Lamar County, Mississippi Genealogy and History


Pamela J. Gibbs County Coordinator

Lori Thornton,  State Coordinator
Deb Haines
, Assistant State Coordinator

WPA History of Lamar County,




        One of the leading historical events of Lamar County occurred  July 8, 1889 but might be termed a national event; we have reference to the noted fistic battle between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain which occurred at the little town of Richburg, near Purvis.

        The mighty John L. Sullivan, a giant in stature and strength, had just clipped the wings of Paddy Ryan at Mississippi City and like Alexander the Great he was seeking other fields to conquer. About this time there appeared on the horizon of possibilities, one Jake Kilrain, a young man from Baltimore, Maryland, who had a wonderful record as a pugilist and who was ready to accept the gage of battle.

        Negotiations begun for a contest between these rival pugilists, but difficulties at once arose which had to be overcome before they could be brought together. Prize fighting was outlawed then in Mississippi as well as in several other southern states.

        Charlie Rich, a noted sportsman and operator of a large sawmill at Richburg desired that Richburg should be the place of contest.

        Governor Lowry received an inkling that an effort would be made to bring the fight to Richburg. He issued a proclamation forbidding the contest to be held in Mississippi and instructed Walter Cowart, Sheriff of Marion County, and his deputy, Otho Magee, to prevent the contest. He also authorized them to swear in several deputies to assist them in preventing this disorder.

        On the day set for the fight special trains began to roll into the little town of Richburg from every direction and soon the entire hill was a seething mass of humanity determined to brave the fight.

        A prize ring was erected and a little conference was held in the home of Charlie Rich nearby and probably a few drinks were distributed and with a whoop and a yell John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain entered the prize ring and there followed one of the most memorable fistic bouts recorded in the annals of prize fighting.

        The contest lasted through 72 rounds. It must be remembered however that the fight was governed by the London Prize Rules instead of the Marquis of Queensbury Rules which generally govern prize fights today.

        According to the London Prize Ring Rules a round lasted until one of the contestants fell or was knocked down and it seemed to be the idea of Kilrain to worry his protagonist by dodging and evading him until he was so worried and annoyed that he would gain the advantage over his heavier and possibly more clumsy adversary.

        It will be remembered that it was these identical tactics that were pursued by James Corbett when he dethroned the mighty John L. in their memorable battle in New Orleans (illegible) years later.

        During the latter part of the fight Kilrain would fall to the ground every time Sullivan would strike him or even make a motion to strike. This plan of Kilrain failed to succeed and Sullivan finally knocked him out in the 72nd round.

        The contest was fought with bare fists.

        In present day such battles for attention yield to trimmings and paraphernalia than to physical manhood of the participants in the bout. It reminds one of the (illegible)ing the game cocks in the pit with steel spurs.

        The wanton invasion of the state of Mississippi in violation of her laws and in the face of a solemn proclamation of warning issued by the Supreme Authority of the state incensed the governor to high pitch. He felt that to be defied by thugs from the North who trampled upon our laws without hesitation was more than any patriotic citizen of the state, charged with the orderly conduct of its affairs and people could stand. Governor Lowry immediately set about to have these violators of our laws arrested and returned to Mississippi for prosecution. He had very little trouble in getting processes served and requisition granted. The first to be returned for trial was the major offender, John L. Sullivan. With him came a large coterie of his friends, several of whom were co-defendants. An immense crowd of people gathered at Purvis for the trial. Hotel accommodations were limited as Holleman's Hotel, the only hostelry of any note in the town, hung out the S. R. O. sign. I have heard H. S. Yawn, who was the Superintendent of the high school there at the time, state that he occupied a small room with two beds and had as his roommates Judge S. H. Ferrell who presided at the trial, Gen. R. S. Ford, principal council for the defense and Judge Neville, Prosecuting attorney. Lionel Adams of New Orleans, Marcolias Green of Jackson, Mississippi, and others were associated with Gen. Ford, members of Sullivan's defense council. The grand jury was duly impaneled with instructions to make due and diligent inquiry into this apparent violation of law. After deliberating for a couple of days they reported no true bill, whereupon Judge Ferrell summoned them to appear before him and proceeded to give them such a lecture as has seldom been delivered to any grand jury. He stated to them that there was no doubt that state law had been violated and that there were numbers of witnesses all over the ground that would testify to this fact, and that if they did not reconvene and proceed to do their duty that he would fire the whole panel bodily. It was only a few hours before a bill of indictment was brought in. The machinery of the Court was then ready to begin operations.

        Among Sullivan's friends who came with him from New York was a noted sportsman, Mat Clune. He also stood trial and took his medicine with the balance. Billy Muldoon, who was Sullivan's trainer and who at that time was the champion wrestler of the world, was also present and notwithstanding his affability and Chesterfieldan bearings, marched up before the tribunal and accepted his medicine with a winsome smile and a gracious bow. By the way, Billy Muldoon lived to a ripe old age and passed away only a few months ago. At the time of his death he was one of the three members of the Boxing Commission of the City of New York and had been for a number of years. He, therefore, enjoyed the distinction of being the King of Madison Square Garden.

        Another celebrated personage who participated in the prize fight as referee entered a plea of guilty and received a fine of $1000. This was no less a person than John Fitzpatrick, Mayor of the city of New Orleans. As soon as the Judge announced the amount of his fine he pulled out a roll of green backs and began to peel off one hundred dollar bills, handing them to the Sheriff. A young lawyer by the name of Perryman from New Augusta became so excited that he exclaimed, "Judge, you should have fined him twice that amount. Look at the money he has got." The Judge mildly rebuked him and said something about fining him for contempt of court. "Judge, don't do that, I couldn't pay a fine of two bits," remarked Perryman.

        Most of the accused entered a plea of guilty and received fines arranging from $5.00 to $1000.

        John L. Sullivan's trial was deferred until the last. He and his friends also expected the imposition of a fine and of course were exultant feeling that a nominal fine would readily be paid and that he would be released from custody.

        Kilrain was not arrested and brought to Purvis for trial until nearly two weeks after Sullivan's trial had begun.

        When Sullivan's case was submitted to the jury they were out only a few minutes and brought in a verdict of guilty. When the Judge requested Sullivan to stand up for sentence and propounded the usual question as to whether he had anything to say why the sentence of the court should not be pronounced against him, he replied with the confident air of assurance, "Judge, I am no speaker but I want the court to be as lenient with me as possible." Thereupon Judge Ferrell pronounced the staggering sentence, "Mr. Sullivan, I sentence you to serve twelve months in the county jail." This was one of the times Sullivan was completely knocked out. Of course Sullivan's lawyers at once took an appeal to the Supreme Court of the state.

        After considerable delay and much squabbling the Supreme Court threw the case out and dismissed it on the technicality of a faulty indictment. The indictment alleged in verbiage substantially as follows, "On a certain day one John L. Sullivan did enter a ring, known as a prize ring and did then and there engage in what is commonly known as a prize fight against the peace and dignity of the State of Mississippi" The Supreme Court held that since the indictment did not allege that Kilrain fought with Sullivan that this omission was fatal to the indictment. This decision has been much criticized in the years gone by.

        As we have already said Kilrain's trial followed the conclusion of Sullivan's trial immediately, and Kilrain having seen the handwriting on the wall entered a plea of guilty and likewise was sentenced to twelve months in the county jail. At that time there was a state law which permitted any person to lease convicts upon payment of a fixed sum to the state. Charlie Rich promptly paid the amount due the state for the twelve months lease of Jake Kilrain. Dad Cowan who was living at Richburg at the time and who witnessed the fight states that Kilrain visited the mill a few times during the twelve months and handled a few dolly loads of lumber, that Kilrain and Charlie Rich spent most of their time in New Orleans, and that it was during this period that Kilrain had his famous bout with Jim Hall, another noted pugilist of the day. He knocked Hall out after several rounds of furious fighting. This ends the story of one of the most famous prize ring battles that ever occurred.

        Sullivan has been dead for several years but will probably always be regarded as one of the most popular pugilists that ever lived. Kilrain received a terrible punishment at the hands of Sullivan from which he suffered for several weeks but on his recovery and on the expiration of his term of services to Charlie Rich he returned to his native city, Baltimore, where we understand he has since led an honorable upright life commanding the highest respect of his fellow citizens. He has a son to whom he devotes much time in athletic training, but asserts that his boy shall never enter a prize-ring if he can prevent it.

        In concluding this story we must be impressed with the fact that no matter how diligent we may be in our effort to suppress crime and how honest our effort may be as citizens and officials to do this, we can not always be wholly successful. The trial of Sullivan and Kilrain was an honest effort on the part of the law abiding citizens of Lamar County to punish wrong doing. The Judge in the case, S. H. Ferrell, who adorned later the Supreme Court bench of the state with distinction, was fair and just in all his rulings in the case. Not one of these were questioned or formed the basis of exception on the part of any attorney for the prosecution, yet all of this precaution and all of the expense incurred on the part of the county and state came to naught, yielding to the onslaught of the lawyer, hiding behind the screen of senseless technicalities.
        We have said that this trial took place soon after the town of Purvis was established. The second Judicial District of Marion County having just been granted. Purvis having been established as the County seat of this district, a temporary court house had been erected just east of the site of the present site of the courthouse. It was a frame building, flimsily erected and not at all sufficient to accommodate the immense crowd that gathered for this trial.


        John L. Sullivan, world famous pugilist and once heavyweight champion of the world was given his second and final knockout last Saturday, this time by death. Any mention of Sullivan is of more than ordinary interest to Marion Countians as some of the most important events of his life are also events in the history of the county. One of the greatest fights ever staged in the pugilistic world was fought at Richburg, then in Marion County now in Lamar County, between Sullivan and Jake Kilrain in the summer of 1889. A great many of our present citizens witnessed the fight. In fact Sheriff Webb at the command of Governor Stone with a number of deputies went to Richburg to arrest and imprison the pugilists and the promoters but they were merely given admission and the fight was called. In the 71st round Sullivan decided the day in his favor, giving him the well merited title of Heavy Weight Champion of the World, together with a purse of about $20,000.

        Immediately after the fight the pugilists fled the state, but Sullivan returned upon learning that he had been indicted. He was tried at Purvis Mississippi and was convicted and fined $1,000. The fine was promptly paid. Kilrain returned later, and he too was tried and convicted. He drew a jail sentence and Charlie Rich, chief promoter of the fight hired him out.

        A few years later Sullivan made a tour of the United States, offering $100 to the person who would knock him out. He knocked out fifty men on that tour. However, he afterward met his Waterloo at New Orleans, Louisiana. Here, after a siege of dissipation he was handed the knockout by James J. Corbett. In after years he is said to have contended that it was not Corbett but John Barleycorn that defeated him. He accordingly addressed himself to the task of handing Johnny the knockout, in which he was successful. This last victory and not the knockout of Kilrain he claimed was the greatest victory of his life. The Columbian, Feb. 7, 1918.

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Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007  by Pamela J. Gibbs except where otherwise noted.


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