Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Brawls at Boston Corners

Prizefights have changed a lot of things over the years: the amount of money in people's pockets, the shape of a man's nose, opinions once held to be unshakable, the course of many men's lives. But only once to my knowledge has a prizefight changed the map of the United States. That was the fight between John Morrissey and the man they called Yankee Sullivan, and as a result of it Massachusetts lost an entire town to the State of New York.

If you'll take a look at the map today, you'll see that there is a small chunk sliced away from the southwest corner of Massachusetts. That missing slice is Boston Corners. And what a place it was in the mid-1800s!

Boston Corners was a rough neighborhood because there was no law there, or at least none that was enforced, for when the map makers drew up the state lines, they favored neatness over the topographical realities. The neatest way to separate New York and Massachusetts was simply to extend the New York-Vermont line south. This tidy arrangement did not take the Taconic Mountains into consideration. They were small mountains, but not easy to get over in those days, and they effectively cut off Boston Corners from Great Barrington, the nearest center of Massachusetts law enforcement. The New York State sheriffs, of course, had no jurisdiction there.

In time things got so bad that the 50 or 60 honest farmers and burghers of Boston Corners petitioned the New York and Massachusetts legislatures to transfer the town to New York, but nobody paid much attention.

And so we come to the fateful year of 1853. Let us momentarily quit Boston Corners and shift our attention 120 miles south to almost equally lawless Gotham and the prize ring.

In those days it was hard to tell exactly who was heavyweight champion—something like these days. The problem then, however, was that prizefights of all kinds were strictly illegal, and this tended to discourage any formal ratings. But most of the leading, or at least most publicized, pretenders to the title of top bopper were concentrated in New York City, where Irish immigrants and their progeny habitually roughed each other up for fun and glory. The best brawlers had their own gangs, and the two most prominent were John Morrissey and Yankee Sullivan.

Morrissey was only 22 but already owned a popular saloon on lower Broadway called the Gem. He was later, via Tammany, to rise to the hallowed halls of Congress. But at this tender age he mainly wanted to be recognized as the world's toughest Irishman.

Standing in the way of that ambition was Sullivan, a man who at 40 was almost old enough to be Morrissey's father, and who weighed only 150 pounds. But he was a tough cookie who could take on anyone of any size, a sort of Mickey Walker of his day. They called him "Old Smoke," for his deftness at ducking while poking his adversary in the teeth.

During the summer of 1853 the Sullivan and Morrissey gangs staged many a rumble. Hostilities reached a crescendo when, one summer evening, Sullivan strode into the Gem, mounted a table and announced that he both could and would flatten Morrissey for keeps within one hour in a 24-foot ring.

Summoned to the scene, Morrissey came swooping in and implied that on the worst day he ever lived he could murder this bum. Rivalry was at such fever pitch that the boys might well have started slugging it out then and there if cooler heads had not prevailed to save the physical confrontation for commerce.

Articles were signed to fight for a purse of $2,000 on Oct. 5, within 100 miles or thereabouts of New York City. The fight seemed sure to draw thousands, but how to keep the enterprise from being busted—that was the problem. Someone thought of Boston Corners, and the wheels of history went into a slow grind.

The Harlem Railroad had just been built, and the sports began inundating Boston Corners via rail the day before the fight. The fighters waited until the last minute. One never knew; the law boys might make it over the hills from Great Barrington after all.

A ring had been set up on the drying ground of an old brickyard, and hours before the scheduled fight, the spectators staged dozens of unscheduled ones.

When the fighters got into the ring, Morrissey looked like a giant beside the middle-aged Sullivan. But just as the fight was about to start, Old Smoke got a special shot of encouragement. His wife jumped up at ringside and yelled that she had $1,000 that said her man would draw first blood. The bet was covered, and the gong sounded.

Sullivan immediately penetrated the burly Morrissey's defense and opened a gash over his right eye, and Mrs. Sullivan collected early. Morrissey had a magnificent build but a rather serious handicap for a fighter: he was blind in his left eye. Sullivan worked diligently on the gash, and the blood kept running down into Morrissey's good eye.

In those days, a knockdown ended the round, and the rounds sped by quickly as one or the other of the fighters hit the deck. The fight became more and more bloody and bitter as it ground on past the 15th, 20th, 30th rounds.

Each time one of the fighters got in a good blow it would set off a chain reaction in the crowd as their followers started sympathetic fights of their own. This extracurricular activity proved the decisive factor in the fight going on in the ring.

In the 37th round Sullivan glanced at the crowd just in time to see a close friend take a good one on the chops. Enraged, he stormed from the ring to avenge his buddy, and in a flash the whole crowd was a snarling, brawling mass. Morrissey stood alone in the center of the ring, and after some minutes of indecision, the referee raised his hand in victory. Unfortunately, however, the Massachusetts lawmen had made it over the mountains after all, and as soon as the fight ended they collared the champ and tossed him into the clink in Lenox. Prosecuted by District Attorney Henry L. Dawes of Pittsfield, he was fined $1,200 a few days later.

All in all, the boys made an indelible impression on Boston Corners, in more ways than one. The fight, publicized by newspapers all over the country, finally convinced the New York and Massachusetts legislatures that something had to be done, and a few months afterward Boston Corners was ceded to New York. Things have been pretty quiet there ever since.