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, the fighters.


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.

Friday, September 19, 2014

North Country baseball prizes in 1867 and “clean” home runs

            One hundred and forty-seven years ago, post-season baseball in the North Country meant tournaments, and tournaments meant interesting prizes for the winners. In September 1867, Burlington, VT hosted a major tournament for baseball teams from northern New York State and Vermont. A team from St. Lawrence County, New York, won the contest and took home most of the prizes, according to a story in the Malone Palladium.

            For winning the tournament, the St. Lawrence County nine was awarded a silver ball, a silver bat, and a prize stand of colors. The team was also given a book for making the largest score.
            Individual members of the St. Lawrence County team also walked away with prizes which included a pair of shoes to the “best catcher,” a golden badge to the “quickest runner on base,” a silver mounted rosewood bat to the “longest batsman,” and an unspecified prize for the “furtherest horizontal thrower.” The tournament’s “best umpire” won a copy of Hayes’ Base Ball Book of 1867.
            A.D. Tenney of the St. Lawrence County team won a prize for hitting the most “clean” home runs in the tournament. Now what exactly were “clean” home runs in 1867?

            No, a hitter’s use of anabolic steroids or human growth hormones had nothing to do with whether the homers were considered “clean” or “unclean” by post-Civil War baseball scorers. Back in 1867, “clean” home runs had nothing to do with the use of performance enhancing drugs, and everything to do with how far and where the ball was hit.

            In The Complete History of the Home Run, baseball historian Mark Ribowsky credits the English-born 19th century baseball journalist Henry Chadwick for determining what should or should not be scored as a home run. The 1867 version of Beadle’s Dime Base Ball Player, edited by Henry Chadwick, contained a section entitled “Hints for Scorers.” It noted: “Home Runs are made when the batsman goes the round of the bases and reaches home before being touched with the ball, and without having stopped on any of the bases while going round. A ‘clean home run,’ is one made before the ball returns from the outer field. Home runs can therefore be made through loose fielding or wild throwing as well as from long hits to the outer field; but the latter are not counted in the score of home runs."

            If Chadwick were alive and writing today, it would be interesting to see how he would have scored the record-breaking, steroid-fueled home runs hit by Barry Bonds (73), Mark McGuire (70 and 65), and Sammy Sousa (66, 64 and 63). And, would any of them be counted as “clean” home runs if they had been hit in the 1867 tournament in Burlington?

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Governor Silas Wright’s 1845 anti-mask law meets Spider-Man, Cookie Monster and Batman in Times Square

            Recent news about violent police confrontations in Times Square with aggressive panhandlers dressed to look like such characters as Spider-Man, Batman, and Cookie Monster, has put New York’s ancient anti-mask law back on the agenda of New York City law enforcement officials.

ABC News, July 28, 2014

            The origins of the anti-mask law, section 240.35(4) of the New York Penal Law, go back to a statute passed in 1845 to suppress armed uprisings by tenant farmers in the Hudson Valley who were using disguises to attack law enforcement officers.
            Known as the “anti-rent movement” in New York history, tenants on huge manorial estates rose up to challenge their “leases in fees.” They required the tenants to pay their landlords rent and render them annual services for an indefinite term. In addition, a “quarter sale” provision in the lease called for the tenant to pay the landlord one-fourth of the sale price if the tenant sold the farm. When wheat prices fell and the soil became less productive, many tenants were unable to pay their rent and became indebted to their landlords.
            A crisis occurred in 1839 when Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, owner of a 375,000-acre estate located in today’s Albany County, demanded payment of back rent owed and sought to evict farmers who did not pay. They fought back by organizing anti-rent associations which lobbied state legislators for relief and attacked the validity of the leases in court.
            When law enforcement officers were sent to serve farmers with legal process and conduct distress sales of the farmers’ property, heavily armed bands of “Indians” thwarted them. Organized by the anti-renters, the Indians were boys and young men disguised in calico gowns and masks of sheepskin or painted muslin. They threatened and assaulted the law enforcement officials and robbed them of their legal papers. Violence escalated. Some process servers were tarred and feathered, and by 1845, three people had been killed, including a sheriff. Soon the anti-rent movement spread into eleven counties and claimed up to 60,000 supporters.

Band of anti-rent "Indians"

            On January 7, 1845, in response to the civil unrest, Governor Silas Wright urged the legislature to pass an anti-mask law to prevent and punish crime being committed under the protection of masks and other disguises. The next day, Erastus Corning of Albany introduced such a measure in the state senate. It passed both houses and was signed into law on January 28, 1845 by Governor Wright.

Silas Wright

            The law made it a crime for any person to “appear in any road or public highway, or in any field, lot, wood or enclosure” with their “face painted, discolored, covered or concealed” or disguised in any manner to hide their identity. If they were arrested and could not give “a good account” of themselves, they faced being deemed a vagrant and being sentenced to six months in jail. If three or more people were disguised in this way and they assembled in one place, they faced possible arrest and up to one year in jail. The jail term could be doubled if they were armed with a sword, dirk, firearm or “other offensive weapon.”
            The anti-rent movement died out in the mid-1850’s; however, the anti-mask law remained in force. As time passed, the legislature modified it but left its essential provisions in place. It was reenacted in its present form in 1965. Even though the charge under it was changed from vagrancy to loitering, and the maximum punishment was reduced from six months to 15 days in jail, it remained a valuable tool in the arsenal of New York law enforcement officials.
            In 1999, the New York City police used it to deny a parade permit to the American Knights, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. Most recently, in 2011, the anti-mask law was used by New York City police to break up the Occupy Wall Street protest movement shortly after demonstrators donned Guy Fawkes masks to hide their faces.
            This summer, panhandlers dressed up as superheroes or television characters descended on Times Square and accosted tourists for tips in exchange for posing for photographs. One man dressed as Spider-Man punched a police officer while resisting arrest on charges of harassing a tourist for more money after she posed for a picture with him and only offered him a $1.00 tip. Subsequently, four other costumed panhandlers were arrested for aggressive panhandling and disorderly conduct.

New York Post, July 28, 2014

            City lawmakers are looking into requiring costumed characters to obtain licenses and undergo background checks before they are allowed to ply their trade on city thoroughfares. In addition, other observers are wondering if the police might use New York’s anti-mask law to sweep the panhandling impersonators off the streets.
            Bruce Golding, a reporter for the New York Post, asked me for my opinion about whether the anti-mask law was applicable. I told him that because a 2004 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, had upheld the constitutionality of the law in a case brought by the Ku Klux Klan challenging the anti-mask law on First Amendment grounds, it might be lawful for the police to use the anti-mask law to arrest masked panhandlers.
            I had one caveat however. The anti-mask law contains an exception. It does not apply if the mask wearing “occurs in connection with a masquerade party or like entertainment.” If costumed panhandlers are deemed by judges to be merely street performers putting on “like entertainment,” they might well escape conviction. On the other hand, if judges rule that posing for photographs with tourists is not entertainment, “like” a masquerade party, Governor Wright’s anti-mask law will have new life and use on Times Square—and Spider-Man, Batman, and Cookie Monster should beware of it!

Monday, July 21, 2014

“I’m not going to pull a Ralph Waldo Emerson on you!”

            That was the promise I made to the full house that had come to the Schryer Center at the Franklin County Historical and Museum Society in Malone, NY to listen to my talk about the relevancy of William Almon Wheeler to the 21st century and to have my biography of him signed. This is the backstory to that promise.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

            In the early summer of 1867, after many weeks of fanfare in the local newspapers, the great American poet, essayist and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, came to Malone to give a talk in the newly built Methodist Church on Main Street. The lecture did not go very well.
            According to the Malone Palladium, the talk by the 64-year-old literary giant was hard to hear, “long, tiresome and rather exhaustive.”
Emerson's study
            The Palladium went on to skewer Emerson in typical mid-19th century style by saying, "We take the benefit of the proposition which the speaker laid down—that there never was a great discovery made that was not preceded by a great guess—and venture the 'guess' that this lecture was, though poorly delivered, a great literary production, and leave to subtler minds than ours, the discovery of wherein consists its greatness."