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Deaf Burke



deaf burke-1James "Deaf" Burke (1809-1845), 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m) tall, weighing 200 lb (90 kg), was one of England's earliest boxing champions. He trained in the area around the River Thames.

James "Deaf" Burke (1809-1845), 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m) tall, weighing 200 lb (90 kg), was one of England's earliest boxing champions. He trained in the area around the River Thames.

In 1833, in a particularly brutal fight for the English heavyweight championship, Burke defeated Simon Byrne, knocking him unconscious. Byrne died three days later and Burke was promptly arrested and tried for Byrne's murder, but he was acquitted on 11 July 1833 and subsequently freed. The reigning English champion Jem Ward, who had retired rather than face Burke in the ring, refused to hand over the championship belt, and Burke was not acknowledged as heavyweight champion. Following this event Burke found it nearly impossible to obtain opponents in Britain and went to America. Later, after his return from America, he fought a bout with Ward's younger brother Nick Ward. Burke lost this match when he was disqualified when the crowd convinced the referee he had struck an unfair blow. [1]

Burke fought internationally but refused to fight Irish champion Sam O'Rourke in Ireland. Byrne had been the Irish champion and Burke was afraid of the hostile crowd he would encounter in Ireland, so O'Rourke went to the United States and from there jeered at Burke's lack of courage. In response, Burke too went to the United States, thus escaping the stigma of having killed his opponent. Burke and O'Rourke fought in New Orleans. As the fight progressed, the pro-Irish crowd, remembering Byrne, joined the violent brawl and Burke ran away on a horse, fleeing for his life.

Burke in 1840 made one last attempt for the English championship when he fought Jem Ward's brother Nick. The fight ended in disarray when Ward's gang forced the referee to disqualify Burke for an alleged foul.

At the age of 36, Burke died at home of tuberculosis on 8 January 1845 in Francis Street, Waterloo, London. He is buried in St John's Church-yard, Norwood. [2]

One hundred and forty-seven years later in 1992, he was added to the International Boxing Hall Of Fame.







 First Impression, October, 1922



ON the retirement of Tom Spring the championship fell to Jem Ward, who held it for many years. He was followed by Deaf Burke, whose fight with Simon Byrne is the subject of this chapter. This, as will be seen, was a disastrous fight, in that the unfortunate Byrne died immediately after it. It is, however, necessary to give some details of the circumstances, because Byrne's death was typical of the sort of accident that occasionally happened in connection with the Prize-Ring, and has since happened more than once in connection with modern boxing. I say "in connection," rather awkwardly like that because, as will be discovered presently, the fight in these cases is only the occasion and not the actual cause of mortal injury.

The battle in question was fought at No Man's Land, in Hertfordshire, for 100 a side on May 30th, 1833. Almost exactly three years before, Byrne had fought and beaten a man named McKay, who died next day. Byrne had been tried for manslaughter and acquitted. The circumstances of the death of both were somewhat similar: and there is no doubt that McKay's death preyed upon Byrne's mind. In the first place we find that Simon Byrne was grossly out of condition before he went into training. He weighed 15 stone, and reduced himself to 13 stone 4 Ib. " An effort which," Belts Life in London tells us, "as it was effected by hard work and sweating, somewhat impaired his natural stamina, especially as, his habits being far from abstemious when in Ireland, he was scarcely fitted to undergo the necessary amount of labour." That is, no doubt, the explanation of the tragedy, as it has been the explanation of other tragedies, one of which is within comparatively So recent memory. 

 As a rule, the modern champion is a teetotaller, and generally speaking " takes care of himself." He lives not merely a "reasonable life," but a life, physically speaking, devoted to one end. His health comes before everything else. It is, for better or for worse, a restrained, careful, hygienic age anyhow for boxers with pretensions. But in the old days, the righting men alternated between bouts of the wildest debauchery and the most violently severe training. No wonder they died young. No wonder that the sudden abstention from artificial stimulant combined with over-hard work and culminating in the prolonged strain and pain of a desperate battle occasionally killed them. The wonder is that there were not more deaths from a like cause. 

Deaf Burke, on the other hand, was young and healthy, and in high spirits. He was seconded by Tom Gaynor and Dick Curtis, Byrne by Tom Spring and Jem Ward. On stripping, Burke was seen to be in perfect condition, but Byrne looked still a little too fleshy and had no special show of muscle upon him. He had a good deal of advantage in height. Burke was the favourite but not at greater odds than 5-4, or guineas to pounds. In the days of bare knuckles there was generally a certain amount of " honour "to be gained by achieving the first knockdown, or drawing first blood. There was often betting on the subject, anyhow on the former event. In the first round of this match a good deal of amusement was caused by Burke. Byrne

hit him on the nose and made him sniff. Whereupon Byrne called out, "First blood!" Burke deliberately wiped his nose with his finger and showed it to his opponent unstained. Then they went at it again, and before long the Irishman was seen to be bleeding at the mouth. But at the same moment Burke's nose did begin to bleed, so the umpires and the referee decided that it was a tie. 

The second round found both the men in the best of good tempers, and the hitting was even. Towards the end of this set-to there was a fierce rally in which both gave heavy punishment. They closed, and Byrne threw Deaf Burke and fell upon him. Burke's defence was the sounder, but his antagonist was the better wrestler. In the fourth round Byrne swung his right with tremendous force at his man's head, and had the blow landed on the jaw it might well have finished the battle. But Burke moved forward at that moment and the blow caught him on the back of the head with much of its force spent, and no particular damage was done. There was some good fighting in the next round. Each landed a hard left, and then Byrne stepped back, landing a splendidly timed upper-cut with his right as Burke came in. Then he closed and hurled the " Deaf 'un" down. Jem Ward derisively asked Burke from Byrne's corner " How did you like that ?" and Burke grinned. 

Byrne's hand was now beginning to swell from the effects of his tremendous punch in the fourth round. He again threw Burke, who appeared none the worse for it. He was hitting the oftener, Byrne the harder: but the Irishman's best blows did not get through the other man's defence. Both were badly marked, however, and before the fight had lasted three-quarters of an hour, had revived themselves with brandy. By the eighteenth round they were getting slow. Burke had a primitive ruse which he employed from time to time of looking at his man's body and grimacing and then bringing up his fist to the head. He tried this now with eminent success. In the next round Byrne received a very hard blow under the ear, not by any means the first, which must have done him more harm than he knew at the moment. He fought back, however, and landed on Burke's nose and again on the eye, when Burke lowered his hands for a moment to wipe them on his breeches. " Loud laughter at Burke's expense," says the writer in Bell's Life. The first knock-down was administered by Byrne in the twenty-seventh round. After that Byrne had distinctly the best of it for some time. He threw Burke with terrific force on his head in the twenty-ninth round and in the next hit him so severely about the body as to make him sick. Burke was evidently weak, and Byrne seemed to have the fight in his hand. He threw his opponent again and again, rushing him to the ropes and hitting him severely before closing. The responsible officials ought now to have stopped the fight, there is no excuse for them whatever. What followed was sheer beastliness and nothing else. Burke and Byrne are in no wise to blame. 

Both fought until they were virtually senseless. Both tried to be, quite roughly speaking, fair in the forty-third round Tom Cannon, a well-known bruiser and a backer of Deaf Burke, broke, with others, into the ring and began to curse Burke. " Get up and fight, Deaf 'un," he shouted. "D'ye mean to make a cross of it ?

"With some difficulty Cannon and the rest were expelled from the ring, and the fight, if fight it can be called, went on. Both men were now nearly exhausted, but Deaf Burke, urged by his seconds, went in with all his remaining strength and punished Byrne severely. In the forty-ninth round the Irishman came to grass very weak, and Burke became favourite again. And so it went on till the ninety-ninth round, now one and now the other having some slight advantage. Once, his supporters seeing Burke down and apparently unconscious hailed Byrne as the winner : but at the call of time, Dick Curtis, his second, brought Burke up to the scratch, where he stood with indomitable pluck, ready to go on fighting. Byrne's chances had finally gone when both his hands became so"puffed" that he was unable to strike a single blow which could hurt his opponent, let alone knock him out. 

Later on, the supporters of the men on either side, apart from their seconds, crowded round them and sprinkled water on them during the progress of the rounds, and fanned them with their hats. And the ring was the centre of pandemonium. The crowd yelled and yelled again for one or other, Burke or Byrne. What cared they that the men had long ago fought themselves to exhaustion, so long as the technical decision was obtained, the decision which would decide the bets ? And there are men now who complain that we are a softened race because we don't allow this sort of thing. . . .Burke remained slightly the stronger. Latterly he seldom "hit" except with his open hand, but it was enough to send his antagonist down. And yet in the ninety-first round Byrne managed to trip him and fall on him, so that once again the Irishman's chances were favoured. Then Burke, answering the curses and the cheers, managed to knock Byrne down rather harder than usual. And that was the last change. After that Byrne was carried to the scratch virtually insensible, literally dazed. He could just stand unsupported long enough for Burke to put out his hand and topple him over. He made pitiful efforts to put out his left to stop the " Deaf 'un." But it was of no use. 

At last he fell unconscious on the grass, and Tom Spring and Ward with all their skill sousing him with water, forcing brandy between his mutilated lips, biting his ears could not bring him round. And half of the crowd deliriously cheered Deaf Burke as Champion of England. Two days after this Simon Byrne died. The coroner's jury brought in a verdict of manslaughter against Burke, as "principal in the first degree," and the four seconds, together with the umpires and the referee, as "principals in the second degree." 

These men were tried at the Hertford Assizes, and on the surgeon's evidence acquitted. The cause of death was the congestion of blood in the brain. The surgeon also gave the opinion that the intense disappointment of losing the fight lessened his chances of recovery. When he regained consciousness, Byrne believed that he would die; and this very fact, aided by his way of living " out of training," no doubt aggravated his condition. 

This is probably true : but the umpires and the referee deserved the most abusive censure.Before the trial the sum of 262 was collected for Byrne's widow: but when the trial was safely and satisfactorily over, one hundred guineas were subscribed in order to present a service of plate to the editor of Bell's Life,"as a token of the respect in which he was held, not only by the men who had recently undergone their trial, and whose defence he had conducted, but also for the manner in which he had invariably conducted the cause of fair play. ..."