Jack Wannop V John L. Sullivan… sort of

Having passed the afternoon downing drinks at Mike Clark’s Boston saloon, an intoxicated John L. Sullivan staggered into Patsey Sheppard’s place, the ‘Abbey’, in a wild state. After ordering another round, and slamming down his glass, he spotted a vaguely familiar face at the bar – a burly, shaven-headed Englishman, also looking somewhat the worse for wear.

With characteristic swagger and a slight slur to his words, Sullivan pounded another drink and spat out his usual refrain: “I can lick any man living!”

Locking eyes with Wannop, Sullivan declared that no man could out-box him, and he knew a damn few things about wrestling as well. In other words, come and ‘ave a go if you think yer ‘ard enough.

[Sullivan (1858 – 1918) in his prime]

Leaping up, Wannop ran toward the marginally taller man like a rabid bulldog, and the two tightly locked arms. Wannop swiftly grabbed the back of Sullivan’s thighs, yanking him off his feet and crashing toward the floor. One nil to John Bull. Sullivan rose unsteadily, gave Wannop his notorious black stare, and a few seconds later… was back down on his arse amidst the spit and sawdust of the saloon boards.

Breaking into laughter, Wannop helped the Boston Strong Boy to his feet (probably) and if he had any manners, got the next round in. A raucous few hours passed before Sullivan headed back to Clark’s in a state of violent excitement to berate the bartender there for giving him his first of many drinks that day. Everyone was to blame, of course, except himself – in the run up to his planned fight with Kilrain, Sullivan was supposed to be off the sauce. The always faithful Sylvie Gookin, having heard of the brawl all the way over in South Boston, finally managed to persuade Sullivan to retire for the night.

The wannabe academic historian in me doesn’t want to share this entirely unverifiable anecdote which allegedly occurred on the 16th January 1889 – but the storyteller who desperately wanted to write Sullivan into her fantasy gritty Victorian fight club BBC TV drama (one day, one day…) is very excited to stumble across it. It’ll make a really cool scene.

There’s just one short report about this which I can find via the Library of Congress newspaper archive (others may exist), titled ‘ON ANOTHER DRUNK – John L. Sullivan Once More the Victim of His Enemy’ (Pittsburg Dispatch, 18th January 1889).

As soon as he read it Wannop immediately telegrammed the newspapers to – he says – set the record straight.

And on the 19th January the Dispatch published A FLAT DENIAL:

“Please deny for me that John L. Sullivan and I engaged in a wrestling match in Patsey Sheppard’s saloon yesterday. I met Mr Sullivan, exchanged compliments, and spent a couple of hours in conversation with him.”

Wannop claimed Sullivan drank “only temperance drinks” and was an impressively “nice, quiet, gentlemanly fellow”. They parted “the best of friends.”

“I hope, in justice to me as a stranger in this country, you will make this denial.”

Wannop was backed up by the bar owner, Sheppard, who also telegrammed in, appalled that his name was being dragged into yet another cynical attempt to slander Mr Sullivan.

[Comment from Patsey Sheppard on p6 of the Pittsburg Dispatch, January 19, 1889]

On the 20th of January, the Dispatch published two articles on Sullivan on the same page, the first discussing his sobriety (“Whether or not reports published relative to Sullivan’s drunkenness are true or not, public confidence in him has been badly shaken…”) followed by something rather nicer:

John L. Sullivan, the last recognised heavyweight champion of bare knuckle boxing under London Prize Ring Rules, and arguably the first boxing superstar, was a notorious drunk. Boxing history fans know this, of course, and if you don’t I highly recommend reading Christopher Klein’s Strong Boy (2015). Reports of his benders, of his ill health, and even rumours of his death, appeared in the papers across his career – with fabricated nonsense or exaggeration aplenty.

[The Washington Critic, January 17th 1889]

One thing I can’t quite understand from the limited information available, is why Wannop would deny knocking Sullivan off his feet if he had actually done so? Eight months earlier Wannop had taken a beating from Evan Lewis for the first world wrestling championship title, and he’d had numerous losses and draws in the time since. His reputation wasn’t exactly stellar, and you’d think he would have enjoyed a bit of a boost – even if knocking down the notorious Sullivan in a saloon isn’t quite the same as doing it in the ring.

I have written previously on Sullivan’s meeting with Queen Victoria’s son Albert, the Prince of Wales and with Wannop also present at that event to demonstrate his wrestling skills, I assume they knew of each other by the time both allegedly met in the Boston bar. But there does not seem to be a history of animosity and it’s unlikely they knew each other well, given the crossover in dates between Sullivan being in the UK while Wannop was in America.

By January 22nd 1889 the Pitsburg Dispatch had dropped the issue of the alleged bar fight and instead published this really rather mean piece on Wannop:

But Sullivan was maybe the worse off. On the same day, the New York Evening World ran with this front page headline…

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