John Carmel Heenan, otherwise known as the “Benicia Boy” was a  heavyweight bare knuckle boxing champion who was as well known for his exploits outside the ring as he was for those within the ropes.Newspaper

He was born on May 2, 1833 in West Troy, New York, USA, the eldest of four children of an Irish immigrant family. Like many other Irish migrants, the family had been attracted to Troy because of the job opportunities presented by its iron works and growing commercial activity. Like his father Timothy, John Carmel became a blacksmith at Watervliet Arsenal, where his father was also employed.

His success in many casual brawls brought him to the attention of an itinerant English trainer, Jim Cusick, who took him to  New York.  It was Cusick who encouraged him to make a bid for the American heavyweight title, then held by another Irish-American, John Morrissey. The pair met in Buffalo in October 1858 despite the fact that Heenan’s training had been disrupted by an injury.

Despite the fact that this was an illegal match, newspaper coverage was extensive, with the New York Herald devoting the whole of their front page to the fight. The New York Tribune justified its own coverage of the content by with an editorial that said their presence was purely to report crime, putting their reports on a par with their duty “to report …. the hangings and the murders of the community.”

Heenan was by far the weaker contestant, according to The New York Times. Morrissey looked like ” a magnificent animal … [with] a look of wear and ear about him which spoke volumes,” while Heenan “looked pale and dull of eye, and his muscles, though large, lacked consistency.”

According to Alan Wright’s account in The Great Prize Fight, Heenan damaged his right hand on a ring post early on in the bout, making him fight one handed. Morrissey’s supporters, allegedly stepped on Heenan’s damaged hand every time he went down. The fight ended in the 11th round when Morrissey knocked out Heenan.

Undeterred, Heenan immediately called for a rematch within six months, placing a notice in the New York Evening Express claiming he had lost that first match because he was ill. Grand claims and inflammatory language became a trademark for him in future years.

Morissey initially rejected the challenge but changed his mind a year later. The fight never materialised however because the authorities in Buffalo wanted to arrest the pair for their previous encounter. Encountering difficulties in  finding other opponents in America, Jim Cusick  decided that his protege’s next fight should be against British champion Tom Sayers, to whom Heenan issued a challenge in 1859. Evading arrest warrants, John Carmel Heenan crossed the Atlantic on the ship “Asia”, landing in Liverpool on 16 January 1860. Morrissey in the meantime decided to focus his energy on political ambitions and retired from the ring. Heenan, by default, became the champion.

Heenan and Sayers Fight

The prize ring was illegal in England at the time so Heenan and Cusick tried to keep their presence in England a secret, regularly moving locations to stay one step ahead of the law. In the weeks before the contest they moved from Wiltshire to Somerset, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. But their presence at the Navigation Inn in Trent Lock was soon discovered. When police arrived, Heenan jumped out of a window and ran across the grass. He was apprehended and bound over by Derby magistrates to keep the peace in the sum of £100.  In court he said his intention had never been to cause a breach of the peace and if his language had caused offence he was sorry. But his passions had been aroused because he had been “hunted” through eight counties while his opponent was left untouched.

One week later and he was ready for his encounter with Sayers.

Bare knuckle boxing had a relatively small number of enthusiasts in England in the 1860s yet the Heenan-Sayers fight caught the public attention. The Manchester Guardian observed that “no pugilistic contest ever decided has excited so great an interest, both in this and other countries, as the forthcoming conflict between Sayers and Heenan.”

Among the people to watch the fight were  the Prince of Wales and the British Prime Minister along with the literary giants of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray.

Heenan had the advantage of youth and physical size, standing 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 metres) tall and weighing 195 pounds (88.5 kg). But the two contestants were hampered from an early stage of the contest which took place in a field behind the Ship Inn at Farnborough, Hampshire, England, on April 17, 1860.

Sayers sustained an injury to his right arm when it was hit with a heavy blow in the 6th round, while Heenan was injured in the 7th round to the extent that he could not see clearly through his right eye.  The fight lasted more than two hours, spread over forty-two rounds, by the end of which Heenan’s face was so cut and bruised as to be virtually unrecognisable. Chaos ensued in the 37th round when the crowd surged into the ring.

What happened next is disputed. Some reports say that the contest was stopped when police intervened. Others that it was the organisers themselves who restored order, moving the ring to another location. The fight continued for another five rounds until police were seen in the area causing the crowd, and fighters, to quickly disperse.

The referee had little option but to declare a draw, but Heenan complained bitterly that police had colluded with Sayers supporters in breaking up the fight as soon as it became clear that the Englishman was beaten. Sayers supporters, by contrast, insisted that their man had been the likely winner. The wrangling went on for weeks with Heenan demanding a rematch.

The pair were reconciled eventually with each contestant awarded a championship belt.They then went on a joint tour of the UK though only the Irish and Scottish exhibition matches were financially successful. Heenan was warmly received in many parts of the country with a group of Irishmen in the East End of London clubbing together to buy him a gold ring set with diamonds” as a mark of their appreciation of his manly and honourable conduct since his arrival in England.”

Heenan returned to the UK in 1863 where he met the English heavyweight Tom King. Heenan lost in 24 rounds in the match at Wadhurst, Kent, on December 8, 1863, then forfeited his American title by refusing to meet Joe Coburn.

After the King fight, King, Sayers and Heenan and a number of associates appeared before magistrates at Wadhurst on charges of a riotously assembly involving about 500 people. They were released without penalty

John Carmel Heenan subsequently set himself up as a racetrack bookmaker in England and had some success until he was badly injured in a railway accident at Egham in Surrey on 9 June 1864. Newspaper reports said that , when passengers were warned of a potential collision, he jumped from the moving train and fell heavily. He injured his spine so severely he suffered a succession of fits. The following year he returned to America, where he married actress Sarah Stevens, and had mixed success in the gambling business.

Eight years after his return to America, he became seriously ill with tuberculosis, leaving New York for the recuperative cleaner air of the west. He died on 28 October 1873 at Green River station, Wyoming, on the Union Pacific, while en route to Southern California. His old manager, Jim Cusick, who was with him when he died, took his body back to New York for burial. John Camel Heenan was buried on 2 November 1873 at St Agnes cemetery, Watervliet, New York.

A Colourful Life

Menken as The French Spy, 1863. Source: Wikipedia. Public domain

Heenan’s private life was as much of a source of interest as his sporting achievements.

In January 1860 the New York Tribune announced he had married a vaudeville actress called Adah Isaacs Menken the previous September. She was a cigar smoker who numbered Alexander Dumas and Percy Shelley among her friends.

Some time after their marriage, newspapers uncovered the fact that she had not yet been legally divorced from her second husband, Alexander Menken. A woman called Josephine Heenan claimed that she in fact was John Heenan’s wife, not Adah.

Heenan denied Adah had ever been his wife but she successfully sued him for divorce in Woodstock, Illinois in 1861, claiming that Heenan had scrounged off her earnings. Despite their divorce within a year of marriage she continued to call herself Mrs. Heenan.


Origin of “Benicia Boy” name

The sobriquet of the “Benicia Boy” was supposedly adopted after John Carmel Heenan visited California at the age of seventeen. It was the era of the Gold Rush. Heenan earned money by swinging a sledgehammer in the workshops of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in Benicia, which at that time served as the state capital. What he did in Benicia is not known precisely but in an article in The Guardian in 2010, Frank Keating reports that he made a name for himself there as an enforcer in rigged elections around the shipyards.

A Lasting Legacy

Though his fights and clashes of personality with other fighters were reported in newspapers across the world, by the time he died, Heenan had been largely forgotten about. The South London Chronicle, reporting on his death, called into question his repute as a world-class fighter.  ” … he never was and never could first-class fighting man. He was a brave and athletic man, but neither quick nor artful, nor capable administering rapid punishment,” said their columnist. 

Heenan did however leave a permanent mark on the sport of boxing. Such was the public reaction to the length and brutality of the contest between Sayers and Heenan that questions were asked of the British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston and a call ensued for new codes of conduct.

By 1865 the “Dozen Rules” drawn up by the London Amateur Athletic Club were accepted by Parliament. They eventually became known as the Queensbury Rules, a code which still governs boxing today.

As Keating, in the Guardian article, says, the Heenan-Sayers clash was the fight that changed boxing forever.


John Carmel Heenan life and careerEncyclopaedia Britannica online edition: accessed September 29, 2018

John Carmel Heenan background and early fights: Redmond, Patrick R The Irish and the Making of American Sport 1835-1920. McFarland, 2015. pp23, 54, 234

Train accident: London Evening Standard, June 29 1864 Accessed via British Newspaper Library on line September 28, 2018


  • New York Clipper: 8 November 1873. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
  • South London Chronicle, 15 November 1873 Accessed via British Newspaper Library on line September 28, 2018


Heenan-Sayers fight

  • The Manchester Guardian, 16 April 1860
  • The prize fighter who left Derby a boxing hero but died a pauper” DerbyshireLive October 2017. Retrieved September 26, 2018 Lloyd, Alan. The Great Prize Fight. Cassell, 1977.
  • Arrest of John C Heenan: Morning Chronicle, April 10, 1860. Accessed via British Newspaper Library on line September 28, 2018
  • Miles, Henry Downes. Pugilistica.  J.Grant, 1906. pp. 419–443. Retrieved  September 29, 2018
  • East London Observer , July 7 1860 Accessed via British Newspaper Library on line September 28, 2018
  • Keating, Frank The Guardian April 14, 2010. Accessed September 28, 2018