Heenan, John C. (1835?-1873)

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John C. Heenan (1835?-1873)


Champion boxer

John Carmel Heenan was born in West Troy, New York, where he was apprenticed as a machinist after a minimal education. At the age of seventeen he followed the lure of easy money west, settling in Benicia, California, where he went to work for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in the foundry. There he worked twelve hours a day swinging a thirty-two-pound sledge hammer and developing a formidable strength. By 1857 Heenan had a reputation as a saloon brawler, and vigilantes suggested that he had best fight elsewhere. Known as the Benicia Boy Heenan returned to New York, where backers arranged for him to fight American champion John C. Morrissey.

Bare-knuckle boxing was a disreputable sport. Many communities would not allow it, and contests often had to be held in hastily arranged locations. The sport was brutal, and it was conducted virtually without rules. A round lasted until one of the fighters was knocked off his feet, and a match lasted until one fighter could not continue. Fight fans tended to represent the most unsavory social element. Gamblers, thugs, pickpockets, and corrupt politicians followed the fights, and respectable citizens did not want to attract such people to their communities.

So it was that the Morrissey-Heenan fight was held on an island beach in Lake Erie on land that belonged to Canada on 20 October 1858. Backers of the fighters put up $5,000 each for the winner-take-all bout. Two rings were set up: one for the main event, another for contentious spectators. Fifty guards protected the fighters from rowdies in the audience. At 62 and 190 pounds, Heenan outweighed Morrissey by twenty pounds and was a clear favorite, despite his lack of experience. Heenan was not in top shape. He had an unhealed ulcer on his leg, and infection had sapped his strength. Nonetheless, he dominated the smaller champion, who scored his only points with vicious body shots. In the ninth round Heenan swung wildly and missed, hitting a ring post and breaking his right hand. Morrissey took advantage of the opportunity and decked Heenan for good in the eleventh round. It was the champions last fight, and when he retired, Heenan, who claimed a moral victory in his one-handed attempt, was declared American champion by default.

Heenan was a celebrity in Manhattan. He worked as an enforcer for Tammany Hall politicians and married popular actress and writer Adah Isaacs Mencken. Together they ate and drank their way around the city, and Heenans managers feared the bad influence of Mencken on their fighter as they arranged for him to fight the 58, 160-pound English champion Tom Sayers for the world championship. When Heenans party left for England, the site of the fight, Mencken was left behind, where she promptly found other love interests.

The Heenan-Sayers fight was covered sensationally by journalists. Frank Leslie sent over a corps of woodcut illustrators to capture images from the fight for his Frank Leslies Ilustrated News. Police Gazette sent correspondents. Even The New York Times observed that the fight overshadowed every other news story of the day. In London news reporters were fascinated by the contest, but moral crusaders were outraged. Heenan had to train in hiding as determined reporters tried to find him. On the day of the fight, the fighters wore disguises to a prearranged meeting place, where they traveled together to the site of the fight. Ticket holders, who had paid up to ten shillings for tickets, were instructed to gather at 4:00 A.M. at the London Bridge rail terminus; there they would be transported to the secret site of the battle by sixty-three railway carriages. The aristocracy was well represented among the passengers; novelists William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens were rumored to be in the crowd, which reportedly included as many as twelve thousand spectators.

On 17 April 1860 the railway cars traveled to rural Farnborough, where workers hastily fashioned a ring in the woods. Twenty-one professional fighters surrounded the ring to keep order. Peddlars sold refreshments, and betting was furious by the time the fight started at about 7:30 A.M. The first round took more than five minutes before Heenan wrestled his opponent to the ground. Heenan, six inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than his opponent, dominated the early rounds and disabled Sayerss right arm in the sixth. The eighth round lasted twenty minutes as the courageous Sayers attempted to hang on. The fight had been going on for about an hour, and both fighters, but especially Sayers, were battered by the ninth round, when the police showed up, but the enthusiasm of the crowd deterred them from interfering.

By the thirtieth round, Sayers, barely hanging on and fighting one-handed, had closed one of Heenans eyes and had nearly blinded him in the other. Even though Heenan had seemed to be prevailing, at this point he looked far worse than his opponent, his face bleeding and swollen. At 9:30 A.M., in the thirty-seventh round of the fight, Sayers hit Heenan savagely in his barely open eye, and Heenan blindly grabbed at his opponent, catching him by the neck and pushing his head into the ropes. Sayers was choking to death when the managers, by mutual agreement, cut the ropes and the police finally stopped the contest. Accounts differ about which round ended the fight. The caption of the famous Currier and Ives print of the bout (which is not otherwise accurate) notes that the end came after two hours and twenty minutes in the forty-second round.

The fight was declared a draw, and both men were named world champions, but the adulation that they enjoyed immediately following was short-lived. Heenan left Mencken and went to Chicago with a girlfriend. Mencken divorced him, became a stage star in the 1864 production Mazeppa, and remarried.

Heenan went back to London and fought a series of exhibition fights, challenging any Englishman for a side bet of $10,000. He fought another championship bout in December 1863 against Englishman Sailor Tom King, and lost a contested decision in the twenty-fifth round. Heenans handlers claimed he had been drugged. With that setback, the champion fighter, who had lost all three of his major fights, retired to become a bookmaker. After the Civil War he returned to the United States, but he was not welcomed warmly. When Boss Tweed was indicted in 1871 for corruption in New York, Heenan was charged along with him. Two years later the former champion was destitute and unknown. He died near Rawlings, Wyoming, before he was forty, an event barely mentioned in the news of the day.


Alan Lloyd, The Great Prize Fight (New York: Coward-McCann &Geohegan, 1977).