How a fight from 1860 matters now

Dear bread friends,

The leaves have changed color but many are still clinging to the trees. Even though the wind has been fierce this fall, the leaves are tenacious, like hope, and like hate. As a country, we cherish a myth that America is for everyone, but I think Tuesday told the truth. When so many people uphold a candidate who has proven his racism, his spite for immigrant families, women’s bodies, essential food service workers, and all of us trying to survive the virus, we can’t pretend who we are as a nation anymore. The polarization won’t go away soon, and I don’t know how it ever will. Instead of pretending to comprehend our collective path forward, I’m going to take you backwards and consider pugilism in another embattled era, the Heenan vs. Sayers fight of 1860.

This fight was called the world's first international boxing match, but in my mind, it marks the end of an era of unregulated fighting rather than the beginning of a brand new form of sport. The bare-fist battle took place deep in the countryside in Hampshire, England, to skirt London Police. Thousands of people bought tickets to ride a secret train stamped with an alluring destination: TO NOWHERE. The date was April 17th 1860. Charles Dickens and other luminaries, like the Prince of Wales and cartoonist Thomas Nast, were in attendance.

There were no rules for the fight--there never were-- and each round ended when one of the men fell. Tom Sayers broke his arm in the sixth round, but the men fought many, many more. John Camel Heenan nearly strangled Sayers in the 36th round, responding savagely to a blow to his remaining good eye. Referees cut the ropes and freed Sayers, but instead of ending the fight, the sparring continued on another patch of grass. For more gruesome details, take a look at the New York Times reprint of the London Times’ report. 

The fight was called at a draw after 42 rounds, but people who hadn’t been there fought the battle all over again, disputing who should have won. At least two American deaths resulted, one in New Orleans, and one in Albany, New York.

 Two and a half weeks after Heenan and Sayers dueled, my great great grandfather, Thomas Halloran, got in his own fight with John McCotter. The men had been drinking (of course, because it was a Saturday night and they were Irish); McCotter was sitting on a porch when my relative walked by, still carrying his carpentry tools from work. Newspaper stories say that Halloran, or O’Halloran, made comments about the prizefight, prompting McCotter to call, “Halloran, your mother’s a whore.” 

My great great grandfather couldn’t walk away from the slight, and after a scrimmage, McCotter shoved a chisel into his side, twice. Friends brought him home in a wheelbarrow, stopping at the police station to make a statement. He died the next morning of peritonitis. 

We tell this story in my family for many reasons, but mostly as a reminder to not take the bait of an argument. It seems appropriate to recall this lesson when every second we, as a country, or an idea of a country, are arguing with ourselves about who we are, and battling about the many realities we are facing: COVID, structural racism, and a strong case of partisan othering as our ballots duked it out for the presidency.

Like a novel, family stories read differently in each telling. I have been writing and thinking about this story for decades, and my perspective shifts as I age and the world takes different shapes around me. My father loved to tell the tale because he marveled that people would fight over a boxing match they hadn’t even seen. And the fact that after the fight, his great grandmother Ellen Tierney Halloran took two small children home to Ireland in 1860 wowed my dad, too. He helped me see what additional hardships she faced as a widow, bringing her young family home to a place still decimated by the Great Famine. These hungry people could not have been eagerly received. 

I used to love the feistiness in this mythology. That I come from hunger and anger, fight and flight. I waved the story like a badge, to prove I am from fighting people, and that I am worth something because I’m mad. I am a fast person, quick to anger, and sometimes quick to cool off; sometimes I boil about slights, going 42 rounds in my head, or in person, or on the phone. Rarely have I ever called a draw. Who doesn’t want to be the victor?

In my 20s, I thought I needed to cultivate my anger to be a good writer. I adored my hotheadedness like it was a pencil I had to keep sharp. I have calmed down considerably since, and think having kids was in part what tamed me and taught me to lead with joy instead of menace. And I now know that writing is about observing everything, and not just fanning the flames so I can study and describe the fire.

The International Contest Between Heenan and Sayers at Farnborough, by W. L. Walton. From the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

While I’ve never been attracted to boxing, I understand the itchiness for spectacle, and maybe even dominion. It feels good to be right. Sparks make you feel alive. All of these things added up to a lot of attention to the Heenan v. Sayers fight, far beyond the fatal street brawl in my lineage. There were articles moralizing against the animalistic battle, and the event caused rules to be drawn up to humanize future fighting. The fight dominated the newspapers and even politics. According to The New York Almanack, a history blog, “Talk about the event eclipsed the anticipation for the April 23, 1860 National Convention of Democrats in Charleston, South Carolina, where the party split over slavery.” People wrote ballads,  made prints and paintings, and carved whale tusks. One of those prints made it into James Joyce's Ulysses, entering Stephen Dedalus’s stream of consciousness as he’s walking through Dublin on June 16, 1904, the day the book occurs.

Why did this fight command such notice? This was a nationalistic quarrel, between men posing for America vs. England. Did the emerging nation need to tower over its colonial parent? Rooting for your side is a proxy investment in your own winning too, though, not just your country’s. In McCotter v. Halloran, maybe they each sided with the boxer whose trade appealed to them more; Heenan was a blacksmith, and Sayers was a bricklayer.

Or maybe picking a side was a vote for something, anything, in a socially tumultuous era. America was on the precipice of the Civil War, and had been at each other’s throats ideologically for decades. A month after the big fight, the Republicans selected Abraham Lincoln as candidate for the presidency. The Civil War began in earnest almost a year later.

August 27, 1860, just 10 days after the British fight, Harriet Tubman rescued Charles Nalle in my city, freeing him from captors who were acting on the Fugitive Slave Act. The way that Trojans aided Tubman, protecting her as she ferried Nalle across the Hudson to Watervliet/West Troy, is a story we proudly tell. Our pride is a banner we hopefully wave, as if helping in a single moment of the abolition movement absolves the necessity for long term community investment in formerly enslaved people and their descendants. 

John C. Heenan was born in West Troy, shortly after his parents emigrated from Ireland. Heenan and his father worked as blacksmiths at the Watervliet Arsenal. John chased the gold rush out to California when he was 17, where he became known as the Benicia Boy; he still worked as a blacksmith and began boxing, too. During elections he helped politicians make things go the way they wanted, and earned the nickname “enforcer.” After the match in England, he worked briefly for Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall. The history of rigging elections and squeezing the vote is another element of this story that applies to now.

Have we progressed at all from the emotional climate of America circa 1860? Are the “us” and “them’s”, the Republicans and Dem’s, echoes of the original sin of slavery? How can we make peace with our past and the present?

I baked a lot and walked a lot this week, often in St. Agnes’ Cemetery, where I discovered John C. Heenan was buried, trying to calm my nerves about the vote and its aftermath. The days were beautiful, and I loved the quiet company of the dead. Many old trees were broken, pulled apart by vicious winds. Lots of tombstones had tumbled, pushed up by the earthquake of time. Yet many more memorials remain in fine shape, standing tall like people proud of what they’ve done, whatever invisible magic they made in their now invisible lives. In another part of the cemetery, I got another sense of the dead, of our humility and our ends, as I bent over, brushing leaves off brass markers level with the ground. I was hunting for and finally found my grandparents’ graves. How different I felt in these sections, where nothing is poking up, claiming status. 

Walking in the cemetery was delicious. I was somewhere else, and could forget the tensions of current events. I could forget that New York City and other places buttoned up their downtowns with plywood, protecting against riots. I know we are not safe yet, not even as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been declared winners. I hope that civil unrest is just a threat, and not a promise of this election. In America vs. America, we can’t afford to go 42 gory rounds, or any. We’ve already been at each other’s throats too long in this bare-fisted battle for our country.