19th Century Prizefight Brought Fame, Change to Obscure Hamlet of Boston CornersPosted: March 3, 2008
Boston Corners is a quiet, obscure hamlet nestled in southeast Columbia County, New York, bracketed by the Taconic Mountains to the east and Route 22 and the Harlem Valley to the west. A town of mountain views, open spaces and farms.Boston Corners occupies a spot near where Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York converge, roughly 110 miles north of Manhattan,
It’s probably one of the last places on earth you’d expect to host a championship prizefight. Yet that’s exactly what happened more then 150 years ago, when John Morrissey bested James “Yankee” Sullivan in a 37-round bare-knuckles bout.
Due to the violent nature of the sport, boxing was illegal in most places during the 1850s. However, tiny Boston Corners, offered some, shall we say, advantages that hindered the local constabulary. For one, its mountainous terrain made it difficult for police to find the village, bad for Commonwealth of Massachusetts law enforcement but ideal for illegal activities.
To put it mildly, Boston Corners was a den of thieves. It was particularly favored as a handy place to dye racehorses stolen from nearby Saratoga so that they could be raced incognito on Long Island.
On Wednesday, October 12, 1853, an event took place that would change the face of Boston Corners forever. On that date a brash young fighter from Troy, N.Y., by the name of John Morrissey met the famed Yankee Sullivan.
Tale of the Tape
Sullivan, age 40, weighed 145 pounds, giving away more than 30 pounds to the younger Morrissey, who was 22, stood 6’2″ and weighed 175 pounds. The purse for the winner was $2,000.
It was estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 fight fans converged on an abandoned brickyard in Boston Corners the day of the fight. They came from New York City, Albany, Troy and all points in between. They came by train, by stage, by horse and on foot. to see the fight of the century. Never mind that the population of Boston Corners was less than 150 people and had only one inn.
Sullivan dominated the match for most of the early rounds, but Morrissey held his own according to reports and would not quit, though his face became distorted and unrecognizable. In the 37th round, more than an hour after the start of the fight, a riot broke out when Sullivan hit Morrissey while he was on his knees. Crowds started jumping into the ring, and after the chaos had been quelled, the referee awarded the victory and American Championship to Morrissey, making him a national celebrity.
The fight resulted in the transfer of Boston Corners from Massachusetts to the state of New York. The citizens of Boston Corners petitioned the New York State and the U.S. Congress to bring them into the jurisdiction of New York. On January 3, 185,5 an Act of Congress changed the state line and made Boston Corners officially part of New York.
Two Fighters, Different Fates
The two contestants, Morrissey and Sullivan, experienced dissimilar fates. After establishing a successful gaming house in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Morrissey created the Saratoga Race Course with the help of William R. Travers, John R. Hunter, and Leonard Jerome. He also established “The Club House,” a casino in Saratoga that attracted such notable guests as former Presidents Chester A. Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller, and Mark Twain.
In 1866 he ran for Congress with the backing of Tammany Hall and served two terms in the House (1867-1871). Morrissey, pictured at right, was later elected to the New York State Senate in 1875 and was re-elected in 1877, serving in that capacity until his death in 1878 at age 47.
The state closed all offices and flags were flown at half-mast upon his death. The entire State Senate attended his funeral in Troy, and 20,000 mourners lined the streets to pay respects. At the time of his death, Morrissey’s estate was valued at more than $2 million.
The life of Sullivan, pictured at left, ran a far different course. After the contest, he moved to California where he had a criminal reputation. He was arrested by the San Francisco Vigilance Movement, and he died in his prison cell. The circumstances of his death are unclear — some reports say he was hanged, others
indicate that he slit his wrists. Sullivan is buried in the Mission Dolores cemetery in San Francisco.
Today there is a historic marker at the site, on Undermountain Road just north of the Dutchess County line. Unfortunately the date on the marker—1883—is incorrect.