The Battle of Hastings: Tom McCoy’s Tragic Death
By the early 1840s, boxing had become a critically important part of the working man, saloon culture of New York City. For social crusaders like New York Tribute editor Horace Greeley, it was a sign of utter moral collapse. In an editorial quoted by Eliot J. Gorn, in his indispensible The Manly Art, Greeley raged against “the gamblers, brothel-masters and keepers of flash grogeries, who were ever the chief patrons of the ring…of this festival of fiends!”
This impassioned rhetoric might have stirred the hearts of upper class New Yorkers, but it went almost completely ignored by the members of the Fancy. Then, as now, boxing fans saw the prizefight ring as a venue for transcendent physical courage and gritty resolve. The barbarism of the ring did not make the combatants less than human. It made them more than human. It made them living heroes.
Top boxers like Yank Sullivan and Thomas Hyer were also powerful political enforcers — “shoulder thumpers.” For somebody like Greeley, this made them common thugs. But for the city’s bustling working men, it only added to their heroic aura.
But on September 13, 1842, a tragedy occured that would provide years of momentum for the reformers who opposed boxing, while leaving the most diehard boxing fans sadly shaking their heads. For that was the day that Christopher Lilly killed Tom McCoy, after 120 brutal, hard-fought rounds.
Like so many fights of the era, the Lilly-McCoy affair was part sporting event, part personal grudge. Lilly was an Englishman and McCoy a son of Eire, making the two natural rivals. The conflict began with a quarrel at a sparring exhibition in the Bowery. Punches were traded, the two were separated, but both quickly agreed to meet up for a proper fight. This was followed by each man going into training, to prepare. A bet was placed for two hundred dollars on each side, but the enthusiasm of the sporting public led to total wagers of up to $10,000.
The morning of the fight, an assembly of steamships chugged up the Hudson, where a ring was devised on a small plateau near Hastings Landing, which provided a spectacular, panoramic view of the river valley. In precisely the sort of idyllic spot that inspired the great works of the Hudson River School painters, one of the most notorious and bloody incidents of the era was about to take place.
The fight started at exactly one p.m. and was a slugfest almost from the start, based upon the detailed acccount published afterwards in The Spirit of the Times. For the first 30 rounds, McCoy fought with reckless abandon, charging Lilly behind wide, looping haymakers. Lilly, “cool as a cucumber and wary as an Indian” battered the Irishman’s face with sharp counters, turning it into a bloody, swollen mess.
Despite the battering, McCoy did not slow down, pushing the pace and verbally taunting Lilly as blood bubble from his nostrils and spat out his mouth. McCoy experienced brief rallies in his own favor, executing a jarring throw or solid punch to drop Lilly, but by Round 50, the fight was an hour old and McCoy was nearly blinded. By Round 70, spectators at ringside began to implore McCoy’s corner to surrender on his behalf, but McCoy kept coming forward, throwing fists.
Keep in mind, a “round” under the bare-knuckle rules was not a defined period of time, such as three-minutes, but rather the space of time between when one of the fighters was thrown or knocked to the ground and when it happened again. A round could last an indefinite length or be over in seconds.
The late rounds of the Lilly-McCoy fighter consisted almost entirely of McCoy charging forwards bravely to be once more hammered into the sod. The crowd at ringside was now begging the corner to cede defeat, though after Round 118, a member of the corner proclaimed McCoy was “not half licked.” But moments later, Lilly concluded the final round with a brutal throw, landing hard across McCoy’s body. In the aftermath, McCoy lay lifeless, never to rise again. The coroner later ruled that cause of death had been drowning on his own blood.
The aftermatch of the fight rocked New York City and spread throughout the country. By November, 17 murder indictments had been handed down, with Lilly, Sullivan and the a physician from McCoy’s corner among those targeted. While the event is largely forgotten today, it was one of the major scandals of the time and force boxing into a shadowy, illegal status for decades to come.
One of the haunting aspects of the fight are McCoy’s proud boast as he set out for the battlefield on the morning of the fight, when he declared that “he was willing to die.” This can be dismissed as the hyperbolic swagger of a young buck in his prime, and that is no doubt true. But I also think those word can be unpacked, to give insight into the mind of prizefighters during the 1840s and throughout history.
In the New York City where McCoy grew up, life was precarious and often very short. Even as a youth of just 20, he would have seen many people die — from sickness, accident and even violence. Without question, some of them would have been even younger than he was.
Within the rough-and-tumble culture of the streets, boxing offered a way to at first earn respect and eventually even garner distinction. Heading into their fateful showdown, it gave Lilly and McCoy something even bigger — genuine hero status. Their fight was the biggest event happening within their small, self-contained universe, and it garnered attention from well beyond the small island of Manhatten, which they both called home. Young street lads like them could have hoped for no greater glory.
At the same time, it is a fight that demonstrates the true need for legitimate regulation. The fighting sports are dangerous, but they are never going to go away. They are hard-wired into our primate DNA. Push them into the shadows and these sort of tragedies like the death of Tom McCoy become even more likely to occur.