Thursday, July 10, 2014

Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport

One of the historical oddities I came across in writing Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero was the brief American sporting fad of “pedestrianism” that emerged after the Civil War and reached its height in the late 1870s as Sullivan was beginning his rise to the heavyweight title. Both men and women competed in long-distance walking match races and crazy feats (or "feets" in this case) of endurance, such as the wildly popular six-day races staged in arenas around the country that would start a minute after midnight on Monday morning and end at midnight the following Saturday, giving the competitors’ legs a rest on the seventh day. Top participants in these “go as you please” races could cover nearly 500 miles before they were through.

I love quirky American history, so I’ve been drawn to the books penned by Matthew Algeo on a road trip taken by Harry and Bess Truman in their post-White House days and to the conglomeration of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles—the Steagles—during World War II. Given my brush with the subject, I was eager to read his latest: Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport.

Algeo traces the sport’s rising popularity from a simple barroom bet by New England’s Edward Payson Weston on the election of 1860. Wagering that Abraham Lincoln would lose, he pledged to walk from Boston to Washington, D.C., in time to see the inauguration. When Honest Abe won, Weston got his walking shoes out. Weston proved to be a PR genius, lining up corporate sponsors for his 10-day walk in return for handing out promotional literature for their products (take that, NASCAR) and mailing his itinerary to papers along his route. He arrived a few hours too late for the inauguration but generated enormous press coverage.

Weston continued to do long-distance walks for a wager, such as an 1867 walk from Maine to Chicago that he completed in 26 days to win $10,000. Soon other publicity-hungry walkers followed in Weston’s footsteps and pushed the limits of sleep deprivation. In 1878, for instance, Ada Anderson walked 2,700 quarter miles in 2,700 consecutive quarter hours—more than 28 days—around a Brooklyn music hall. She even spent her down time playing a piano and singing songs to entertain the crowd. (Algeo’s book informs us that competitors had to be polyphasic sleepers, ones who can be survive on short bursts of sleep during the day. Count me out of that group.) The sport reached its apex as pedestrians began to set up match races with other walkers where they would compete toe-to-toe around arenas such as New York’s Madison Square Garden.

As happens every four years during the World Cup, America in recent weeks been once again put on the sporting couch to analyze why it fails to embrace soccer as fervently as the rest of the world. A lack of action that is contrary to the American psyche is often fingered as the cause. So why did Americans during the Gilded Age pay to watch men walk around a track for hours on end, an activity that the Chicago Tribune admitted was “at best not an absorbingly entrancing sport.” Gambling played a role, but part of it was definitely the potential for rubbernecking as competitors pushed the boundaries of safety (think NASCAR again). Algeo writes, “The staggering pedestrians were a source of great amusement, and a six-day race was not an athletic event but a freak show.” He adds, “Sleep-deprived, malnourished, dehydrated, and out of their minds, many pedestrians pushed themselves to the very edge of physical and mental endurance.” In 1879 a walker named Peter Van Ness attempted to walk 2,000 half miles in 2,000 half hours. After his 1,718th half mile, he began to act like a madman and grabbed a revolver from his belongings and shot his trainer and sprayed bullets into the crowd before collapsing into a coma. Although wounded, Van Ness’s trainer ordered “morphine and hot drop” to revive his charge who regained his feet and kept walking. Algeo also points to a Gilded Age “entertainment deficit” and scant opportunities for recreation. “The public was so desperate for entertainment, especially affordable entertainment, that watching half-dead men stagger in circles for days on end was, if not absorbingly entrancing, at least an unobjectionable way to kill time," he write.

It was nice to travel back to the Gilded Age once again in Algeo’s book. Some of the same Strong Boy characters play a cameo role in Pedestrianism, such as “Clubber” Williams, the tough New York cop who always stood ringside during Sullivan’s Madison Square Garden matches and also worked security for the arena's walking races, even using his famous billy club on spectators during an Astley Belt Race in 1879 after a near riot ensued when he shut down ticket sales.

Algeo pointed to the development of bicycling and the rise of musical theater as the death knell of pedestrianism in America. I might be biased, but I would suggest that Sullivan played a major role as well. His rise to the heavyweight title in 1882 coincides with the dip in pedestrianism’s popularity. By becoming a superstar of the highest magnitude and by insisting on fighting legally with gloves under the Marquis of Queensberry Rules, he brought boxing to the masses. By participating in these legally sanctioned fights, Sullivan became the biggest star William Vanderbilt ever had to fill up Madison Square Garden. Sullivan could bang out the Garden in one night, a quick shot of cash in contrast to the week-long pedestrian races.

I really enjoyed this book, although I wished it would have had footnotes. I know most readers don’t care, but I’m always interested in seeing sources in case I’m curious to explore more on a topic. Algeo also can turn a phrase, such as when he noted that for the brutal use of his billy club that Williams never received more than a reprimand—a mere “slap on the wrist for a club to the skull.” A great summer read for history geeks and sports fans alike.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Rumble at Richburg

On July 8, 1889, blood, sweat, and whiskey soaked the sandy soil of the Mississippi backwoods. Two battered, bruised, and bloodied outlaws traded blows with their naked fists for more than two hours while the midday summer sun broiled and blistered their exposed skin. In the triple-digit heat, the bloodlust in the crowd bubbled up like the pitch from the freshly cut pine planks used to build the hastily constructed outdoor arena. In spite of the secluded setting, this brawl in Richburg, Mississippi, was not some scrap between two local thugs, but the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, an event simultaneously illegal and the focus of the entire nation.

The thousands of fight fans in the makeshift arena had spent the early morning hours in the dark, literally and figuratively, as they waited to board trains from New Orleans to the secret location of the fight, outlawed because of the brutality of its bare knuckles.  Hot, sweaty passengers stuffed the seats and aisles inside the twelve coaches, while freeloaders clung to the roof, sides, and even axles of the train cars as they lurched across the steaming bayous. The Mississippi governor had stationed his militia along all rail lines coming into his state from New Orleans in order to prevent the fight from taking place, but as the train roared to the state line, the conductor ignored the troop of 25 guardsmen waving signal lights and ordering the train to stop.  The iron horse galloped into Mississippi, scattering the lawmen in its wake. The momentum for a heavyweight title fight between champion John L. Sullivan and challenger Jake Kilrain had grown steadily for two years and was now simply unstoppable.

When the Mississippi governor received reports of the unsuccessful militia operation, he ordered the Marion County sheriff, W. J. Cowart, to stop the fight. The diminutive lawman barely cracked the five-foot mark, and he looked even smaller underneath his large sheriff ’s hat as he stepped into the ring with two huge revolvers stuck into his belt and a deer gun strapped to his back for good measure. The human arsenal of a sheriff, though, was severely outgunned. The crowd, in the spirit of ensuring “fair play,” packed as much heat as the Mississippi sun. Nearly every hip pocket held a revolver, including that of Wild West legend "Bat" Masterson, who served in Kilrain's corner.

The sheriff lifted his hand for order, sputtered an introduction, and called upon all present to desist in their illicit behavior and disperse in the name of the sovereign state of Mississippi. The fans hissed and booed as Renaud stepped between the ropes, talked briefly with the sheriff, and then slipped him $250. Cowart left the ring and took a seat to enjoy the combat with the rest of the crowd.

With the legal disclaimer concluded, the fighters came toe to toe and dug their spikes into the turf as the referee roared, “Time!” For an instant, the two fighters eyed each other. They circled like tomcats in an alley. Then Kilrain darted at Sullivan, who dodged and fired a wayward shot at his opponent’s jaw. Jake pounced, grabbed John L. by the shoulders, and threw him to the ground with a back-heel maneuver that gave the first fall to Kilrain. The challenger’s backers howled with joy and opened their palms to receive their winnings from the bets taken on the first fall. The first round had lasted no more than fifteen seconds.

Sullivan roared as he went to his corner, “So you want to wrestle, do you? Well, I’ll give you enough of that.” He came to scratch for the second round in a rage and threw Kilrain down hard. The third round featured some of the hardest slugging of the entire fight. Both men threw hard rights that landed on the necks of their counterparts. Then the fighters unleashed volleys of punches and counterpunches. Kilrain hit Sullivan with two shots below the belt, which raised cries of foul that went unheeded by the referee. John L. responded with terrible blows to Jake’s ribs and body that sent him to the ground in agony. Kilrain's seconds dragged their man back to his corner as chants of “Sullivan! Sullivan!” shook the Mississippi pines.

After the bombardment of the third round, Kilrain wanted no more of John L.’s big right. The challenger began to play a game of keep away—sidestepping, jabbing, and retreating from any toe-to-toe slugging. The temperature would have reached one hundred degrees in the shade—had there been any shade. The scorching heat, however, couldn’t break the fans of their formal Victorian-era dress code. Ties remained knotted. Long-sleeve shirts and dress coats stayed buttoned.

With temperatures already halfway to the boiling point, it took little for Sullivan’s blood to bubble over. John L. grew increasingly frustrated at Kilrain’s evasion. “Why don’t you stand and fight like a man?” he growled at his opponent after the fourth round. Kilrain walked in circles in the fifth round, which drew boos and hisses from Sullivan’s fans. In the sixth round, both men came to scratch breathing heavily. After a Kilrain hook to Sullivan’s right ear, blood ran down the champion’s sweaty body. The referee awarded the challenger first blood. Kilrain’s backers cheered again as rolls of greenbacks changed hands. Their man had won the first two betting points, but Sullivan began to gain the upper hand in the larger battle. Wounded, he leveled Kilrain with the first knockdown punch of the bout—a sledgehammer right to end round six.

Sullivan continued to rush Kilrain as his opponent clinched and hugged to prevent the champion from firing off his shots. Still, John L. managed to land big blows that “sounded like a man hitting a bale of cotton with a stick.” By the eighth round, Kilrain’s face was swollen, and red splotches appeared on his chest. He continued to evade Sullivan, who cried out, “Stand up and fight! You’re the champion, you know. Come, prove your title.” Some of the spectators called Jake a cur and voiced their disapproval “over Kilrain’s refusal to stand up and be thumped.”

Suddenly, a commotion came from the crowd where a section of the temporary grandstand buckled and collapsed to the ground. The fighters were so engrossed that they barely noticed. The incident caused no serious injuries, just disappointment among the affected fans who no longer had a roost from which to watch the brawl. At least those spectators who lost seats could still keep tabs on the fight. The inaugural edition of the Wall Street Journal published rumors of the fight’s possible start on its front page amid the dividend reports and market updates, while the White House pestered the press room for any news from Richburg.

Sullivan’s fists began to swell like padded gloves from the punishment they delivered, and Kilrain hoped to just prolong the fight until John L. weakened. In the fifteenth round, the longest of the fight, he spent the better part of seven minutes racing away from Sullivan. With his feet constantly on the move, Kilrain accidentally spiked John L., gashing his left foot. Blood seeped through the top of Sullivan’s boots. The champion’s left eye also started to swell, and Kilrain managed to open up a cut with additional stingers. When Sullivan came back to his corner after the seventeenth round, one of his cornermen sucked the blood out of his man’s eye and sent him back out to scratch.

Kilrain now fell with just the slightest push or without even being touched, and John L. protested to the referee to no avail. The rounds piled up. Twenty. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. After Kilrain dropped to the ground to end the twenty-third round, a frustrated Sullivan jumped on the challenger's head with both knees.

Twenty-five. Twenty-eight. Thirty. Sullivan’s left eye continued to swell. Blood flowed from Kilrain’s ear. The challenger continued to dive to the turf as fans yelled, “Fight! Fight!” Sullivan's trainer asked how long the champ could endure. “Until tomorrow morning, if it’s necessary,” he replied.

Thirty. Thirty-five. Forty. The fight now approached ninety minutes in length. Kilrain continued to play his waiting game, hoping that Sullivan’s condition would change. And then suddenly it happened.

Just after the call of time to start the forty-fourth round, Sullivan doubled over and vomited. The champion had been given cold tea laced with whiskey between rounds and apparently his system rebelled. John L. later claimed that there was too much whiskey in the concoction. “My stomach being in such a good condition, I threw it right off,” he recounted in his autobiography. His friends knew better, however. They joked that Sullivan actually heaved the tea and kept down the booze.

Kilrain suddenly saw an escape from certain defeat. “Will you draw the fight?” he asked Sullivan. “No, you loafer,” John L. snapped back. The champion punctuated his retort by knocking Kilrain down to end the forty-fourth. He sent Jake to the turf in the next round and then jumped in the air and landed on his opponent’s head with both legs.

Fifty. Fifty-five. Sixty. The fighters turned red from blood, lacerations, and the cauldron of the midday sun, which had broiled and blistered their exposed skin. Kilrain’s seconds gave him whiskey shots between rounds to try to dull the pain. Sullivan continued to stalk his prey. He pounded away at a raw piece of skin over Kilrain’s ribs that was “hanging like a big tumor.” Through it all, the plucky Kilrain would not give up, but none of the gambling men in the crowd would risk even a nickel on him at this point in the fight.

Sixty-five. Seventy. Sullivan found little resistance to his repeated blows from his terribly weakened opponent. In the seventy-third and seventy-fourth rounds, Kilrain retreated all around the ring. In the seventy-fifth, Sullivan knocked the challenger around as he pleased. Kilrain returned to his corner extremely dazed. He could barely lift his arms. His neck could barely support the weight of his head. Fearing his man could die in the ring, Kilrain's cornerman tossed a sponge from his water pail into the middle of the ring.

It was over.

Two hours and sixteen minutes after the men came to scratch, the referee announced Sullivan the victor. Although the marathon bout had ended, Sullivan’s fight in Mississippi had only just begun. The ensuing legal drama that included his extradition back to Mississippi would consume Sullivan for the better part of the next year and convince him to swear off bare knuckles forever. The champion’s preference for gloves had driven the sport’s transition from the London Prize Ring Rules to the Marquis of Queensberry Rules throughout the 1880s, a transformation that would eventually be completed with his decision to never again defend his title with naked fists. The duel in the Mississippi sun turned out to be the final bareknuckle championship fight in history.

More on the Sullivan-Kilrain epic can be found inside Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Building the Ring for the Rumble at Richburg

It was 125 years ago today that the promoters of the heavyweight championship fight between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain chose a secret location to stage the illegal bareknuckle fight--the unincorporated lumber town of Richburg, Mississippi, a 900-person hamlet that consisted chiefly of a sawmill, a school, a church, and a general store that carried everything from diaper pins to caskets.

As secret locations go, this one was barely on the map. The village bore the name of its founder and still chief citizen, Col. Charles W. Rich. The lumber baron, sporting man, and future mayor of Hattiesburg had offered the fight promoters the use of his 30,000 acres of pine forest. Under the sweltering sun, a few dozen laborers hastily cleared the soaring pines that surrounded a level spot previously used as a baseball diamond on a small hilltop. They constructed an outdoor arena with tiers of bleachers on three sides of the ring, which consisted of eight towering posts and two manila ropes. The workers stripped nearby pines of their lower limbs and built a picket fence to prevent freeloaders from viewing the fight.

They labored into the night by the flicker of pine torchlights, which bathed Rich’s house in an orange glow. Inside, Kilrain, plagued by mosquitoes and nerves, spent a restless night. Two hundred yards away, the champion slept soundly inside the home of Rich’s foreman, J. W. Smith.

One hundred miles southwest in New Orleans, thousands of fight fans who had poured into the city prepared for a long night of revelry. In the early morning hours of Monday, July 8, they would board trains to the scene of the fight, still a closely-kept mystery to the outside world. In a few hours, they would witness an epic brawl, the last heavyweight championship fight contested with naked fists. More on the Sullivan-Kilrain epic can be found inside Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Upcoming "Strong Boy" Book Talks

What better way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day than learning more about one of the country's first Irish-American heroes? I'll be telling the colorful tale of the hard-hitting, hard-drinking Gilded Age boxer John L. Sullivan at a number of Boston-area institutions this March. Among the scheduled dates are the following:

March 6, 6 PM: Boston Public Library
March 8, 9:30 AM: The Irish Ancestral Research Association (Boston)
March 12, 7 PM: Medford Public Library
March 16, 2:30 PM: Stevens Memorial Library (North Andover)
March 18, 7 PM: Falmouth Historical Society and Museums on the Green
March 19, 7 PM: Thomas Crane Public Library (Quincy)
March 27, 6:30 PM: South End Historical Society

Come on out, and you'll
  • Learn how Sullivan’s incredible career and oversized personality launched America’s modern sporting obsession
  • Travel back in time to the extravagant Gilded Age to witness the birth of America’s celebrity culture
  • Discover how Sullivan’s power and self-confidence transformed him into an idol for a generation of Irish-Americans emasculated in the wake of the horrific potato famine that gripped their homeland
  • Grab a ringside seat to Sullivan’s epic brawls, such as his 75-round bout with Jake Kilrain, and his battles outside the ring with the law, a troubled marriage, and raging alcoholism
  • Explore how Sullivan revolutionized boxing from outlawed bare-knuckle fighting into the gloved spectacle we know today

A full list of events can be found on the Strong Boy web site. I'll be bringing flat John L. in tow. He's bundled up for the winter weather and ready to go.

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Muhammad Ali and John L. Sullivan

It was 50 years ago today that 7-1 underdog Cassius Clay shocked the sports world by defeating reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in Miami Beach, Florida. The next morning Clay announced to reporters that he had joined the Nation of Islam, and within weeks he would change his name to Muhammad Ali.

Ali was arguably the greatest fighter of the 20th century, and he had much in common with the premier brawler of the 19th century, John L. Sullivan. The loquacious Ali was a master showman and boxing's poet laureate, composing verses in which he taunted opponents and praised himself. (His iambic pentameter was so popular that Columbia Records released a 1963 spoken word album called “I Am the Greatest” in which the 21-year-old rising star performed his poetry, backed my musical accompaniment, before an audience.)

Ali's self-aggrandizing braggadocio made him controversial, but it didn't make him unique. Nearly a century before, John L. Sullivan approached his opponents with the same swagger, such as the time he blitzed John Flood on a barge towed up the Hudson River in 1881 and pointed at Paddy Ryan, the reigning heavyweight champion, in the audience and growled: "I'll get you next!" "I can lick any S.O.B alive" is the famous mantra attributed to Sullivan, and with the exception of "Gentleman Jim" Corbett it was also true.

Ali is more than just a boxer. He is a major cultural figure who transcends sport, much in the same way Sullivan was in the 19th century. Ali starred in films and during his forced exile from the ring even headlined a Broadway musical called "Buck White," which unfortunately took a seven count--seven performances before the curtain fell on the flop. (The Playbill for "Buck White" spends as much time listing the colleges where Ali lectured as his accomplishments in the ring.)

A century before, Sullivan was also a pugilistic thespian. He starred on stages around the country, headlining five-act melodramas written specifically with him in mind for the lead. He appeared in Uncle Tom's Cabin and also toured the country delivering monologues in which he told stories of his fighting days and bad Irish jokes.

Oh, and one other surprising connection. Both men had Irish roots. Sullivan's lineage to the Emerald Isle would not be a shock. Both his parents emigrated from Ireland in the aftermath of the Great Hunger. So did County Clare native Abe Grady. He settled in Kentucky in the 1860s and married a freed slave. One of their grandchildren was Ali’s mother, Odessa Lee Grady Clay. Now you know where each fighter got his gift for gab.

For more on Sullivan, visit the "Strong Boy" web site and click here to purchase the book.

Friday, February 7, 2014

When John L. Sullivan Gained the Heavyweight Crown

February 7, 1882, was a beautiful day for barbarity. The brilliant mid-winter sun transformed the Gulf of Mexico’s placid blue canvas into a sparkling sea of diamonds. The ivory sands of the Mississippi coastline glistened like a blanket of fresh powdered snow as lazily drifting clouds offered periodic relief on an unseasonably warm day.

The soft, repetitive murmur of the wavelets kissing the white dunes was muffled, however, by the yells of a bloodthirsty mob gathered just yards away. Nearly 2,000 boxing fans had invaded the grounds of the Barnes Hotel, jolting the resort town of Mississippi City from its wintertime slumber. The sanguinary crowd hoped that the hotel’s emerald lawn would soon turn crimson from the soaking blood of two warriors—reigning American heavyweight champion Paddy Ryan and John L. Sullivan, the undefeated 23-year-old phenom from Boston who had awed America with his power.

From boisterous barroom squabbles to surreptitious whispers in church pews, the bare-knuckle 
championship had become the talk of the nation. Preacher Henry Ward Beecher warned his Brooklyn congregation against betting on the fight, but to little avail. The New York Times reported that as much as $200,000 had been wagered on the bout in New York City alone. Major metropolitan newspapers provided unprecedented coverage, and as the days remaining to the fight dwindled, trainloads of fans poured into New Orleans from as far away as San Francisco.

The savagery, corruption and gambling endemic to prizefighting roamed so far beyond the bounds of Victorian-era sensibilities that the governor of Louisiana had banned the Ryan-Sullivan affair from his jurisdiction and the governor of Mississippi ordered sheriffs to use any means necessary to prevent the championship fight from soiling his state’s turf. Fearful of “magisterial interference,” fight promoters kept the bout’s location shrouded in a cloak of secrecy as thick as the darkness that enveloped the trainloads of fans that departed New Orleans at 5 a.m. on the morning of the fight for a destination unknown.

Hours later, the train finally stopped and exhaled at Mississippi City, and fans sprinted to the battleground. Well-to-do dandies in stovepipe hats and a handful of corseted women in flowing dresses gladly surrendered five dollars for the highly coveted vantage on the hotel’s verandah, while fans of lesser means perched themselves in bare magnolia trees.

As Ryan and Sullivan came to the center of the ring and doubled-up their clenched, bare fists, the crowd pressed hard against the makeshift ring. The roar of 2,000 voices echoed off the towering Mississippi pines as Sullivan pounced like a caged tiger. He surprised his adversary with a jackhammer left that landed on Ryan’s cheek with a sickening fleshy thud. The massive opening salvo tore open a gash on the champion and gave Sullivan first blood. The challenger followed it up with a right fist that rocked Ryan’s left jaw, sent him to the turf, and induced winces throughout the crowd.

It had taken all of thirty seconds. Thirty seconds for Sullivan to demonstrate he was the unstoppable force. Thirty seconds to prove his power wasn’t diminished by his naked fists. Thirty seconds to prove that a lack of prizefighting experience meant nothing when you had two thunderbolts attached to your arms. Ryan had never been on the receiving end of such hard hits. “When Sullivan struck me, I thought that a telegraph pole had been shoved against me endways,” he said after the fight.

As blood spurted down his face, Ryan walked back to his corner to get sponged, but his confidence was shaken. With boyish amusement, Sullivan skipped back to his corner, understanding what most of the fans—and probably Ryan himself—had just discovered: He was the superior man.

For nine rounds, the challenger continued his onslaught with terrific rushes as Ryan’s left eye began to swell shut. As a groggy and exhausted champion mounted a counter to get to the middle of the ring in the ninth round, Sullivan geared up and threw his favorite punch: a wicked right hook to the left side of the neck, connecting just under Ryan’s left ear. The blow made such an awful sound that even those without a direct view knew immediately that Sullivan had unleashed a terrible knockout blow.

Ryan crumbled to the ground in a heap, bloodied and broken. His trainer sent a sponge aloft in a symbol of surrender. John L. Sullivan was the new heavyweight champion.

Rather than reveling in his victory, Sullivan’s first act as champion was a gracious one, crossing to his opponent’s corner to shake hands. Still full of energy, he then hurdled the ropes and sprinted the one hundred yards to his quarters and streaked into superstardom. After being carried to his quarters to be examined by a doctor, a bloodied and battered Ryan discovered a further indignity—$300 had been stolen from his vest pocket while Sullivan was stealing his crown.

The intense media attention and fan interest surrounding the 1882
championship bout provided a mere glimpse at the future. Newly laid railroad lines had permitted fans and reporters from across the country to witness the event in person, and brand-new telegraph lines instantly transmitted blow-by-blow accounts. With a transportation and communications network stitching the country together and media coverage growing, the modern sports age had begun, and it had found its first athletic god. He had arrived in Mississippi City as John L. Sullivan and departed as an American Hercules.

This post was an excerpt from the new biography "Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan," which the Boston Globe called "one of the best boxing books ever penned." For more, visit the "Strong Boy" web site and click here to purchase the book.

Photograph of Mississippi City fight scene courtesy of Tracy Callis

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Final Hours of John L. Sullivan

The temperature had nearly sunk to zero when the sun rose on Saturday, February 2, 1918. In spite of the freeze, John L. Sullivan decided to keep his plans to meet friends in Boston. He had news to share. He was returning to the ring—albeit a circus one. The night before, Sullivan’s business manager, D’Arcy O’Connor, visited the ex-fighter’s farm in Abington, Massachusetts, to get his signature on a contract to tour that upcoming summer with Ringling Brothers Circus. Under the deal, Sullivan was to receive $1,000 a week to ride in an Irish jaunting car with an Irish bagpiper and deliver a ten-minute address in the center ring.

As Sullivan prepared to depart, his old sparring partner George Bush, who had lived with the champ since the death of his wife, heard groaning emanating from the bedroom. He rushed in and found that John L. had fainted on the bed. Bush contacted an Abington doctor, R. B. Rand, who revived the former champion and gave him a heart stimulant. “I’m all right now,” Sullivan reassured Bush as he sat on his bed. “Telephone the people in Boston that I’ll be along and that I’m sorry I’m late.” Shortly after Dr. Rand left, Bush again heard Sullivan groaning and complaining about the sharp pain in his chest. Sullivan began to slip away after this second attack. At 11:45 a.m., John L. Sullivan passed away.

Although he had been having heart trouble for the previous three weeks, the death of the old gladiator “came as a bolt from a clear sky.” That death had visited Sullivan so quickly, and at the age of fifty-nine, may have been stunning, but the cause of his demise—“fatty degeneration of heart” was listed on the death certificate—would not have surprised John L. in the least. Although death had brushed him several times, from barroom bullets to a drunken stumble off a rushing passenger train, Sullivan always knew his heart would do him in. He had predicted it a quarter-century earlier. “I have always had it in my head that it is heart disease that is to be my ending,” he told a reporter in 1893. “My mother died of heart disease, and I take after her physically. It has to come some time, and I am not looking for it in a hurry, but when it does come I had rather be snuffed out quickly by something like heart disease than to suffer with a lingering illness.”

The news quickly spread across Abington before it radiated out to the front pages of evening newspapers around America. Hundreds of Sullivan’s neighbors made the pilgrimage that afternoon to the forlorn farm. Inside, fourteen-year-old Willie Kelly, an orphan taken in by Sullivan years earlier, sobbed for his best friend and the man he knew as a father for half his life. John L.’s favorite pet collie, Queenie, wandered from room to room whining for the “Big Fellow.” Within the next week, perhaps in a quest to follow their master, a cow, a bulldog, two collies, and Sullivan’s favorite horse, “Colonel Corn,” all dropped dead on the farm.

The “Strong Boy” returned to Boston in the company of his lifelong friend, undertaker Timothy J. Mahoney. The mortician could find no coffin in metropolitan Boston to hold this mountain of a man, so a specially ordered mahogany casket was shipped from New York. The day after his death, Sullivan’s body was brought to his sister’s Roxbury house, the closest thing John L. had to home for so many years before he remarried. The house on Brook Avenue may have been just over a mile from where he was born on East Concord Street in Boston’s South End, but the road he had traversed between those two bookends of his life had been a truly long one, one of the most storied and colorful in sports history. 

Read the story of John L. Sullivan in the new biography "Strong Boy," which the Boston Globe called "one of the best boxing books ever penned." For more, visit the "Strong Boy" web site