The month of May marks the beginning of West Virginia’s rainy season, the time of year when storms build quickly over her mountain forests and come bearing down on her valleys.
It was during one such deluge that infamous Irish prize-fighter Yankee Sullivan fought a clandestine match with English rival Bob Caunt in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
Prize-fighting having been outlawed throughout much of the English-speaking world, Sullivan spent most of his career running from the law while being pursued by adoring fans.
The fight lasted only 12 minutes, after which Caunt returned to relative obscurity. Sullivan, however, went on to win infamy in San Francisco, where he became immersed in political corruption and was either murdered or ended his own life.
Born in County Cork, Ireland, in 1811, scrappy Sullivan grew up in London’s East End, where he became a prizefighter. He served much of a 20-year sentence in Australia for fighting before arriving in New York City, where his legend and prowess grew.
The Caunt fight was only one of many engagements waged in the eastern U.S. just beyond the reach of authorities.
Sullivan afterward moved to San Fransisco, where he guarded ballot boxes to deter opponents of racketeer James Casey. After Casey gunned down an opponent for exposing his criminal past, Sullivan was sentenced to deportation.
While in jail he confessed his involvement in ballot-box tampering but was afterward found in a cell with his wrist slit, apparently having committed suicide, although reports suggested afterward that he had been murdered by operatives who wished to keep him quiet.
The particulars of his match in the rain in West Virginia, then Virginia, have been recited on many occasions, of which the following account by editor Jim Comstock in the 1970s is one.
The Caunt-Sullivan Fight
In 1847, Yankee Sullivan, then the pretender to the American Heavyweight Champion’s Belt, and Bob Caunt, of London, England, went seven rounds at an outdoor site on the Potomac River near the mouth of Sweet Run on the border of Jefferson and Loudon counties.
The reason for this chosen site was that it offered a convenient escape route across a ford on the Potomac into Maryland, as Jefferson County authorities had warned that the contenders would be arrested if any fight took place.
Sullivan was a former Irish convict who had escaped from a penal colony in Australia. His real name was James Ambrose. Caunt was the brother of Ben Caunt, the British heavyweight champion.
Prizefighting in those days was simple: under the London prize-ring rules, as revised in 1838, contenders used bare knuckles, fought in a 24-foot dirt ring, and each round lasted as long as both fighters could stand, but ended when one fell. No biting, gouging, hair-pulling, hitting below the waist, or striking when a man was down was permitted.
Despite the heavy rain, a large crowd gathered on May 11, some of the spectators having traveled from as far away as England to witness the fight. The ring was set up and the pugilists arrived, Sullivan first. Each tossed his hat into the ring and seated himself on the knee of one of his seconds.
Sullivan, the favorite by 100-to-40 odds, weighed 150 pounds. Caunt was 164 pounds. Either would be too light for a heavyweight bout by modern standards. At nine o’clock in the morning, each man stripped to long drawers, high stockings, and low spiked shoes. Sullivan sported a stars-and-stripes belt and hung green colors on his corner post. Caunt’s colors were blue with white spots.
Two umpires were selected and they, in turn, picked a referee. At ten minutes after nine, the fight began. After a few punches, it was clear that Sullivan would be the victor, as he was, though Caunt got in a few good punches and felled Sullivan once. In the seventh round, Caunt tried to wrestle Sullivan down but threw himself instead. One umpire called the fall fair, the other one foul. The referee gave no decision, though he decided later it was fair.
When round eight was called, Caunt refused to respond, his seconds claiming he had won the fight on a foul. Sullivan’s fans, on the other hand, claimed victory for their man and, after a short melee, the referee announced that Sullivan was the winner.