Athlone born James Elliot reigned as Heavyweight Champion of the World from 1865 to 1868, but his controversial life outside the ring proved to be his downfall when he was murdered 135 years ago in a Chicago saloon.
Elliot was born in 1838 during a time of extreme hardship. The Elliot family, like so many other impoverished Catholics, suffered at the hands of colonial oppression. When young James was only a toddler, the Elliot’s uprooted from Athlone and sailed across the broad Atlantic for a better life. They settled in New York where the bare knuckle prizefighting scene was dominated by the Irish community. This underground sport was a bloody affair, but it pocketed much needed dollars for those coming off the boats from Ireland.
James Elliot first entered the prizefighting world at the age of 15 and quickly rose up the ranks to become one of New York’s most fiercest fighters. Elliot stood at more than six feet and had a bull like physical dominance, but he had a rotten temper which could not be tamed inside or outside the ring.
Elliot’s first major bout was against Nobby Clark in 1861 in New Jersey.
The fight lasted just under an hour and the brutal encounter resulted in a loss for Elliot. A year later he fought Hen Winkle for a purse of $500 but, as the bout entered its second hour, the crowd grew unruly and broke into the ring. Before long the scene resembled a riot, as spectators took on spectators before the cops arrived and broke it up.
In 1863, Elliot took on James Dunne in New York City, where the ring was poorly constructed and the spectators were wildly intoxicated. By the 12th round Dunne tripped on loose ropes and Elliot pounced on him. As the Athlone man landed a series of hard punches on the tangled up Dunne, the referee stepped in and disqualified Elliot. A furious Elliot, who felt he should have walked away with the purse, later went and got caught in the act of armed robbery. He was sent to Trenton State prison in New Jersey to serve a two year stretch.
In June, 1865, Elliot was released from prison and called on Heavyweight Champion James Coburn to fight him. Coburn refused and Elliot then decided to claim the title on the grounds of Coburn’s cowardice!
In 1867, Elliot fought Bill Davis, and after a vicious eight rounds the Athlone native came out on top, and could rightfully claim himself heavyweight champion of the world.
In November, 1868, Elliot took on Charles Gallagher in Detroit and in the 16th round he started gouging at Gallagher’s eyes. Gallagher complained to the referee, but as he did so Elliot came up behind him and punched him in the back of his head! Elliot was immediately disqualified and a riot then followed, as spectators rushed the ring until the police arrived to restore order. Elliot not only lost his temper, he also lost his title.
In 1870, Elliot’s outlaw streak struck again when he roughed up and robbed Hughey Doberty, a famous black minstrel singer of the time. Police arrived on the scene and Elliot fought them off, even knocking out one of them! When he was finally handcuffed he was sent for trial and then packed off to Easter State Prison in Philadelphia to serve a 16 year sentence.
Elliot did not serve his full sentence, and was instead released in 1879 due to an eye disease. He got straight back into the ring, where he took on JJ Dwyer. The fight was dominated by Dwyer from the start, but by the eighth round it gradually descended into mayhem. A tired and unfit Elliot began biting Dwyer’s neck, before Dwyer hit back and landed a blow on the Athlone man which knocked him out. The fight should have ended then but the referee insisted that Elliot be revived. When he got back on his feet the fight continued!
Elliot’s punches were not as hard or fast as Dwyer’s, so he resorted back to biting and then some eye gouging before the fight was ended in the 12th round and Dwyer was deemed the winner. The fight was a brutal one. It resulted in both fighters beating each other to a pulp, so much so that Dwyer never fully recovered and in 1882 he died, many suggesting as a direct result of his tussle with Elliot.
In the same year JJ Dwyer died, Elliot fought legendary heavyweight champion John L Sullivan in Brooklyn. In front of up to 6,000 spectators, Elliot was given a good beating by the Boston Strong Boy. By the fourth round Sullivan had pounded Elliot into defeat.
It was around this time that Elliot, ever the short tempered character, got into an argument over money with notorious gambler Jer Dunne.
Elliot’s bad blood with Dunne would transcend into a fateful night in a Chicago saloon in 1883. Just after eight o’clock on March 1, Elliot and a drinking buddy went to the Tivoli in Chicago. Just as they sat down and ordered some food and drinks, Dunne walked in and stood across the table from Elliot.
“What do you what?” Elliot asked in his usual aggressive tone. Dunne replied loudly, “I am protecting myself, I’m with you, you damned cur!” Then he drew a pistol and shot Elliot. A bullet pierced through the Athlone man’s chest, but he managed to get to his feet and lifted the table to fling it in the direction of Dunne. The table hit Dunne, sending him to the floor, and Elliot then pounced on him. Both men grappled on the floor and Elliot took his own pistol out and shot Dunne in the head but, amazingly the bullet did little damage, and Dunne shot back.
The two men kept the bullets flying until eventually the law arrived and separated them. Elliot was by then riddled in bullets, and as he was placed in an ambulance he spoke his last words: “I think I’m killed”. Minutes later the 45 year old expired while on route to the hospital.
Dunne survived Elliot’s bullets and punches and after a questionable trial the jury found him not guilty. Dunne would later try, and fail, to assassinate the famous old west gun slinger, Bat Masterson. Dunne died of cancer in 1906.
The New York Times, which did not look kindly on Elliot or his ilk, reported on March 8, 1883: “Elliot died as he lived, penniless, and his relatives were always in poor circumstances.”
Friends of Elliot paid for his funeral and it was a procession which started in Chicago and ended almost a week later in New York City. The Chicago Tribune of March 8 reported on a ghoulish incident on route to New York: “On the way to New York, thousands of persons requested permission to look at the face of the dead man, and at Pittsburgh the covering over the head of the coffin was removed and a large crowd was permitted to see the face.”
When the body of Elliot finally reached his mother’s residence in New York, the funeral attracted the great and not so great of the Big Apple. The New York Times reported on the funeral in an unflattering light: “It was thieves day on the east side, James Elliot the murdered pugalist, bully, blackguard and burglar was buried, and all the criminals in the city gathered to pay the last honours to his memory.”
Perhaps it was a fitting end to a life lived on the ropes of unruliness.