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Female pugilism at Harry Hill's

Nell Saunders defeats Rose Harland
"Honoring Nell Saunders" - a later Police Gazette's illustration
Nell Saunders gets the prize (silver dish) for the victory over Rose Harland who is still unconscious after knockout

Русская версия


Harry Hill’s Variety Theater in New York was the first venue were a women's boxing match was held on the real boxing ring - it happened in 1876. In Hill's concert saloon a variety of entertaining events occurred, like these (in 1881/1882):
– Herman (“the Modern Atlas”)
– Professor H. Monroe’s Cat Circus
– Jennie Ward (“seven distinct changes of dress, in presence of the audience”)
– O’Brieno (“wonder stick-twister”)
– Eddie Murphy (“clogs on an 11-inch marble slab”)
– Carrie Edwards (“champion female boxer of the world”) in a boxing match with Harry Wilson
– The Nondescript Grotesques (George Leslie and John Lovely).

Harry Hill
Harry Hill



Mr. Hill and his smart manager James Campbell realized that fighting women on the ring is an exciting spectacle attracting people. They held many pugilistic shows involving females.

Founded in 1846 by Richard K. Fox, the 'National Police Gazette' was particularly interested in boxing (including female pugilism). Time to time, the 'Gazette' depicted fighting women. In 1876, the Gazette published the famous picture, "Honoring Nell Saunders", in which Miss Saunders gets the prize while knocked out Rose Harland is still unconscious. It was the first recorded female boxing match on the ring. In fact, it was a gross artistic exaggeration - the match was even and the winner was determined by a point. In 1880, the 'Gazette' announced that Miss Libbie Ross was 'champion female boxer of America' after her victory over Carrie Edwards at Harry Hill's. In 1884, Hattie Stewart was declared a world female pugilist champion after defeating Anna Lewis (see the picture below). In fact, no one seemed to take these titles very seriously. More popular were illustrated stories in which women fought over beaux, usually according to 'pugilistic rules'. One of such a fistfight is represented below in which two New Jersey girls fight over a beaux.

Libbie Ross VS Carrie Edwards
"New york Clipper" for April 24, 1880
with an ad about forthcoming boxing title match at Hill's
between Libbie Ross and Carrie Edwards
Source: Fulton History

To give this tale some context, Harry Hill was an Englishman (born in Liverpool, 1819) who opened his saloon with a concert stage in New York city in 1854 and operated it until 1888 when the reform politicians finally gained control of both the liquor board and the police authorities and he was forced to close at the brink of bankruptcy. To Hill’s credit, he was wildly successful until the 1880s, and the former wrestler he did not go down without a fight; he was fined, arrested, jailed, and even forced to testify in police corruption probes before he finally capitulated. Harry Hill's famous Concert Saloon was just one of the rowdiest dives in New York. It was a two-story wood frame building on Houston Street near Crosby in the Bowery. A lantern on the porch, with red and blue colored lenses, illuminated the two entrances. A large door admitted men for 25 cents each. A smaller door was for ladies who could enter free of charge. Actually, no lady ever set foot in Harry Hill's saloon but it was regularly filled with waitresses, dance hall girls, and prostitutes. Inside, it was no attempt at glamour; there were several small rooms and a large open space that served as a dance hall, barroom, variety theater and boxing ring. In the next room was the billiard parlor. With a little perspective, we can see Hill's notorious saloon as a transitional experiment in entertainment. It was a sort of petri dish where several features were combined and developed. As a sports parlor, it anticipated the appeal of sporting events and hosted, on its uneven wooden stage, the first New York match of the great pugilist John L. Sullivan. As a variety theater, Hill's provided the training ground for a number of singers and actors, decades before pretentious, high-flown terms like vaudeville or music hall had entered the public consciousness. Hill's drinks were over-priced and the air was a cloud of tobacco smoke. Other than that, Hill ran a respectable house, and his boxers circulated among the crowd to keep it that way.

Things did get rowdy upon occasion, and it was not always the men who started the affrays. For example, Nellie Smith and Jennie Collins, regulars at Hill’s, were often ejected for causing a ruckus. One night they showed up with Fanny Kelly in tow, and, after being ordered out of the joint, Kelly stabbed Harry Hill with a penknife, first in the face and then again in the forehead near the temple, hard enough for it to remain there with the handle jutting out of his head. Understandably chagrined, Hill promptly punched her, knocking her teeth out and sending her tumbling down the steps. The women fled outside and were arrested by New York’s finest. New York Times, November 6, 1869.

The sports mentioned in the article below were well known to anyone in the city that followed boxing and wrestling; most were themselves boxers at one point. Most had also been arrested at some time for participating, or sometimes for just being present, at illegal prizefighting matches. Hill and other hall owners sidestepped the prohibition by calling the matches “sparring exhibitions,” which was true in many instances, but periodic crackdowns resulted in occasional arrests.

The article below, from the New York Times, March 17, 1876, was not a one-time affair. Hill was known for often hosting women boxing, African-Americans boxing, and other less mainstream entertainment, occasionally partnering with Richard K. Fox’s National Police Gazette under the auspices of an ad hoc world championship title.


Fist fight at Harry Hill's
Fist fight at Harry Hill's. Reconstruction by Lillie Lefort

Bare-knuckle boxing match
"World title" fistfight
Bare-knuckle boxing match
in April 1884
between Hattie Stewart and Anna Lewis
"National Police Gazette"
Reprint from Orrin J. Heller


"Nonsensical exhibition at Harry Hill's"
Report by the New York Times, March 17, 1876

Some weeks ago Prof. James Campbell, the manager of Harry Hill’s establishment in Houston street, conceived the idea of having as a feature of its benefit, which took place yesterday, a sparring match with boxing-gloves between two women, and offered as a prize $200 and a piece of silver-plate. The opportunity offered by Mr. Campbell was embraced by two variety dancers, Miss Nell Saunders and Miss Rose Harland. Miss Saunders is the wife of John Saunders, a pugilist, and Miss Harland is unmarried. The former is Irish, twenty-four years old, five feet six and a half inches high, and weighs 153 pounds. Miss Harland is an English woman, twenty-five years old, five feet seven inches high, and weighs 164 pounds.

Boxing at Hills The match being made, both women at once went into training- Miss Saunders under the tuition of her husband, while James Kelly gave Miss Harland her first lessons in the pugilistic art. Owing to the declarations of both ladies as to their respective intentions of conquering the fray, what the sporting class would term “a lively mill” was anticipated, and yesterday afternoon the theatre was packed with an appreciative but noisy audience. Among the sporting men present were the three brothers Coburn, Prof. William Clarke, Ned Mallahan, “Mike” Costello, “Billy” Madden, “Butt Reilly, “Pete Croker, and many others. After the usual variety performance and sparring matches between Seddon’s “Mouse” and “Join” Kelly, the event of the entertainment was announced.

Mr. Hill introduced the lady contestants to the audience. Miss Saunders wore a white bodice, purple knee-breeches, which she had borrowed from one of the negro performers, red stockings and shoes. Miss Harland wore blue trunks and white tights. Both appeared exceedingly nervous, were very pale, tried to blush, and partially succeeded.

Time was then called, and the female boxers shook hands. Miss Harland did not know what to do with her hands, but kept her head well back out of the way. Miss Saunders had a fair idea of attack and defense, but could not carry it into practice. After some preliminary sparring, Saunders managed to hit Harland fair in the face. Miss Harland endeavored to get square and was again worsted, but finally succeeded in disarranging Saunders’ backhand by a vicious blow from the shoulder. Both women then smiled, and the result of the first round was announced by Prof. Clark–Saunders, 7 hits; Harland 4.

The second round was in the main a repetition of the first. Miss Saunders hitting out from the shoulder, while Miss Harland swung her hands around in the air. Score–Saunders, 14 points; Harland, 10. The third round was of a somewhat different character. Miss Harland seeing that she was overmatched in science, presumed on her superior strength and “sailed in” for punishment. The exchanges were lively and hard. The result of this round was announced as 20 all.

The wind-up was of a similar character, and Prof. Clarke, on being asked for his decision, said that under other circumstances he would have declared the match a draw, but that Miss Saunders was the winner by a point, and she accordingly received the prize and the applause of the audience. Some gentleman handed Miss Harland a ten-dollar bill, and the tow female boxers left the stage arm in arm. A clever set-to between Pete Croker and Billy Madden brought the performance to a close.

By Jason Couch
Martial History Magazine January 2009

Also the book "The double life of William Robinson" by Jim Steinmeyer was used


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