Historical Striking

A Female Boxing Match (1876)

A blow-by-blow account of two women boxing at Harry Hill’s concert saloon in 1876. To give this tale some context, Harry Hill was an Englishman (born in Liverpool, 1819) who opened his saloon 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.It was generally a peaceable joint, where “the main entrance was for men, who paid 25¢ admission. The side door was for women, who paid nothing. 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.” (Svinth).

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 Gazetteunder the auspices of an ad hoc world championship title.

For more on combative women, see Joe Svinth’s Women’s Martial Arts: A Chronological History, 479 BCE-1896 CE.



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 Nelly 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.

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’ backhari 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.

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