George Yoerger was born in Manhattan in May of 1867 and raised on his family’s farm in East Norwalk, Connecticut. When he was around 10 years old, his life changed when a muscular stranger with a handlebar mustache walked on to his farm and inquired about renting the family’s barn.
“I’m John L. Sullivan,” the man said, introducing himself. “I’m champion of the world.”
The legendary Sullivan, also known as “The Boston Strong Boy,” was the first heavyweight champ and he spent the next few months training on the Yoerger farm — and young George soon knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Inside the ring he was a tough fighter, but his true calling was outside the ring, where he became a well-respected boxing and self-defense instructor. At the turn of the century, he moved to Brooklyn and opened a gymnasium at Broadway and Myrtle which was an almost immediate success.
Dubbing himself “Professor” Yoerger, he lured in customers with the promise: “Six lessons free if you hit me on the nose!”
Yoerger became well-known for his role in a complicated attempt to scam him out of some money. Two men who hung around the gym offered him a pawn ticket for a blue diamond for $5. The diamond was worth at least $50, they claimed, and said that if it was worth less, they would compensate him.
When he went to cash it in, it was worth far less than $50 and when he complained, the two men refused to make good on their deal. Instead, they came to the gym with a few other accomplices to try and beat up the boxing and self-defense instructor.
They failed to see the flaw in that plan. After Yoerger finished whipping them soundly, he called for the police who promptly arrested them, and also found cocaine in their possession. A brief but colorful trial followed and the men went to jail.
Later in life he met a much younger woman and they fell in love. The woman was Florence Lott, whose family was among some of the earliest residents of Woodhaven, many of whom are still buried in the Colonial Era Wyckoff-Snedicker Family Cemetery (on 96th Street in Woodhaven). They moved into Lott’s family home on Lott Avenue (named for the family, and today known as 76th Street), a few hundred feet south of Jamaica Avenue, where it stood until just a few years ago.
Yoerger semi-retired from the boxing profession and closed the gym in Brooklyn (though he opened a small private gymnasium in the backyard of his home in Woodhaven). Since training was still in his blood, he embarked on a second career – training dogs. He started his training with his own dog, Trixie, who he would take out for paid exhibitions.
Trixie’s most popular trick was to sit at a table, open a menu, select a meal, go through the motions of eating and when finished, wiping her face with her paw. Trixie was also able to imitate a boxer, throwing paw punches at a mini-heavy bag.
Trixie was advertised as the dog “with the mind of a child,” and with each public appearance, his renown as a dog trainer grew, and this business flourished as well. He was commissioned to write several newspaper articles giving owners advice with their dogs and his fame was such that he and Trixie were asked to take part in a dog show at the Jamaica Arena to help raise funds for the Helen Keller Free Clinic.
Helen Keller herself attended the show and it was said that she affectionately pet many of the hundreds of children and their dogs that took part in the show. She told one reporter that if she was to be granted but a single split-second of sight that she would choose to see “a child and its dog.”
In his later years, Yoerger added fencing, trick pistol shooting and diamond appraising to his activities, also finding time to found the Long Island Society of Magicians. In 1949, Professor Yoerger (in his 80s at the time) appeared on television, providing commentary for live bouts being broadcast from the boxing arena at Ridgewood Grove.
Professor George Yoerger died in 1951 shortly after his 84th birthday (his young wife Florence would outlive him by over 20 years, passing away in late 1973). He had a long, remarkable life, and it’s even more remarkable when you discover the fact that he was deaf his entire life. Professor George Yoerger was one of the more colorful figures in Woodhaven’s long history.