I have been exposed to old issues of the National Police Gazette for many years, as I was researching the exploits of Nellie King; the forger James B. Crosse; and the hosts of criminals profiled by Thomas Byrnes. In doing so I noticed that issues in 1880 and 1881 contained a weekly column by William E. Harding, the sports editor, detailing the history of bare-knuckle boxing in America. Since that time I’ve gradually learned how important those bloody events were to the social fabric of the United States in the nineteenth-century. These fights and fighters were discussed in every saloon and tavern; they were identified with particular political factions and ethnicities; a high number of fighters ran saloons and dance halls that fueled the nightlife of large cities; and some entered politics themselves.
Out of curiosity, I recently looked to see if Harding’s columns had ever been published in book form, and was surprised to see they had not. Instead, I saw that Harding and Richard K. Fox (the publisher of the National Police Gazette in the 1870s-1890s) had put out several pamphlets on champion boxers, but nothing close to the entirety of Harding’s columns. Moreover, I saw that no other nineteenth-century writers had tried to compile a history of the sport.
Whatever one thinks of the morality of combat sports–especially one as brutal as bare-knuckle boxing–there is no denying that at one time it was a major aspect of the nation’s social life. The plot-lines in the jockeying for the various championship titles was as intriguing then as it is in today’s boxing, wrestling, and mixed-martial arts.
So I spent some time transcribing the columns using OCR scans, and many hours trying to make Harding’s prose more consistent and typo-free. The result is now available on Amazon: