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Monday, July 16, 2012

Harry Hill – Saloon Fighting’s P.T. Barnum

by Fred Buchstein
Copyright ©2012. All rights reserved by the author

Harry Hill
courtesy of the New York Public Library,
 image ID: th-20952
P.T Barnum, Thomas Alva Edison and Diamond Jim Brady flocked to Harry Hill's legendary 19th century saloon in New York City for the prizefights and other popular entertainments. Boxers included the future heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan, the first female boxing champion Nell Saunders, and famed wrestler and later New York City boxing commissioner, William Muldoon. Future Black world champion boxer, George Godfrey, made his first professional appearance at Hill's saloon.

Moral reformers considered Hill's saloon a hotbed of vice and debauchery --a portal to the gates of Hell and a well-known resort for criminals and prostitutes. In his obituary, The New York Times (August 28, 1896) described Hill's saloon as a gathering place for "the most desperate and criminal persons of the city."

Hill (1827-1886), an English horseman, immigrated to New York to manage a wealthy industrialist's stables. He eventually became a very rich saloon keeper, sportsman and showman. In his obituary, some newspapers said Hill was " one time the best known sporting man in the United States, and up to 12 or 15 years ago the wealthiest." The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, reported in an April 6, 1896 article, that "...the receipts of the place averaged $6,000 a day, and more than half of it was clear profit." Then, he was worth close to $1,000,000; a statement he said was only half true. At times, he owned two hotels, horses, steamboats, and a large art collection. He was well connected with the Tammany Hall Democratic political machine in New York City, which was noted for corruption and graft. He also wrestled, wrote poetry and rhymes, collected expensive art, published a souvenir songster, and held religious services in his place.

A refusal to pay for police protection, reformers' attacks, and bad investments in friends, hotels and steamship lines contributed to his bankruptcy and downfall. Hill told a reporter, "Yes, the police, coupled with bad land speculations, I made broke me." He added, "Vice can't prosper forever. If I never allowed fast women in my theater and kept within excise hours, the police could never get the chance to break me, and I would be a millionaire today. Mind you, I never wronged a man or woman, financially otherwise in my life." Contemporary accounts describe him as personally honest.
Hill's story is little-known today, which is unfortunate as his contributions, especially to boxing and wrestling, helped change the way prizefights were conducted, fighters trained and matches were refereed. Several newspaper accounts described him as " one time the best known sporting man in the United States..." and one who "...figured in all the important boxing matches of that day." Hill was also ranked as one of the nation's best boxing referees. He used press coverage to promote his fights and saloon, and make lots of money. In 2010, the Bare Knuckle Hall of Fame inducted Hill for his role as a boxing promoter.

Hill's interest in sports began when, as a teenager, he started frequenting the famous Epsom Downs Racecourse, Surrey, England. An uncle was a prominent gambler, betting commissioner, and lover of horseflesh. Working at the race track taught Hill about gambling risk and odds. In 1850, he met George M. Woolsey, a sugar manufacturer, who later hired him to manage the stables on his estates in Astoria, New York. Hill had a heightened sense of adventure and a drive to find new and profitable opportunities. Two years later, he moved to New York City to become a horse dealer. In 1854, he purchased a grocery at Houston and Crosby Streets, near Broadway, in Manhattan. He eventually received a license to sell liquor, which enabled him to expand his store into a concert hall, saloon, and gathering place for wrestlers and boxers. Edison installed the first electrical lighting in Hill's saloon and other public halls, which attracted much publicity for the prizefights, wrestling and strongman feats, and Edison installed the first electrical lighting in Hill's saloon and other public halls, which attracted much publicity for the prizefights, wrestling and strongman feats, and Edison.

Hill was a first-class wrestler and boxer - a man who was "...very handy with his fists." His big break came when he befriended John Morrissey, a heavyweight prize-fighter, who fronted Hill $2,500 a side for a fight with Lieutenant Ainsworth, of New Britain, Connecticut, who then held the wrestling championship of the world. Hill won the fight and some fame.

Sullivan and wrestler Muldoon even trained with the saloonkeeper. Hill's wife told a reporter, "The prizefighters used to eat there (the saloon) when they were training. The boss had a good trick in training fighters. He owned a stable nearby in Crosby Street, and he'd make the fighters curry the horses until the horses shone like shone like mahogany." Hill's wife told a reporter, "The prizefighters used to eat there (his saloon) all the time when they were training. The boss had a good trick in training fighters. He owned a stable nearby by in Crosby Street and he'd make the fighters curry the horses until the horses would make 'em run through Central Park. She continued, "They used to get real food at Hill's place, plenty of good beef and chops cooked on the open fire."

Hill operated his saloon at Houston and Crosby Streets east of Broadway from 1854 to 1886. He realized his customers would drink more if they could watch fights. Sometime in the 1860s, Hill's saloon customers would each chip in a quarter to create a purse for the fighters. In 1867, Hill began sponsoring boxing and wrestling bouts. Sullivan made his New York debut at the saloon. He earned a national reputation by knocking out Steve Taylor in two rounds. Less than a year later, Sullivan beat Paddy Ryan to become America's boxing heavyweight championship. At a testimonial benefit on March 31, 1881, sportsmen at the bar offered that any man, who using Marquis of Queensbury rules, could complete four rounds with Sullivan. These rules required the wearing of boxing gloves and 3-minute rounds, were widely adopted in America around 1889 to guarantee fair play and sportsmanship. Sullivan knocked out his opponent in two rounds, but in appreciation of his opponent's effort, gave him half of the prize money. This was Sullivan's first appearance in the saloon. The victory earned Sullivan fans who believed he was destined to become champion.

Other fights at the saloon included the well-known wrestling match between John (the Green Mountain Boy) McMahon and Albert Ellis, the champion wrestler from England. Mahon won. Boxers who fought there were Jem Mace, Joe Goss, Joe Wormald, Herb (the Maori) Slade, and Jack (the Nonpareil) Dempsey. Mike (the professor) Donovan, who taught U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt and his son how to box, often fought and won at the saloon. George W. Flag, the Collar and Elbow Giant, did some his wrestling matches there.

One of boxing's most famous snubs happened in the saloon. As the legendary story goes, Richard Fox, publisher of The National Police Gazette, was drinking with his well-known sports editor, William E. Harding. Sullivan was also drinking nearby. Fox asked Hill to invite Sullivan to his table for drinks. Sullivan told Hill that if Fox wanted to meet him, he would have to come to his table, instead. Some later sports historians and writers contend the snub set the stage for the 1889 Sullivan-Jake Kilrain match, which some boxing historians consider one of the greatest prizefights ever. Fox went hunting for a fighter who could be defeat Sullivan. He backed Kilrain.

Hill, of course, had competitors in the saloon and fight promotion games. Among these were John Allen who ran a popular underworld dance hall and brothel, Owen Geogheghan who owned a dive bar, and Frank Stephenson who operated The Black and Tan, one of the first saloons for African-Americans. Billy McGlory owned several popular joints frequented by criminals. Violence was not uncommon.

Hill profited from the growing sports coverage in newspapers such as The National Police Gazette, then considered the leading sports paper, The New York Clipper, The New York World, and The New York Herald. Joseph Pulitzer's World was the first newspaper to have a regular sports department. Richard Kyle Fox, publisher of The Gazette and friend of Hill, helped create modern boxing by promoting the exploits of boxing greats like John L. Sullivan. Fox is considered boxing's foremost promoter and sponsor of championship belts. He is often credited with professionalizing and promoting women boxers and wrestlers. The Clipper was one of the earliest publications in the United States to cover sports. The popular press helped create demand for the professional boxing matches. Sports coverage helped newspapers attract readers wanting sports news, and, of course, advertisers. The telegraph permitted sports news to be "instantly" transmitted across the nation and into newspaper offices, which spurred gambling on sports contests. Fan interest was stoked by sports statistics, gossip, coverage of major events such as championship prizefights, and feature stories.

Hill backed several fighters. In the fight between "Mike" McCool and "Joe" Coburn he had charge of McCool and secured trainers for him. He held the $25,000 purse in the fight between Sullivan and Paddy Ryan, in Mississippi City, near New Orleans.

Thanks to the press, Hill became a nationally known prizefighter matchmaker and referee. The saloonkeeper travelled to wherever an important fight was being held, including England. He refereed the match between Muldoon and Thiebaud Bauer for the Greco-Roman championship in Madison Square Garden in 1880. Hill and other referees used the new ring rules and innovations in fighting styles, rest periods and how many rounds the fights would last. It was Hill's idea to create a sports saloon that would attract customers who wanted to drink and watch prizefights and other entertainment. He promoted himself, his saloon and fighters. Many early boxing matches were free-for-alls, which included biting, gouging, wrestling and punching. Two rule books, eventually, formalized prizefighting-- the London Prize Ring for bare-knuckle fighting and the Marquees of Queensberry for gloved fighting, which was in general use by 1889, and established the 3-minute round. In tandem with Fox, Hill helped pioneer boxing and wrestling promotion. The Baltimore American (August 29, 1896) described Hill was " of the oldest and best-known characters in sporting circles in the world..." His reputation and significance deserve more recognition then they now have.

Fred Buchstein has been a writer and editor at the New York Daily News and The Cleveland Press, a public relations executive, and an adjunct professor of journalism and public relations at several Cleveland universities.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and well-written article about a character I had never encountered. Mr. Buchstein created a vivid picture of Hill and the world of boxing and saloons in NY in the late 19th century. Reads like an old black and white movie short!