Ancram’s slugfest in limbo recalled

COPAKE FALLS—The setting surrounding the John “Old Smoke” Morrissey versus James L. “Yankee” Sullivan prize fight is reminiscent of the Woodstock Festival 1969, when the unsuspecting small community of Bethel was “overrun by crazy, drug-using hippies” seeking “three days of peace, love and rock and roll.”

Only in the case of Boston Corners it was somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 city thugs, gangsters and toughs who “sort of came to rock” when they descended on the hamlet of 61 residents for three days of “violence on men.”

Rich Rosenzweig, a drummer and screenwriter, who divides his time between Hillsdale and New York City, made the Bethel/Boston Corners comparison when he told the famous prize fight tale to a packed house of 77 at the Roeliff Jansen Historical Society Museum last month.

A historic marker stands along Boston Corners Road in Ancram at the site of the “Famous Prize Fight.” Photo by David Lee

The setting for the prize fight was strategic, Boston Corner, as it was known at the time, was part of Mount Washington, Massachusetts, the bulk of which was situated on the other side of the mountain. “It was about as far away from Boston as you could get,” said Mr. Rosenzweig.

The U.S. was just 77 years old at the time with “a young police system.” Massachusetts authorities, while they had jurisdiction in the hamlet notched out at the base of the Taconic Mountains, couldn’t get there easily due to the terrain, and while New York authorities could get there, they did not have jurisdiction. “It was a huge mistake of geography,” he said.

Unsavory types were often temporary visitors, said Mr. Rosenzweig—a couple of wagons would pull up, a pistol duel would ensue then the surviving parties would get back in their vehicles and leave.

The population was mostly farmers and Irish rail workers hired to build train tracks when the Harlem River line was added from New York City and Chatham in 1852.

Sometime in 1853, an agreement was reached in which Massachusetts would cede Boston Corners to New York, but it was not finalized until an Act of Congress made it official in 1855. So for 17 months the hamlet “didn’t belong to anybody” and it was a lawless territory and haven for gamblers, cockfights, thieves and known rapists. Add to that the newly-installed rail line and it became the perfect site for a last hurrah—an illegal boxing match.

The fight was arranged by gang members who approached farmer, community leader and owner of the only hotel, Abram Vosburgh, asking to use a field next to a brickyard and the new railroad line.

It was the first really big heavyweight fight” and since such fights were illegal, said Mr. Rosenzweig, organizers were always looking for discreet places to stage them.

The reigning champ was James “Yankee” Sullivan, 41, who was 5’9½” tall and weighed about 150 pounds. He was born in Ireland and was a skilled, experienced boxer. The challenger was John “Old Smoke” Morrissey, 23, also of Irish descent, who grew up in Troy and was a bouncer in a lower New York establishment. He was 6’2″ and weighed 175 pounds. Known as a “brawler,” Morrissey got his nickname during a fight when after being knocked against a woodstove he continued to exchange blows even as his back was still smoking.

The prize for the winner was $2,000.

Thousands descended on Boston Corners, as trainloads came up from the city with “rail cars filled to the gills,” Mr. Rosenzweig said. On one train the engineers got “so freaked out by the drunken mob” they uncoupled the passenger cars at a stop and went on their way. When the gangs onboard realized they weren’t going anywhere, they got out of the car and staggered to Boston Corners.

The scene in and around the fight site was “mayhem,” with no accommodations, fight-goers were sleeping in farmers’ fields and slaughtering farmers’ pigs to eat.

Though an historic marker at the fight site says October 5, Mr. Rosenzweig said the fight took place October 12, 1853.

It was a “really bloody, bare knuckles fight using New London rules.” Youngsters climbed trees nearby to try to get a glimpse.

Rounds were not timed and started when the boxers “toed the line.” Rounds ended when one of the fighter’s knees touched the ground. Though the odds were against the 41-year-old Sullivan, he spent most of the bout “out-boxing this young guy,” said Mr. Rosenzweig. Sullivan pummeled Morrissey, then fell to one knee deliberately. Morrissey fans became frustrated after 37 rounds, some lasting up to an hour apiece. Both boxers’ “faces looked like mashed potatoes,” said Mr. Rosenzweig.

Morrissey’s seconds ran into the ring to try to prevent Sullivan from “killing” their guy. Soon Sullivan was involved in wrestling match outside the ring. The referee was yelling for him to get back in the ring and toe the line. Then, with Sullivan still outside the ring, the referee declared Morrissey the winner.

Morrissey was arrested shortly thereafter, spent the night in jail and went on to become a politician. Thugs ransacked Millerton. And Sullivan, who failed to get a rematch, ended up dead in a jail on the West Coast.

Around that same time, up the road apiece, was a place called Black Grocery. Grocery was another name for a saloon, said Mr. Rosenzweig, noting a patron there could get anything from tea to chewing gum or a girl to dance with and a place to stable his horse.

It was the only place of its kind in the area and had a somewhat shady past involving a gang of horse thieves who stole racehorses from the Saratoga Racetrack. The horses were dyed to make them unrecognizable, then moved downstate via a secret gorge in the nearby mountains, where they ran as “ringers” on Long Island racetracks.

It’s not clear whether this secret gorge referred to by Mr. Rosenzweig as the “Blow Hole” really exists, but all of the lore surrounding the place combined with a fair amount of factual events and real people made good fodder for the novel, “Hell’s Acres,” written by Clay Perry and John L.E. Pell, a Berkshire Eagle reporter and a silent movie writer, respectively, published in 1938.

The book certainly captured the imagination of Mr. Rosenzweig, who wrote a screenplay based on it.

A lot of the stuff [in the book] is fictional based on real elements,” said Mr. Rosenzweig, who, at the end of his presentation, showed a 10-minute “teaser trailer” of what a movie from the screenplay might look like.

He would not give away the specifics of the book, but said it involves “use of this mayhem to capture the gang.”

To contact Diane Valden email


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