Look closely at a map of Massachusetts and you’ll notice the southwestern corner doesn’t square off. It’s as if someone chopped off a corner of the state and gave it to New York. Well, that’s exactly what happened when Boston Corners moved from the Bay State to the Empire State.
Today Boston Corners is a serene hamlet of a few farms, a winery and a gas station. It used to have a stop on the Harlem Railroad, and it used to have a law unto its own. But then it got just a little too lawless.
Back in the day, Boston Corners had a well-earned reputation as the Massachusetts Badlands.
Like Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall, outlaws could hang out in Boston Corners because lawmakers couldn’t catch them there.
The Taconic Mountains separated Boston Corners from the nearest center of law enforcement, Great Barrington, Mass. It also lay on the Connecticut border, so fugitives from Massachusetts or New York justice could easily escape into Connecticut.
The people of Boston Corner pretty much ignored Massachusetts law. They didn’t vote in state elections and they didn’t pay taxes. They got away with it.
When the Harlem Railroad began building near Boston Corners, a New York City entrepreneur named Samuel Black saw his opportunity. He opened “Black’s Grocery,” an emporium that attracted a clientele described as “refugees from the constables of three commonwealths.”
And when workers finished the Boston Corners station in 1852, the tiny village had a rail link to both New York City and Albany.
Riff raff from all over New York could take the train to Boston Corners. It was an ideal place to dye racehorses stolen from Saratoga so they could be raced in disguise on Long Island. Prizefighters could ply their trade with little interference from the police. And if you had a beef with someone, you could challenge him to a duel at Boston Corners.
Prizefights were illegal in 1853, but that didn’t stop Irish immigrant gangs in New York City from roughing each other up.
An Irish gang fighter named Yankee Sullivan held the informal title of champion, though he weighed only 140 pounds and had reached his 40th birthday.
John Morrissey, at 22, belonged to a rival gang and wanted recognition as the best Irish fighter. Though much bigger than Sullivan, he had far less experience in the ring.
Sullivan and Morrissey agreed to a bare-knuckle fight for a purse of $2,000 in early October, somewhere within 100 miles of New York City. Promoters selected Boston Corners and set up a ring in an abandoned brickyard.
The day before the fight, gamblers and boxing fans began showing up in tiny Boston Corners, population 150. Estimates of the crowd range from 3,000 to 5,000 fans. They came from New York City, Albany, Troy and the rural countryside, and they got tanked on liquor from Black’s.
When they stood next to each other, Morrissey looked much larger than Sullivan. But Sullivan’s wife jumped into the ring and announced she’d bet $1,000 her husband would draw first blood. She had takers, and she won.
The fight got brutal and bloody, and by the 30th round the fighters’ followers started doing some extracurricular fighting of their own in the audience.
What happened in Round 37 isn’t clear. According to one account, Sullivan saw someone take a punch at a buddy, and he jumped from the ring to help his friend. According to another, Sullivan delivered an illegal blow to Morrissey.
The referee declared Morrissey the winner, which set off a melee.
Patrick Higgins in The Battle of Boston Corners describes what happened next.
“The riot spilled out of the brickyard into neighboring farms,,” he wrote. “The rioters started looting on their way back to the train. Farms were ransacked, pantries were looted for food, hogs were slaughtered and roasted along the road.
“The Boston Corners community was stripped of every edible thing that could be found. Some local people managed to flag down a freight train to take them to a safer location.”
Lawmen arrived to arrest the fighters and hauled them off to jail. Sullivan jumped bail and turned up on the West Coast. He died in a San Francisco prison.
Morrissey fared much better after the fight in Boston Corners. The court fined him $1,200, but the fight had made news all over the country. It made Morrissey a star. He opened one, then several, successful gambling establishments. He co-founded the Saratoga Race Course and ran for Congress with help from the Tammany political machine. After two terms in Congress he won election to the New York state Senate. He died at age 47 in the Adelphi Hotel in Saratoga, and thousands paid their last respect.
Move to New York
The people of Boston Corners had already lost patience with the rabble infesting their town. Even before the fight, they had petitioned officials to move to New York, which could enforce the law more easily than Massachusetts.
On Jan. 3, 1855, Congress changed the state line and made Boston Corners officially part of New York. Today it belongs to Ancram in Columbia County and Northeast in Dutchess County.
A historical marker stands on the spot of the fight, with the wrong date. It reads. “Famous Prize Fight,” won by John Morrissey over ‘Yankee’ Sullivan in this area on Oct. 5, 1883 lasted 37 rounds and was witnessed by more than 3,000 people.”
With thanks to Sports Illustrated stories, The Brawls at Boston Corners and The Battle of Boston Corners by Patrick Higgins.
Map: By Chinissai – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35017830; John Morrissey head shot PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1460637. This story was updated in 2022.