Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

The Famous Nineteenth Century Prize Fighter Yankee Sullivan Fought in Pelham in 1842

Throughout most of the nineteenth century and even early in the twentieth century, Pelham was the scene of many illegal prize fights due to its proximity to New York City and, presumably, its small constable force and, later, small village police forces.  I have written about such illegal prize fights on several occasions.  See:  

Thu., Jul. 10, 2014:  Illegal Prize Fight in Pelham in 1902.  

Wed., Feb. 12, 2014:  Pelham Was the Scene of Illegal Prize Fights During the Early Days of the "Sweet Science" of Boxing.

Wed., March 23, 2005:  Prize Fighting At Pelham Bridge in 1884.

Tue., Oct. 04, 2005:  Front Page of the May 12, 1902 Issue of The Pelham Republican (describing the fight between Joe Gleacher and Joe Kerwin held in the spring of 1902; Gleacher was found in Mt. Vernon after the fight and was arrested, although Kerwin apparently escaped to Philadelphia before his arrest).

In 1842, the Town of Pelham had a population of only about 790 people.  That year, however, an estimated five to six thousand people traveled to Pelham and watched one of the greatest bareknuckle prize fighters of the nineteenth century, Yankee Sullivan, defeat William "Billy" Bell in a brutal bareknuckle brawl fought at the very peak of the sport.    

There were many more illegal prize fights held in Pelham than those described in the articles referenced above.  Indeed, according to one book on the history of prize fighting, Hart Island in the Town of Pelham was for many years “the preeminent venue for fight excursions that originated in New York City.”  Lang, Arne K., Prize-Fighting:  An American History, p. 16 (Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Co., 2008).  Hart Island, it turns out, was the scene of the fight between Yankee Sullivan and William Bell on August 29, 1842. 

According to one source:  “Sullivan had a hazy background.  Depending on the source, he was born James Ambrose in Ireland or Frank Murray in England.  He reportedly served time in Australian penal colony, arriving in New York as a stowaway.  His choice of nickname broadened his appeal, and he is recognized in some boxing books as the first American bruiser to attract a following that extended beyond the pugilistic fraternity.”  Id. A book about Yankee Sullvan's prize fighting career published in 1854 contained the following sketchy biography:  

"James Sullivan, according to authentic information, was born on the 12th of April, 1813, at Banden, near Cork, Ireland, and is at this time nearly 41 years of age.  During his boyis days he was always considered at the 'head of the heap,' having many a turn-up with his play-fellows, and generally came out of the muss 'right side up with care.'  As he advanced in years, and began to develope [sic] more than common activity, strength and muscle, he was rather feared by his companions."

In late August and early September, 1842, the sport of bareknuckle prize fighting was at its absolute peak.  Indeed, the sport is considered to have reached its peak only two weeks after Yankee Sullivan's prize fight against Billy Bell when, on September 13, 1842 in Hastings, New York, Christopher Lilly fought Thomas McCoy in a 119 round prize fight that ended after Lilly beat McCoy to death.  Participants, their seconds, and spectators fled the scene and in many cases left the State.  One of those who was present, however, was captured.  His name was Yankee Sullivan.  He was prosecuted as an accessory to murder and sentenced to two years in jail.  After serving a portion of his sentence, Yankee Sullivan was pardoned by the Governor of New York.  

On August 29, 1842, however, the sport of bareknuckle prize fighting was at its peak.  Yankee Sullivan was the most famous fighter in the country.  The brutality of the sport, however, meant that prize fights had to be arranged quickly and quietly, usually in remote locations far from the prying eyes of police authorities.  Thus, in late August, 1842, word began circulating in Brooklyn and in Manhattan that Yankee Sullivan of New York City would soon fight Billy Bell of Brooklyn in a prize fight with each side putting up a prize of $300 to go to the winner.

Billy Bell was a big man who taught boxing in Brooklyn.  However, he had never engaged in a professional prize fight.  Yankee Sullivan, in contrast, was a seasoned prize fighter who had won many fights and who had the reputation as a rather nasty and tricky fighter who relied not only on brute force but also on deceptive tricks to surprise opponents before beating them senseless.  Although word was circulating that the fight would be held on August 29, no one was told where it would be held.  The "word on the street" was that interested spectators should board steamboats at certain embarkation points and the boats would follow steamboats carrying the two prize fighters.

By 7:00 a.m. on August 29, the embarkation points "swarmed with heterogenous thousands" waiting for the steamboats to carry them to the fight.  Yankee Sullivan and his seconds were aboard the steamboat "Westchester."  Billy Bell and his seconds were aboard the steamboat "Napoleon."  At 9:00 a.m., the steamboats of the two prize fighters departed with seven additional steamboats following along behind "heaped with masses" of spectators:  the Saratoga, the Superior, the Wave, the Williamsburgh, the Boston, the William Youngs, and the Jacob Bell.  

The day was turning into a hot one with a bright sun as the boats chugged up the east river toward their mystery destination.  By 10:30 a.m., the flotilla lay abreast of the site where the fight would take place:  Hart Island in the Town of Pelham, an island adjacent to City Island on which a majority of Pelham residents lived at the time.  

Hart Island was the choice of Yankee Sullivan as the site of the prize fight.  The fighters and their handlers had used a coin toss to determine who would pick the location for the fight.  Sullivan had won the toss and selected the little island in the Town of Pelham.  

There was a major issue once the flotilla arrived at Hart Island, however.  The vessels, carrying thousands, were too heavily laden to approach the shallow waters of the island, which had no dock, to allow the passengers to disembark.  Thus, small boats had to begin ferrying the passengers from ship to shore -- a terribly slow process.  Many of the rowdy fight spectators refused to wait.  They simply leaped into the waters of Long Island Sound and swam to shore.  

It took quite some time to complete the unloading of the spectators onto the shores of Hart Island.  Once everyone was ashore, however, fight organizers began to lead the massive crowd of five thousand to six thousand spectators in a long, dense line on a northeasterly trek across the island to the site chosen for the fight.  The chosen location was quite curious.  According to one account:

"The spot appeared to us peculiarly unfit to the business on hand.  There was no available landing place; the whole surface of the island is covered with a long, rank grass and stunted thorny shrubbery, growing in a soil of loose shifting sand.  Even the field of fight, a natural arena comprising the only available spot on its surface, was of a comparatively circumscribed size, and though covered with a firmer soil, was 'lumpy' and uneven.  Worse than all, the ring, instead of being surrounded by a natural acclivity for the advantage of spectators, stands in the centre of an almost even plain, and thus robbed four fifths of the horde of even so much as a glimpse of the contest.  These disadvantages were at once apparent. . ."

The location was so inhospitable for watching a prize fight that things soon turned ugly.  The massive crowd of thousands filled the flat plain where the ring ropes were to be erected.  Organizers began trying to clear an area for the ring in the midst of the crowd.  There then commenced "'a scene of rude commotion' and ferocious struggle" by spectators to get close enough to see the fight.  Organizers tried four times to clear an area for the ring, but each time "the wild and insane savages" breached the area in an effort to get near enough to see the fight.  Finally, however, the crowd settled expectantly around a newly-erected roped ring.

The two sides flipped a coin to determine which fighter would choose the starting position within the ring.  Billy Bell won the coin toss and chose to begin the fight with the sun at his back.  The fighters squared off and a deathly hush overcame the crowd.

The rules of the ring were quite different in 1842 than today.  Fighters could throw each other out of the ring, could throw each other to the ground, and could fall onto a prostrate opponent.  In the very first round, Yankee Sullivan threw his opponent "handsomely" and then fell on him.  The crowd shrieked its delight.

The second round was spirited and it looked as though Bell had gotten the better of Sullivan.  Once the round ended, Sullivan seemed senseless as his seconds tried to sponge down his seemingly lifeless body.  As the third round began, Sullivan struggled to stand and struggled toward the center of the ring.  Bell leaped forward for the kill, only to be confronted by a sharp and lightning-fast Sullivan who had faked the entire senselessness.

The next two rounds were sharply fought.  During the fifth round, Bell seemed to have the advantage.  Bell rushed Yankee Sullivan and pressed him to the ropes.  With a "powerful exertion" Bell threw Yankee Sullivan out of the ring.  Yankee Sullivan responded, in the sixth round, with his trademark deception.  According to a published account of the fight, during that sixth round:

"Billy forced him back, got in a sounding body blow, and pressed him to the ropes in a close.  'Let me go, Billy,' said Sullivan, faintly, as he stood with Bell's arm around his neck, at a slight disadvantage near the ropes; 'let me go, Billy; I can stand it no longer; I'm a going to give in!''  Bell credulously yielded and turned towards his corner, but no sooner had he exposed his unprotected side, than Sullivan let drive a right-handed hit, catching him in the region of the ear.  Bell wheeled around and hit short, when he caught it again.  A clinch followed, and Sullivan threw him in superb style."

For the next several rounds, Yankee Sullivan pounded away on Bell who was beginning to tire and to show the wear and tear of the bareknuckled brawl.  By the fifteenth round, both of Billy Bell's eyes were nearly swollen shut.  His lips were swollen; his nose was "inflamed"; blood was trickling from several wounds.  Yankee Sullivan was gaining the upper hand.  

In the nineteenth round Sullivan pounded on Billy Bell's "gory nose."  As the round ended with the two struggling at the ropes, Yankee Sullivan tossed Billy Bell "beautifully over."

By the twenty-third round, the fight was truly over.  Yankee Sullivan pounded Bell and added three more "severe cuts" to Bell's injuries as Bell fell "heavily to the ground."  Cries of "He's gone!" and "Take him out!" were heard from the raucous crowd.  

Time was called to begin the twenty-fourth round.  Yankee Sullivan was "still fresh and scarcely hurt."  Billy Bell, however, was unable even to stand up to continue the fight.  After twenty-three rounds fought in 38 minutes, Yankee Sullivan was declared the winner and rightful recipient of the $300 prize.  

Only two weeks later, Christopher Lilly killed Thomas McCoy in a 119 round prize fight in Hastings, New York.  Yankee Sullivan, who attended the Lilly-McCoy fight, soon was arrested, charged, and found guilty as an accessory to murder.  The great nineteenth century bareknuckle prize fighter was hustled off to jail.

For a brief time, however, Yankee Sullivan fought at the very peak of his career during the very peak of the sport of nineteenth century bareknuckle prize fighting in the tiny little town of Pelham in Westchester County, New York.  Pelham, it seemed, was becoming a sports mecca.

Title Page of Book About Yankee Smith With
An Image Believed to Depict Him.

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Below is text from several resources that shed light on the prize fight between Yankee Sullivan and Billy Bell at Hart Island in the Town of Pelham on August 29, 1842.  Each is followed by a citation and link to its source.  


This long expected 'mill' came off on Monday last.  As a precaution against magisterial interference, the precise field of encounter was not definitely known, except to those immediately concerned, (though it was generally understood that Hart's Island was to be the locale,) and such of the Fancy as wished to be [Page 23 / Page 24] spectators, were merely directed to embark at certain points and follow the combatants' boats.  Though the previous evening had threatened unfavorable weather, the sun rose unobscured and warm, and as early as seven in the morning, the river swarmed with heterogenous thousands, waiting for their respective 'locomotives,' canvassing meanwhile, the merits of either combatant, and speculating upon the results of the day.  

At 9 o'clock all were afloat, and the Westchester, [Sullivan's boat,] Napoleon [Bell's] Saratoga, Superior, Wave, Williamsburgh, Boston, Wm. Youngs, and Jacob Bell, with their heaped up masses, rocking to and fro in the stream, looked like some informal cortege seeking the waters of the Styx, or a savage eruption  bursting forth for ravage and for plunder.

Sullivan, who from the 'toss', had the right of selection, chose Hart's Island, [about 20 miles from New York city,] and at half past ten the whole flotilla lay abreast of it.  Here a serious difficulty presented itself in the fact that there was no dock or other landing place, and the long, shallow shelving shore made it dangerous for the heavily laden vessels to approach too near.  The only mode of reaching land was by the medium of small boats, but many of the ardent amphibii, unable to wait their tedious turn, plunged headlong into the water and swam to shore.  Thus gradually disembarked, the party streamed in one dense line in a N. E. course across the Island, and resembled, as they picked their devious way along, the writhings of a monstrous snake.  

The spot appeared to us peculiarly unfit to the business on hand.  There was no available landing place; the whole surface of the island is covered with a long, rank grass and stunted thorny shrubbery, growing in a soil of loose shifting sand.  Even the field of fight, a natural arena comprising the only available spot on its surface, was of a comparatively circumscribed size, and though covered with a firmer soil, was 'lumpy' and uneven.  Worse than all, the ring, instead of being surrounded by a natural acclivity for the advantage of spectators, stands in the centre of an almost even plain, and thus robbed four fifths of the horde of even so much as a glimpse of the contest.  These disadvantages were at once apparent, and from the moment of arrival there commenced 'a scene of rude commotion' and ferocious struggle for the ring.  Four times was a large outer circle made, and as often did the wild and insane savages break it in.  For ourselves, in the first struggle, we were fortunate enough to obtain a hold of the rope; and concluding by this that we were in a streak of luck, determined to 'rush it,' and in each succeeding struggle were equally successful.  At last, with our knees forced devotionally two or three inches in the soil, our shoulders bearing the weight and press of three or four sweaty proximants, with the sun pouring down his fiercest vertical rays upon our uncovered caput, and boiling the effluvia thrown off from the neighboring bodies into a floating lava of most execrable odor, we saw the gladiators enter the ring.


At half-past one the men confronted each other.  Sullivan looked in prime condition.  His flesh was clear, his manner gay, and his air confident.  He was the picture of a pugilist -- small gladiatorial head -- quick, bright eye -- dial, which from the boldness of its angles and the tightness of its flesh appeared to be a mask of bone -- round -- deep in the chest -- clean limbed, and possessed altogether of a frame which gives remarkable indications of activity and strength.

Bell did not wear the same appearance of gaiety and confidence.  He entered the ring with a half careless, half reluctant swagger, which showed that he was not perfectly at ease, and to our mind, his cap did not follow his opponents quick enough in answer to the customary challenge.  He is taller than Sullivan by an inch and a half, but not so faultlessly cut out.  His chest is not so well developed or head so well set, and though carrying ten pound more weight we should call Sullivan (in a pugilistic sense) the heaviest man, for he has that weight in his fighting points which Bell has in his long slender legs.  A singu- [Page 24 / Page 25] lar indication was given, in shaking hands, of the difference of breeding and manners between certain classes of English and American society.  Sullivan took his opponent's hand and gave a short, careless jerk of his nob at him -- he was but the prize fighter -- while Bell, who has been Americanized by his long residence among us, gracefully bent his head, and gave a courtly smile -- he would be thought a gentleman.


Bell won the flip for the choice of position and stationed himself on the lower side of the ring with the sun on his back.  He was attended by KENSETT, of Baltimore, and McGEE.  Sullivan was waited upon by his old assistants, FORD and COUNTRY McCLEESTER.  Both were dressed in light net breeches and stockings, and blue belts spotted with white.  

Round 1st.  --   Time was called and both came cheerfully up to the scratch. ---  They shook hands again slightly, Bell very cautiously, as if fearful of a rough return for his politeness, and then squared for the combat.  The rude murmurs of the turbulent multitude were at once hushed as death.  Not a breath was heard.  Scarcely a leaf was seen to stir.  The primeval silence of that solitary spot was never more profound.  In the centre of that vast arena stood the combatants -- two bold men -- confronting each other in full position, with momentary awe, and gathering their energies for the terrific struggle.  Directly behind, stood the seconds of each, their forms slightly bent, their arms unconsciously outstretched and watching every movement of the principals with a feverish anxiety.  The whole formed such a picture as one ay seldom see.  At length Sullivan broke the spell and imperceptibly advanced.  He is an old general and knows the advantage of fighting in the enemy's country.  Bell cautiously retreated and in answer to a feint showed his wariness by a start as rapid as electricity.  At length Sullivan edged him out of his advantage of the sun, and getting it full in Bell's eyes, let drive a straight forward blow, which took effect under the left ogle.  Bell countered at the same time and caught his opponent on the cheek bone; then followed two or three rapid exchanges, after which Bell rushed in, and at the end of a short struggle, Sullivan threw him handsomely and fell on him.

'The rung from earth to sky one wild hurrah!' mingled with clapping of hands and various other expressions of wild applause.  Bell rose smilingly and went to his corner, with a slight discoloration under the eye, upon which some of Sully's friends shrieked out a claim to the 'first blood.'

Round 2d. -- Both came merrily up, their glossy skins unsullied by the previous scuffle.  Yankee, who had now felt his man, determined on sharp fighting.  He went right to work, got a sharp body blow and stopped a wicked return.  Bell rallied, closed and pressed him to the ropes; then ensued a short violent struggle, which ended in both flying through the ropes and falling hard, nearly side by side.  Bell rose and returned to the ring, while Sullivan lay with his eyes closed and apparently insensible.  He was lifted and carried to his corner with his head drooping languidly and even while undergoing sponging, &c., betrayed no sign of consciousness -- a deep finesse.  Many who did not know where to have him, cried out, 'Ah, ha!  he'll never come to time!'

Round 3d. -- When 'time' was called Sullivan slowly rose and walked heavily to the mark; but when there and confronted with his enemy, as quick as lightning, he 'cast his nighted color off' and stood the very incarnation of the spirit of mischief.  He led off amid cries of 'Ony luk at the divil!' from some admiring Patlanders.

Round 4th.  Billy opened the ball with a well-meant right-hander, but was stopped, and stopped one himself in return.  He then got in a heavy body blow, which carried his man away three or four feet.  Sully came back, wickedly pursing his mouth, and letting fly with his lef, caught his man under the left eye, drawing blood this time, sure.  A clinch, and Bell down.  

Round 5th.  Sully first at it, made [Page 25 / Page 26] Bell take a brisk circuit to his corner, and when there planted his left handsomely.  Bell rushed hotly in, pressed him to the ropes, and by a powerful exertion threw him outside -- both down.

Round 5th [sic; should be 6th].  Bell a leetle excited, commenced warmly, and went in right and left, amid the acclamations of the crowd, keeping Sully busy stopping, and affording no chance for a return.  At last Sully rallied, but it was no go; Billy forced him back, got in a sounding body blow, and pressed hi to the ropes in a close.  'Let me go, Billy,' said Sullivan, faintly, as he stood with Bell's arm around his neck, at a slight disadvantage near the ropes; 'let me go, Billy; I can stand it no longer; I'm a going to give in!''  Bell credulously yielded and turned towards his corner, but no sooner had he exposed his unprotected side, than Sullivan let drive a right-handed hit, catching him in the region of the ear.  Bell wheeled around and hit short, when he caught it again.  A clinch followed, and Sullivan threw him in superb style.  

Round 7th.  Bell came up with his countenance somewhat 'chafed,' -- the upper part of his dial was quite eye-rascible, his nose inflamed, his lip cushioned, and the war paint trickling [though scantily] down his chin.  This was Sully's round all through.  Bell down.  

Round 8th.  Sully had it all his own way again until Bell rushed in, and threw him.

Round 9th.  Sully led hotly off, menacing mischief; Billy abruptly retreated, and in an attempted rally from the ropes, slipped, and fell.

Round 10th.  Beautiful fighting!  Sully got in some sounders, which were followed by rapid and heavy exchanges.  The Yankke then fibbed him to the ropes, and by a splendid hit, drove him through, clean.

Round 11th.  Bell's ogles in bad bread and his nose bleeding freely.  He led off, got in a heavy hit, staved off a sharp rally, clinched, and received a heavy throw.

Round 12th. -- Bell, with his left ogle nearly closed, and in solemn black, went in well -- pressed Sully, who cautiously sparred away, but who could not stop the visitation of three or four good blows.  Sully rallied, got in a terrific blow on the eye, and then rushed in -- both down.

Round 13th. -- Both of Bell's peepers nearly closed.  Sully led off, but was stopped -- a rally -- a close -- a fierce struggle at the ropes, which ended by Billy throwing his man over.

Round 14th. -- Smart exchanges.  Bell hitting beautifully right and left, and Sully on the retreat -- a wild rush and close by Bell, who caught his man in his arms and tried to heave him over again -- no go; Sully seized the rope, and locked him fast -- they were then taken off and carried to their corners, and loud applause for Bell.

Round 15th -- All Sullivan's.  Bell down heavily.

Round 16th. -- Bell came up slow and shy -- Sully planted his warlike mauley on Billy's snuff-box, on which Billy closed and was heavily thrown.

Round 17th. -- A rally -- a clinch -- a short struggle at the ropes, and an equal fall over them.

Round 18th. -- Ineffective exchanges, -- considerable pantomiming, but nothing done -- a clinch, and Bell down.

Round 19th. -- Billy led off, but was stopped, and caught a return upon his gory nose -- smart exchanges -- close, and struggle at the ropes -- Sully ending it by tossing him beautifully over.

Round 20th. -- It was now apparent to every one, as indeed it had been several rounds before, that Bell could not successfully contend against his experienced adversary.  Sully came up smmiling, and apparently fresh, while Bell was dreadfully punished, wavering, and unsteady.  Sully let fly with his left with terrific effect, completely distracting his enemy, who managed, however, on a rally, to make two or three good but light returns.  A clinch, and Bell heavily thrown.

Round 21st. -- Bell came up groggy, and scarcely able to see -- caught it all over, and in a close was badly thrown.

Round 22d. -- Bell failing fast -- caught it severely right and left, and went down hopelessly with a stunning blow.  [Page 26 / Page 27]

Round 23d. -- Bell gone, Sully put in three severe cuts, and Bell went heavily to the ground.  Cries of 'he's gone!' 'Take him out!'

Round 24th. -- On time being called, Bell couldn't come, and Sully still fresh and scarcely hurt, stepped up and claimed the fight, after a contest of 38 minutes.


Although there was some handsome fighting in the above contest, it cannot be called a good fight.  Sullivan's qualities and admirable generalship, made it too much on one side.  He is a fighting man in the true and full sense of the word -- light in the scale, and heavy in the field; strong, agile, quick, cunning, capable, a perfect master of his science; and, if the expression may be used, an intellectual fighter; for he is continually fighting in his head, and calculating the chances and results of every maneuvre.  Bell committed many errors.  His first and most gross blunder -- and indeed, if he saw Secor's fight, an inexcusable one -- was in giving his antagonist the whole ring.  Instead of fighting on his opponent's ground, and having a clear field to retreat, if necessary, he took a retreating position from the start, suffered himself to be driven in the face of the sun, and forced into a corner on the defensive, in momentary danger of being pressed on the ropes, and thus crippled, 'cabined, cribbed, confined,' by his own folly, he fought in a 12 foot ring, while his antagonist had a 48 foot one.  No experienced general will fight on his own ground if he can help it, and the first inch that Bell gave, when Sullivan was feeling him, exposed his timidity, or, to use a lighter term, his ignorance.  Had he presented a determined front, and insisted on a forward movement, he would have kept the sun, retained possession of his ground, changed Sullivan's confidence into caution, and made the fight a longer and better, if not successful one.  Bell though a beautiful sparrer, is not a good fighter.  He is not equal to emergencies -- seldom follows up his advantages well, and lets many a good opportunity slip.  In the third round [if Sully was not shamming to draw him on] he might have won the fight, inustead of which he passed the profit to his adversary.  Mere weight, strength, and science, do not make the pugilist.  Some of the best powers of the prize fighter are in the head.  He must have an instinctive love for strife, with the rare accompaniment of a clear, cool, calculating head, and a prompt perceptioni of all the advantages and dangers of his situation.  A man does not reason in a situation of imminent danger.  He acts upon instinct.  'Instinct is a great matter.'  By the above remarks we do not mean to impugn Bell's courage; on the contrary, we believe him to be a man of true metal, but of little knowledge.  He might have been successful with most any other man of his weight, but is peculiarly unfitted to this antagonist. -- There were other things against him.  It was his first fight.  The immense concourse was enough to awe and abash him, and, unlike Sullivan, who went to win 'sure,' he went to win if he could.

The defeat of Bell caused great dissatisfaction among his friends, as it was thought he could have won the fight had he followed up his advantages, for it was feared by the backers of Sullivan, while Bell had him on the ropes, that he would be forced to 'give in.'  The strategem adopted by Sullivan saved him, and assisted materially in changing the whole aspect of the battle.  The well-known cunning of his opponent, should have induced Bell not to place any dependance [sic] in Sullivan's talk, but should have stimulated him to continue to punish his man whilst he had him in his power.  Had he done so, the victory would have been with him.  Once out of the uncomfortable position in which he had been placed, Sullivan felt himself a new man, and his lucky escape made him more cautious in regard to his future movements, and he felt satisfied that he could easily win, having fully [Page 27 / Page 28] ascertained the weak points of his adversary.

The opponents of Sullivan were now in no better luck than before the battle, and they were at a loss where to look for a champion, for they were bound to 'take down' the Yankee.  The fighting fever was at its height, at this time, and great excitement was manifested as to the coming fight between Lilly and McCoy.  The battle between Sullivan took place on the 29th of August, 1842, and the fight between Lilly and McCoy was announced to take place on the 13th of September, just two weeks after.  The victory of Sullivan gave increased confidence to the friends and backers of McCoy, more especially as Sullivan lent his aid and experience in bringing McCoy forward in good condition, and installing into his mind many little bits of advice which he knew would be useful to McCoy on the battle field.  

The friends of Lilly were not idle.  They used every exertion to train him 'in the way he should go,' and as the result proved, their attention had not been thrown away.  

Lilly and McCoy met at Hastings, up the North River, on the 13th of September, 1842, and after a sharply contested battle of 2 hours and 43 minutes, in which time one hundred and nineteen rounds were fought, time was called for the combatants to begin the 120th round, but McCoy was deaf to the call -- he was stretched upon the ground in the agonies of death, and there within the prize-ring, and with his young companions around him, unable to render him any assistance, he suffered the severest tortures, and after lingering for about fifteen minutes, he passed from life into eternity.  The vast assemblage becaame panic-struck, and each one seemed anxious to leave the spot.

In a short time, the scene of this fatal and terrifying encounter was left to its usual quietude, and no one would have supposed that this beautiful spot of ground had been stained by the blood of a human-being.

Lilly succeeded in making his escape, but Sullivan, who was on the ground during the fight, was in a short time after arrested, and after being tried as an accessory to the murder of McCoy, he was convicted by the authorities of West-chester County, the county in which the battle was fought, and was subsequently sentenced to an imprisonment of two years.  Part of this time he served out, but through the intercession of his friends, the Governor of New York granted him a pardon, on condition that he would engage in no more prize-fights.

Prize fighting, owing to the fatal termination of the Lilly and McCoy fight, was thus brought to a full stop, for a long time, at least; and most of the fraternity were compelled to leave for parts unknown.  A few years, however, sufficed to calm the public mind, and as Sullivan had been pardoned, and further proceedings in reference to the fatal fight quashed, the absentees regained confidence, and one by one returned to the great Empire City."


‘Yankee’ Sullivan’s decisive victory over the supposedly invincible Vincent Hammond boomed ‘Sully’s’ fighting stock and his Hibernian friends shouted his name from the housetops.  Nothing was too good for their champion and fight talk raged like an epidemic.  Less than a week after ‘Yank’ trimmed ‘Vince.’  John McCleester, better known as ‘Country McClusky,’ rushed from Sullivan’s ‘Sawdust House’ in Division Street down to Park Row, where he challenged Tom Hyer to fight, right away, in the park where now stands City Hall and the Post-office.  Hyer accepted the challenge, but refused to fight under the noses of the authorities and mildly suggested a quiet trip up the Hudson River, where they could have it out according to ring rules.  The next day those who had been given the tip made their way to Caldwell Landing, and the men who had charge of the affair selected a suitable piece of flat land for the men to fight on.  No ring was made of stakes or ropes, but Jake Somerindyke, one of the sports of the day, marked out the ‘scratch’ which ‘Country’ and Tom were to toe.  Half minute time between rounds was agreed upon, but as the fight was to settle a quarrel and was instigated by the respective enemies of the principals to test the courage of the men all blows were to be considered fair.  This assured the spectators a desperate battle, and just what they came to see.  McClusky stripped at 160 pounds and appeared in excellent condition.  Hyer did not show so well; still he had an advantage of three inches in height and sixteen pounds in weight.  The fight lasted through 101 rounds and the time consumed was two hours and fifty-five minutes, at the end of which McClusky was decisively beaten. 

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Following is an account of the last six rounds:  Ninety-six to 101 – These last six rounds were terrific examples of desperate fighting and only continued by the urgent pleadings of ‘Country’ against the better judgment of his seconds.  At the one hundredth round, Hyer, vexed with ‘Country’s’ obstinacy, exclaimed:  ‘Oh, let him come in, let him come in; I’ll kill him this time.’  Although this sort of talk is not according to the rules, there was no brag in the assertion, for Hyer could hit ‘Country’ whenever and wherever he pleased.

‘Yankee’ Sullivan insisted upon ‘Country’ giving up the fight after Hyer had given his opponent the coup de grace in the way of a severe collarbone blow.  Hyer seemed good for another hour or two.  Although not fought strictly according to modern rules, this certainly was a well-contested battle, highly honorable to the pugilistic fame of both principals.  They were unprepared by training, of course fought at catchweights and stood up under a burning sun.

The best commentary we can offer upon this fight is the fact that, although caused by a quarrel, the principals from that day became firm friends and thus remained until the death of John McCleester.

*     *     *

Tom Hyer’s excellent showing against McClusky, although Tome was but a green hand at the game, gave the Americans an opportunity to shout as strongly for their man as the Hibernians had for Sullivan when he took Hammond into camp.  ‘Yankee,’ although a much smaller man than Hyer, was eager to take a crack at the big American, but when they talked of arranging a match Hyer set the figures at $3,000, which were a bit steep for ‘Sully.’  The latter, however, secured a match with Tom Secor, a husky individual, who outweighed ‘Yank!’ by twenty-five pounds.  Sullivan’s adherents thought he had overmatched himself, but the touch ‘Connemara Ram’ entered into the match confident he would win.  The battle took place at Staten Island on January 24, 1842, and Sullivan won in the sixty-seventh round.

*     *     *

‘Yank’s’ style of fighting was not approved by those who favored fair standup fighting, as he hit Tom and dropped to the ground, round after round, to avoid a return and to induce Secor to lose on a foul by hitting when down.  Besides this, he repeatedly went down without being hit, which should have lost him the fight, but the referee evidently feared “Sully’s’ heelers.  In the thirty-fifth round Tom pressed Sullivan to the ropes and lifting him half over, punched him severely.  It looked like Secor’s fight and his friends shouted, ‘Secor’s got him at last,’ ‘Give it to him, Secor,’ etc.  Then the outsiders, presumably ‘Yank’s’ heelers, broke into the ring.  The same thing occurred in the fiftieth round, but after that it was a shame to send Tom to the scratch.  In fact, his seconds begged him to give up and he only was permitted to continue on account of his urgent entreaties.  Tom came up for the sixty-fifth round readily and free, but after a blow in the face, Sullivan knocked down his guard as dealing with a child.  Another blow carried Secor down.

*     *     *

Sullivan himself came forward and, offering his hand to Secor, advised that he should be withdrawn, as it now was absolute butchery to strike him.  Secor took Sullivan’s hand, but refused his advice.

Sullivan got in three severe cuts in round 66 and Secor fell heavily to the ground.  Time was called for the sixty-seventh round and Secor was ready and willing to respond, but his seconds refused to allow him to enter.  He begged eagerly for a few more trials, but at length suffered himself to be persuaded, Sullivan was declared the victor, amid the acclamations of this friends.  Sullivan’s tricky conduct in this fight did not add much to his reputation, but the discussions it caused only boomed the game.

*     *     *

A number of battles between aspiring pugilists followed this event, the most important being between Tom McCoy and ‘Cheshire’ Bob, and Chris Lilly and Tom Murphy.  McCoy and Lilly were returned winners.

Ben Caunt, who early in 1841 won the championship belt of England by defeating Nick Ward, came to this country during the latter part of that year and after engaging a number of th local pugs in exhibition bouts he received a challenge from the ‘Michigan Giant’ for $10,000 a side.  The ‘Giant,’ it was reported, stood 7 feet 3 inches in height, weighed 333 pounds, and had been known to turn twenty-five somersaults in succession.  Caunt signified his willingness to give the ‘Michigander’ a try with the ‘raw ‘uns,’ but nothing came of it, which demostrates the old-timers knew how to talk big money.

*     *     *

Fight talk was the principal topic of conversation in sporting circles following Sullivan’s victory over Secor and the arrival of Caunt, and as ‘Sully’s’ friends boasted of his ability to ‘lick anybody,’ the Brooklyn followers of the game raised $300 and matched Prof. William Bell, a boxing instructor, to fight the redoubtable Sullivan.  Bell had created a good impression in Brooklyn as a teacher of the manly art, and as he had it on ‘Yank’ nearly two inches in height and fully ten pounds in weight, his friends considered it a pretty even match.  The fight took place at Hart’s Island, about twenty miles from New York, on August 29, 1842, and was won by Sullivan in the twenty-fourth round.  Bell showed cleverness, but ‘Yankee’ was too trick for him, as an account of rounds, 2, 3, and 6 attests.

‘Round 2 – Both came up merrily.  ‘Yankee’ got in a sharp body blow and stopped a wicked return.  Bell closed and pressed Sullivan to the ropes, both flying through the ropes and falling side by side.  Bell returned to the ring, while Sullivan lay apparently insensible.  Sullivan was carried to his corner with his head drooping languidly, and even while undergoing sponging, etc., betrayed no signs of consciousness.  Many who did not know Sullivan’s ways cried out, ‘Aha, he’ll never come to time.’

*     *     *

‘Round 3 – Sullivan slowly walked to the mark, but when confronted with his enemy, as quick as lightning he stood, the incarnation of mischief.  He led off actively, and cries of ‘Only look at the devil,’ from some of his admiring countrymen.

‘Round 6 – Bell went in right and left, keeping Sully busy stopping, and affording him small chance for a return.  Sully rallied, but Billy forced him back, got in a sounding body blow, and pressed him to the ropes in achase.  ‘Let me go, Billy’, said Sully, faintly, as he stood with Bell’s arm around his neck; ‘Let me go, Billy,’ I can stand it no longer; I’m a-going to give in.’  Bell credulously turned toward his corner, but no sooner had exposed his unprotected side than Sullivan let drive a right-hand hit, catching him in the region of the ear.  Bell wheeled around, but hit short, and caught it again.  A clinch followed and Sullivan threw him in masterly style.’

These rounds will give the reader an idea of Sullivan’s tricky method of fighting, but, although not approved of by his enemies, it strictly was in accordance with the rules.  Bell’s showing, while good, was disappointing to his friends and backers; still they found no fault as he gave them a good run for their money.

*     *     *

Chris Lilly’s defeat of Tom Murphy brought about a match between Lilly and Tom McCoy, as follows:  The pair met at a sparring exhibition, and, when Lilly was congratulated because of his handy and gallant victory over Murphy and disparagingly of Lilly.  Chris then proposed to put on the gloves with Tom, and when the latter declined Chris floored him with a right to the jaw.  McCoy staggered to his feet and made an attempt to continue the scrap, but the friends of each interfered, and they decided to fight it out according to the rules, for $200 a side.  The battle took place on September 13, 1842, about twenty miles up the Hudson,  between Yonkers and Hastings, and was won by Lilly in the 120th round, McCoy dying a few minutes after Chris was declared the winner.  Following is a condensed story of the fight after the first eighteen rounds.

*     *     *

‘The first nineteen rounds occupied twenty minutes.  Lilly began to improve and McCoy to sink, except in some occasional tremendous effort, which only left him weaker and weaker, evidently having been drawn too fine in training.  The thirty-fourth round ended within forty minutes of the commencement.  In the forty-ninth round, after some heavy exchanges, nearly all in favor of McCoy, Lilly deliberately butted him, and even this was allowed by the judges.  At the seventy-eighth round poor Tom had fought so well that the betting stood at evens.  At the eighty-eighth round, after fighting two hours, Lilly threw McCoy and fell so heavily on him as to make the spectators cry out ‘shame, shame!  It’s a shame to see such a game man beaten to death.’  At the one hundredth round the combatants spoke quietly to each other and McCoy gave Lilly an ugly fall by main strength.  In the one hundred and tenth round McCoy exclaimed ‘I feel like a book,’ but was thrown heavily the next minute.  In the one hundred and twelfth round Bill Ford, on behalf of Lilly, requested McCoy’s backers to take their man away and save his life.  In the one hundred and nineteenth round Chanfrau, one of Tom’s seconds, sang out, ‘McCoy ain’t half licked yet.’  The one hundred and twentieth and last round began with McCoy leading off in his usual open and eager style.  Lilly threw him and put all his weight on him.  When McCoy was lifted he sank speechless into the arms of his seconds.  No more ‘time’ for him.  Lilly was declared winner and McCoy died in a few minutes.’

*     *     *

The death of McCoy could have been avoided by Tom’s principal backer, as Lilly delivered a foul blow in the seventh round, and it was declared so by the umpire and referee, but Tom’s backer, although the fight meant several thousand dollars to him, said he did not want to take an advantage and commanded the fight to go on.  Lilly also struck low in the fifteenth round and again the referee declared in McCoy’s favor, but his backers would not accept the fight on a foul.  Lilly used foul tactics throughout, and the toughs behind him, among whom was Yankee Sullivan, backed him up in everything he did.  Nearly all the parties concerned left the State, but Sullivan was convicted and sentenced to serve two years.  Later he was pardoned on condition that he should engage in no more prize fights.  The death of McCoy gave the game a severe shock, and it was some time before it recovered.  Lilly and McCoy were what we now term welterweights.”

Source:  Siler, George, MORE STORIES OF FAMOUSPRIZERING BATTLES OF THE OLD TIME DAYS, The Buffalo Courier, Sep. 16, 1906, p. 38, cols. 3-5.


The funeral of William Bell, or, as he was more familiarly known, ‘Billy’ Bell, took place yesterday afternoon from No. 961 Pacific street, Brooklyn, where Bell had resided  with his wife and son for the past twenty years.  Deceased, who was a carpenter by trade, was a native of Ireland, where he was born seventy-four years ago.  He came to America about fifty-three years ago, and being a man of splendid physique, six feet two inches in height and of fine proportions, early in life attracted the attention of sporting men.  He studied the ‘manly art’ and rapidly grew in proficiency.  For several years he conducted a boxing academy in Brooklyn, which was liberally patronized.  But Billy Bell’s pugilistic fame arose from his encounter with the famous Yankee Sullivan, whom he fought twenty-three rounds in the ring, August 25, 1842.  It was his first appearance in the prize ring, and the affair caused great excitement among ‘the bloods’ of the two cities of that day.  Bell was championed by the Brooklyn people, while the Gothamites ‘shouted’ for Sullivan.  The fight, which took place on Hart’s Island, lasted half an hour, and was witnessed by five thousand people, Sullivan approached Bell before the fight opened, while the latter was sitting in ring costume in his corner with an umbrella over his head, and raising the umbrella said, ‘Billy, I’m going to paste that head of yours so that your mother won’t know you.’  It is said the champion Yankee Sullivan, who won the fight, kept his word, though he admitted that Bell had ‘knocked the light from his eyes and all sense from his head’ in the fourth round, but did not follow up his advantage.  Subsequently Bell put on the gloves with Bob Caunt, one of the English champions, and beat his adversary.  He never again appeared in the ring, but thereafter devoted his time to his trade.  He was well known and respected as a quiet, kindly, domestic man, and but few, indeed, had any knowledge of the fact that in early manhood ‘old Mr. Bell’ had participated in such stirring events in the prize ring.”

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