Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Boxing history—Yankee Sullivan v. John Morrissey, Part IV, Morrissey

            When John Morrissey challenged Yankee Sullivan to a fight to defend his claim that he was the American Boxing Champion, it sounded like a son challenging his father to a fight—Morrissey was 18 years younger than Sullivan!
            John Morrissey was born in Ireland on February 12, 1831 and came to the U.S. with his parents when he was two-years-old.[1]
            The Morrisseys settled in Troy, NY where John attended public schools. When he became a teenager, he worked as a deckhand on various steamship companies whose ships traveled up and down the Hudson River between Troy and New York City. On the docks and on board ship, Morrissey quickly earned a reputation as a savage fist fighter. The criminal forces in Troy were impressed with Morrissey’s fighting skills and he was soon employed by them to collect gambling debts and keep order in Troy’s brothels.[2]

John Morrissey
            When Morrissey turned 17, he left home to take a job as an iron molder in New York City. His reputation as a bare-knuckle brawler traveled with him and he often defended it in gang fights on the streets of New York City.[3]
            Boxing legend has it that Morrissey became known as “Old Smoke” following a particularly vicious slugfest during which Morrissey was knocked backwards over a hot coal stove. According to the legend, the skin on Morrissey’s back was so severely burned, it continued to smoke while he hammered his opponent into oblivion.[4]
            At the age of 20, Morrissey headed for the gold fields of California and moved to San Francisco. He became a successful gambler but it was his powerful fists that earned him a quick fortune and a national reputation. Morrissey agreed to fight the California Champion, George Thompson, for a $3,000 prize, about $83,000 in today’s money, on Mare Island, about 30 miles from San Francisco, on August 20, 1852. “Old Smoke” won the fight in an eleven round, sixteen-minute fight when Thompson was disqualified for a foul blow.[5]

            Flush with his prize fighting success, Morrissey promptly returned to New York seeking a fight for the American Championship. The man who claimed the title, Yankee Sullivan, agreed to fight Morrissey for a $2,000 prize—each man was to put up $1,000 in four installments of $250. After both boxers signed the Articles of Agreement for the fight on September 1, 1853, they went into training. Morrissey trained at Macombs Dam on the Harlem River, where Macombs Dam Bridge between Manhattan and the Bronx is located today, near Yankee Stadium. Sullivan trained at the Hit-or-Miss Hotel on the Coney Island Plank Road, currently known as Coney Island Avenue, in Brooklyn.[6]
            Next, the venue for the fight, Boston Corners, NY.

[1] Paul Post, “Irish-American Fighting Legend John Morrissey’s Spa City Connection as Successful as His Fists,” The Saratogian, accessed October 3, 2014, http://www.saratogian.com; “Morrissey, John,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, accessed October 3, 2014, http://bioguide.congress.gov.
[2] “John Morrissey,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 7, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org; “Morrissey, John.”
[3] “Morrissey, John.”
[4] “John Morrissey.”
[5] “George Thompson vs John Morrissey 1852,” Boxing Asylum, accessed November 10, 2014, http://www.boxingasylum.com; William E. Harding, ed., The Champions of the American Prize Ring (New York: Richard K. Fox, 1881), 10.
[6] Life and Battles of Yankee Sullivan (Philadelphia: A. Winch, 1854), 65.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Boxing history—Yankee Sullivan v. John Morrissey, Part III, Sullivan

            Born in Ireland on April 12, 1813, James “Yankee” Sullivan grew up in London where he began his long and successful career as a bare-knuckle boxer at an early age. English sports writers said that in the ring, he displayed “all the fierceness and wildness” of a “war-like animal.” According to The New York Times, Sullivan got his nickname “Yankee” because during one of his English fights, he went into the ring with the American flag draped about his loins.[1]
            Outside the ring, Sullivan ran with a rough crowd and he paid a steep price for doing so. While still a teenager, he was arrested and convicted of committing a felony, and was sentenced to serve 20 years in the British penal colony in Australia. After eight years, Sullivan was released from confinement for good behavior on condition that he remain in Australia, get a job and stay out of trouble for the remainder of his prison term.
            Unwilling to do that, Sullivan clandestinely secured passage to America aboard a whaling ship which was leaving Australia for its home port, Sag Harbor, on the eastern tip of Long Island, NY. Arriving in 1840, Sullivan made his way to New York City where he bought a saloon and quickly established himself as an efficient “shoulder hitter” in the city’s political world, and a ferocious bare-knuckle boxer in the city’s sporting world.[2]
            Sullivan fought a number of well-publicized fights that earned him a national boxing reputation. On September 2, 1841, he defeated the highly regarded Vincent Hammond in an eight-round, ten-minute bout fought on League Island, about ten miles south of Philadelphia. Two more fights followed in New York State. On January 24, 1842, he defeated the dangerous Tom Secor in a 67-round fight on Staten Island, NY and on August 29, 1842, Sullivan fought Harry “The Professor” Bell on Hart Island, presently part of New York City at the western end of Long Island Sound, northeast of City Island. At the end of an 86-minute fight that went 23 rounds, the referee declared Sullivan the winner.[3]
            A few weeks after his fight with Bell, Yankee Sullivan got into serious trouble with the law again. He was arrested and charged with being an accessory to murder for his role in promoting a prize fight in Hastings, NY between Christopher Lilly and Thomas McCoy who died at the end of the 119th round. Sullivan was convicted in a Westchester County court and sentenced to serve two years in jail. Sullivan’s friends successfully prevailed on Democratic Governor William C. Bouck to pardon Sullivan on condition that he not engage in any more prize fights.[4]
            Sullivan kept his promise for about five years until a chance to fight Bob Caunt, the brother of the English boxing champion, Ben Caunt, changed Sullivan’s mind. Sullivan battered Caunt unmercifully in a fight fought near Harper’s Ferry, VA on May 11, 1847.[5] It only went seven rounds in 12 minutes but Sullivan’s victory put him next in line to fight Tom Hyer for the American boxing championship in 1849—a bout that has been written about here in an earlier blog. When Hyer did not defend his title for two years after his win over Sullivan, the 38-year old slugger claimed the title on the grounds that the title was vacant and that he was the last man to fight Hyer.[6]
            In no time, a 20-year-old bare-knuckle brawler from Troy, NY, John Morrissey, began to clamor for a shot at Sullivan’s “title.”
            Next, Part IV, Morrissey.

[1] Life and Battles of Yankee Sullivan (Philadelphia: A. Winch, 1854), 12; “Yankee Sullivan No More,” New York Daily Times, June 30, 1856, 1.
[2] “Yankee Sullivan No More,” 1; “Yankee Sullivan,” Wikipedia, October 7, 2014,      http://en.wikipedia.org
[3] William E. Harding, ed., The Champions of the American Prize Ring (New York: Richard K. Fox, 1881), 8–9.
[4] Life and Battles of Yankee Sullivan, 28.
[5] Harding, The Champions of the American Prize Ring, 9.
[6] “Yankee Sullivan.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Boxing history—Yankee Sullivan v. John Morrissey, Part II, backstory

            In the nineteenth century, newspapers and public opinion crowned American boxing champions because there were no national organizations or state athletic commissions to sponsor title fights or recognize champions. A New York-born butcher, Tom Hyer, was one of the first American boxers to win acclamation as a “champion” after he defeated George McChester, aka Country McCloskey, in a two hour and fifty-five minute fight that went 101 rounds on September 9, 1841 at Caldwell’s Landing, NY, about 40 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River. Following the fight, one boxing writer described Hyer who stood about 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed about 180 pounds, “the greatest pugilist that ever stood in the ring.”

Tom Hyer

            James “Yankee” Sullivan of New York City, a 36-year old Irish saloonkeeper with an impressive list of boxing victories over English and American opponents under his belt, took exception to Hyer’s claim to boxing greatness and challenged him to defend his title. Hyer accepted and they fought on February 7, 1849 at Still Ponds Heights, MD, on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, about 40 miles from Baltimore, for a purse of $10,000, over $275,000 in today’s money.

“The Great Fight Between Tom Hyer & Yankee Sullivan, for $10,000.” 

            For 18 minutes and 16 rounds, Hyer thrashed the previously undefeated Sullivan and pocketed the prize money. Sports writers used the telegraph to send the results of the fight to New York newspapers—reportedly, the first time this new technology was used to carry a sports story.
            After the fight, no one successfully challenged Hyer for his title and he, in effect, retired from the ring. In 1851, Sullivan claimed he had inherited the title from the inactive Hyer on the grounds that Sullivan had been the last man to fight Hyer.
            Next: Part III, Sullivan.


Friday, October 10, 2014

Boxing history—Yankee Sullivan v. John Morrissey, Part I, introduction

            One hundred sixty-one years ago, on October 12, 1853, one of the most notorious bare-knuckle boxing matches in American sports history was held in an abandoned brickyard in Boston Corners, NY. James “Yankee” Sullivan fought a 37-round fight with John Morrissey that The New York Times described as a “brutal exhibition,” “sickening,” and “a hideous affair.”

            According to the referee, Morrissey won the fight. Newspapers from coast to coast proclaimed him to be the new American boxing champion. He went on to win political fame in New York City, and a horse racing and gambling fortune in Saratoga Springs, NY. Sullivan went on to San Francisco, CA where he either committed suicide or was murdered, while he was in jail waiting trial on charges of rigging elections by stuffing ballot boxes.

            Over the course of the next few weeks, more details about this fascinating blip in New York State’s history of blood sports will appear here.