The Three-Turning Tinsmith: The Jersey John Story

Born April 17, 1831 in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, John Engler, Jr. was the son of John and Wilhelmina (Schersching) Engler, both Prussian immigrants. As a boy, young John apprenticed under his father as a tinsmith, first arriving in Jersey City, New Jersey when he was approximately ten with his father to work on a contract to repair the city's lamps. Two years later, he joined the circus, travelling across the country as a tumbler before returning to Jersey City and taking up figure skating.

'Jersey John', as he was affectionately known by the people of New York and New Jersey, quickly rose to prominence as one of the finest 'fancy' skaters of his era and toured New England challenging the mettle of the best skaters of each city. He won medals in Boston, Buffalo, Hartford, Jersey City, Newark, Pittsburgh, Rochester, New York and Rochester, New Jersey and competed against Captain John Miner, E.T. Goodrich and Callie Curtis at the Championships Of America. Jersey John was a familiar face on many New York skating ponds during this era and a member of the exclusive Union Skating Association Of East Brooklyn, where he dazzled many with his grapevine twist. The January 9, 1919 edition of the Troy, New York "Daily Times" even claimed that he taught Jackson Haines himself "how to cut all sorts of fancy figures".

In April 1861, Jersey John enlisted as Private in Company G of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment and went off to fight in the Civil War. He was stationed in Alexandria, Virginia in defense of Washington, D.C. in his first of two stints as a Union soldier and as a First Sargeant and Colour Bearer of the 21st New Jersey Regiment in his second, fighting at the Battle of Fredericksburg and Franklin's Crossing. Suffering three wounds (leg, temple and thigh) during the battles he heroically fought in, he earned four medals for bravery and sharp shooting.

Woodcut of John Engler, Jr. 'executing the backward roll' with Dolly Bedell at Union Pond

After the Civil War, Jersey John married a German woman named Lavinia. Dividing his time between skating and working as a tinsmith, he fathered fourteen children, eight of which survived. After Jackson Haines went to Europe, he re-emerged as one of the top American skaters of his day. The January 19, 1865 edition of the "Troy Press" raved, "Mr. John Engler, the great champion skater, appeared at the skating park yesterday afternoon. His performances elicited great applause from the people present. We think it would be a paying investment for the directors to engage Mr. E. to remain in Troy for a few days. He would draw patronage to the park like a 'star' at the opera house." His specialities included a spread eagle and a figure eight joined in the middle with a flying three jump.

Jersey John performed exhibitions with Carrie Augusta Moore and at the Bowery Theatre in 1870, where he was billed as the 'Skatorial King Of The World' and performed on three foot stilts. Though technically a professional, he received instruction from Andrew J. Dupignac, a Coney Island hotel keeper who served as the President of the New York Skating Club. In 1868, he won a competition billed as the 'professional fancy skating ice championship' and was heralded 'the Skatorial king'.

However, Jersey John's biggest claim to fame wasn't the fact that he was a pioneer in the sport or that he had reportedly taught Jackson Haines... it was his longevity! An avid fisher and hunter, he continued to skate well into his eighties and was by all accounts fit as a fiddle. Amusingly, the January 19, 1919 edition of the "Bisbee Daily Review" noted, "He has smoked all his life and used liquor moderately. Temperance and moderation in all things, he says, is one of the keynotes of his success. He has the peculiarity of eating whenever he feels like it, and often gets out of bed in the wee sma' hours o' the morning to make tea. He has not had medical attention for 10 years, but makes his own antidotes." Sadly, Jersey John passed away on March 22, 1922 at the age of ninety, his legacy all but obscured by the mists of time.

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