A Quirk Of The Map And A Wild Prizefight

Feb 28, 2020

Note: The area today known as “Boston Corners” was once known as the singular “Boston Corner” – no “s.” To avoid confusion, this story refers to the area by its contemporary name throughout.

If you look at a map of Massachusetts, there’s a little slice missing from the far southwest corner.

A map of Massachusetts with Boston Corners in the far southwest corner.

That slice wasn’t always there. Until 1855, the state line came to an angle. And it came to an angle on the property of Carol Falcetti and Norman Osofsky.

Falcetti grew up in Queens, but moved to Boston Corners in the 1970s to be with her husband. He's a local. Queens was still fairly rural when Falcetti grew up – she remembers when the New York City borough still had farms. But by the time she got married, she says she considered herself a city girl.

“It was very peaceful,” she says of Boston Corners. “I thought it would be very easy to adjust cause I could walk out and go for a walk, great place.”

Falcetti leads me down a trail that was once a railroad line. We turn off onto a small side trail and make our way up a hill alongside a low stone fence. Up ahead we see a stone marker set in the ground by the side of the trail.

“And that marker,” she says, “is the old southwest corner of Massachusetts, before Boston Corners was ceded to New York.”

Falcetti and Osofsky found the marker thanks to their friend Jim Macklin. He told them he’d been exploring in the area and described exactly the path he took to find it.

“I said, ‘And now I know where that marker is!’” Osofsky says. “Which was a wonderful find for us.”

British mapmakers drew the Massachusetts state line in the 1700s, according to local historian Jon Strom. He says they almost certainly never saw the actual land though.

“Nearly every state has its own little border dispute or questions,” he says.

If mapmakers had seen Boston Corners – then known as Boston Corner – they would have realized it’s cut off from the rest of the state of Massachusetts by the Taconic Mountains. They loom over the sparse farmhouses and fields of the hamlet.

“In reality, the mountain range curved at the very bottom, right here in Boston Corner, where you had flat, arable land, totally separated by the rest of the state of Massachusetts,” Strom says.

Today Boston Corners is technically part of the town of Ancram, New York. Back then, Boston Corner was attached to Mount Washington, Massachusetts. But only on paper.

“There is basically no way to get to this little corner of what was Massachusetts without going to another state,” says local historian Jim Benton. He says there was no pass or easy way through the mountains for miles.

“A constable from Massachusetts who had to come arrest someone or enforce some kind of law in that little corner of Massachusetts had to pass through Connecticut or New York,” he says, “and once they left the state they weren’t a constable anymore.”

If they arrested a criminal and tried to bring them back to be tried, they’d have to leave the state – and lose their authority in the process. Strom says the nearest police force was based in Lenox, Massachusetts – a few hours by horseback at best. And New York police were equally powerless – Boston Corners wasn’t their jurisdiction.

“You could commit a crime right in front of the New York policeman,” he says. “If you were in Massachusetts, the New York policeman would have no authority.”

It wasn’t an issue for a long time because pretty much no one lived there.

“For sixty years, this lawless area existed with no trouble,” Strom says. But then the railroad came in the 1840s. Boston Corners got its own stop on the Harlem Line. And folks from New York City realized you could get away with a lot of shady business there. An 1878 historian wrote the area became “a city of refuge for criminals and outlaws of all classes, who fled it to escape from the reach of officers of the law.”

It’s hard to parse the rumors from the truth. Strom says a lot of the stories about Boston Corners grew out of local legend – and a 1937 book called “Hell’s Acres,” which took extreme liberties with historical reality.

“It includes things that were actually quite impossible,” Strom says. Like stories of an illegal racehorse-painting operation run by Saratoga Springs gangsters, using secret tunnels that ran underneath the Taconic Mountains. No such tunnels exist, as far as anyone knows, and Saratoga Springs hadn't yet become a horse racing destination.

“This novel – written in the 1930s when there were a lot of gangster, FBI, prohibition things going on in the current United States – projected back into the 1830s the same kind of gangster situation in a bucolic countryside,” Strom says.

But there’s no denying what happened in 1853: Boston Corners played host to a notorious bare-knuckle prize fight.

“Bare-knuckles boxing was illegal. Specifically illegal because it was so brutal,” historian Jim Benton says. “Because it was illegal, they needed to go somewhere they wouldn’t be arrested for doing it. And Boston Corners was perfect because it was a place where there was no law.”

Gangsters and ruffians from New York City placed their bets and piled onto the Harlem Line train to go to Boston Corners, where the Massachusetts cops couldn’t get there to arrest them.  They met in an abandoned brickyard and set up a makeshift ring.

Credit Courtesy of New England Historical Society

The contestants – an aged Irish brawler named Yankee Sullivan and an ambitious young scrapper named John Morrissey. Nickname: Old Smoke. Morrissey was bigger and younger, so he was the odds-on favorite. But Benton says Sullivan was the better boxer. The fight went for 37 rounds. Morrissey hit hard, but Sullivan had a strategy.

“And what Sullivan did was fight for a minute at a time and take a knee,” Benton says. “Eventually he just wore Morrissey down…Toward the end of the fight, Morrisey was in trouble and Sullivan was probably winning the fight.”

Accounts vary about what happened next, largely based on what side the teller supported. But Benton says according to his research, Sullivan looked out in the crowd of rowdy, drunken miscreants and saw someone attack one of his friends.

“Yankee Sullivan left the ring to go help fight for his friend,” Benton says. “And the referee, who had a large bet on the fight by the way, for Morrissey, called him to toe the line. When Sullivan didn’t, he declared Morrissey the winner.”

It was a controversial call with thousands of dollars on the line. The crowd was not pleased.

“And a riot ensued,” Benton says. “Which continued basically all the way back to New York.”

The crowd set upon each other – and upon the nearby farms.

“They took animals, they took food, they broke into houses, they took valuables. Just in general, wanton destruction.”

Then the train came to take them back to New York. And the riot went mobile.

“Every place they stopped,” Benton says, “they basically decimated the small towns all the way down through Duchess County on their way back to New York.”

The hamlet and the prizefight have become irrevocably linked in historical memory. Some contemporary books – and even a Sports Illustrated article from the 1970s – credit the prizefight with causing the change from one state to another. Strom says that’s not the case.

“That’s been the retrospective of lazy historians,” Strom says, “who’ve looked back and said, ‘This must have been what happened, because it sounds logical.’”

The process to change hands from one state to another began five years before the prizefight, and was likely a preventative measure to prevent more criminal incidents – as well as to allow residents to access services more easily. In any case, Boston Corners finally joined New York State in 1855 – where, geographically, it should have been all along.

Meanwhile, the two fighters’ stories continued. John “Old Smoke” Morrisey went on to scrap with other notorious figures – like “Bill the Butcher” Poole, the inspiration for Daniel Day-Lewis’ character in Gangs of New York – before working his way into high society. He founded the famous Saratoga Race Course (where, Strom says, racehorses pointedly were never smuggled to Boston Corners.) In Saratoga Springs, Morrissey mingled with U.S. presidents, industrialists like Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller and Mark Twain. He got involved in New York politics and served as a U.S. congressman with the backing of Tammany Hall. When he died, flags flew at half-mast and 20,000 mourners attended his funeral.

“Yankee” Sullivan was not as lucky. He moved to California and worked as a political strongarm, using his muscle to intimidate people from voting. He was jailed and apparently committed suicide in prison – just a few years after the fight.

There’s not much there today – a few farmhouses, a golf course and a winery. But there is a historical marker by the side of a lonely road next to a field.

Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU

The mountain range that once cut Boston Corners off from Massachusetts looms in the background. It marks the state line. As any mapmaker would have made it – if they’d actually seen Boston Corners.