Claiming John L.
He was the Boston Strong Boy or the Roxbury Strong Boy, but, to put it right, John L. Sullivan, the bare-knuckle prizefighter, was the South End Strong Boy.
There shouldn’t be any confusion. Although many biographers place Sullivan’s birthplace "in the Roxbury district," it was squarely South End. He was born in 1858 at 5 East Concord Street "in a house that stood close to Boston College." (Biographers loved contrasting his humble origins with a college, even though BC didn’t open until 1863.) Like most neighborhood children, Sullivan went to the West Concord Street primary school and then to the Dwight School on Springfield Street (now Hurley), from which he claimed to have graduated. When he was ten, his family moved to Amee Place off Shawmut Avenue, where Ramsey Park is now-close to the Roxbury border but still South End. It’s said he trained at O’Donnell’s gym at East Concord and Washington streets.
The story goes that Sullivan, a hardscrabble Irish lad, whose parents arrived in Boston mid-century among many thousands of potato famine victims, stumbled on his calling between variety shows at the so-called Dudley Street Opera House. A 19-year-old tinsmith, he knocked local favorite Jack Scannell into the orchestra pit or into a piano on stage-versions vary-allegedly exclaiming, "My name’s John L. Sullivan, and I can lick any sonofabitch alive!"
"After that," wrote biographer Roy Dibble, "it was perfectly plain to everybody, including his parents, that John was far better fitted to be a pugilist than to be anything else-ball player, tinsmith, or plumber."
Only a few years later (1882), he won the world’s bare-knuckle heavyweight championship and went on to dominate professional boxing during the rest of the 19th century. The "first significant mass cultural hero in American life," he brought boxing out of the back room.
"He moved in an environment of workingmen, gamblers, drunks, prostitutes, hustlers, and sporting types of all shades," wrote biographer Michael Isenberg. "These people formed an important part of the mosaic of Sullivan’s America, one not usually discussed by historians concerned with immigrant groups such as the Irish . . . ." Biographer Donald Barr Chidsey stated that some "lace-curtain Irish" were ashamed of him and preferred not to even talk about him.
A glance at the index of any biography reveals Sullivan as an archetypal roughneck, of which there were probably many in the South End when he grew up here and more to come: Sullivan, John L.: alcoholism of; boasting of; brawls involving; ego of; generosity of; racism of; sexual activities of; and vanity of.
"The Champion of the World" was a big man: a public hero of large dimensions, overweight, overbearing, a drunk with a violent temper, a teller of tall tales, and a big spender. Thanks to his boxing fame, he led several lives. He became a saloon keeper in the mid-1880s. Despite rumors that the elaborately outfitted Champion’s Saloon was on Dover (East Berkeley) Street, it was at 714 Washington Street, near the corner of Kneeland. He may well have hung out on Dover Street, as James M. Curley claimed, after his 1892 defeat by James Corbett. He drank and brawled his way across the world touring with theatre companies in melodramas that included The Man From Boston, which was written for him. After drinking up or giving away the profits at three New York City saloons at the turn of the century, Sullivan went into vaudeville, reinventing himself as a monologist. There were still occasional appearances in the ring, including an All Star boxing match in 1894 at the South End’s Cyclorama, then called the Casino Athletic Club. He wrote an autobiography, The Life and Reminiscences of a 19th Century Gladiator.
Although Sullivan remained close to parents and siblings, for whom he had bought houses in "Lower Roxbury," Sullivan’s personal life was unhappy. When a divorce court discredited her stories of physical abuse, his wife Annie left him, taking John L. Jr., his only child, who died of diphtheria at age 2-1/2.
By 1905, the "Champion of Champions" had had enough of drinking and carousing. One night, Isenberg wrote, while waiting for champagne at a hotel bar, he reflected on the fortune he’d squandered. Dumping the wine into a spittoon, he declared, "If I ever take another drink as long as I live I hope to God I choke."
He became a temperance advocate who opposed Prohibition but supported the Anti-Saloon League. He believed saloons were the problem, reasoning that men would not buy each other drinks if there were no saloons.
In 1911, retired from stage and saloon, the Great John L. and his second wife, Kate, left the city to work a seventy-acre farm in West Abington. He died of a heart attack in 1918.
Alison Barnet is the author of Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater. She has lived in the South End since 1964 and has been writing about it for almost as long.