Posts Tagged ‘Yankee Sullivan’


Location: Northeast Bronx

Status: Active Prison


At northernmost tip of the Bronx an uninhabited island conceals the bodies of over one million lost souls. Known as Hart Island, the mile long rock served as a prison and burial ground stretching back to the Civil War.


Situated at the perilous junction of the East River and the Long Island Sound, Harts Island juts out into the mouth of a treacherous nautical passageway known as Hellgate. Known for its swirling currents and jagged rock formations, the waterway ranks as one of the world’s most perilous shipping lanes. The swift current and isolation made the island a choice location for nefarious behavior in early New York.


Ruins on Hart Island, a NYC prison and potter's field.

Ruins on Hart Island, a NYC prison and potter’s field.


Bare Knuckle Boxing Island


By the mid 1800s, Hart Island became a prime tourist destination for every rogue and scoundrel in town when City officials banned boxing. Overnight, the ban turned the island into one of New York’s première pugilism venues.


On April 20, 1842, James “Yankee” Sullivan and Englishman Billy Bell slugged it out for 24 bloody bare-knuckle rounds. Over 6,000 fans, including Yankee Sullivan’s pal Bill the Butcher Poole, sailed to the island to cheer on Sullivan. One newspaper joked that the city’s crime rate went down that day. The New York Daily Express commented:


“A gang of loafers and rowdies went out of the city yesterday to see a fisticuffins.” –The New York Daily Express, 1842


Yankee Sullivan, a close friend of Bill The Butcher Poole, boxed on Hart Island

Yankee Sullivan, a close friend of Bill The Butcher Poole, boxed on Hart Island


With a flourish of lefts, rights and hooks, Yankee Sullivan pummeled Bell and took home the $300 prize. By the time of the Civil War, fighters regularly battled on this desolate stretch of land, but the Union spoiled the fun when they realized the island’s usefulness following a rash of professional bounty jumping, the City’s newest crimewave.


Bounty Jumpers


During the Civil War draft of 1863, the wealthy could pay a bounty for someone to fight in their place. Criminals, known as bounty jumpers, moved in on practice, signing up to fight, collecting the payment, and then disappearing only to sign up for another bounty.


To contain the bounty jumpers, New York’s Provost Marshal purchased Hart island for $75,000 and transformed the island into an inescapable bootcamp. Over 50,000 troops were trained on the site. Over the next few years, units from all over the eastern seaboard mustered in the escape proof military base.


Civil War Prison


By 1864, General Henry Wessels, the provost marshal commanding the atoll, advocated the use of the island as a prisoner of war camp. In April of 1865, the Union crammed the worst confederate scoundrels onto the northern tip of the island. A stout twelve-foot stockade and roving boat patrols kept escapes to a minimum, and only four POWs attempted to make a swim for freedom. By the end of the month, the Civil War ended and over 3,000 prisoners were jammed into four tiny yards that slept two and three to a bed.


Civil War ruins on Hart Island surrounded by barbed wire.

Civil War ruins on Hart Island surrounded by barbed wire.


Predictably, cholera erupted and swept through the camp killing seven percent of its population. Civil War historians generally agree that the site was the Union’s last and worst prison camp. Following the conclusion of hostilities, many Confederates lingered on the island for months after the war until they swore an oath of allegiance.




City Jail and Potter’s Field


After the war, New York City purchased the island in 1869 for $75,000 and converted the camp into a city jail and a potter’s field for the burial of individuals who could not afford a proper funeral. The phrase potter’s field derives from Matthew 27:3-8 in the New Testament. The Bible states,


“It is not right to deposit this in the temple treasury since it is blood money. After consultation, they used it to buy the potter’s field as a cemetery for foreigners.”–Matthew 27:3-8


Since the 1869, correction officials have shuttled convicts from Blackwell’s Island and later Rikers Island to City Island in the Bronx where the prisoners board a ferry that would transport them to the island of the dead. Hart Island remains an active prison and burial ground until this day, and the prisoners still carry out the ghoulish work for 30 cents an hour.

Hart Island is an active NYC prison. Prisoners named the Ghoul Squad bury bodies in mass graves.

Hart Island is an active NYC prison. Prisoners named the Ghoul Squad bury bodies in mass graves.

Read Full Post »

Kit Burns Rat Pit 273 Water Street

Kit Burns’ Rat Pit

Location: 273 Water Street

Status: Standing

If Michael Vick were alive in the 1860s he would have probably called Christopher “Kit” Keyburns’ Sporstman’s Hall home. A portly, jovial, pock-marked, sodden faced man, Kit operated a dog-fighting arena from this still-standing location. Now the third oldest building in Manhattan, this three story brick structure represented the heart of Water Street’s depravity. But today, the rat pit has gone the way of everything else in Manhattan—luxury housing.


Kit Burn's Rat Pit map 473 Water Street

Kit Burns’ Sportsmen’s Hall was located at 273 Water Street.


A Start in Prizefighting


As a boy, Kit learned to work illegal prizefights under the tutelage of the bare knuckle boxing champ Yankee Sullivan. During one noted bout, Kit corned for fellow Water Streeter, Charley Lynch, during an eighty-six-round slugfest that ended in the death of Lynch’s opponent.


The Original Octagon


Prizefights made Kit’s reputation, but his real claim to fame was the Water Street Pit, a gas light illuminated octagon, eighteen inches high, sixteen feet long, and eight feet wide.

Wooden bleachers reached the ceiling and seated up to five hundred, and according to Oliver Dryer,

“Some of our city members of congress, state senators and assemblymen and municipal magnates, are Kit’s patrons.”–Oliver Dryer


Kit Burns the Ratpit today 273 Water Street

The humanitarians spend another night at Kit Burns Sportsmen’s Hall.

Rat baiting was one of the more popular games where sportsmen wagered on how many rats a terrier could slaughter. Jack, Kit’s prized 12 pound black and tan terrier, set a world record when he killed 100 rats in 5 minuets 40 seconds. After Jack died, Kit stuffed the champion pup and mounted him on the bar. Hung on walls and nailed to tables, Kit’s clientele could find the taxidermied champions of the past.


Kit’s Fighting Black Bear

Kit even owned a fighting black bear, which he pitted against challengers of any species. When not fighting, the bear had his own seat at the bar until he fell ill. Not wont to waste the skin, Kit skinned the fighter and turned him into a rug.


Bears and rats were all fine and good, but the dandies really came for the dogfights. The rules were simple. Trainers matched dogs of the same weight to fight in officiated battle with a cadre of surgeons at the ready. If an animal did not make weight, the humanitarians at the pit lashed their dog to a treadmill in the basement and whipped their fighter until it sweated off the excess pounds.


Web Kit Burns the Ratpit today 273 Water Street


After weigh-ins, the coaches scrubbed their dogs with a scalding solution of water, soda, and castile soap. A taster then licked his dog from snout to paw to prevent the opposition from rubbing of their champion with numbing agents capable of weakening their opponent’s biting grip.

I tell you what, a greenhorn don’t stand any chance down here.Christopher Kit Burns


Fights lasted hours, usually ending in death or a thrown towel. After the mêlée, the tasters licked the dogs again in case, as Kit put it:

…a fellow takes out a handkerchief and throws the stuff on the dog while he is fighting.


A standing bet of $1000 held that Burn’s dog, Belcher, could best any canine on the planet.


The ASPCA Closes In


When Kit wasn’t fighting dogs and rats, he battled the police and the ASPCA. In one instance, the NYPD crashed through a skylight and arrested scores of patrons for disorderly behavior. Kit eventually lost his grudge match with the ASPCA when the police arrested him for animal cruelty in November of 1870. The rat baiter caught diphtheria and died after beating the charges. He was 39 years old.


Web Kit Burns the Rat Pit Today

This fourth floor was added to the Kit Burns’ building in the 1900s.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: