Hudson Then…Again -The Fighting Irish of Jersey City

Calahan J. Mc Carthy and Francis ( Frankie )Burns

By Maureen Wlodarczyk

While researching my second book, Young & Wicked, I spent many hours ferreting out and reading 19th century newspaper stories related to one of the central characters, Willie Flannelly, Jersey City bad boy and my great-grandmother’s second cousin. Among the various true stories of his juvenile delinquency and anti-social behavior was one recounting his use of a slungshot (different from a slingshot) which was used to knock out a popular local featherweight boxer named Cal McCarthy. Slungshots, a maritime tool consisting of a weight attached to a heavy cord, were a favorite concealed weapon of thugs in those days. Ah, the misguided ingenuity of the criminal mind.

Calahan J. McCarthy

Callahan J. McCarthy was born in Pennsylvania in 1867 and came to the Horseshoe section of Jersey City with his Irish immigrant parents about five years later. One of six children, he made his first public appearance as an amateur boxer in 1887 in association with the Scottish-American Club of Jersey City. A bare knuckles fighter and all of 5’ 2” and 100 pounds, he won the American amateur 110-pound championship that year and turned pro in early 1888. McCarthy, called the “Wonder,” had a great left jab and quick cat-like movements. He went on to fight more than 40 bouts in various venues around the country, taking on both American and European opponents and won the Featherweight Championship of America. In 1890 in Boston, he took on George Dixon in a bout that went on for 70 rounds until a draw was declared. In their second meeting in 1891, Dixon beat McCarthy in 22 rounds. Following that defeat, McCarthy reportedly turned to drinking, soon losing his form and discipline but still fighting sporadically. The young boxer never regained his stride, was stricken with tuberculosis and, still planning a boxing comeback, died in 1895 at 28 years old. Despite that, he was remembered by fight fans and sports writers who, two decades later, still reminisced about McCarthy when talking about the latest crop of young featherweight and bantam boxers. 

In 1889, as McCarthy was turning pro, another Irish-American boy and future pugilist, Francis (Frankie) Burns was born in Jersey City. By 1910, the Burns family, living on First Street according to the 1910 U.S. Census, was headed by 20-year-old Frankie Burns, a “helper” at an express company, and included his twice-widowed mother Mary and several younger siblings. Burns had started boxing in 1908 and in January 1911, at 5’5” and weighing in at 117 pounds, Burns fought Englishman Digger Stanley, the British bantam champion, in a ten-round bout at New York’s National Sporting Club.

Newspapers covering the Burns-Stanley match mentioned Burns’ rise from “tail boy” working the back end of Adams Express wagons to world champion contender in less than a year, describing the fight as “one of the greatest boxing bouts ever seen in this country between two little men,” and reporting that when the bell rang for the last round, “the crowd was on its feet” and “cheers almost shook the building.” While local papers called Burns the “practical winner” of the fight, boxing records call it a “no decision” or draw.

A week after the Stanley fight, the Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Times carried a piece titled “Frankie Burns – Great Bantam – Bread Winner of Family.” The article described Burns as a “clean living and ambitious young fellow” who had come from obscurity to within sight of a championship in just three years despite losing his father at age five and working since he was 11 to help support his mother and siblings, including paying medical bills for a handicapped sister.

Known as a talented, quick and clever boxer, Burns fought as both a bantam and featherweight and, in over a decade in the ring, had more than 150 matches as a consistent championship contender, taking on other top boxers of the day including Johnny Coulon, Eddie Campi and Johnny Kilbane. Burns was often compared to Cal McCarthy, one newspaper describing Burns as “the greatest little fighting man New Jersey has produced since Cal McCarthy, the idol of the Horseshoe.” The well-respected fighter passed away in 1961 at age 71 and, in 1969, he was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame.

Maureen Wlodarczyk is a fourth-generation-born Jersey City girl and the author of two books about life in Jersey City in the 1800s and early 1900s:  Past-Forward: A Three-Decade and Three-Thousand-Mile Journey Home and Young & Wicked: The Death of a Wayward Girl and has just announced that the third book in her Jersey City trilogy, Canary in a Cage, will be available  beginning this month.  For info: www.canaryinacage.com.

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