John L Sullivan, Champion of Champions

John L Sullivan at Hollow Tree

John L Sullivan and his wife at the Hollow Tree in Stanley Park. Source: Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, #WA MSS S-2513

John L Sullivan, aka the “Boston Strong Boy,” was the first sports superstar. After winning the heavyweight boxing title in 1882, he went on to become the first athlete to earn over a million dollars, although he spent money faster than it came in. With his robust paunch and the stiff, upright boxing pose popular in early boxing pics, he doesn’t appear very menacing to the modern eye, but before the introduction of the Queensberry Rules, boxing was a bloody, brutal, bare-knuckle affair that was outlawed in many jurisdictions.

The last bare-knuckle title fight was between Sullivan and Jake Kilrain in 1889. The bout drew a few thousand fight fans from all over to Richburg, Mississippi, even though the location and and exact time were kept secret as long as possible because boxing was illegal in that state. The time-keeper was Bat Masterson, the gunslinging lawman most famous for cleaning up Dodge City, Kansas. Sullivan won, successfully defending his title after 75 rounds in the 106° F heat, making him the last bare-knuckle champion and cementing his status as one of the most famous people in the world.

John L Sullivan Jake Kilrain fight

The seventh round of the John L Sullivan and Jake Kilrain bare-knuckle fight, Mississippi, 8 July 1889. Photo from WikiMedia Commons.

When John L first came to Vancouver on 8 January 1892, it wasn’t for a boxing match, but to star in a play at the Vancouver Opera House on Granville Street. He was the biggest draw the venue had to date, though the papers felt compelled to manage readers’ expectations around John L’s acting skills, comparing him to the trained animal acts that graced vaudeville stages. Aware of Sullivan’s notorious heavy drinking, the theatre assured audiences that the show would not offend; Sullivan was “keeping perfectly sober,” they said, and “no ‘scenes’ are expected to occur here.”

The show went off without a hitch and Sullivan received a three minute standing ovation, but declined to make a speech as he did in San Francisco when he told the crowd, “I know I ain’t no actor, but I gets the money just the same, see!” People flocked to see the great John L, the pugilist, not a seasoned thespian, but they did get a kick out of his performance, especially when he spoke of “me dear old mudder.” Later that year, Sullivan’s reign as heavyweight champ ended when “Gentleman” Jim Corbett famously knocked him out in New Orleans. His prizefighting career was winding down but his stage career had only begun.

John L Sullivan

John L Sullivan. Photo from

When he returned to the Opera House in 1899, John L had been “cured of the idea that he can act.” In a show called “A Trip Across the Ocean,” Sullivan was joined by his old bare-knuckle nemesis, Jake Kilrain. The pair showed off their boxing prowess “without their somewhat painful attempts to do what they used to do,” leaving the acting to the professionals in the cast.

John L Sullivan was fond of Vancouver and returned many times, along with Kilrain and various other boxers. Unlike other athletes past their prime, John L remained extremely popular and consistently drew large crowds. When he and Kilrain performed at the Pantages in 1909, hundreds were turned away each night and police were needed to clear the sidewalks. He was still considered the “Champion of Champions” and widely admired for his role in turning boxing from a barbaric, underground pastime to a legitimate sport. Even Jack Johnson, who had criticized Sullivan for refusing to take on black challengers for the heavyweight title, praised him for always being “on the level” and accepted John L’s offer to referee his 1910 Reno match with Jim Jeffries for no money.

John L and Kilrain World 10Sept1910

John L Sullivan and Jack Kilrain demonstrating boxing techniques, Vancouver Daily World, 10 September 1910.

Sullivan deepened his relationship with Vancouver with each visit. In addition to his stage appearances, John L spent time with aspiring young pugilists at the Vancouver Athletic Club, refereeing one of their boxing matches and giving them advice; guest-edited the sports section of the Vancouver Daily World; arranged for local cinemas to show rare boxing films and slides from his personal collection; and umpired a baseball game.

John L editing the sports page of the Vancouver Daily World, 26 February 1909.

John L editing the sports page of the Vancouver Daily World, 26 February 1909.

John L’s second career as a vaudeville attraction proved almost as lucrative as his boxing career, and he was finally able to settle down on a farm he bought outside his hometown of Boston with his new wife. He also spent $10,000 on property in Vancouver’s Point Grey and considered building a house and spending part of the year here in his retirement, but it looks like it remained just an investment property. He explained to a reporter in 1913 that he regretted not investing in Vancouver real estate much earlier:

I have lots of friends in Vancouver. It’s thirty years since I was first here, and my last visit was three years ago. I could kick myself in forty different places at once when I think of the lost opportunities in life. I always had a notion Vancouver would be a great town some day. I was right enthusiastic for its future and more than once had a notion of investing a thousand or so here when the place was little more than a fish camp. I am more than ever enthusiastic now. But money was ‘easy-come’ those days and it looked like the stream would never stop flowing, so it was just as ‘easy-go.’ Think what a thousand invested then would mean now.

John L Sullivan in Vancouver, from the Vancouver Daily World, 5 Jan. 1892, 18 Apr. 1899, 20 Feb. 1909, 16 Sep. 1910, and 3 Mar. 1913.

John L Sullivan in Vancouver, from the Vancouver Daily World, 5 Jan. 1892, 18 Apr. 1899, 20 Feb. 1909, 16 Sep. 1910, and 3 Mar. 1913.

John L Sullivan died on his Massachusetts farm on 2 Februrary 1918. Jake Kilrain was an usher at his funeral.

A Temple for Labour

Entrance to the newly renovated Labor Temple. Photo by me.

Entrance to the newly renovated Labor Temple. Photo by me.

With the destruction of old buildings getting so much attention in Vancouver these days, it’s good to stop once in a while and notice the survivors. The old Labor Temple at 411 Dunsmuir Street has recently undergone a major renovation, including seismic upgrades and an addition in the rear, though without the cornice, it still doesn’t look as good as architect Thomas Hooper’s original design. The anchor tenant is a White Spot on the ground floor, and while the building’s original function as a gathering place for organized labour has long moved on, Local 40 has offices there.

Labor Hall demo 1910

Demolition of the Labor Hall and former Homer Street Methodist Church to make way for the new Labor Temple, 1910. Photo by Philip T Timms, City of Vancouver Archives #677-724

The Labor Temple was built to replace the Labor Hall, an old Methodist church on the same site that the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council (VTLC) acquired in 1899 after the Methodists decided to move to Burrard Street. The Labor Hall was a very busy place that hosted talks by the likes of Emma Goldman and Eugene V Debs, and soon became too small

The new building opened in the spring of 1913. It cost about a hundred and fifty thousand dollars and included meeting halls, a large billiards room in the basement, a lounge for unemployed workers, a print shop, a cooperative store to provide low cost goods to workers, and offices for the VTLC, the Socialist Party, and individual unions.

Labor Temple architect drawing 11Mar1911

Architect Thomas Hooper’s original design for the Labor Temple. Vancouver Daily World, 11 March 1911

The Temple’s early days were pretty raucous times for organized labour in Vancouver. The same year construction began, the city was slammed by a recession and the related Free Speech Fights. Over on Vancouver Island, the most vicious labour battle in BC’s history raged in Nanaimo from 1912 until 1914.

The Labor Temple was a stop for many prominent and sometimes militant union leaders passing through town. Mother Jones is perhaps the most well known. Even though she was a five-foot-nothing octogenarian when she came in 1914, the BC government tried to bar her entry into Canada because they feared she would try and inspire striking coal miners on the Island, which she did. Other notorious speakers included IWW co-founder Big Bill Haywood and Lucy Parsons, the outspoken widow of Haymarket Riot martyr Albert Parsons, who lectured Vancouverites on lessons from the French Revolution.

Photo of the Labor Temple from the BC Federationist, 6 February 1914

Photo of the Labor Temple from the BC Federationist, 6 February 1914

The Labor Temple also hosted many events around the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and the hall was often packed for US, British, and local suffragettes, likely due to the influence of Helena Gutteridge, a British suffragette and trade unionist who moved to Vancouver in 1911 and became deeply involved in both movements locally.

Helena Gutteridge was working at the Labor Temple during Canada’s first General Strike that was sparked by the police killing of union organizer Ginger Goodwin in 1918. As part of their strikebreaking effort, employers sent a mob of soldiers to the Temple to intimidate and harass union organizers. The soldiers trashed the place, threw documents out the window and attempted to do the same with two union leaders.

A mob of soldiers attacking the Labor Temple during the 1919 General Strike, called in sympathy with the Winnipeg General Strike. Vancouver Daily World, 3 August 1918

A mob of soldiers attacking the Labor Temple during the 1918 General Strike called following the death of Ginger Goodwin. Vancouver Daily World, 3 August 1918

During another general strike in 1919, tensions were heightened by the placement of machine guns atop the Beatty Street Drill Hall a few blocks to the east, which strike supporters complained were aimed at the Labor Temple to intimidate strikers. (More realistically, the guns were well within range of the Cambie Street Grounds, a popular site for rallies across the street).

It wasn’t just militants who made use of the Labor Temple; the conservative Vancouver Police Union also got its start there in 1918 as one of Canada’s first police unions.

Emma Goldman gave two lectures on anarchism at the Labour Temple on Dunsmuir Street in December 1908.

411 Dunsmuir in 2010, before renovations. Photo by me.

Ultimately the Labor Temple became a casualty of this radical period in Vancouver’s history. The VTLC split into two factions, one supporting international unions and the other the homegrown One Big Union of Winnipeg General Strike fame. The split paralyzed the VTLC’s ability to meet the financial obligations of the Labor Temple. The provincial government purchased the building and repurposed it as the first home of Van Tech high school. The province retained ownership of the building until a few years ago when it sold it to Omicron and CRS Group of Companies, the current owners. Labour’s Vancouver temple is now the Maritime Labour Centre on Victoria Drive, an unsightly but functional meeting hall and headquarters for the Vancouver District Labour Council (the VTLC’s current name) that features a fabulous 1940s mural by Fraser Wilson.