www.common-place.org · vol. 3 · no. 2 · January 2003
Melissa Haley is a manuscript archivist at the New-York Historical Society. Her ancestor, Patrick "Patsy" Haley, fought professionally as a featherweight in the late 1890s.
"[N]o matter how progressive, or how much it seemed to reflect a vibrant spirit of competition, of Darwinian triumph and bootstrap optimism, boxing still suffered from an image problem."
Storm of Blows
Follow the tabloid pages of the National Police Gazette of the 1890s as they move from right to left across the screen of the microfilm reader until your neck is sore, past the vaudeville pinups with their substantial thighs ("girls in tights!"), past the tales of murder, hangings, deadly stampedes, train wrecks, floods, whippings, and factory yard brawls; women acting out, smoking cigars, or dressing as men; past the dudes, dandies, slims, sports, and cranks. Before the classified ads for marked cards, restored manhood, rubber goods, cabinet photos of couples In the Act, counterfeit greenbacks, loaded dice, photographs of fighting cocks (choose between Billy of Missouri, Big Jim, Old Katie, or Billy of California), opium habit cures, remedies for sexual weakness and shrunken organs ("O Weak Man Do Not Despair!") there is a relatively new and novel feature of journalism: the sports pages. And though the tabloid would cover baseball, cycling, pedestrians, even strong men (and women) contests, even yachting, and would publish challenges from checkers players and glass eaters and pie eaters ("Dear Sir—I Joseph McGivney, having defeated all pie-eaters in Harlem, am looking for greater fame . . .") and solo guitar players, sports truly meant one thing to the Police Gazette: the world of boxing.
It was boxing, and also Fistiana, and Pugilistica. The fights were bouts, but also battles, mills, and set-tos. A pugilist might be knocked out or "put to sleep." They all had nicknames. The Nonpareil, the Corkscrew Kid, Little Chocolate, many Youngs and many Kids, and, of course, the Boston Strong Boy.
The country of Fistiana was large then: it was bounded by England and South Africa and Australia, with the United States as its center. Depending on varying degrees of legality and local support, the American scene was continually shifting as the decade progressed, and the fighters were on the move, riding the rails to box, or second, or witness bouts. But this scattered fight scene once had a hub, the first true center of the vortex: the city of New Orleans. To travel to this stretch of boxing history is to go south, and catch a glimpse of the sport's modern version as it struggles to emerge. Here in New Orleans, bourgeois Victorian men preoccupied with virtue, order, and "scientific" sport will openly adopt and attempt to legitimize an unforgiving, lower-class pastime. They will briefly succeed in shedding pugilism's seamy stigma, but the move from saloon backroom to refined athletic club to consumer spectacle will prove to be risky and tumultuous.
I. The Fistic Carnival
Start at the top: New Orleans, in its palmiest boxing days, circa 1892. It is the last night of the Fistic Carnival, three nights of championship bouts in stagnant early September, culminating in the Sullivan-Corbett heavyweight title fight. The host Olympic Club stands like a four-story ship with banners strung from gables, filling a long bywater block, bounded by Chartres and Royal, Montegut and Clouet. Every window is lit. Streetcars arrive constantly from Canal—the Levee and Barrack cars—and the streets around the club are clogged with hacks. There is the threat of rain, as always. Inside, in the rare quiet moments before the fight, is the clatter of telegraphs, and the sixty electric lights boasted of are spitting noise. When the referee, "Professor" John Duffy, steps into the ring, he receives a "deafening" ovation; he receives an ovation, in fact, before every bout. Duffy is presented with a silver punch bowl, in appreciation of his skill and rectitude. "Gentlemen, I am completely knocked out, or I would say something," he replies.
The Fistic Carnival has driven the upcoming presidential election and Lizzie Borden and cholera from the front pages, and not only in the city of New Orleans. Instead this is news: trains have been arriving all week, specially booked Pullman cars, from as far away as Buffalo. The Illinois Central has advertised its special "Green Room" excursion from Chicago, a "solid vestibule train of sleepers" including "a special commissary car . . . serving lunches, wet goods, and cigars." Twenty-five dollars roundtrip. The papers are full of minutiae. So this is also news: referee Duffy's cousin Arthur has come to town. The gloves, ordered from New York, weigh five ounces each, and will be tan.
This night, September 7, 1892, is the pinnacle of the New Orleans fight scene, a scene that epitomized the struggles and the extremes of the sport during its four-and-a-half year reign. It is also a historic night, for the champion is dethroned. John L. Sullivan has reigned for ten years, but the younger James Corbett emerges victorious after twenty-one rounds. When the Boston Strong Boy goes down, referee Duffy is forced to pantomime the count, and the declaration of victory, amid the uproar. Corbett later recalled that belts, coats, hats, and canes, and flowers from buttonholes—the accoutrements of gentlemen—are all flung his way. A spectator wrote that the sound is louder than "a whole herd of Kansas cyclones." A "hoarse roar," is what another witness remembered. Despite the tumult, Duffy is able to quiet the crowd, and Sullivan staggers to the ropes and says:
Gentlemen, all I have got to say is this.
Or something like that.
Fights were reported in what John Kouwenhoven called the "syntax of momentum," a peculiarly American and dynamic style of writing he found in an early transcontinental railroad guide. The headings will not slow you down; they are part of the rush. As the Sullivan-Corbett bout reels to its conclusion, here is how the New Orleans Times-Democrat titles its rounds:
SULLIVAN WAS SO THOROUGHLY SURPRISED
This is boxing as relentless progress, as the myth of late-nineteenth-century American life.
But no matter how progressive, or how much it seemed to reflect a vibrant spirit of competition, of Darwinian triumph and bootstrap optimism, boxing still suffered from an image problem. Though middle- and upper-class Victorian men took up the sport with enthusiasm in the era of rugged "manliness," as both spectators and recreational participants, many still considered fistiana a "bloody and brutal" world. New Orleans, long a sporting city of "moral laxity" and leisure that worshipped the "gospel of play" (even on Sundays), was an ideal setting for boxing to thrive illegally in the years after the Civil War. The city would ultimately become the first in the country to attempt to truly legitimize pugilism by sanctioning it in 1890. Boxing's proponents wanted more than mere legal acceptance, however; they sought respect, and hoped to sell the sport to civic leaders and to its myriad of local opponents (including the clergy and the Louisiana attorney general), and to rise above the sordid, illicit image that it evoked. Here in New Orleans is the knotty shift in boxing's history from bareknuckled fighting (the London Prize Rules) to gloved fists (the Marquis of Queensberry Rules); from illegal rings furtively pitched by pine trees to reserved seating under electric lights in elegant athletic clubs.
It was these athletic clubs—a recent, nationwide phenomenon—that gave boxing its new veneer of credibility, and the Fistic Carnival's Olympic Club epitomized the trend. "The Olympic Club is creating a respect for manly sports, a respect for honest, unafraid muscle," the carnival program declared. Its officers moved in the city's commercial elite: lumber, coal, cotton, real estate, insurance, "levee interests," "capitalists." President Charles Noel, for example, was a partner in a sawmill and sat on the city council, serving as committee chairman for streets and landings. The Olympic's "renaissance style" clubhouse (costing $30,000) included a library and reading rooms, decorated with objects of art. Finances seemed unlimited—more improvements were planned, and purses were high. The club put $25,000 (the equivalent of nearly $500,000 today) toward the total $45,000 purse in Sullivan vs. Corbett.
New Orleans would support pugilism so long as its participants adhered to a number of conditions: professional fights must be held in chartered athletic clubs and conducted under police watch, $50 from each match goes to charity, there is no Sunday fighting, and no drinking among the spectators. And, of course, all fighters must now wear gloves. The image desired was one of order (a recurring word) and uprightness, of hatted men with canes calmly witnessing a "scientific" fight unfold. Boxing taught "manly, honest, straight up and down lessons on the right side of patriotism, of health, of decency and morality," the Fistic Carnival program proclaimed.
Even the carnival's heavyweight title fighters fit boxing's redefinition scheme. The defeated John L. Sullivan, the bareknuckled champion of the sport's illegal days, is a drunk; he has been arrested, he is a slugger of unlawful and hidden fields. James Corbett, the victor, is a bank clerk who appeals to the ladies with his pompadour, a "scientific" fighter, and a "gentleman." "James J. Corbett lifted boxing out of the barroom slough," Nat Fleischer later claimed. Corbett's triumph in New Orleans seemed to seal the lofty claims of boxing's proponents, and reflected the sport's grand ascent.
To remain legal, though, boxing would need to sustain the support and esteem of the "better classes of people" who were patronizing the fights—the "doctors, lawyers, state and municipal officials and representative prominent business men, bankers and even public educators" who packed the stands at the Fistic Carnival. This precarious situation was exemplified by the attitude of the Daily Picayune, one of the city's leading newspapers. Though its pre-carnival coverage enthusiastically filled nearly 20 percent of its Sunday content, an editorial that ran the next day made it clear the paper's support of boxing was highly qualified. "The Picayune is by no means an advocate of prize fighting," it began. But since the upcoming fights were "the most prolific and absorbing subject of conversation in this country," no newspaper could "ignore their importance." Only if the sport could maintain a sense of order and decorum, the editorial implied, would it retain the patronage of "men of culture, wealth and high social standing."
New Orleans, perhaps, had something at stake as well. Successful boxing events like the carnival brought hoards of visitors, money, and much favorable national publicity to a city known to many as a haven of disease and debauchery. Strangely enough, in 1892, it appeared a sport long considered "bloody and brutal" would become respectable in the so-called "city of sin."
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