Is it or is it not a matter of importance that a young man starts out in life with an ability to shut his jaw hard and say, “I will,” or “I will not,” and mean it?
—JOHN WILLIAM HEISMAN, PRINCIPLES OF FOOTBALL
The air split with loud, clattering crashes. Voices bellowed quick and raw—a chorus of shouts not trained in finery. Sharp, cracking slaps of noise reached the ears of men walking home from work. Men with faces layered in heavy soot, hands toughened like leather, and bodies exhausted from ten-hour workdays stopped to watch the tumbling mass of young men. They watched the boys’ arms and legs flailing to capture a round ball. They shook their heads and could only smile, sometimes wishing for their youth again so they might join the fray of this fascinating game that looked like soccer, was played like rugby, and had rules waiting to be broken. This was the infancy of American football in the early 1880s.
Older men watched the mass of boyhood, plunging, running, shoving, tripping, kicking, and falling over one another. Their legs and arms were intertwined, struggling, wrestling, and fighting for an underinflated ball. These wildcats and riggers of Titusville, Pennsylvania, who walked home late in the afternoon knew it for what
it was—the daily scrimmage behind Michael Heisman’s cooper shop. They also knew that Heisman’s sons were always in the thick of it.
Only one thing would interrupt the mayhem, only one sound would pierce the din and bring it all to a stop. It always came from the front porch of 126 East Spring Street. It was Sarah Heisman’s nightly call to supper: “Daniel! John! Come and eat before cold it gets! Bring Michael! Be quick!”
As soon as the call was heard, three players were immediately removed from the pile. Sarah Heisman was not one to be trifled with or kept waiting. Stern as she was, her knowing glance graciously ignored busted lips, bruised cheeks, or torn clothing when her boys scurried into the house. Raising boys is more art than science, and domesticating those three wild rascals into refined gentlemen was her undertaking. She did so without a second’s hesitation. To sit at Sarah Heisman’s table and expect to eat required a clean face, neck, and hands, as well as proper restraint while grace was offered before their meal. When the last “amen” was reverently uttered, excited discussions erupted—sometimes about the afternoon scrimmage and sometimes about events in town, such as the unpredictable antics of the colorful workers at Papa Heisman’s shop.
According to widely accepted legend and a family tale that has been passed from generation to generation of Heisman descendants, Michael Heisman was a German immigrant and son of nobility. His father, Baron von Bogart, disapproved of his son marrying a peasant girl from Alsace-Lorraine, a French region that abuts the western border of Germany and was often the booty for the winning side after great wars between the countries. Disinherited by his family, Michael took “Heisman,” the surname of his wife, Sarah, and sailed with her to America, leaving his family’s fortune and royalty behind in the name of love.
The tale of Michael Heisman’s humble beginnings has been widely publicized and generally accepted ever since Heisman became
the most familiar name in all of American sports. The story is included in John W. Heisman’s biographies at universities where he coached, and in profiles of him published in Sports Illustrated1
and the Philadelphia Inquirer.2
The story became widely known when Heisman’s stepson from his first marriage, Colonel Carlisle Cox, relayed the tale to a Georgia Tech alumni group in Atlanta in the spring of 1964. “Cox dropped a bombshell with his disclosure that Heisman was not the true family name,” Atlanta Magazine reported in 1964. “The fact that this surprised the assemblage—surprised the Colonel. He had believed the information common knowledge. National wire services nevertheless blared the story throughout the world.”3
Cox even went as far as telling the alumni group that Michael Heisman’s father attempted to reconcile their relationship after his son struck it rich in America. “By this time, the old barony apparently had grown rather barren,” Cox reportedly told the group. “But Coach’s father would have no part of it. The name Heisman stuck.”4
But the story of Heisman’s German nobility was actually nothing more than a tall tale, one that Michael Heisman might have told others as he began to strike it rich in his new country. German birth records reveal that Michael Heisman was actually born Johann Michael Heissmann around midday on January 1, 1835, in Vorra, Germany, about forty-two kilometers east of Nuremberg, in the German state of Bavaria.5
According to Protestant parish records there, Heissmann’s mother was Anna Heissmann, the eldest daughter of the farmer Johann Michael Heissmann and his wife, Magdalena Steif. The elder Johann Heissmann is identified as his grandson’s godfather, but a biological father’s name is not included in the records. The younger Johann Michael Heissmann was baptized in a Protestant church the day after he was born. Anna Heissmann, who was twenty-three when her only son was born, died of dysentery—inflammation of the intestines, which was often fatal when untreated—on September 2, 1836.6
The young Johann Michael Heissmann, who wasn’t yet two years old at the time of his mother’s
death, was raised by his grandparents on their farm in Vorra, which his grandmother’s family had cropped since 1618.
When the young Johann Michael Heissmann was twenty-three, he boarded the steamship Borussia to seek a new life in America.7
The ship left Hamburg, Germany, in June 1858 and after sailing a day through the North Sea and the English Channel, it was briefly docked in Southampton, England, where it picked up additional passengers and cargo. Heissmann was one of 304 passengers aboard the ship, most of whom were German immigrants and third-class passengers. Heissmann was listed as passenger No. 222 on the ship manifest sworn to and signed by Captain N. Troutman and which was given to customs officials when the Borussia arrived in New York on July 1, 1858.8
Heissmann probably spent more than two weeks sailing through the North Atlantic from Southampton to New York. The Borussia, a 2,349-gross-ton ship, was nearly 280 feet long, single-screwed, and was equipped with overhead oscillating engines, iron hull, clipper stem, one funnel, and three masts. It traveled at speeds of about ten knots. According to a March 7, 1857, report in the Times of London, the Borussia arrived in Hamburg, Germany, from New York after a run of “16 days and 9 hours, and averaging 91/2 knots the hour throughout her trip.”9
The Borussia, which started its first Hamburg–New York voyage on January 1, 1856, and sailed its last on April 30, 1870, was one of several steamships that carried German immigrants to the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century. Because of political unrest, religious persecution, and a shrinking economy in Germany, immigrants were attracted to the promises of free land and better financial opportunities in America. News of the settlers’ experiences in America had been widely circulated in Germany through letters from relatives and in newspapers throughout the country. For a young man such as Heissmann, there was little to risk in going to America and so much to gain. The US National Archives and Records Administration has documented more than four million passengers
arriving at US ports from Germany between 1850 and 1897. About 90 percent of those immigrants identified their country of origin or nationality as Germany or a German state, city, or region.
Johann Michael Heissmann, who changed his name to Michael Heisman shortly after arriving in America, was among them. He settled near Cleveland, Ohio, in 1858, three years before his new country would begin fighting the American Civil War. Fortunately for Michael Heisman, most of the fighting occurred to the east and south of Ohio, and he avoided having to join a Union Army regiment. After the Civil War ended in 1865, German immigrants began flocking to America once again. Cleveland became a popular destination for German immigrants after the Ohio and Erie Canal was constructed in the 1820s. Before the canal was dredged to link the Cuyahoga River with the Ohio River and other canal systems, it was easier for immigrants to reach Cincinnati or St. Louis via railways or the National Road, the first highway constructed by the US government, which was supposed to link Cumberland, Pennsylvania, with St. Louis. After the Panic of 1837, however, federal funding vanished and the road stopped in Vandalia, Illinois.
By 1850, after immigrants could reach Cleveland via railroads, the city’s German-born residents had swelled to 33 percent of the population, more than even the native-born residents.10
By the start of the twentieth century, more than forty thousand Germans lived in Cleveland. They worked as butchers, jewelers, tailors, cabinetmakers, and mechanics. They were widely known for constructing fine pianos and other musical instruments, and they introduced thirst-quenching beer and, of all things, the Christmas tree. German churches—there were more than 130 in Cleveland at the height of immigration—founded three hospitals and sponsored German-speaking schools. The German Concert Orchestra, also known as the Germania, was an ensemble of German musicians and was one of the longest-lasting acts in early Cleveland. A German newspaper was published in 1846 and was printed until the 1980s.
Cleveland seemed like the perfect place for Michael Heisman to raise a family after leaving behind his ancestry in Germany. Eight years after arriving in America, Heisman married Sarah Lehr, a twenty-two-year-old daughter of German immigrants, on July 21, 1866.11
Like Heisman’s grandfather, Sarah’s father, Michael Lehr, was a farmer from the Bavaria region of Germany. He and his wife, Catherine, had eleven children. Sarah Ann Lehr, their second-oldest daughter, was born in Trenton, Ohio, on February 9, 1844.
It didn’t take Michael and Sarah Heisman long to start their family. On April 10, 1867, their first son, Daniel, was born in Cleveland, and then John William came along on October 23, 1869. Their third son, Michael, was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, on February 25, 1872. An 1870 US Federal Census report revealed a bustling Heisman household on Cleveland’s West Side. Along with Michael, Sarah, and their three sons, a domestic servant resided in their home at 59 Frankfort Avenue. The house was only a few blocks south of the Lake Erie shoreline. The location seemed convenient, since Michael Heisman spent his workdays at the shipyards, where his company produced wooden barrels used to transport beer, wine, and other liquids. The Heisman home wasn’t far from the open-air West Side Market, where Sarah could purchase fresh vegetables, meat, and seafood for her family’s meals. Streetlights, postal service, public libraries, and a police department were introduced in Cleveland in the 1860s.
For an immigrant who arrived in America with very little, life was good for Michael Heisman. Over the next couple of years, however, Heisman and his family would truly begin to live the American Dream, largely because of an unexpected discovery in the western Pennsylvania wilderness.