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Meet the Bandon fighter who died by the hands of San Francisco vigilantes

March 15th, 2017 10:00 AM

By Southern Star Team

Meet the Bandon fighter who died by the hands of San Francisco vigilantes Image
James ‘Yankee' Sullivan pictured in 1846.

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PAULINE MURPHY tells the story of a 19th century prizefighter from Bandon, James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan, whose life outside the ring was drenched in controversy

PAULINE MURPHY tells the story of a 19th century prizefighter from Bandon, James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan, whose life outside the ring was drenched in controversy


HERE lies ‘James Sullivan, who died by the hands of San Francisco vigilantes, May 31st 1856, aged 45 years’.

This is the message on the grave-marker of a Bandon man buried in Mission Dolores cemetery in San Francisco that sets his demise in stone – but how did James Sullivan end up like this and how did he end up as James Sullivan?

West Cork has produced a plethora of famous sportsmen over the centuries, but perhaps none were more controversial than Bandon prizefighter James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan.

This 19th century fighter was born March 10th, 1811 in Bandon as James Ambrose, though throughout his life he used pseudonyms such as Francis Murray and Frank Martin. However, it was under the moniker of of James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan that he made his mark.

As a young boy, he emigrated to the east end of London with his parents. The tough young Bandonian spent his youth running with east end street gangs where he perfected his pugilism in underground fist-fights. 

Before the age of 25, Sullivan was sent to Botany Bay on a felony charge, which has been lost to uncertainty. It is said that he had murdered his wife but a stronger theory suggests he was caught in the act of aggravated burglary. 

He was sentenced to 20 years but served less than four. Overcrowding in the Australian penal colony resulted in Sullivan and several other prisoners being released, on condition they stay in Australia.

Sullivan settled in the Rocks area of Sydney, a place notorious for its rough and rowdy ways and Sullivan headed a gang there called the Sydney Ducks. Sullivan’s cut-throat gang consisted of other released prisoners and their exploits included robbing and staging fist-fights, which Sullivan would take part in.

Sullivan’s gang often came into conflict with other gangs and after a close shave with a rival wielding a razor-blade, Sullivan decided to stow away on a ship bound for America.

Sullivan arrived in the US where he made a reputation for himself as a fearsome fist-fighter. It was at this time that he renamed himself James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan. 

He spent a year in the land of the free before he hopped on a ship in New York harbour and sailed back to England. His intentions were to make more money in the underground prize-fighting scene that was booming across Britain.

Because he broke the conditions of his release from Botany Bay, Sullivan was effectively an escaped convict but in a brazen move he placed an ad in a London newspaper looking to fight the champion of England, Hammer Lane. Lane duly answered the ad and Sullivan duly pummelled him in the ring.

Sullivan took a large purse from his bout with Lane but his true identity was discovered and he quickly stowed away back to America. He settled in New York, where he joined the fire department. He was a member of Engine 15, called ‘The Spartan Band’. Sullivan also found a route into the murky world of New York politics. He became an enforcer for Tammany Hall and was heavily involved in the sixth-ward riots of 1842.

New York at that time was a city heaving with immigrants and places such as the Bowery and Hell’s Kitchen became synonymous with riotous behaviour, drunken louts, gangs and prostitution. It was in this world that Sullivan’s fighting career thrived. Bouts between immigrants and natives became box-office affairs, even if they were deemed illegal!

On the back of prize-fighting profits, Sullivan purchased a saloon on Walker Street in the Bowery called the Sawdust House and from here he organised and promoted fights, including one which almost ruined him. In September 1842, Sullivan promoted a fight between Christopher Lilly and Thomas McCoy in Hastings New, York. In front of 2,000 spectators, the fight went on for over two hours and in the 77th round, McCoy collapsed and died.

In the aftermath of the disastrous fight, Sullivan was arrested and sentenced to five years in Sing Sing Prison but after ten months he was granted a pardon by Governor William Bouck.

Upon his release, Sullivan decided to rebuild his reputation in the prize-fighting world by declaring an interest in fighting Tom Hyer, who was the American heavyweight champion. Hyer agreed to meet Sullivan in the ring but it took years for the fight to be organised due to arguments over the purse and location of the bout. In the meantime, Sullivan continued to take on other contenders such as Englishman Robert Caunt whom he dispatched after 12 minutes in the ring in 1847. 

In late 1848, Sullivan encountered Hyer in a saloon in Hell’s Kitchen and a brawl erupted between them. Sullivan came off worse and a month later he took his grievances to the press where he took out an ad in a New York paper: ‘I am no Irish braggart or bully, although I am an Irishman and believe I can show myself worthy of my country whenever I am required.’

The much-anticipated bout between the native Hyer and immigrant Sullivan finally took place on February 7th, 1849. Because of its illegality, it took a lot of ducking and diving from the authorities for it to proceed. The bout took place in Maryland and the fighters accompanied by 300 supporters left in a flotilla bound for Still Pond. They were chased up the river by local militia, who failed to catch either fighter.

Sullivan stayed at a boarding-house at Still Pond, which was raided by the authorities, but he managed to climb out the window and hide in a tree until they dispersed. After evading the authorities, the fight went ahead on a snow-covered field overlooking Chesapeake Bay. Sullivan wore green and white colours while a green flag with a gold harp hung in his corner. Hyer wore red, white and blue, with his supporters waving the stars and stripes. 

Until then, Sullivan had never lost a prize-fight but Hyer, who was older and had a longer reach, beat him emphatically. The fight was over in 18 minutes and a battered and bruised Sullivan went back to recover in the confines of his Bowery saloon. In 1851, Hyer retired and the title was passed onto Sullivan but in 1853 he lost the title he had inherited to John ‘Old Smoke’ Morrissey.

Morrissey was a bear of man and like Sullivan, he too was a political enforcer for Tammany Hall. When Sullivan met Morrissey in the ring, the fight went 37 rounds with the quick-footed Sullivan clearly beating his awkwardly bulky opponent but, thinking the fight had ended, he failed to come back for the 38th round and Morrissey, who stayed in ring, was declared the winner. 

Sullivan contested the outcome but Morrissey held large political sway with the Tammany machine and with its backing, the result stood.

After this fiasco, Sullivan went west to California, where he took on a role as a shoulder-striker whose task was to tamper with ballot-boxes for a corrupt political system. In May 1856, Sullivan was in charge of a ballot-box in San Francisco which churned out votes for James Casey who, even though he wasn’t on the ballot paper, was elected as a city official. This sort of blatant corruption was rampant in San Francisco and it resulted in the formation of a committee of vigilance to combat it.

Sullivan’s downfall began with a shooting he was not directly involved in. James King was a newspaper editor and he was on the cusp of exposing the corruption of James Casey when he was shot dead by the corrupt city official. Vigilantes then lynched Casey before turning their attention to Sullivan.

Sullivan was arrested by police and died in a cell in San Francisco. His death was determined as suicide but it was widely regarded that Sullivan was stabbed by vigilantes. 

And that’s why his grave-marker reads: ‘James Sullivan, who died by the hands of San Francisco vigilantes, May 31st 1856, aged 45 years’.

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