John “Dropkick” Murphy’s “health farm for men” in Acton has long been shrouded in mystery and hearsay. That is, until Emily Sweeney — a Globe journalist and expert on all things organized crime — sifted through the rumors and unearthed the true Bellows Farm in her book “Dropkick Murphy: A Legendary Life.”
Besides being the primary inspiration for the name of Quincy-based punk band, Dropkick Murphys, Murphy led a life full of twists and turns. A professional wrestler during the Great Depression, just as the Prohibition era was crawling toward its end, Murphy was an icon in the ring by night, but by day he hit the books, studying osteopathic medicine at the Massachusetts College of Osteopathy.
Later, Murphy opened Bellows Farm Sanitarium, a rehabilitation center of sorts for men suffering from alcoholism and addiction as well as a training facility for professional athletes. After about 10 years of digging through archives and interviewing family members, Sweeney has collected the many unconventional tales of Bellows Farm and the wild world of Boston’s 1930s professional wrestling scene into one volume.
Sweeney will discuss “Dropkick Murphy” at 10 a.m. on Sept. 17 at a fund-raiser for libraries in Ayer and Shirley to be held at The Bull Run. She spoke to the Globe this week about her research.
Q. How did you go about the research?
A. It was really difficult … just the aspect of researching an institution where a lot of records are gone. Like AA meetings — there are no records on purpose. A lot of people were long gone. And then combined with the fact that he was a professional wrestler, which is an industry that was only later regulated. A lot of it had to do with newspaper accounts which varied, sometimes widely. There wasn’t much TV back then, so it was difficult. I went to different libraries, everywhere from Medford Public Library to the archives up at Saint Anselm’s.
Q. Did you learn anything about wrestling that you didn’t know before?
A. Growing up, I watched WWF wrestling back when it was WWF (before WWE), and I went to one match at Boston Garden, so I was a fan. But as I got older, I didn’t really pay too much attention to it.
Wrestling is one of the oldest sports if you think about it — two guys going at it in a ring. Some of the matches were choreographed even back then in the ’30s, but some matches really went down to blows. It wasn’t choreographed so perfectly as it is today. And to learn about all of the costumes and the theatrics that were put into it ... it’s kind of how it is now. I thought it was really interesting how it mixed sport and theater almost 100 years ago and, to this day, continues. ... It’s a little escape.
Q. Did you find any connection between wrestling and rehabilitation?
A. The one thing would really be a healthy lifestyle. To be a professional wrestler, you have to be extremely athletic. Incredibly strong. You have to be so agile and have such endurance. That was true back then and still holds true today. Dropkick was always into sports and into keeping up his body … and I have a feeling that’s why he wanted to study medicine.
Q. What sets apart Bellows Farm from other “health farms” you researched?
A. It seemed like Bellows Farm was quite a place. The mixture of not only having it in a rural atmosphere where people could get fresh air, but I think the social aspect, having the barn where guys could congregate and talk … I think basic things like that can really help people get better.
And then you had the sports and the state of the art gym. It wasn’t like the patients were locked up in one area. It was a somewhat free atmosphere where people could mix and mingle, guys could go in and watch two boxers spar in the ring. It almost seemed like it had a summer camp feel to it. The juxtaposition of having these people who are overcoming major issues with addiction and alcoholism all in the same place as some of the most elite athletes is really cool.
Q. What do you think led Dropkick Murphy to be so compassionate toward people struggling with addiction?
A. I think his own personal experience taking care of friends and cohorts who had alcohol problems combined with his medical education led him to have more of an open mind. Every single time I talked to the Murphy family and asked them, “How was it when you were a kid living among people who have drug and alcohol problems?” each one of them said they never had an issue. All the clients were wicked nice to them, and it really opened their eyes. And that’s what Dropkick would say. He thought it taught his children.
Q. What’s your favorite part about time traveling?
A. I love learning as much as possible about whatever it is I’m researching or writing. Writing for the Globe, I always do so much research. Sometimes I might even say too much research. Even after I write something, I’m still reading about it. I’m a huge history buff. I always like learning about the place where I am, what happened there, who lived here before.
Q. What inspires you to study the history of organized crime?
A. I’ve always been fascinated by criminals and both sides of the law — especially stories that haven’t been told. Sometimes, when you look back at a historical record, a lot of it is dominated by government agencies, police records, court records. And the criminals who lived during that era … they didn’t want to be writing things down. They’re not keeping track, they don’t want to say anything about that. So I’ve always been interested in unearthing hidden parts of history like that.
Elena Giardina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.