Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Boxing history—Yankee Sullivan v. John Morrissey, Part VI, London Prize Ring rules

            Rules for 19th century bare-knuckle prize fights in America came from England. During the mid-1700’s, Jack Broughton, an English boxing champion, promoted fights in his own amphitheater under uniform rules designed to advance boxing safety and larger purses.[i]

            In 1838, after a boxer was killed in the ring during a bout fought under Broughton’s rules, the English Pugilists Protective Association established new regulations to improve Broughton’s rules and further protect the health of boxers. The new rules were called the London Prize Ring rules.[ii]
            According to the boxing contract Yankee Sullivan and John Morrissey signed on September 1, 1853, their fight at Boston Corners would be fought under those rules.[iii]
            The London Prize Ring rules anticipated that most prizefights would take place outdoors in a large field. The rules called for a 24 square foot ring to be created by having eight large turned posts driven several feet into the ground. Two strands of rope were to be tied and drawn around the posts, one strand four feet from the ground and the other two feet.

Boxing ring in 1860

            The rules provided that a coin toss by the boxer’s seconds would determine which corner of the ring their boxer would fight from. This was important because the ground might not be level, one side of the ring might be hilly, or the sun might be shining intensely. A fighter might gain an advantage by choosing a corner with the highest ground or one which put the sun at his back.
            The rules regulated what boxers could wear in the ring. They were supposed to wear knee pants that fastened below the knee, long hose and light-spiked heavy-laced walking boots. Each fighting boot could only have three spikes, two in the broadest part of the sole and one in the heel.[iv] The spikes were not to exceed three-eighths of an inch from the sole of the boot and were not to be less than one-eighth of an inch broad at the point.[v]

Traditional 19th century "fighting attitude"

            Each boxer was expected to bring his colors, usually a large silk handkerchief ornamented with a special design and his nation’s flag, into the ring and tie it to the upper end of one of the center posts. The winner was entitled to possession of his opponent’s colors as a trophy of victory.
            The rules required the fighters to strip before the fight and have their drawers examined to see if any “improper substance” had been inserted into them.
            Under the rules, a line was to be drawn in the center of the ring. It was called the “scratch.” In every round, when “time” was called, the fighters were supposed to leave their corners and “face the scratch.” A boxer had to continue fighting until a round ended. The round ended when one fighter fell, or was knocked down, or was thrown.
            At the conclusion of a round, the seconds and bottle holders were allowed to step into the ring and carry their fighter to his corner where there usually was water, ice, a bottle of brandy or ginger ale, a paper of resin, a sponge and a scraper (a flat piece of steel wire used for scraping the tongue). The fighters were permitted to sit on his bottle holder’s knee or on a soft seat made by one of his friends stooping on all fours to form a stool.
            If there were wounds, the seconds might apply clean lint to stop the bleeding. If the fighter’s knuckles were injured, the seconds might rub the bruised parts with arnica or dry resin.

            According to the rules, after 30 seconds passed at the end of a round, the timekeeper was supposed to call “time” and each man was required to walk to his side of the scratch unaided. The fighters had eight seconds to walk to the scratch, or lose the fight.

Allowed. Not a foul.

            Under the London Prize Ring rules, there were a number of other ways a boxer might lose a fight. Head butting was a foul punished by the loss of the fight. A blow struck when a man was down or thrown was a foul. A man with one knee down and one hand on the ground, or both knees on the ground was deemed down. The man who was down was not himself allowed to strike or attempt to strike his opponent.

Allowed. Not a foul.
            A blow struck below the waist was a foul. In a clinch, it was a foul to seize the opponent below the waist, by the thigh, or otherwise. All attempts to inflict injury by gouging or tearing the flesh with the fingers or nails or biting was a foul. Kicking or deliberately falling on an opponent with the knees or otherwise was a foul.

Not allowed. A foul.

            The use of hard substances such as stones or sticks or of resin in the hand during the fight was a foul. Hugging on the ropes was a foul. A man held by the neck against the stakes or upon or against the ropes was considered down and all interference with him was considered to be a foul.
            A boxer could not use the ropes or stakes to aid him in squeezing his adversary and if he did so he would lose the fight. If a man fell to the ground on his knees while in a clinch, his opponent was supposed to immediately let him go or lose the fight.[vi]
            Next, Part VII, Sullivan fights Morrissey.

[i] Gerald R. Gems, Boxing: A Concise History of the Sweet Science (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 11–12.
[ii] Ibid., 18.
[iii] Life and Battles of Yankee Sullivan (Philadelphia: A. Winch, 1854), 65.
[iv] Richard Kyle Fox, Boxing: With Hints on the Art of Attack and Defense (New York: Richard K. Fox, 1889), 15–19.
[v] William Edwards, Art of Boxing and Science of Self-Defense (New York: Excelsior Publishing House, 1888), 104.
[vi] Fox, Boxing, 11–13, 15–19.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Boxing history—Yankee Sullivan v. John Morrissey, Part V, Boston Corners, NY, the venue

             When Yankee Sullivan fought John Morrissey for the unofficial American Boxing Championship and a $2,000 prize (about $62,000 in today’s money) on October 12, 1853, there was no specific statute that banned boxing or prizefighting in New York State. Such a prohibition would not be added to the law books until March 7, 1859. Nevertheless, law enforcement officials prosecuted fighters and those who aided and abetted prizefights by using common law doctrine, a body of law which had been originally formulated and administered in England when New York was an English colony.[1]

            Police arrested people involved with prizefighting events in New York State and charged them with such common law crimes as: unlawful assembly (“a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace . . . exciting terror, alarm and consternation in the neighborhood”); affray (“fighting of two or more persons in some public place, to the terror of citizens”); and riot (“a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons . . . to the terror of the people, whether the act intended is lawful or unlawful”). Additional common law crimes that were used to prosecute those involved with prizefighting included breach of the peace, assault and battery, and rout (a crime that fell somewhere between unlawful assembly and riot).[2]
            During Yankee Sullivan’s trial in 1842 for his role in the Lilly-McCoy fight (see Part III), New York Justice Charles Ruggles explained why state legal officials thought prizefighting was so despicable. He said, “A prizefight brings together . . . the gamblers, and the bullies, and the pickpockets, and the thieves, and the burglars . . . a large assemblage of the idle, disorderly, vicious, dissolute people—the people who live by violence—the people who live by crime.”[3]
            Because of these legal facts of life, Yankee Sullivan and John Morrissey had to be very careful about where they would stage their fight. According to the “Articles of Agreement” for the fight which they signed on September 1, 1853, they agreed to fight between 11 am and 2 pm on October 12, 1853. They also agreed to chose a man who would have the authority to decide where the fight would be held, and a coin toss would determine which site would be chosen. Morrissey’s man won the coin toss and he selected Boston Corners, NY to be the location for the fight.[4]
            Boston Corners was about 100 miles north of New York City, on the New York and Harlem Railroad line, currently the Metro-North Harlem line. Today, it terminates at Wassaic, NY, about 20 miles south of Boston Corners.

            Morrissey’s man chose a good place for a prizefight. Originally located in the Town of Mount Washington, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, Boston Corners was entirely isolated from county law enforcement officials. The Taconic Mountains extended down the eastern border of Boston Corners and formed an almost impassible barrier which cut off the community from the nearest state and local government authority which was located on the other side of the mountains in Mount Washington and Great Barrington. Because of this geography, Boston Corners had become the resort of fugitives from justice and criminals of all stripes who defied the law and carried on their illegal businesses with impunity.[5]

Taconic Mountains in Boston Corners, NY

             In December 1848, the law-abiding inhabitants of Boston Corners petitioned Massachusetts to be annexed to New York State where law enforcement officials were more accessible.[6] On May 14, 1853, Massachusetts ceded the area to New York but the cession would not take legal effect until three more legal events occurred: (1) New York had to accept jurisdiction over Boston Corners; (2) Congress had to consent to the cession and annexation; and (3) the Massachusetts governor had to issue a proclamation declaring Boston Corners to be part of New York.[7]

            In the fall of 1853, when the final arrangements were being made for the Sullivan-Morrissey fight to be held in Boston Corners, the area was in legal limbo between the jurisdictions of New York and Massachusetts. On July 21, 1853, New York had accepted jurisdiction over Boston Corners but Congress had not given its consent (it would not do so until about a year and a half later, on January 3, 1855) and the Massachusetts governor had not proclaimed Boston Corners to be part of New York (he would not do so until January 11, 1855).[8]
            On April 13, 1857, New York would annex the area to the Town of Ancram in Columbia County.[9]

Town of Ancram, NY
            Today, a sign marks the site of the abandoned brickyard in Boston Corners where the Sullivan-Morrissey fight was held. The sign is located off State Route 22 on Under Mountain Road, south of the Undermountain Golf Course, and north of the line between Columbia and Dutchess Counties, and Altenburg Road.

As originally erected

As partially corrected

            The sign makers made two major errors on the sign, only one of which has been corrected. When erected in 1959, the sign incorrectly stated that the fight had been held in 1883. Sometime in the last few years, someone corrected the sign by changing an “8” to a “5” and it now displays the correct year, 1853. However, the sign continues to display the incorrect day of the fight. The sign says the fight was held on October 5 when in fact it was held on October 12.
            Next, Part VI, the rules for the fight, the rules of the London Prize Ring.

[1] Orbach, Barak Y., “Prizefighting and the Birth of Movie Censorship,” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 21, no. 2 (2009): 262, 267.
[2] Francis Wharton, A Treatise of the Criminal Law of the United States (Philadelphia: Kay & Brother, 1861), 400; Orbach, Barak Y., “Prizefighting and the Birth of Movie Censorship,” 262.
[3] Orbach, Barak Y., “Prizefighting and the Birth of Movie Censorship,” 263–264.
[4] Life and Battles of Yankee Sullivan (Philadelphia: A. Winch, 1854), 65.
[5] John Homer French, Gazetteer of the State of New York (Syracuse, NY: B. Pearsall Smith, 1860), 242–243. n.7.
[6] Ibid., 242–243.
[7] Report of the Regents of the University on the Boundaries of the State of New York (Albany, NY: Jerome B. Parmeter, 1878), 219–220.
[8] Ibid., 219–220, 223.
[9] French, Gazetteer of the State of New York, 242–243, n.7.

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,; “Morrissey, John,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, accessed October 3, 2014,
[2] “John Morrissey,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 7, 2014,; “Morrissey, John.”
[3] “Morrissey, John.”
[4] “John Morrissey.”
[5] “George Thompson vs John Morrissey 1852,” Boxing Asylum, accessed November 10, 2014,; 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.