The following is a 19th century American history story of someone remembered for pugilism. There is no birth certificate for this woman who had a name but not a ‘spelling’ for that name. Sylvie: “In them days, they did not document the birth of a Negro the same way they did not document the birth of a calf.” Special thanks to Paris, France artist, Sylvie Allard, for her exclusive drawing based on the only photograph of Sylvia Dubois when she was 110+ years old. Special thanks to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia artist, Tahani Al-briki, for permission to publish paintings from her “Strong African Women” collection.
DAUGHTER OF DORCAS & CUFFY
Sylvie’s father, Cuffy, was a fifer for the Minutemen during America’s Revolution from English authority. Cuffy was at the Battle of Monmouth and the Battle of Princeton among others. Sylvia’s mother, Dorcas, was a struggling mom who wished to be independent. She had secured a loan from a hotel owner named Compton, failed to repay the money, which made her the property of a French businessman, Mr. Dubois.
Sylvie hadnothing but kind words for Mr. Dubois in his treatment of her, but says the master was much rougher on Dorcas.
On a slippery ground, Mr. Dubois attempted to ‘yoke’ a large hog. Dorcas tried to hold the large, squirming animal, but it wiggled free. Dorcas had delivered a baby only days before, and in the angriest episode recorded by Sylvie, Mr. Dubois severely whipped her mom. The cold exposure, mixed with an open wound, left Dorcas ill for several months. Upon regaining her health, Sylvie applied under New Jersey slave law for freedom by charging Mr. Dubois with Excessive Cruelty. Dorcas left Sylvie with Mr. Dubois while she secured another loan in a bid for independence. Failing to make payments, Dorcas once again became slave property for another master.
Sylvie enjoyed her childhood with Mr. Dubois. There was much food to eat with child social activity to keep her busy. As she aged, the food portions were less generous, whippings more frequent as she was expected to behave as a ‘regular’ slave. Much of Sylvie’s preferential treatment deteriorated due to the increasing friction between her and the Mistress. Sylvie learned that one way to avoid a beating at the hands of the mistress was to shout names and run simultanously. Sylvie would still receive punishment from the mistress in the form of a club, stick of wood, tongs, knife or axe hatchet.
At age 14 the family moved from Flagtown to a farm along the Susquehanna River. Three years later, Mr. Dubois sensed business opportunity with an ideal location for a tavern. As people moved into the community, Mr. Dubois’ construction was the only structure not made entirely from logs. The next eight years would be the nucleus for Sylvie’s lifetime experience. By using her brain, she became a trusted partner for Mr. Dubois. One wise move by the Frenchman, different than other slave owners, was allowing Sylvie the opportunity to earn money, for which she shared in the rewards.
There was a growing Negro social scene at Great Bend. The highlight was a once a week gathering of music (a fiddle), dance and alcohol. Sylvie liked black men, but it appears that none remained individually special. Sylvie basically viewed the Negro men as: “Fun, but fools. Decent enough dancers and company. Alcohol and laughing – which turned to alcohol and fighting.”
Because of Sylvie’s ability to earn money, she likely enjoyed an elevated social status at these weekly events. The planning, preparation and anticipation throughout the week made slave life more bearable. Not that she avoided hard work, quite the opposite, as the ability to earn money stimulated a brutal work ethic. The Mistress was mean and expected free labor, so Sylvie could be apathetic. Mr. Dubois was nicer, allowed her to earn money, so she worked feverishly.
The most ingenious money maker was a raft ride on a skiff. There were two options to cross the river. The first was a couple guys and the second was Sylvie. It became a strength and speed competition. While it might take three adult men to transfer two people across the river, Sylvie learned to transfer two or three by herself. The news that someone awaited a raft ride would send Sylvie running full sprint towards her skiff to gain the upper hand. It took tremendous strength to row and guide simultaneous.
Mr. Dubois liked Sylvie’s ambition – her cut throat attitude about competition – and the schemes which brought them both additional income. Apple whiskey was easy to obtain, but Sylvie learned the daily attention task which could turn this brew into the finest peach Brandy of the region. Sylvie combined intelligence, creativity, foot speed, physical strength and endurance to make for herself the best life possible under the circumstances. Sylvie herself would add ‘health’ to the list, as sugar and such were only allowed to Whites (who also overate), as she could manage to turn every negative ultimately into an advantage.
So as this pugilism tale lacks ‘fights’ – because the truth would deemphasize this aspect – it can be noted that Sylvie of approximately ages 20-24 might have been unique of size, strength, speed and determination that she could have given the English heavyweight champion a real match. If she had fought defensive specialist champion Daniel Mendoza (1795-1800), she would have certainly dwarfed him in size and strength. Sylvie’s conditioning was superb thanks to her ‘skiff’ job. She was more than four inches taller than Mendoza and outweighed the bare knuckle champion by at least 40 pounds. The earlier English champion, Benjamin Brain, was more straight forward as a pugilist, with Sylvie both larger and heavier. At over 5’10 and 200 pounds, Sylvie would be larger than John L. Sullivan when he won the heavyweight title more than 80 years later.
But in the enthusiastic storytelling of Sylvie’s life as “a woman who beats up guys” – “who could drink alcohol and curse like one of the guys” – “who was just like a guy” – it is ignored or overlooked that Sylvie was in fact, a woman. Much of Sylvie’s work motivation derived from earned money that she could utilize to do what women like best: shopping and looking nice. Sylvie liked to wear attractive dresses for the once a week Negro dances. Appearance was important to this woman: “I always was proud and liked to appear decent when I could, but I never dressed beyond my means – I wouldn’t do that.”
Sylvia loved to dance and considered herself superior to others. She mastered what she called the ’13 steps’ which involved knee crosses which she counted of herself at 90 per minute while remaining in musical time.
THE PUGILIST BOUNCER
Pugilism became an escape – a semblance for some sort of normal life. Mr. Dubois owned a Pennsylvania tavern, which brought in coarse men and their loud and boastful tales. While many women would have found these guys repugnant, Sylvie liked them, while also seizing opportunity to earn extra income for both her and the Master.
She convinced and proved to Mr. Dubois that her presence provided lively fodder – a certain entertainment value – as a gal who could talk and fight like one of the guys. There was certain jealousy from the Mistress – an attempt to force Sylvie into more traditional duties. Sylvie countered by proving her pugilism could lead to direct profit for the Master.
Sylvie, due to her size and strength, proved to be an ideal bouncer. She could keep drunken men at bay by herself. Mostly, the hunters in particular were a lively and jovial group and Sylvie enjoyed their smiles and hearty laughter.
Sylvie joined in with the humor and eventually found herself viewed as “one of the guys.” So if a patron become drunk or abusive, she could mostly rely on talk and wit to evict the unruly man. If the patron was basically harmless, she would take him to his room and see that he was soon in bed and asleep.
Some drunken patrons were more violent and abusive, so Sylvie learned to subdue them with a wrestling hold and threats of being beaten if he continued to resist. These wrestling battles between the female bouncer and male patrons amused many. Some called for actual boxing/wrestling matches between Sylvie and unsuspecting new patrons. For Sylvie’s constant entrepreneur mind formed the seed of another money making alliance.
The original plan called for her to wrestle or box tavern patrons for amusement/entertainment. The plan extended to ply patrons with a certain amount of drink – have them challenged with ‘impromptu’ gambling matches – with an aggressive Sylvie often the winner. She fought bare knuckle, had some sort of wrestling maneuver that she had perfected which involved twisting the man’s arm and disabling him, pinning him to ground with knee on back or chest, and pummeling him to the face or back of the head until he would quickly surrender.
If this tale suggests a woman who beat up men with people finding charm in this (and undoubtedly do), it does Sylvie a disservice. She did not avoid certain slave duties merely through ability to brawl – like any great pugilist – she relied mostly on her brain. She was an entertainer, a storyteller, of quick quip and mind – and sometimes had to back up these tales and reputation with fisticuffs.
She should not be remembered solely for the days in which she brawled. While many slaves around her lived solely by day in degradation – Sylvie was able to drink, socialize, entertain and maneuver life with unfortunate circumstance to its best advantage. But let us not forget the pugilism entirely. A physically strong woman can no doubt overwhelm and ambush a man of regular strength. But she may have bitten off more than she could chew in challenging a professional Harrisburg male pugilist. The man did not want to do it, was goaded and taunted, betting stakes out of control, as the bout itself became out of control. Miss Dubois executed a wrestler flip that sent the Harrisburg pugilist crashing into something – as she pounced and pummeled until he surrendered.
Sylvie had plotted for years in her mind to one day slug her mistress. A kick to her stomach in youth set the motion for a recurring fantasy. Approximately aged 20, the mistress responded to Sylvie talking back by clobbering her over the head with a fire shovel. Sylvie’s skull was severely fractured, with the mistress believing she had killed the impudent slave, but Sylvie survived the three-inch open head wound. Sylvie overheard Mr. Dubois ask the mistress several times to tone her violence, but this plea was ignored.
Sylvie continued her fantasy of battling the mistress physically – with added visual details – as she imagined many houseguests as witnesses. Sylvie hoped for an ‘audience’ of prosperous men – and after beating the mistress – would fight all the men single handed.
The final confrontation of this hateful, degrading relationship was the favorite place in life for Sylvie: the barroom of the Dubois tavern. The mistress ordered Sylvie to clean – slave admittedly lethargic – as the place filled with hunters, wagon travelers and male locals. The mistress spoke unkind words to Sylvie, who responded with unpleasantry. The mistress slapped Sylvie across the face. Sylvie paused a moment before she set down her cleaning supplies. Sylvie is at a crossroads. Should she or shouldn’t she follow through on the much fantasized punch? Sylvie decides with a fist to the face of mistress – CRASH – panel from roof falls to ground next to the unconscious white woman.
The tavern men are stunned at first. Then they begin forward to subdue the female slave. Sylvie aggressively steps around, smacking her fist hard against her hand, then announces that she will “beat the Devil” out of any man who touches her. Her fury, mixed with tremendous size and reputation for prodigious strength, along with a dead-looking women nearby, convinced these men to halt their forward progress. Sylvie runs untouched from the room in a mad dash escape to death or freedom.
Sylvie did not know where to go or her next action. All she could do was wait for Mr. Dubois to return from jury duty and hope his personal fondness would save her life. Mr. Dubois reacted kindly toward this horrific hatred between two people. The punishment for Sylvie could be a “cutting up” but Dubois believed the Mistress as equally responsible. Mr. Dubois told Sylvie that her behavior was wrong and that the feud between the two women must cease. He decided to sign papers that would grant Sylvie her freedom if she could reach New Jersey.
WALK TO FREEDOM
Sylvie set off for freedom with her 18 month old child by foot. She travelled through woods with no sight of persons for hours at a time. She was hungry and exhausted. She slept on the ground at whatever point necessary. Wild animals surrounded her – bears, wildcats, wolves – but they ignored one another upon meeting during the day. Panthers howling at night nearby frightened Sylvie, as all she could do was clutch her baby while desperately attempting needed sleep.
At Easton (Pennsylvania), she met a nice white couple. They prepared to raft down the Delaware River with the wife in need of assistance. Sylvie exchanged care taking of this woman for free passage. Away went the “raft to freedom” to its destination of Philadelphia. Sylvie exited the raft – couple and her exchanging warm embrace – as she was close to Trenton. She was not exact as to her location, a woodsy area with no sign of human existence, but soon oriented herself as she walked to Flagtown in an effort to visit her mother. She did not find her Mom, but instead an angry White man who demanded: “Whose nigger are you?” Sylvie replied, “I'm no man's nigger -- I belong to God. I belong to no man." The man stepped forward while insisting that she was being placed under citizen’s arrest. Sylvie placed down her baby and smacked her fist hard into hand. The nervous white man halts and insists if she is smart that she will surrender immediately. Sylvie picked up her child and walked briskly away.
Sylvie found her mom in New Brunswick. She accepted servant work at Princeton with a Mr. Tulane where she remained for several years. She enjoyed her time with this family but eventually left to care for her aging grandfather, Harry. Upon his death, she inherited his property which would appear to close with anonymity the story of this woman’s fascinating life.
The Flemington courtroom would see nothing like it before or since: accused murderer, Sylvie Dubois. The 100-plus-year-old woman from the Sourland mountains – large, robust, weathered – as she cursed and threatened jurors, spectators, magistrate, with most of her venom saved for lawyers. All lawyers, according to outspoken Sylvie, were a bunch of no good scum dressed in nice outfits but are amoral and would help no one for free – while she is destitute.
Where were lawyers when ‘white trash’ burned her home to the ground? Where are lawyers now as some White Devil man was trying to use the law to steal her property? These white trash – “these Democrats” – burned down the only Negro church within walking distance and there was no lawyer to help anyone then. Sylvie informs the gallery that if they had seen what she had seen: “It would make your hair stand on end!” (Which likely provoked chuckles from all – not just the line – but the passion and accent that accompany). Sylvie tells the jurors they are not to blame as they are unaware accomplices to the Devil’s handiwork. Sylvie informs the jurors that they likely drink hard alcohol and cavort to vice activities the same as everyone else she has ever known. Sylvie likely states that she is sure that the Magistrate must engage in hard alcohol, too.
With no hope of anyone containing this “old, eccentric, cantankerous woman,” Sylvie refuses court instructions and states that the entire legal process is dishonest. She informs everyone that they do not understand those mountain people – White and Black – who are thieves and scoundrels – no one works – while no one knows who is anyone’s father.
Sylvie insists the Sourland mountains hold the worst of the worst – “people that are such no good trash that the Devil keeps them alive because they are too evil and disgusting to be allowed into Hell.” (This line – a favorite of hers – likely induced laughter amidst the courtroom – and would soon become an in-demand line that people never tired to hear her repeat).
Sylvie loudly insists that “killing is a regular activity” in these mountains – it happens all the time – so why is everyone picking on her? She shouts at all in the courtroom that no one can just enter her cabin and steal her stuff. Sylvie explodes: “What was I supposed to do – allow someone to kill me first?” The inititally stunned Flemington courtroom mixes sympathy with amusement over this 100+ year old woman’s passionate threats and pleas (and humor). The jury votes for acquittal.
Sylvie is mentioned in newspapers for the first time. Reporters instantly fall in love with the vulgarity, intimidation, humor combination – her unique vocal accent - wrapped with a batch of interesting and unusual stories for this former slave. The newspaper attention leads to a successful regional book of her memoirs that is promoted by Princeton University.
The book promotion and success offers a ‘celebrity’ status in the New Jersey and Pennsylvania region. This leads to Sylvie’s only paid public performance – the Pennsylvania State fair of 1887 – where she sat and shared her life story and apparently made more money than she had ever known in her life. By now, Sylvie, was wisely aware with the appeal of her fame: The Fights. The public – much like the newspaper reporters – are especially interested in her days as the bouncer and lead pugilist attraction at the Dubois tavern 90+ years earlier.
Sylvie’s fame drifts from a slave portrait into a sports story. Enthusiastic writers with bold headlines: “the 120 year old woman” – “the 116 year old woman” – “the 124 year old woman” – that had scored knockdowns – “usually in the first round” – against the many men that she had defeated. Sylvie was reported as the greatest American female pugilist that ever lived who could “whip the Champion Sullivan” right now if the two were to meet. Most of all, it appears that New Jersey and Pennsylvania had decided that Sylvie was one of their special citizens. When asked if she wished to rid her slave French name, Sylvie exclaimed: “It is my name now! I earned it.”
The Philadelphia Times would soon sadly report: “Sylvi(a) Dubois, the famous Negress, is dead at last… She had just passed her 125th birthday.” An awful snow storm had blanketed the region – overwhelmed the Sourland Mountain – too cold and dangerous for anyone to help. By the time that calm had set both the simple cabin and Sylvie had disappeared forever. God had claimed Sylvie at last with no trace of her body left behind.
It was several weeks later that the
Philadelphia Times happily retracted: “It had been reported here that Sylvi(a) had died during the blizzard, having perished in the storm… This was a mistake.” Apparently, God was not going to have an easy time reeling in this feisty 125 year old fighter. Sylvie Dubois would have one final battle to survive.