John Lawrence Sullivan (1858-1918) started his career as an outlaw engaged in illegal prizefighting, became a popular hero and the first American heavyweight champion, went on to the vaudeville stage, and ended his life on a quiet farm. Best known as a boxer and the “Boston Strong Boy,” his life took many interesting and unexpected turns. “If the good Lord shall call me right now, I may say that I have seen it all. I know the game of life from A to Z, from soda to hock,” he said not long before his death. The John Lawrence Sullivan papers at Burns Library provide some insight into his colorful life and ongoing significance in American culture.
Born in Boston’s South End to Irish immigrants Michael Sullivan and Catherine Kelly, Sullivan’s formal education ended at age fifteen, after which he apprenticed as a plumber, a mason, and a tinsmith. (Although he later claimed to have attended Boston College, our records do not confirm this.) It quickly became apparent that his main talent was his prodigious strength. One night in 1878 at the Dudley Street Opera House, Sullivan climbed into the ring with Jack Scannell for an impromptu bout and knocked Scannell clear into the piano on the other side of the stage. Other amateur fights followed, earning him the nickname “The Boston Strong Boy.” In 1882 he won the American heavyweight championship, besting Paddy Ryan in a bout held in Mississippi City – where prizefighting, incidentally, was illegal.
Sullivan kept the title of champion for ten years and was as renowned for his drinking and carousing as for his physical feats. His most famous bout was the last bare-knuckle heavyweight championship with Jake Kilrain in Mississippi in 1889, which Sullivan won in seventy-five grueling rounds (and for which he received a year’s prison sentence, later commuted to a $500 fine, because prizefighting was STILL illegal in Mississippi). In 1892 Sullivan lost the championship to James J. Corbett and turned to the stage, which offered more money and less physical work than boxing. As early as 1883 Sullivan had appeared in a skit at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston. In 1890 he starred in Honest Hearts and Willing Hands, becoming the first boxer, and possibly the first athlete, to take a lead role in American theater.
From 1892 to 1902 he held a variety of jobs, managing saloons in New York and Boston, selling whiskey, making book, and appearing in touring productions that often ended badly due to his epic drinking. After 1902, most of his public appearances were as a vaudeville act, in which he read monologues and sometimes staged sparring exhibitions. It is this period that is most richly documented by the John Lawrence Sullivan papers.
The centerpiece of his monologues was a sentimental poem, “A Recitation or Toast to Woman,” an entertaining bit of doggerel that puzzled at least one onlooker. “Just why this idol of the pugilistic arena should seek to emulate some lovesick heroine of the melodrama, is secret . . .” mused a critic. Dramatic merit aside, Sullivan continued to be quite popular long after his last boxing bout. The owner of Smith’s Opera House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, enthused to Sullivan about his performance in a letter that survives in the collection:
“I have played, as you know, the best Companies on the road in the Vaudeville and Burlesque line and this is the first time that the “STANDING ROOM ONLY” sign has been placed in the lobby of my Theatre this season at every show and the house holds 1200 people, and then being compelled to turn people away. Although I had heard that you were a great drawing card, I did not think it possible for one man to be the means of filling my House . . .”
The same author also strikes a bittersweet note in referring to Sullivan’s well-known losses:
“I know you have not the amount of money, which you have had in the past or anything like it, but there is no question that the Papers are true in their sayings, when quoting you as having made a million dollars and spent it. While you have nothing like a million dollars left, I firmly believe that you have over a million friends . . .”
Sullivan was indeed notoriously profligate, overly generous to his many friends and prone to going on sprees when he won a large purse. In 1902 he filed for bankruptcy in New York and in 1903 was forced to pawn his Championship Belt. His drinking binges contributed to his spending, and he was on a familiar but unfortunate downward spiral until a sudden conversion. On March 5, 1905, as he waited for champagne to be served in a hotel bar, he contemplated all of the money he had spent wastefully over the years. When the champagne arrived, he poured it into a spittoon and swore never to take another drink. He then became a temperance advocate, lecturing publicly on the evils of drink.
From there Sullivan turned his life around, getting a new manager and also, after his divorce in 1908 from his long-separated first wife Annie Bates Bailey, remarrying. In 1910 he married childhood friend Katherine Harkins and retired with her to a small farm in West Abington, Massachusetts. Although many of his friends and sparring partners died young, others remained stalwart, including former boxing partner Jake Kilrain and former President Theodore Roosevelt, with whom Sullivan struck up a friendship in New York in the 1890s. Some of Roosevelt’s correspondence survives in this collection.
Sullivan died at his farm house on February 2, 1918. He had no children, and his papers were donated to the Burns Library by descendants of his nephew, Arthur Lennon. The collection includes correspondence, mostly about Sullivan’s vaudeville career, as well as photographs, some newspaper clippings, Sullivan’s autograph book, a poster advertising a fight, and even a few artifacts like Sullivan’s monogrammed silver dresser set. To learn more about this collection, please see the finding aid, or contact the Burns Library Reading Room at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-552-4861.
- Adrienne Pruitt, Processing Archivist, Archives & Manuscripts, John J. Burns Library
Isenberg, Michael. John L. Sullivan and His America. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
John Lawrence Sullivan Papers, MS.2012.013, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
Sullivan, John Lawrence. Life and Reminiscences of a 19th Century Gladiator. Boston: J. A. Hearn, 1892. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t1dj68q9n