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

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