The University of Southern Mississippi -- McCain Library and Archives
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Collection Title: Sullivan-Kilrain Fight Collection
Collection Number: M271
Dates: ca. 1938 - 1990
Volume: .35 cu. ft.
On Monday, July 8, 1889, history was made in the small sawmill community of Richburg, Mississippi, located three miles south of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and 104 miles northeast of New Orleans, Louisiana. This was the site chosen for the last professional bare-knuckle championship boxing match in America, between heavyweight champion, John L. Sullivan and the challenger, Jake Kilrain. Selection of this rather obscure hamlet was due to the need for secrecy. At that time, bare-knuckle fighting was illegal in all the existing thirty-eight states, which is not surprising, considering the London Prize Ring rules, under which the sport was conducted: no gloves were worn; wrestling techniques were permitted; a round lasted until one fighter was knocked down; and a fight lasted until one fighter was unable to get up off the floor.
The match evolved because of long-standing animosity between Richard Kyle Fox and John L. Sullivan. Fox was publisher of the National Police Gazette, a weekly publication devoted to sports and the theater. Sullivan had publicly humiliated Fox in 1881 by refusing to visit his table in a Boston saloon. From that point on, Fox devoted himself to finding a fighter who could beat Sullivan. He thought he had found such a man, when Jake Kilrain fought Jem Smith to a draw in 106 rounds. Fox used the pages of the National Police Gazette to manipulate Sullivan into a match, implying that Sullivan was afraid to fight Kilrain.
Finally, on New Year's Day, 1889, Sullivan agreed to fight Kilrain at a location within 200 miles of New Orleans. Plans were finalized on January, 7, 1889, and each side agreed to post a $10,000 side bet -- winner take all.
Louisiana governor, Francis Nicholls, vowed that the illegal bout would not be held in his state, and activated the state militia to back his decision. Governor Robert Lowry of Mississippi was equally opposed to the fight occurring in his state, and took steps to prevent it. At that point, fight promoter, Bud Reneau, (a New Orleans sportsman) conspired with Colonel Charles W. Rich, to hold the fight on Rich's land. Rich owned a sawmill and 10,000 acres of pine timberland in Richburg (the town was named for Rich, and at that time, was part of Marion County). The New Orleans and Northeast Railroad, which ran near the Rich Sawmill, would be used to transport spectators to the fight.
Rich agreed to erect the stands, quarter the fighters before the fight, and guarantee no police interference. The ring consisted of eight posts driven into the ground, with two ropes strung between them, and was between sixteen and twenty-four feet square. The hastily constructed bleachers were of rough-hewn pine lumber, which oozed resin, as the south Mississippi temperature soared to 106 degrees. Pine trees were stripped of their branches, up to one hundred feet from the ground, to prevent their being used as free vantage points.
The precise plot of earth on which Sullivan and Kilrain battled is a perennial source of dispute. Some say it was held on land owned (in 1989) by O. C. Hill -- about three miles south of Hattiesburg, at the fork of Richburg, Sandy Run, and Sullivan-Kilrain Roads. This would place the fight on a hill behind Colonel Rich's home. William Jones, owner (in 1989) of the property adjacent to Hill's, claimed, in a newspaper article, that the fight was held on his land. Other sources say it was held in one of the area's "natural amphitheaters" on the opposite side of the road. The only permanent marker alluding to the event is a sign erected by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, near the Richburg Road intersection on U. S. Highway 11, south of Hattiesburg, proclaiming that the fight occurred "three miles southwest of this point."
The two fighters and their entourages arrived in Richburg at about 6:00 P. M. on the evening of Sunday, July 7. Kilrain spent the night in Col. Rich's home, and Sullivan stayed in the home of Rich's foreman, J. W. Smith.
At 8:00 A. M. on Monday, July 8, two trainloads of spectators arrived at Richburg, from New Orleans, and by 9:00 A. M., a crowd about 3000 strong had assembled. It was at about that time that Marion County, Sheriff, W. J. Cowart, who had been ordered by Governor Lowry to stop the fight, stepped into the ring. His attempts to read the governor's proclamation forbidding the fight were met with boos and jeers, so Cowart smiled, said he had more important business elsewhere, and left the arena.
At 9:55, Jake Kilrain tossed a light straw hat into the ring, followed one minute later by John L. Sullivan's famous white felt hat, signifying that the fight was about to begin. Though some disagreement exists, the general consensus is that Sullivan wore emerald green knee-length tights, with flesh-colored stockings, and Kilrain wore black tights and blue stockings. Both men wore black leather fighting boots.
Sullivan's cornermen were William Muldoon and Jimmy Wakely. Kilrain's seconds were Charlie Mitchell and Mike Donovan. The referee was John Fitzpatrick, who later became mayor of New Orleans, and the timekeeper was William Barclay "Bat" Masterson, best known as the gunslinger who cleaned out Dodge City, Kansas.
Finally, at 10:10 A. M., the fight got under way, and within a few seconds of the first round, Kilrain landed a left to Sullivan's jaw and threw him to the turf. In the seventh round, Kilrain drew first blood, when he landed a left hook on Sullivan's ear. John L. retaliated in the eighth round. Battering Kilrain with a flurry of rights and lefts to the neck and jaw, he scored the first knockdown. Sullivan refused to sit between rounds, saying it was pointless: "... I got to get right up again, ain't I?"
Kilrain's fight plan began to take shape in the early rounds -- avoid Sullivan's rushes by sidestepping or backing away; wear his man down with constant jabbing; then use wrestling, at which he excelled, to defeat him. However, it was Kilrain's endurance that failed first, and he adopted the strategy of deliberately falling to end a round. In all, twenty-seven rounds ended that way.
By the thirty-fourth round, Kilrain's nose was broken, his lips were split, and one eye was swollen shut. Sullivan had a black eye, his ear was bleeding, and both hands were swollen to twice their normal size. Both fighters were drenched in blood and sweat.
Some accounts say Kilrain drank whiskey between rounds, eventually consuming over a quart. Reports differ as to what Sullivan drank. Some say he drank only water; some say tea; others say tea laced with brandy. In any case, he suddenly began to vomit in the forty-fourth round, and it has been strongly suggested that one of his cornermen slipped brandy into whatever he was drinking, making him violently ill. To his credit, Kilrain did not take advantage of the situation. Instead, he stepped aside and suggested they call the fight a draw. "No!" Sullivan bellowed, and within a few minutes, he floored Kilrain with a blow to the ribs.
Jake's head began to roll loosely on his shoulders, as if his neck were broken, and during the seventy-fifth round, a physician told his cornerman, Mike Donovan, "If you keep sending your man out there, he'll die." So when Kilrain came to scratch (a line drawn in the center of the ring) for the seventy-sixth round, Donovan threw in the sponge, thus ending the last bare-knuckle fight in America. Poor Jake wept like a child, but the victorious Sullivan was carried away on the shoulders of the exultant crowd.
The fight had lasted two hours, sixteen minutes, and twenty-three seconds, and the spectators, realizing they had witnessed something momentous, scrounged for souvenirs. Ring posts were splintered and sold at $5.00 per piece; ropes were cut and the pieces sold; and small pieces of turf were sold as mementos. Sullivan's hat went for $50.00, and ice water buckets sold for $25.00 each. It was reported that someone took Sullivan's water can, and later refused an offer of $1000 for it.
Both fighters were later arrested for participating in the illegal event (Sullivan in Nashville - Kilrain in Baltimore) and returned to Mississippi for trial. A Purvis, Mississippi jury found Sullivan guilty of prizefighting, and in the end, he paid a $500 fine and left the state. Kilrain, found guilty of assault and battery was fined $500 and sentenced to six months in jail. Colonel Rich paid the fine and bought the sentence (a common practice in Mississippi at that time), and Kilrain served out his time in Rich's home.
John Lawrence Sullivan was born on October 15, 1858, in Roxbury, Massachusetts. His parents were Irish immigrants, Michael and Catherine Sullivan. He had a sister, Ann, and a brother, Mike.
Sullivan graduated from grammar school at the age of sixteen, with the equivalent of a junior high school education. He worked as a plumber's assistant, a hod carrier, and later, as a tinsmith. He liked sports, and reportedly received several offers to play professional baseball -- one from the Cincinnati Red Stockings. However, a casual invitation to box in a Boston theater, at the age of nineteen, led to an illustrious career as a pugilist.
Sullivan looked the part of a fighter. He was 5 feet, 10 1/2 inches tall and weighed 195 pounds, when in his best condition. He was black-haired and barrel-chested, with a scowling countenance and a gruff voice. He allegedly could hit "hard enough to knock a horse down", and soon earned the nickname, "The Boston Strong Boy."
To his detriment, he smoked big black cigars and had a monstrous appetite, which often caused his weight to spiral out of control. A fast-living, hard-drinking man, it is said that he drank bourbon out of beer steins.
By 1882, Sullivan felt experienced enough to take on American heavyweight champion, Paddy Ryan, and on February 7 of that year, he and Ryan fought a bare-knuckle bout on the lawn of the Barnes Hotel in Mississippi City, Mississippi. Sullivan won the championship, knocking Ryan out in the ninth round.
Sullivan was the first American fighter to gain national recognition. His defeat of Ryan elevated him to heights of popularity previously unheard of in the sports world. He toured the world with a standing offer of $50.00 (later raised to $1000) to any man who could last four rounds with him. However, he harbored fierce hostility toward foreigners, and flatly refused to face black fighters.
Such was his popularity, that on August 8, 1887, his hometown fans presented him with a $10,000 championship belt, in an elaborate ceremony at the Boston Theater. By this time, he had been tagged, "The Great John L.," by his adoring fans.
Sullivan's boxing career ended on September 7, 1892, when "Gentleman" Jim Corbett knocked him out in the twenty-first round of a bout staged in New Orleans. Not counting exhibition bouts, he had compiled a record of forty-seven wins, one loss, and three draws. Twenty-nine of his wins were by knockout, and fourteen by decision.
For the next several years, he engaged in a number of activities: he toured the United States, Canada, and Australia, acting in plays; he and Jake Kilrain toured the vaudeville circuit, briefly, presenting exhibition bouts; he opened a bar in New York, and bought an interest in a saloon in Boston. At one time, there was even talk of running him for Congress.
In 1883, Sullivan married chorus girl, Annie Bates. A son, John Jr., was born in 1884, but the child died of diphtheria in 1886.
John L. separated from Annie in 1885, and lived openly with burlesque queen, Ann Livingston. He finally divorced Annie in 1908, and married his childhood sweetheart, Kate Harkins.
Under Kate's influence, he gave up his decadent life style and became a temperance lecturer. And in 1912, he and Kate bought Donlee-Ross Farm in West Abington, Massachusetts, where they raised fruits, vegetables, and chickens.
Sullivan was a big-hearted man. He provided for his parents, contributed regularly to charities, and routinely gave wood, coal, and flour to the poor people of Boston. He loved animals, especially dogs, and he was fiercely patriotic. He was also a bona fide eccentric. A flashy dresser, he was often called a "walking rainbow." He loved to chase fire engines, and was fascinated by condemned men. On his way to the Paddy Ryan fight in 1882, he stopped in Washington, D.C. to visit Charles Guiteau, who was in jail, accused of assassinating President James A. Garfield.
John L. Sullivan died of a heart attack on February 2, 1918, at his farm in West Abington. He is buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery, near there.
John Joseph Killion was born on February 9, 1859, in Green Point, Long Island, New York. For reasons that have been obliterated by the passing of time, his boyhood pals dubbed him, Jake Kilrain -- a pseudonym that later became his professional name.
As a teenager, Kilrain worked in the rolling mills of Somerville, Massachusetts. He described himself as "a gawky country buy" who had to learn to stand his ground among the rough mill workers. He learned the basics of fighting, and by the age of twenty, he stood 5 feet, 10 inches, weighed 190 pounds, and had been proclaimed boxing champion of the mill.
Kilrain also became proficient in the sport of rowing, and in 1883, under his birth name (John Killion), he won the National Amateur Junior Sculling Championship in Newark, New Jersey. However, officials learned that he had fought for money (as Jake Kilrain), and stripped him of the title.
In the winter of 1883, he left the mill to pursue a career as a professional fighter. Always in good condition, he became known for his remarkable stamina, and remained undefeated through at least twenty fights. His most prestigious fights were a 106 round draw with Jem Smith, and his famous 75 round loss to John L. Sullivan. After the Smith fight, Richard K. Fox, publisher of the National Police Gazette, declared Kilrain heavyweight champion, and presented him with a diamond-studded, silver championship belt, a move designed to goad Sullivan into a match with Kilrain. Sullivan's response was, "I would not put Fox's belt around the neck of a bulldog."
Kilrain continued to fight after his bout with Sullivan, but his only other significant bout was on March 13, 1891, with George Godfrey, whom he knocked out in forty-four rounds.
Kilrain lived in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife, Elizabeth, and their two children. A prudent man, devoted to his family, he had bank accounts for each of his children, and a life insurance policy, with his wife as beneficiary. He also supported his aging parents and a younger sister.
He owned and operated a saloon in Baltimore, where John L. Sullivan stopped off when he was in town (the two fighters became good friends after their famous match. In fact, Kilrain served as an usher at Sullivan's funeral in 1918).
After the saloon burned to the ground, Kilrain secured employment with the Parks Department in Somerville, Massachusetts, but at the height of the Great Depression, he was cut from the city's payroll, due to his age (he was in his seventies). He then accepted work as a nightwatchman at a Quincy, Massachusetts shipyard, where he remained until his death, of diabetes, on December 22, 1937, at the age of seventy-eight.
Kilrain became a well-loved figure, and a great storyteller. He enjoyed telling his grandsons about his fight with John L. Sullivan, because win or lose, just going into the ring with the Great John L. made one a hero.
Materials in this collection were gathered by Sarah E. Gillespie, former staff writer for the Hattiesburg American, and Dr. William A. Bufkin, former Director of the Division of Lifelong Learning at the University of Southern Mississippi. The collection is comprised almost entirely of photocopied items. Exceptions are a few handwritten notes, a typewritten article, and a typed letter.
The collection begins with a brief biography of John L. Sullivan, followed by photographs of the Sullivan-Kilrain fight and fighters. Next is a photocopy of John L. Sullivan's handwritten challenge to Jake Kilrain, dated December 7, 1888. A map showing the approximate location of the fight is next. This is followed by a series of newsclippings, which are categorized as follows:
Along with good descriptive information, clippings recounting the fight also contain interesting side stories. An example is information concerning the now defunct Sullivan-Kilrain Truck Stop and Cafe, which was named in honor of the great fight. It was situated on U.S. Highway 11, three miles south of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and was owned and operated by G.E. and Emma Slay. Built in 1951, the place did a booming business until Interstate 59, which routed traffic away from U. S. 11, was completed. The business was finally closed in 1976, due to the decline in patronage. A re-enactment of the famous fight was staged on Labor Day, Monday September 5, 1938. The event was held on Richburg Hill, where the Purvis and Richburg Roads forked, and featured Harold Murphy as Sullivan, and Herb Stribling as Kilrain. Old-timers who had witnessed the original said it was "just like it."
An interesting sidelight of the re-enactment is that one of the preliminary bouts featured George Monsour of Meridian, Mississippi, who was a protege of Thad "Pie" Vann, assistant coach at State Teacher's College (now the University of Southern Mississippi).
Sections of the Hattiesburg American and the Clarion Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi) for July 8, 1989, follow the newsclippings. These sections contain articles commemorating the fight's centennial.
A series of articles photocopied from various books and periodicals is next. Collectively, they contain a wealth of information about the fight and the fighters. However, there is considerably more information about Sullivan than about Kilrain. One article, "Sullivan-Kilrain Fight, Richburg, Mississippi, July 8, 1889," was written by Dr. Arthell Kelley, former professor of geography at the University of Southern Mississippi, and is one the most inclusive articles in the collection. An untitled article contains excerpts from a poem written by Vachel Lindsay, the "vagabond poet", entitled "John L. Sullivan, the Strong Boy of Boston."
The collection includes two sets of handwritten notes (one set in shorthand) and a typewritten article by Sarah Gillespie, as well as, brief handwritten notes by Dr. William Bufkin, and a typed letter to Dr. Bufkin from Tim Leone.
There are photocopies of Writs of Extradition for John L. Sullivan issued by Governors Robert Lowry of Mississippi, and David B. Hill of New York. There is also a transcript of Sullivan's trial on the charge of prizefighting.
An intriguing item in the collection is a document relating the history of a desk named "John L. Jake." according to one of the desk's owners, the contract for the Sullivan-Kilrain fight was finalized with John L. sitting on one end, and Jake on the other.
Completing the collection are items relating to the Charles W. Rich family -- obituaries and images of the Rich home. Colonel Rich owned the land on which the fight took place, and also served as mayor of Hattiesburg, Mississippi from 1902-1906 and from 1911-1913. Colonel Rich died on December 5, 1913, at the age of 49. His wife, Laura Heustis Rich, died in March, 1918. Both are interred in Oaklawn Cemetery, in Hattiesburg.
This collection should be of interest to students of history, as well as local history buffs. While accounts of the fight differ on minor points such as the color of the fighters' trunks, what they ate for breakfast, and what they drank between rounds, they are in agreement on such major issues as events leading up to the fight, length of the fight, round by round descriptions, and of course, the outcome -- the Great John L. remained heavyweight champion of the world.