February 12, 1849 (Monday)

Strange weather—yesterday was clear and warm, and today cold, rainy and towards evening snowing quite fast which keeps the side walks and especially the crossings in a most miserable condition.  Saw the great prize fighter, Tom Hyer, to-day—looks just like another person.  Passed the evening in the house.

The one-time butcher, Tom Hyer (1819–1864), is considered the first heavyweight boxing champion. A New York native, Hyer won the title* on September 9, 1841 by virtue of defeating John “Country” McCleester (aka Country McCloskey or McClusky) in an epic 101 round**, bare-knuckled match that lasted nearly three hours.  After his victory, Hyer vowed not to fight again, unless the purse was at least $6,000, a princely sum in the early 1840s. One of McCleester’s seconds, James “Yankee” Sullivan (ca. 1810–1856), a man of many aliases, considered himself the greatest fighter in the world, being undefeated in his native Ireland and in America. The pressure for the two to square off continued to build until August, 1848 when a match was arranged to take place within six months. The winner-take-all prize was a breathtaking $10,000 with each side putting up half.

Newspaper coverage and fan interest was feverish. The fight was finally arranged for February 7, 1849 at Poole’s Island in Chesapeake Bay (prize fighting was illegal in most, if not all, jurisdictions. Sullivan, who picked the venue, hoped Poole’s Island would be beyond the reach of the Baltimore police and the Maryland militia. It wasn’t). Fans poured in from New York and Philadelphia all week.  A special charter steamship brought at least 40 fans from Philadelphia. The Governor of Maryland vowed to stop the fight and sent out the militia and police.  They failed  in their efforts to capture Hyer and Sullivan but did force a change of locale.  The fight took place, outside, in a makeshift ring at Rocky Point (some reported Roach’s Point) in Kent County on Maryland’s eastern shore. Hyer, at 6-foot-1, 180 pounds pummeled the smaller Sullivan for 16 rounds before a meagre audience. After seven years of anticipation, six months of media hype and dramatic escapes from the law by both camps, the fight was anti-climatic. It was over in 25 minutes (some reports had the time at 16 minutes).  The win solidified Hyer’s standing as the heavyweight champion and made him a hero in the eyes of many Americans who wanted a native-born son to defeat the foreigner (note the red, white and blue belt Tom Hyer is wearing in the image below).

Hyer left for Philadelphia after the fight to avoid Maryland’s law enforcement and remained there until at least February 15. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which called the fight an “outrage” and “disgraceful” (though they reported the details of the fight quite assiduously), Hyer’s “appearance [in the city] created much excitement among the idlers, the curious and the pugnacious.”  It is not clear precisely where Nathan saw the champion, however.  Hyer did not make a public appearance and was put in a debtor’s apartment at the county prison for safekeeping while a Philadelphia judge determined if Hyer should be extradited. Many people (the Inquirer put the number at more than 1,000) went to the apartment to visit Hyer and perhaps Nathan was among the visitors.

Tom Hyer

Hand colored lithograph published by E. Brown, Jr, New York, 1849 (from the AAS collections, Lithff BrowE Hyer)

*There was no governing body for prize fighting in the 1840s. The “title” was conferred on Hyer by sports writers.

**Rounds were not three minutes as they are today. In the bare-knuckle days, a round lasted until one of the fighters was knocked down.  The Hyer-McCleester fight went 101 rounds in 175 minutes, which includes resting time between rounds.

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