July 8, 1889
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
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
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 L. Sullivan
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
John L. Sullivan
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
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
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
A cigarette trading card of
Sullivan produced in the 1880s or 1890s.
In 1883, Sullivan married chorus girl, Annie Bates. A son,
John Jr., was born in 1884, but the child died of diphtheria
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
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
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 night watchman at
a Quincy, Massachusetts shipyard, where he remained until
his death, of diabetes, on December 22, 1937, at the age of
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.