rosebank. That report included an earlier Heidler address on Chestnut Street. Last night we had dinner at Maizel (in Rosebank). We parked on Chestnut, and I thought of Ernest, remembering that the Heidlers had lived on that street somewhere nearby.
After Al’s marriage in 1926, Ernest apparently winds up renting a room in the house on Beach Street that he once owned. (Or so the 1940 census suggests.)
But then I found a 1956 “last will and testament” for Ernest, showing that, towards the end of his life, Ernest was again living with his brother Al, now on Metropolitan Ave. (A few blocks from the Starbucks that we sometimes go to.)
I, Ernest C. Heidler, presently living at #682 Metropolitan Avenue… [bequeath all my property] to my beloved brother, Alfred W. Heidler…
He names Al’s wife Charlotte as the backup beneficiary (in the event that “my brother… predeceases me or we both die in a common catastrophe.”)
Interestingly, he goes on to bequeath the punitive “ONE ($1.00) DOLLAR” to his other surviving brother, Max Heidler (living around the corner from Beach Street on Canal Street). Explaining that they “have not been on friendly terms for upwards of thirty years…”
There was also a 4th brother, Rudolph, (who died as a baby in 1901) and three sisters. One of whom, Florence, also lived at our house on Beach Street (according to the 1925 NY State census). Along with Al, Ernest, Florence’s husband, James Gazzola, and their two daughters Florence and Charlotte. (In those days, everybody seemed to be named after somebody else.)
Thank you to our neighbor, Edith Schmeisser, for this photo showing the back of our house on Beach Street. I’m not certain, but I reckon it’s “circa 1930- or 1940- something.”
Three more “fun” facts
1. We still have a ladder (a different ladder) on that roof because flat roofs sometimes leak.
2. Al Roberts’ bother, Ernest C. Heidler is named in a 1916 clothesline patent.
3. The magnolia trees are way bigger now.
(See also: Chalky White’s House)