John L. Sullivan

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John L. Sullivan wanted to fight John Q. Public and vice versa. The boxing icon couldn’t get his mustache trimmed without some galoot taking a swing at him, so in the early 1880s the pugilist toured the country on an ass-kicking expedition. From Christopher Klein at the Public Domain Review:

“After imbibing the adulation inside his saloon on the evening of September 26, 1883, the hard-hitting, hard-drinking Sullivan waded through the throng of fawning fans outside and stepped into a waiting carriage that sprinted him away to a waiting train. The man who had captured the heavyweight championship nineteen months prior had departed on many journeys before, but no man had ever set out on such an ambitious adventure as the one he was about to undertake.

For the next eight months, Sullivan would circle the United States with a troupe of the world’s top professional fighters. In nearly 150 locales, John L. would spar with his fellow pugilists but also present a sensational novelty act worthy of his contemporary, the showman P.T. Barnum. The reigning heavyweight champion would offer as much as $1,000 ($24,000 in today’s dollars when chained to the Consumer Price Index) to any man who could enter the ring with him and simply remain standing after four three-minute rounds.

The ‘Great John L.’ was challenging America to a fight.

Sullivan’s transcontinental ‘knocking out’ tour was gloriously American in its audacity and concept. Its democratic appeal was undeniable: Any amateur could take a shot at glory by taking a punch from the best fighter in the world. Furthermore, the challenge, given its implicit braggadocio that defeating John L. in four rounds was a universal improbability, was an extraordinary statement of supreme self-confidence from a twenty-four-year-old who supposedly bellowed his own declaration of independence: ‘My name is John L. Sullivan, and I can lick any son-of-a-bitch alive!'”

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“Mrs. Nation suffered imprisonment, ridicule, and was even declared insane.”

Carrie Nation had a dream, but it was the wrong one. If she had applied her considerable energy, moral outrage, and, yes, craziness, to supporting the cause of Abolition or Suffrage, she would have been a hero. But the Kentucky-born woman chose alcohol as her enemy and her hatchet-wielding and barroom-busting helped make the idea of Prohibition a legitimate thing. History has shown us what a mistake that was, how opposed to human nature. Nation never lived to see her dream fulfilled–or undone. She died in 1911, nine years before alcohol was banned in the United States and twenty-two before the ban repealed. Her death notice from the June 10, 1911 New York Times.

Leavenworth, Kan.–Carrie Nation, the Kansas saloon smasher, died here to-night. Paresis was the cause of her death. For several months Mrs. Nation had suffered from nervous disorders, and on Jan. 22 she entered the sanitarium in which she died.


Carrie Nation, whose maiden name was Moore, was born in Kentucky, near ex-Senator Blackburn’s home, and was a schoolmate of his. Her mother, it was said, died in an asylum for the insane. Her first husband was Dr. Gloyd, and after his death she married David Nation, a lawyer of Kansas City, who gave her legal advice but left her after she launched out on her anti-saloon crusade with the hatchet. All her life she was a strong temperance advocate, and came to regard herself as a woman with a mission. She declared publicly that hers was the right hand of God and that she had been commissioned to destroy the rum traffic in the United States.

Mrs. Nation suffered imprisonment, ridicule, and was even declared insane, and at the end of nine years she retired with sufficient money to purchase a farm in Arkansas. A good deal of her money was derived from the sale of her souvenir hatchets.

Mrs. Nation lived in Medicine Lodge, Kan., until June 6, 1900. On that day she went into her back yard and picked up a dozen bricks. After wrapping them in old newspapers and adding four heavy bottles to the collection she drove in her buggy to Kiowa, where she smashed the windows of three saloons with her ammunition. The other saloons closed their doors and then Mrs. Nation stood up in her buggy and told the assembled crowd that the law had been violated and some one should be punished, either herself or the officials who permitted the saloons to be operated against the law of the State.

Next morning the newspapers scattered the news broadcast that a new reformer had arrived upon the scene. From that day Mrs. Nation had been in jail at Wichita three times, at Topeka seven times, once at Coney Island, Kansas City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, twice at Pittsburgh, three times at Philadelphia, once at Bayonne, N.J., and once at Cape Breton. In all, Mrs. Nation had to pay the penalty twenty-two times for taking the law into her own hands. 

During her travels Mrs. Nation came to New York, and visited Police Headquarters and John L. Sullivan‘s saloon. She did not do any smashing here, but gained considerable notoriety. In 1903 she created a disturbance in the White House in Washington in an effort to reach President Roosevelt, and was ejected by two policemen. Then she went to the Capitol and disturbed the Senate, for which she was fined $25 or thirty days in jail. The fine was obtained by selling hatchets.

Mrs. Nation made a tour of Great Britain in 1908, visiting music halls and saloons and giving advice to Magistrates. She was arrested at New Castle on Tyne for smashing, and appeared in the London music halls, where the audiences hissed her off the stage. In her own State of Kentucky Mrs. Nation had the reputation of being a kindhearted, sympathetic, motherly woman before she moved into Kansas, where she became obsessed with the Prohibition doctrines. It was said that her militant campaign called public attention to the rum traffic in the South and helped the cause of temperance a great deal by having the laws enforced against abuses in the liquor traffic.”

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“You’re an old woman, anybody could lick you.”

John L. Sullivan, gloved boxing’s first heavyweight champion, made a fortune and ended up a broken-down charity case like so many great pugilists. He had a wild ride of living large, drinking hard, acting on stage, losing money, being sued, etc. And sometimes he wasn’t the source of the problems that plagued him. From the October 27 1889 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Boston, Mass.–‘I will kill John L. Sullivan,’ shouted Tommie Shea this afternoon. He was armed with a big revolver and had been drinking heavily. Instead of killing Sullivan, Shea lies at the City Hospital to-night with his throat cut from ear to ear by one of Sullivan’s companions and will probably die. Recently Liney Tracey, a Brooklyn boxer, who was a second for Sullivan in a fight with Kilrain, and who was booked for the champion’s latest proposed sparring tour, was talking with Shea. The latter had just been released form State Prison, having served three years for highway robbery.

Sullivan saw them, and, calling Tracy one side, said: ‘Keep away from that man, he’s a crook.’

Tracy very foolishly told Shea what Sullivan had said and Shea swore he would kill the champion as soon as he had opportunity.

Sullivan-Kilrain, 1889.

About 2 o’clock this afternoon Shea entered Sugarman’s pawn shop and bought a thirty-eight calibre bull dog revolver for $2.50.

Meeting friends later, he told them he had a revolver and what he intended to do. A policeman soon after induced Shea to give up the revolver. Shea left the officer, telling his friends he intended to buy another gun. Sullivan sat in a high chair in Hogarty’s barber shop at 4:30 o’clock this afternoon having his shoes polished when Shea entered and sat down in a chair for a shine. Then a wrangle of words began between the champion and the man in the chair. Remarks similar to this were made by Sullivan to Shea: ‘You’re an old woman, anybody could lick you.’

In the barber shop was Tommy Kelly, an ex-lightweight pugilist, who won his fame when he fought Siddons Mouse on an Island down the harbor some time ago. Kelly took a hand and a bloody hand it proved to be.

Kelly had been drinking. He seized one of the Italian’s razors, and, approaching Shea, drew it across his throat, cutting a gash from ear to ear. The blood flowed a stream and there was intense excitement in the little shop. Sullivan jumped from his seat, took the razor away from Kelly and kicked him out into the street. Shea was taken, weak from loss of blood, to the hospital, and late to-night the physicians declared him almost beyond hope of recovery. Kelly gave himself up to the police. So far he has made no statement as to his side of the case.”

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