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Yankee Sullivan (born James Ambrose; c. March 10, 1811 – May 31, 1856), also known as Frank Murray and James Sullivan, was a bare-knuckle fighter and boxer. He was a prizefighting champion from 1851 to October 12, 1853. He considered himself to be the inheritor of Tom Hyer's title, and lost any claim to that title after losing a fight to John Morrissey.
James Ambrose was born in Bandon, County Cork, Ireland in 1811. He grew up in London's East end and became a prizefighter at an early age. He arrived in Australia after being sentenced to twenty years jail. Having served eight years building roads he was granted a ticket of leave and settled in the Rocks area of Sydney, which was considered the most dangerous waterfront in the world.
Ambrose had a realization that crime did pay and established a cut-throat razor blade gang known as the Sydney Ducks who were known to terrorize, wound, and rob any person who crossed their paths or who had a heavy purse. Drunken Sailors, Red Coats, and gentlemen were their favored quarry. As a bare-knuckled fighter, Ambrose was handy with his fists and had a fierce reputation. Although no records of his fights as a ticket of leave-convict exist, one chronicler recalled many of his encounters and battles that had occurred on Sydney's Observatory Hill: "In bloody battles on Observatory Hill he fought against lanky American Sea-Men, Pig tailed British Tars and sunburnt currency lads and was unbeatable".
Sullivan arrived in New York in the early 1840s and gained a reputation as a prizefighter and a political enforcer. He was sentenced to two years in state prison for his involvement in the promotion of a fight between Christopher Lilly and Thomas McCoy, which resulted in the death of McCoy. He received a pardon after two years on the condition that two men put up two hundred dollars, and that he agree not to fight for two years. During his time in New York he was the owner of a saloon known as the Sawdust House on Walker Street.
On February 7, 1849, he fought Tom Hyer in Still Pond, Maryland. Billed as a contest between undefeated fighters, the men left Baltimore by boat accompanied by a party of three hundred spectators. The flotilla was being chased by two groups of local militia and a detachment of police aboard the steamer Boston. The Boston had a scow in tow for returning prisoners as well as some small boats. The fight was originally scheduled to take place on Poole's Island in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. On the day before the fight, Tom Hyer went to Carroll Island near the western shore of the bay, while Yankee Sullivan took up temporary residence in a building on Poole's Island.
In the early hours of February 7, 1849, the steamer Boston arrived at Carroll Island. The militia and police went ashore in hopes of capturing Tom Hyer. They were disappointed. The Hyer party had been tipped off, and they had left for Poole's Island several hours before. Compounding their problems, the scow the Boston was towing had become swamped. Also, some of the small boats they brought had broken loose. After rounding up the boats, and re-launching the scow, the nautical posse found themselves behind the assemblage of spectators, gamblers, book-makers, and belligerents en route to Poole's Island. Nevertheless, the militia and police made their way to Poole's Island. On reaching Poole's Island, the pursuers were so exhausted that they were only able to marshal a force of ten members to go ashore. The landing party first approached the building where Tom Hyer was staying.
Hyer apparently heard them coming. He descended the stairs and secreted himself on the first floor of the building. The party entered the building and, oblivious to Hyer's presence on the first floor, rushed upstairs and arrested George Thompson. Thompson was Hyer's trainer, but the militia took him into custody believing him to be Hyer. While this was taking place upstairs, Hyer slipped out a first floor window and escaped in a boat. When the militia and police arrived at the building where Yankee Sullivan was staying, they found two men on the first floor. One was Sullivan; the other was his sparring partner Tom O'Donnell. The quick-witted Sullivan realized they did not know who was who. He gave O'Donnell a shove and reportedly said "run Sullivan run". The contingent of militia and law enforcement took off in pursuit of O'Donnell. Sullivan boarded a schooner and escaped. By the time the militia had realized their mistake, the steamer Cumberland and two schooners had fled the island. The militia boarded the Boston and decided to pursue the Cumberland. When they caught and searched it, Hyer and Sullivan were not aboard. The Boston headed back out into the bay to re-enter the chase, but ran aground near Poole's Island. The chase was now over. The fighters and the assemblage of fans that had not been lost along the way went to Still Pond on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
The ring was fashioned from the ships ropes and stakes handmade from forest wood on the spot. Sullivan was knocked out after eighteen minutes and taken unconscious to an area hospital. Following the fight Hyer retired temporarily. Sullivan claimed Hyer's status as a champion (from 1851 to 1853) as his own on the dubious grounds that Hyer was a champion, Sullivan's only loss was to Hyer, Hyer had retired and therefore Sullivan inherited the Championship on the basis of being a fighter second only to the retired Hyer.
On October 12, 1853, he fought John Morrissey at Boston Corner, which was then in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, but out of reach of its authorities, and thus a good location for the illegal match. Sullivan was the dominant fighter for the first ten rounds but wore down as fight went on, and was taking a serious beating by the thirty seventh round. The fight broke down into a brawl involving Sullivan and both fighters' seconds. Morrissey stayed out of the fight and was given the winners money (two thousand dollars) as a result.
Sullivan later moved to California where he found employment as a "shoulder striker" guarding ballot boxes to deter supporters of candidates other than his employer from casting their vote. He was the guard over a ballot box that was tampered with, resulting in the election of James P. Casey to a city office, despite Casey having not even appeared on the ballot. After Casey gunned down James King of William for exposing his criminal past, the San Francisco Vigilance Movement seized power in the city. On May 25, 1856, the Vigilance Committee arrested Sullivan. A trial was held and Sullivan sentenced to deportation. While in jail he confessed his involvement in ballot box tampering. After four days in jail, he was found with his wrist slit, apparently having committed suicide, although reports suggested for years afterwards that he had been murdered by Vigilants or by other individuals who were worried about repercussions should Sullivan confess what he knew about corrupt political figures. He was finally buried at Mission Dolores Cemetery near the southwest corner of 16th Street and Dolores Street in San Francisco. Initially buried in an unmarked grave, a grave marker was erected by Tom Malloy two years later. The headstone bears the inscription "Remember not, O Lord, our offenses, nor those of our parents. Neither take thou vengeance of our sins. Thou shalt bring forth my soul out of tribulation and in thy mercy thou shalt destroy mine enemies."
Selected coverage in prominent newspapers
- The New York Times; January 5, 1877. "How The Commodore Whipped 'Yankee' Sullivan. Among the stories told about Commodore Vanderbilt is the following, related by an old and well known resident of Staten Island."
- The New York Times; June 30, 1856. "Yankee Sullivan No More. Yankee Sullivan has gone to his last account. His last round is fought. His name passes away from among the ranks of the active 'Fancy.' Like many of the 'fighting men,' Sullivan had enough in him to make a smart man; but as it was, he was smart and shrewd only in a bad way."
- The Washington Post; May 2, 1910. "John Morrissey's Fight With 'Yankee' Sullivan. Prize Fighter, Adventurer, Politician—Began in a Paper Mill, and Made Millions. Elected to Congress in 1866—Never Beaten in a Fair Fight During Career. From the New York Herald. As the first period in the history of the prize ring ends with 'Tom' Johnson and the second with 'Tom' Spring, so the third closes with the brief championship of 'Tom' King. From the sixties on the ring became less and less an exclusively British institution, the influence of America, and later Australasia, changing conditions and traditions."
In popular culture
Primus recorded the song "Fisticuffs" about Sullivan on their Brown Album. In the song, the lyrics state that "Lilly and McCoy were shy 140 pounds, in 1842 they went 118 rounds," However, by all accounts, Thomas McCoy died in the 77th round.
Various sources report his birth as April 12, 1813, or April 12, 1815.
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