Goldsboro, The American Boxing Championship and the Congressional Medal of Honor

It made national news, The New York Herald, the Chicago Tribune, and it was illegal.

It was the American Lightweight Championship of boxing – bare-knuckle boxing – as was all boxing of the time. It was very bloody, attracted ruffians, and was seen as very distasteful.

If you look it up, in say, George Prowell’s History of York County, or something similar, there is around a paragraph written about this particular event. But after doing a little research, there is so much more that happened.

The Scene

In the mid 1800s in America, boxing was not considered a legitimate sport. It was pretty much seen as a crime, and boxing matches would often be raided by the police and the participants arrested. So fights needed to be planned very carefully in temporary or seemingly impromptu settings. And since boxers didn’t wear gloves, it made the fights particularly bloody and brutal. 

Despite all that, boxers often met in celebrated fights which drew large crowds and were openly reported in newspapers, especially in sporting publications like the “oldest sporting and theatrical journal” the New York Clipper

Nat Langham vs Tom Sayers 1853 - Famous Fights Magazine

During this time period, civilized men beat each other up according to the London Prize Ring Rules, revised in 1853.  There were no round limits to fights, and a round ended with a man downed by punch or throw, where he was given 30 seconds to rest and eight additional seconds to return to the centre of the ring. You would think that would mean rounds would go on for a long time, but in practice what happened was fighters would pretend to go down from minor punches in order to take the 30-second rest period. So rounds actually ended up being short.

Organized boxing had been put on somewhat of a hiatus from 1861-1865 as a result of the Civil War. Fights in the immediate aftermath of the war were a welcome revival for those with interest in the sport.

Sam Collyer (1842 - 1904)

Sam Collyer, of Baltimore, had now won three matches since the war ended, and was just crowned Lightweight Champion in June 1866, defeating “Young” Barney Aaron in 47 rounds in 2 hours and 5 minutes. When the brutal fight ended, both Aaron and Collyer were blind from swelling, were taken off on stretchers, and immediately arrested by policeCollyer’s upset victory over Aaron proved he was a boxer to be reckoned with, and gave him great prominence. 

Collyer was originally born in France in 1842, and came to the USA when he was just a boy with his parents, and lived in Brooklyn. When the Civil War was on, he enlisted in the US Army, and was a part of the 139th New York Infantry. He was 5 foot 5 inches tall, and typically weighed in at about 128 pounds.

In October of 1866, a fighter by the name of Johnny McGlade, of New York, put out out a challenge to fight anyone for $1,000. McGlade was originally born in Ireland and had been a sailor. By this time McGlade had bouts with Jerry Donovan, “Young Bendigo” (AKA Dan Smith) and Johnny Roche, and a recent victory over “Manchester Bob” (AKA Dick Johnson). 

The challenge was soon answered by Collyer. 

New York Clipper - Oct 27, 1866

There was some back-and-forth, and both parties needed to find some backers in order to put up the money. McGlade already had some backing from the sporting man, saloonkeeper and underworld figure of New York, famous for the dog fights in his “rat pit”, Kit Burns (AKA Christopher Keyburn).

On November 23, 1866, at the offices of the New York Clipper, the deal was officially arranged with each side putting down a $100 deposit, for a fight to take place on the 15th of January. The news quickly spread in newspapers all over. 

The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) - Nov 26, 1866

Even if they knew where they wanted to hold the fight, they wouldn’t want to announce the location publicly. But there is a bit of a clue here – between Baltimore and New York – an area mostly filled by the state of Pennsylvania.

After the signing of the agreement, Collyer began training with Aaron Jones, who had fought in a few championships himself, with Tom Sayers and also Tom Paddock for the title in England.

At this time McGlade was 30 years old, 5 foot 4 and weighed 140 pounds, and would need to drop down to 128 if he would want to fight Collyer. McGlade’s trainer was Dan Kerrigan, also a boxer, who had been involved in one of the longest prize fights in history, when he defeated “Australian Kelly” after a near-three and a half hour bout in 1860. Kerrigan was a saloon owner, gambler, exhibitioner and often corner man for prize fights, and was one of the most widely recognized sportsmen in the country. 

The New York Herald - Dec 23, 1866

As the fight day drew closer, more details started to leak as to the location. I’m sure it was a tough balance, not letting the authorities find out where the fight would be, but at the same time there was great interest from those who wanted to place their bets. Already the week before, the spot was narrowed down by rumors to the West Shore area near Harrisburg. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer - Jan 9, 1867

January 15th was a strategic date. It was inauguration day in Pennsylvania. The Governor was being sworn in, up in Harrisburg, and there would be lots in attendance. After the inauguration there would be an election for the Pennsylvania US Senate seat, by the state legislature, as at this time Senators were not elected by the general population. All-in-all, a busy day in Harrisburg. 

Certainly a lot of military and police personnel had been planned to be on hand for crowd control, the parade, and all the pomp and circumstance of a typical inauguration of the day. 

Gubernatorial Inauguration Harrisburg, 1855

John W. Geary was elected as the 16th Governor of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1866. He already had a pretty good list of accomplishments on his resume. 

He served in the Mexican-American war starting in 1846, and was promoted to Colonel. After that war he moved west, and was the first Mayor of San Francisco in 1850. He then later became the 3rd Governor of the Kansas Territory, in 1856. Then in the Civil War, fought at the battle of Gettysburg and rose in rank becoming a two star General.

Bvt. Maj. Gen. John W. Geary (1819 - 1873)

Word was continuing to spread about the fight, reaching as far as California newspapers, although they were a few weeks delayed in receiving the news. 

Daily Alta California - Feb 10, 1867

By now the location had been chosen, even if it wasn’t being publicized. It was Goldsboro – just 13 miles south of Harrisburg by train, and 14 miles north of York by train. 

Railroad Map - 1863

The arrival

In 1867, Goldsboro was a peaceful little river town with a railroad stop. It had two saw mills, and also a grist mill known as the “Old Red Mill” that had been in operation for over a century already. Both river and railroad access made it an ideal spot for these types of businesses, and for the distribution of crop produce harvested from the Fishing Creek Valley. But it was still growing, and didn’t have much in terms of accommodations for lots of visitors, only having two tavern type hotels.

View of Goldsboro, 1876

On Sunday, January 13, Collyer and Aaron Jones had reached Goldsboro, secured lodgings in the “upper tavern” (probably referring to the National Hotel), and continued their training. By Monday, McGlade and his crew had arrived and checked into some rooms in the other tavern in Goldsboro (the Shelley Hotel). With both parties now in town, the word started to get out.

A young man named Israel Betz was in the vicinity, living just outside Goldsboro, and whose father owned the Goldsboro Quarry.

Dr. Israel H. Betz (1841 - 1918)

Israel Betz was training to be a doctor in Yocumtown from 1865 – 1868 (under Dr. William Swiler). He also had a dual interest in history, and later became a member of the York County Historical Society. He wrote many articles in a weekly column he had in the York Dispatch. 

He attended the fight, and would later publish his account (which has been especially helpful for research) with many extra details of the scene, including the some of Collyer’s training in Goldsboro. 

Israel Betz recollections of Collyer's training - 1907

Since word of the fighters arrival in Goldsboro was beginning to get around, crowds started to show up by the trainloads, from Baltimore, New York and everywhere in between, the night before and the morning of the fight. 

Lancaster Intelligencer - Jan 23, 1867

The population of Goldsboro at this time was less than 300 residents. So when hundreds of spectators started to arrive, there was just no place for them to go. 

Israel Betz recollections of the morning of the fight - 1907

Even Sheriff Jesse Engles of York County had now learned about the fight’s actual location. He travelled up from York with a posse and plans to shut it down and make some arrests. 

The York Gazette - Jan 15, 1867

the fight

The morning of the fight had arrived, Tuesday January 15, 1867.

George Mitchell, a restauranteur on Broadway in New York, and who was the stakeholder with the prize money, missed the train from Harrisburg that morning. So they had to charter a sleigh, cross the river, drive down through New Cumberland, over the river mountain, and then through the Fishing Creek Valley. This took some time to cover the 15 miles in the snow.  

The ropes and stakes for the ring were packed in a box, and held by a then well known character “Oyster Jack” of the Hamill house in Philadelphia. After some research I found a number of mentions of Oyster Jack often as ringmaster for fights during the 1860s. His real name was John C Perry.

The exact spot of were the fight was to take place was waiting on the arrival of the party who was in charge, with the stakeholder (traveling in the sleigh after missing their train). But again, the general area of Goldsboro had an advantage in case of trouble from the law, there were river islands nearby that were in Dauphin County, that you could walk to in the shallow river if you wanted, or take the Middletown Ferry across to the other side.

The Philadelphia Inquirer - Jan 16, 1867

It stopped snowing about 10am. They cleared a square area in a hallow next to the railroad, about a mile or so north of Goldsboro, a little ways south of the distilleries of H. Free & Co. (near Stillhouse Rd.) in the vicinity of where Henry Etter’s Tavern once was. They used pickaxes to dig and put the stakes in and set up the 24 x 24 foot ring. The ring was ready to go by about 11. Seats were placed in both corners, along with tin pails, sponges, bottles and blankets.

Approximate location of the ring

By now the crowd was really starting to grow, and there were a number of newspaper reporters who were there to watch the fight, including of course from the New York Clipper. These papers gave detailed accounts of the match, and names of people seen in the crowd, with the most names coming from the Clipper.

Sam Collyer on the front page of the New York Clipper - January 26, 1867

The famous sporting men and underworld figures of New York, Kit Burns and Harry Hill, were there no doubt to make some money. 

“The Squire” William McMullen, Irish boss who ruled the 4th ward of Philadelphia, along with his pupil Robert Lister Smith were seen as well. McMullen was later famously a part of the bloody election day violence of 1871, and the murder of African American rights activist, Octavius Catto.

Some of the other boxers in attendance were Jim Kerrigan, and former American Heavyweight Champion Joe Coburn. Tom Montgomery, Baltimore Jack, and Johnny Farrell. Also Hugh “Butt” Riley, Sam Davis, Mike Costello, Mike Carr (whom Collyer had his first official professional fight with) and “Young” Barney Aaron (the former Lightweight Champion that Collyer just beat), in addition to McGlade’s and Collyer’s trainers, Dan Kerrigan (Jim Kerrigan’s brother) and Aaron Jones.

"Young" Barney Aaron (1836 - 1907)

Country wagons pulled up around near the ring and were soon bending with the weight of men crowding on them to get a better view. Most of the spectators stood in the snow. Some were up on branches in nearby trees. There were a dozen or so women reported, watching from afar.  

At least a few were on horseback. Two were doctors, and one was Sheriff Engles on a black horse. Before leaving York, the Sheriff secured the help of the Ziegle Guards, a military company on their way to the inauguration in Harrisburg. But it seems there was some confusion and the guards didn’t get off in Goldsboro, so the Sheriff was left alone to make any arrests. The crowd was too large, and to well armed for him to make a difference, so he just watched the fight instead.

“Squire” McMullen, Harry Hill and Joe Coburn were all asked to referee the fight, but they all respectfully declined. And after a lot of coaxing, the stakeholder, George Mitchell, agreed to do it. Each fighter had an umpire, Miles Perry for Collyer and a Bowery Boy for McGlade.

The fighters arrived at the ring for the pre-fight stuff at about 11:30. Collyer pulled up first in his carriage, throwing his cap into the ring to the cheering crowd. McGlade pulled up in a sleigh with his seconds and bottle carriers, receiving lots of cheers himself. They tossed a coin for choice of corners. McGlade won and chose the corner most sheltered from the wind.  

Both men wore white drawers and had spiked shoes. Around their waist they wore their colors. Collyer had a brown and lilac center with a white border. McGlade’s was a white ground with pink surroundings.   

The fight took place at about noon, right around the time the Governor elect’s carriage was arriving at the steps of the capitol at the end of the processional. 

Bare knuckle boxing scene 1860, similar to what Goldsboro looked like - Jem Ward

Each fighter had men in their corner, called seconds. Collyer’s were boxer Johnny Roche (who had previously fought McGlade in at least 2 different bouts) and sporting man Mike Henry of Brooklyn (who had just won a lot of money at Collyer’s last fight).

In McGlade’s corner were Johnny Monaghan (the first official boxer to hold the American Lightwight Title) and Kit Burns (who was backing McGlade financially).

Round 1 started off with both men landing blows to each other. Collyer drew first blood with one square to McGlades’s jaw, knocking him back on the ropes. Coming back up, he picked a tooth out of his mouth and threw it on the ground, smiling at Collyer as if nothing had happened. 

In the next round Collyer landed blows to McGlade’s nose and ear, which began to bleed freely. Kit Burns in McGlade’s corner cried fowl, rushing in to examine Collyer’s fists for hidden weights or poisonous chemicals. Finding none, the referee resumed the fight.

Fighting scene from Famous Fights Magazine

McGlade tried to keep up. In the 7th round he knocked Collyer down, and in the 10th he landed some good blows, now raising a lump on Collyer’s forehead.

During round 24, McGlade went down to after a strike to the face. Right then a train passed by on the tracks on the grade next to the ring, and the crowd gave out a tremendous cheer. 

McGlade sustained way more blows than he landed. Collyer’s seconds yelled at Collyer, warning him not to punch McGlade after he goes down, which would be a foul and he would lose the match.

By round 34 the tension had peaked. McGlade was continuing to lose and his supporters were growing restless as Collyer was beating on him. Men sprang into the ring from all sides, drawing revolvers and shouting at each other. One man chased another with a horse pistol, running until he reached the railroad, then turning around and was struck over the head twice, knocking him out. He was carried out and later recovered. The referee cleared the ring and ordered the fight to resume. 

Fighting scene from Famous Fights Magazine

Collyer dominated the rest of the fight. Lots of blows to McGlade’s body and to the face. McGlade tried to clinch as much as he could, and going down to end rounds and to take short breaks.

In round 47, McGlade tried one last attack, landing a strong body blow on Collyer, but he immediately fell down from exhaustion. Kit Burns threw up the sponge signaling defeat. The fight had lasted 55 minutes. 

The crowd cheered as Collyer was declared the winner. Just then his old rival, the Young Barney Aaron, leaped into the ring and challenged him to a rematch for the title that he had lost to Collyer just six months before, saying “Young man! I shall have to give you another turn in the spring!” Collyer responded with a smile, “Alright Barney.” 

Collyer went over to McGlade’s corner, shook hands, and then both retired back to their hotel. The crowd began to disperse, to the relief of the locals.

the reaction

By the next day and following weeks, reports were written around the country. The play-by-play of each round could be found easily in newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, the New York Heraldthe Sacramento Daily Union, and of course the New York Clipper:

New York Clipper - Jan 26, 1867

The news was even well publicized in papers and sporting journals in England.

The Sporting Life (Leeds, England) - Feb 6, 1867

The disgust at such a disgraceful event was immediate. The gambling, the ruffians, the alcohol, the destruction of property, the thefts and of course the violence all caused quite a stir.

Raftsman's Journal (Clearfield, PA) - Jan 23, 1867

Some of that anger went towards Sheriff Engles for not stopping the fight. Keep in mind, men of this time had just fought and lived through the Civil War, ending only a year and a half before this bout took place. People saw the “invasion” of these roughs from Baltimore, and compared them to southern rebels from below the Mason Dixon.

Harrisburg Telegraph - Jan 16, 1867

People were also disgusted with seemingly upstanding citizens, like members of the state government that were seen in attendance.

The Star and Enterprise (Newville, PA) - Jan 19, 1867

Personal descriptions, and opinions, were also written – the day after, and for years to come. 

Harrisburg Telegraph - Aug 25, 1890

Pickpockets were everywhere, especially on the trains. The large crowds attending both the inauguration and the prize fight made for easy targets. 

Lancaster Intelligencer Journal - Jan 19, 1867

And then there were the gamblers. When it was all said and done, there were somewhere between one and two thousand spectators in attendance (most likely the lower end of that estimate). According to John Gibson’s History of York County, the bets and winnings were estimated to be around $200,000 for interested parties (around $3.8 million in 2022). Sam Collyer walked away with his title intact, and a purse of $2,000 (the equivalent of about $37,500 in 2022).

The victor

Sam Collyer’s peak boxing career spanned from 1866 to about 1872.  He lost his title of American Lightweight Champion to “Young” Barney Aaron (who challenged him immediately after the fight). However, Barney Aaron would immediately retire, thus passing the title back to Collyer.

Collyer would fight for, and defend, the title of American Champion in at least six different prize fights. In 1868 it was against the contender “Make-Believe” Billy Edwards, but after 47 rounds in that bout, Edwards won. They rematched a couple of times, and became famous for their rivalry, in and out of the ring. Ultimately Edwards kept the crown from Collyer. In their last fight together in 1874, Collyer’s side cried foul and said Edwards was cheating, and so Collyer refused to continue fighting, ending that match early and disappointing everyone.

Collyer continued to fight off and on for the next two decades. Sometimes it was in theaters as paid sparring matches, or in vaudeville type shows where he showed the art of boxing and defense.  

Collyer was also well known as a showman, doing a clog dance as a part of a trio, and later performing in different circuses. During his whole boxing career, in between his fights (and later past his prime) he played off of his fame and made part of his living in the theater. 

The Baltimore Sun - Sep 24, 1866

He had some ups and downs, one of those downs being when he was seconding Billy Walker (AKA William Koster) in a Prize Fight in New Jersey in 1876 vs Jimmy Weedon. Walker was knocked out in round 76 with a severe blow, and then died later that night. As a result, Collyer, Weedon and others associated with the fight were arrested, tried and sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter. Weedon died a year later in prison. Collyer was pardoned and released two years later.

Jack McAuliffe (1866 - 1937)

The bare-knuckle boxing days ended in 1889 with Jack McAuliffe being the last bare-knuckle Lightweight Champion, and the first gloved Lightweight Champion. 

In a fitting end to his boxing days, Collyer challenged the 22 year-old McAuliffe in 1888 for the Lightweight Title, with gloves. The 46 year-old Collyer lost badly in two rounds. Afterward, the Governor of New Jersey, Collyer’s old Civil War commander General George B. McClellan, summoned for Collyer and made him take an oath to forever leave the prize ring. So Collyer reluctantly retired, but maintained he could still lick most of the younger fighters of that time.

The Medal

Near the end of his life, stories of Collyer’s acts of valor during the Civil War began to spread more widely. And this time it was under his real name, Walter Jamieson

In his first recorded act of bravery, in 1861, some 40 head of cattle were stolen from his army camp by southern rebels. That beef was needed for food for the men. A detail was sent out to recover them. They searched but couldn’t find them so they returned to camp. Late that afternoon, Jamieson went out alone to find the cattle, and came across them hidden in a ravine, being guarded by one Rebel. Jamieson got the drop on him, held him at gunpoint and managed to force him to help drive the cattle back with him through the night. 

Jamieson talking about retrieving cattle from the enemy
Depiction of Jamieson tussel with rebel - Deeds of Valor, Vol 1

In July 1864, during the Siege of Petersburg, Jamieson saw a wounded captain outside of the trenches, in the battlefield along with the other dead from the continuous gunfire. If left there, he would die from his wounds or of heat exhaustion in the summer sun. Jamieson went out after dusk, crawled under fire, and was able to sneak over to him and pull him back and save his life.

Union soldiers in the trenches near Petersburg, VA - Library of Congress

Then in September 1864, at Fort Harrison, now Lieutenant Jamieson along with Sergeant Wolff grabbed the Union flag, rushed to the top of the fort, placed the flag and took down the Confederate flag. The Rebels now seeing this, assumed that there were large numbers of troops behind them, fled and abandoned the fort. Jamieson and Wolff took the fort completely unaided. 

For these three acts of bravery above and beyond the call of duty, Jamieson was awarded the top military honor in 1898.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle - May 8, 1898

“The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to First Sergeant Walter Jamieson, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 30 July 1864, while serving with Company B, 139th New York Infantry. First Sergeant Jamieson voluntarily went between the lines under a heavy fire at Petersburg, Virginia, to the assistance of a wounded and helpless officer, whom he carried within the Union lines. At Fort Harrison, Virginia, 29 September 1864, he seized the regimental color, the Color Bearer and guard having been shot down, and, rushing forward, planted it upon the fort in full view of the entire brigade.”

Deeds of Valor, Vol 1 (1907)

Just a few years later though, he passed away at the age of 62 in Brooklyn. His extensive obituaries in his home cities of Brooklyn and Baltimore describe his many careers and life events. 

The Baltimore Sun - Dec 9, 1904

Walter Jamieson, AKA Sam Collyer, had a noteable boxing career, held the Lightweight Title, had trading cards made of him, and went on to be remembered for his service of valor in the Civil War.

During his hey day as a boxer, Collyer was as famous as Heenan, Sayers and Yankee Sullivan. Now he achieved more notoriety as being in the select company of recipients of the Medal of Honor. 

His life of adventure, with battles, fights, travel around the country, stage performances, prison time and later freedom, has certainly been an interesting one to research.

Collyer's trading card - 1887

The loser

So what happened to Johnny McGlade?

He had a few more fights. He headed to the wild west and his last fight was with John Grady in Nevada in 1869, just two years after the fight in Goldsboro.

The Carson Daily Appeal (Nevada) - Aug 18, 1869

And then a month later… 

Gold Hill Daily News (Nevada) - Sep 14, 1869

Johnny McGlade was shot and killed in the silver mining boom town of Hamilton, Nevada. And guess what happened to Hamilton?

Panoramic view of Hamilton, NV in 2009 - Atlas Obscura

The town doesn’t exist anymore. It’s literally a ghost town. 

Johnny McGlade was shot, killed and buried in a town that has been wiped off the map. A stark contrast to the trajectory of Sam Collyer. 

The Legacy

Almost 100 years later, the fight between McGlade and Collyer in Goldsboro was still being remembered, or more like being rediscovered, through the pages of The Ring Magazine.  

The Ring Magazine - January 1964

And in 1964, Sam Collyer was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame (which was run by The Ring Magazine).

Later, in 1989, the International Boxing Hall of Fame was created, after the Ring Hall of Fame had been disbanded in 1988. Since then, almost all of the inductees from the Ring Hall of Fame have been added into the International Hall, with the exception of about a dozen fighters, including Sam Collyer. 

I might be a little biased now, after doing a lot of research on him, but I think Collyer should should be included along with the other boxing pioneers, which already include his rivals: the Young Barney Aaron and Billy Edwards

The Ring Magazine - October 1954

So for a brief few hours of history, Goldsboro was an unwilling host to an event that was despised, that featured a man who was praised not only in the boxing world, but also later for his heroism during the Civil War, and received the military’s top honor.

Goldsboro Borough Hall, ca 2015

On a personal note, when I first moved to Goldsboro, I went to the borough office to pay my first electric bill, and to ask some general questions about the town. I got to have a long conversation with the borough manager of the time, the late Lee Fishel, along with his friend who was there, Henry “Gene” Lehman. During that conversation, they were reminiscing about the good old days and this fight came up. They knew about it, even some of the details, even though they, their parents and grandparents weren’t even alive when it happened. 150 years later, this fight was still being talked about in Goldsboro. This really was a notorious event.

I think Dr. Israel Betz put it best at the end of his recollections of the fight:

The York Gazette - Apr 28, 1907

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