Thursday, September 18, 2014

John C. Heenan: The Prizefighter Who Returned From the Grave


By Jon Wyatt - In 1877 newspapers widely reported that John C Heenan, a champion American prizefighter, had materialised at a seance and spoken to the people there. Did this happen? Who was John C Heenan?

John C Heenan (1834-1873) was born at Troy, NY, into an Irish-American family. He left school early to work and when aged about 17 went to the Californian goldfields. At age 25 he was employed at Benicia, San Francisco, swingng a hammer in the Pacific Mail Steamship Company workshops and perhaps a fist as a beligerant "enforcer" in rigged dockyard elections, when a travelling trainer Jim Cusock spotted his pugalistic talent, took him to New York and the rest is ring history. The good-looking 'Benicia Boy' who stood 6' 2" (188cm), weighed-in at 195 lbs (88.5 kgs) and had a devastating right and a lip to match, fought three title fights that changed the sport.

In 1858 the 'Benicia Boy' tackled John Morrissey the US heavy-weight bare-knuckle champion. The fight, for legal reasons, was staged at Long Point, Ontario, Canada. Heenan injured his right hand and was knocked out in the 11th round, but when he demanded a rematch and when Morrissey declined, and retired from the boxing, Heenan became the US Bare-Knuckle Heavyweight Champion 1859-1862 by default.

In 1860 Heenan fought Tom Sayers, the "invincible" British bare-knuckle champion at Farnborough, Hampshire, England. This fight, which is remembered as the first "World Title", captured the public's imagination, and in America it briefly united the country prior to the Civil War, and in Britain, where boxing was strictly illegal, even the prime minister of the day was there. The taller Heenan traded blows with the unstoppable Sayers for more than two hours, until round 42 when police or were they fans? entered the ring, and the fight was stopped and declared a draw. Heenan returned to America a national hero.

In 1862 Heenan returned to Britain, to sidestep the Civil War, and in 1863 fought Tom King the new British bare-knuckle champion at Wadhurst, Kent. Heenan lost this bout in 24 rounds and retired from boxing.

Heenan returned home after the Civil War, married actress Sarah Stevens and used his great fame to good effect by giving public sparring exhibitions, appearing on stage in plays and travelling as a star attraction with Howes Circus. However he contracted TB (consumption) and died, aged 38, at Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, in 1873. He was buried in the St Agnes Cemetery, Albany NY. Memories of the prizefighter were still vivid in 1877 when the seance allegedly occurred in Rochester.

The evidence for the Heenan materialization is an article apparently penned by a journalist who was there, that appeared in the Rochester Chronicle newspaper in early September 1877. According to the story Heenan materialized during a séance conducted in an upstairs chamber in a building located somewhere in Rochester. Heenan manifested in his physical prime and spoke in Irish-American brogue. The form returned from the grave to defend the reputation of spiritualism.


The spirtiualist movement, which began in 1848 when the Fox sisters conducted public seances in the Corinthian Hall, Rochester, had by the 1870s spread far and wide with physical mediums apparently producing rappings, levitations and even full-body materializations. The famous British scientist Sir William Crookes who conducted psychic research of mediums under controlled conditions in his London residence from 1871 to 1874, concluded the phenonmena, including full-body materiaizations, seemed genuine. He was particularly astounded by a young medium "an innocent schoolgirl of fifteen" Florence Bush who many times materialized a spirit called "Katie King", whom he photographed.Crookes believed that to insist this was the result of deceit did more "violence to one's reason and common sense than to believe her to be what she herself affirms".

However by 1877 several high-profile 'mediums' had also been exposed as frauds in Rochester and elsewhere—and who better to have in your corner than the great Heenan?

This transcript of the séance was published days later by the New York Evening Express, reprinted from the Rochester Chronicle. Make of it what you will:

“At a séance in this locality last Saturday night the spirit of the late John C. Heenan, embodied for the occasion, put in an appearance. Mr. Heenan―if we may speak of an apparition as a person―appeared to be in such excellent health that the suggestion ran around the circle that perhaps death was the best cure for consumption. The form was stalwart, and the arms therefore were exceedingly muscular.

“'I want ter know,' said Mr. Heenan,' of there's any person in this room as has doubts of the reality of this thing. Ef there is such a person I want ter interview him about two minutes.'

“'Extraordinary materialization!' said a timid man, with admiration.'I never saw such power, such entire confidence.'

“'What d'yer say?' said Mr. Heenan, turning sharply and making a fine exhibition of his knowledge of the manly art. 'Gimme a word―just one word! I feel like I should like to kill somebody.'

“'I beg your pardon,' said the timid man. 'I had no intention of offending whatsoever. I do not question the representation at all. Go 'way, please. You make me nervous.'

“'Nervous, boy?' said Mr. Heenan, with ineffable scorn. 'We don't have such things as nerves over there. If there's a reporter here, he's the man I'm after. There has been doubts about this thing. I should just like fer have some man grab me.'

“'We are all believers here, I think,' said the managing medium, cheerfully, and with the utmost confidence. 'If any gentleman would like to test the presence let him advance. I think I may say he is at liberty to detain the presence, if possible', and he rubbed his hands and laughed as if he was very well satisfied about something.

“The stillness that pervaded the room was intense. The only stir was that made by the timid man in an effort to steal out of the room. 'Hey I you would, would you?' said Mr. Heenan, leaping out of the circle and dragging the timid man back by the hair of his head. 'Now, you sit there, and don't git up till I tell you to. You hear me?' and Mr. Heenan slammed the timid man down in his chair as if he were determined to make him stick.

“'Wonderful! Wonderful!' said all the others. Some of them were so impressed that their voices trembled, and others were so awe-stricken that they had serious intentions of jumping from the thickly-curtained window.

“'Ef there's anybody as doesn't believe,' said Mr. Heenan with great impressiveness, casually balancing himself in front of the partition and striking it a terrible blow, 'let him stand up. Ef there's a person within reach of this'--exhibiting now is right hand, the same being firmly closed--'as is inclined to question this performance, let him come forrard. I'm waiting for him. I want to convince him.'

“'Wonderful, wonderful!' said the agitated circle; but nobody arose.

“'I think we are all believers!' said Mr. Heenan, smiling sweetly. 'I am almost ready to bet money on it. But there is one more test. I want somebody to grab me. Oh, I should like to have somebody grab me! Jest make the least motion to grab me!' said Mr. Heenan, extended hand, slightly bending the knuckles of the flexile fingers of the same, and pawed the air with some anxiety.

“'Nobody, hey?' he cried. 'I'm disappointed, gentlemen. I didn't think it of you. I so wanted somebody to grab me. But never mind. Good night.'

“He disappeared, and so real and startling was the apparition that the noise of his boots on the floor of the room below was definitely heard for two minutes afterward. It was the most successful materialization ever attempted in this vicinity.” (New York Evening Express, September 5, 1877, p1)

What a knock-out seance!

The story may have simply been a piece of fiction, but if the seance had in fact taken place there are a couple of tricky questions to be answered.

Heenan was America's first sporting superstar and particularly well known in Rochester where he'd appeared on stage at the Corinthian Hall, yet, we are told, he appeared very close and personal with the sitters. If it was a stage trick, how did the medium do it?

If the story were fake, why did it appear as news across America, in Europe and later in Australia? Didn't any body check the story, or did editors decide not to let the truth get in the way of a good story?

John C Heenan 'left the building' but, of course, his legend lives. The sportsman whose popularity helped legitimize prizefighting, has featured in countless boxing stories over the years... and in 2002 he was inducted into the Pioneer Section of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Canastota, NY.

Did he return from the grave—you never know?


Illustrations:

1. The 'Benecia Boy' strikes a pugalistic pose. Source: Library of Congress

2. This abridged (tongue-in-cheek) article appeared in the Illawarra Mercury newspaper, NSW, Australia, on 28 December, 1877

3. Sir William Crookes and “Katie King”



Copyright Jon Wyatt 2014 - Total word count 1550

NOTE: I want to thank Jon Wyatt for his article submission...Lon

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Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship: A Study of the Religion, Science, Philosophy and Mediums that Encompass this American-Made Religion

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