April 18: A Deadly Boxing Match in Waterbury


Even though it had been a documented pastime for millennia, amateur (or “Olympic-style”) boxing experienced a popular renaissance in the United States during the turn of the twentieth century, thanks to celebrity heavyweights like John L. Sullivan and the inclusion of the sport in the 1904 Olympic games.  During the early twentieth century, amateur boxing matches weren’t hard to find in the cities of Connecticut, although one infamous example of a boxing match gone wrong underscores just how dangerous the sport could be, despite attempts to regulate it.

On April 17, 1911, a large crowd gathered in Waterbury’s Turn Hall to witness a refereed boxing exhibition between two local men, Joseph Clancy and William Luke.  Nearly two minutes into the fourth round, Clancy knocked out Luke and was declared the winner.  Luke then stumbled into his dressing room and fell into a coma from which he never recovered.

The next morning, after receiving the news that Luke had died, local authorities began an extensive investigation.  News of Luke’s death after participating in a popular and highly-publicized sporting event was rendered even more tragic by the wife and four children he left behind.  Police soon arrested both Joseph Clancy and the referee, Daniel Bulkley, and charged them both with manslaughter.  Two days after the fateful fight, the state’s deputy coroner performed an autopsy and determined Luke had died of a brain hemorrhage.  However, the autopsy also revealed that Luke had been suffering from severe kidney failure.  Upon hearing the coroner’s professional opinion that “the man’s kidney’s were so diseased that he was in no condition to enter the ring,” Clancy and Bulkley were both released from police custody.

The news of William Luke’s death after a refereed boxing match appeared in a number of news roundups in urban newspapers across the United States owing to the national popularly of amateur boxing — a tragic cautionary tale from the annals of Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Fighter Dies; Two Arrests,” New York Times