The Truth About Underground Boxing Matches On New York's Hart Island

New York's Hart Island is mostly known as a city cemetery, but it has a rich history dating back to the 17th century. The Siwanoy were the initial settlers on the island, but Thomas Pell purchased it from them in 1654, perĀ The New York Times. The island's ownership changed hands throughout the years and in 1868, it became the property of the Department of Public Charities and the Department of Corrections of the Government of New York.

With New York's growing population contributing to the spread of disease, Hart Island was one of the locations used as a cemetery. Per Yesterday's America, mass burials on the island began in 1875. The island also housed inmates and was a Civil War prison for a time. One of the most interesting information about Hart island, however, was its notoriety for being a location where scoundrels and rogues got together to watch boxing matches held on the island in the mid-19th century.

Per the New York Public Library, Hart Island's isolated location made it the prime spot where people can gamble, drink, and be rowdy without attracting the attention of the police.

Bare-knuckle boxing on Hart Island

In the 19th century, boxing wasn't considered a sport so much as seen as a crime. The law, however, did not stop participants from beating up their opponents into a bloody pulp. Nor did it deter curious onlookers and fans from attending illegal boxing matches (via Thought Co). These matches were usually run by gangsters and one of the known locations for matches was Hart Island.

As the name suggests, bare-knuckle boxing involved two people beating each other up without protection on their fists. And since it wasn't a legitimate sport then, participants weren't professionals and strict safety rules were nonexistent. In a bare-knuckle boxing match, rounds are not timed; a round ends when a boxer hits the ground. In between rounds, the boxers are given 30 seconds to rest before the next round begins. The fight only ends when one of the fighters can no longer stand. Because of this, bare-knuckle boxing can go on for dozens of rounds, especially if the participants have a high endurance.

Sullivan vs. Bell

Hart Island was the location for one of the biggest bare-knuckle boxing matches in history. On April 20, 1842, more than 6,000 people flocked to the island to watch two men fight it out. The match was between Englishman Billy Bell and Irishman James "Yankee" Sullivan. Per the New York Public Library, the event was covered by the "New York Daily Express," saying "A gang of loafers and rowdies went out of the city yesterday to see a fisticuffins." Another newspaper even jokingly reported that the crime rate of New York went down that day as hooligans and criminals went to Hart Island to watch the fight.

The match between Sullivan and Bell lasted for 24 rounds, per the The New York Times, and Sullivan ended up the victor, bringing home the $300 prize money (nearly $10,000 in today's money per Official Data). Boxing matches on Hart Island continued until the Civil War, when men resorted to bounty jumping instead of boxing to earn some cash. During the Civil War, the wealthy evaded fighting in the war by paying someone, a bounty jumper, to take their place. These bounty jumpers would then take the money, sign up to fight in the war, and then desert.