April 18: The Punch That Killed


A popular pastime for millennia, amateur (or “Olympic-style”) boxing experienced a 20th-century renaissance in the United States, thanks to celebrity heavyweights like John L. Sullivan and the inclusion of the sport in the 1904 Olympic games. During the early 1900s, amateur boxing matches were common in Connecticut cities. One infamous example of an amateur boxing match gone wrong, however, underscores how dangerous the sport could be.

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 landed a punch that knocked Luke out and was declared the winner. Luke stumbled into his dressing room, then fell into a coma and never recovered.

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

Because of the popularity of amateur boxing, reports of William Luke’s death in a refereed boxing match appeared in urban newspapers across the United States. –A killer punch produced a tragic cautionary tale, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Fighter Dies; Two Arrests,” New York Times