Gussie Freeman is one of the most unique characters in North Brooklyn History. Years after her death people recalled her amazing strength and a night she achieved glory in an 1891 local boxing match against another female pugilist.
Gussie was born in 1864 to a poor German family that never allowed her the luxury of schooling. She grew into a big and powerful young lady who felt more at home in the company of men than other females. She found a job as a teenager in a local rope factory on Newtown Creek. One of the male employees, a bully, terrorized the females in the plant until Gussie learned of his misbehavior. She stood up to the bully and administered a sound beating to him that made her the hero of all the ladies in the plant.
She tried the “more feminine” job of needlework, but it wasn’t in her nature. She preferred the hard physical work of lifting heavy bales of twine and she was the physical equal of any man in the rope works.
In 1891 a barnstorming female boxer named Hattie Leslie appeared at the Unique theater on Grand Street and offered to take on all female challengers. Freeman stepped into the ring and a legendary battle ensued. Leslie was the more skilled boxer, but Freeman was her superior in courage and brute power. The match was a frenzy of haymakers as the two ladies hit each other with a barrage of punches, much to the delight of the screaming crowd who still recalled the bout fifty years later. It was called a draw in the third round and stopped, but Freeman defeated Leslie in a rematch a few nights later.
Leslie’s husband proposed that Freeman barnstorm with his wife and for a while she did, but perhaps because she was illiterate she was deceived and never paid for her fights. She returned to Brooklyn where she opened a bar and ruled it with an iron hand. One male Boxer named Walter Hannigan thought that he could cause trouble in Freeman’s bar. Wrong! She locked the door and proceeded to give Hannigan a lesson in both boxing and behavior. He caused no more trouble.
An 1895 profile in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle painted a sad picture of the female pugilist. She told the Eagle reporter that she had never been kissed and she confessed, “I am not like other women. I have never had a lover, nor let any man show affection for me as other women do.”
She died a spinster in 1931 in her seventies, but her legendary toughness lived on long after she had passed away.