Publish Date: 09/26/2021
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster
“My name is Libbie Splann. My stage name is Hattie Leslie,” confirmed the twenty-year-old woman sworn in before Judge Hatch of New York’s Superior Court, Criminal Term. Dressed entirely in black—a felt walking hat, a dress made of alpaca, and a stuff shawl—the young lady from Buffalo was seated in the witness box to give her firsthand testimony regarding the illegal prizefight that was held in a derelict barn on Navy Island, off Canadian waters of the Niagara River, two and a half weeks prior.
The fact that it occurred on the Sabbath, a day reserved for rest and religious observance, was the first of two chief complaints relative to the September 16, 1888 bout in question. Of more or less concern was that the two competitors were females—of whom Hattie Leslie was one. “I am a theatrical woman,” she elaborated. “My specialty is giving sparring exhibitions. I have been at it one and a half years.” She had also become well known on the theater circuit for her remarkable dexterity and raw power while handling the Indian clubs.
“There’s only one trouble with Hattie,” her husband and sparring partner John once confessed half-kiddingly. “She’s so beastly in earnest.” He expressed in no uncertain terms that, when it came to their boxing routine on the vaudeville stage, his wife “plays for keeps.” Her club swinging act helped Leslie remain in excellent physical condition at all times, and she was described as being endowed with “an Amazonian kind of prettiness.” A reporter dispatched to interview Hattie noted that her rounded muscles and “gladiatorial” neck were offset by “baby blue eyes” and a mouth “that is much more fitted to receive kisses than punches.”
Hattie had been among those arrested and indicted for violating social purity statutes enforced by Christian-based civic virtue groups such as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice which equated prizefighting with intemperance and prostitution as the handiwork of the devil himself. Taken into custody as well was her adversary Alice Leary, a serio-comic vaudevillian twenty-four years of age whose birth name was Barbara Dillon. After her initial detention and release, Leary had successfully evaded the law and was not present at the hearing.
Of the prizefight, District Attorney George T. Quinby remarked, “If this is not disgusting, I have nothing to say.” Though the female principals were not excused from recrimination, of course, he made it perfectly clear that they were less contemptible in his eyes than Leslie’s and Leary’s sponsors—George LaBlanche and Billy Baker, respectively—in addition to Hattie’s husband John, not to mention the handful of event organizers that the local police were able to apprehend and haul into court.
“Prizefights between men have perhaps been tolerated,” Quinby continued sanctimoniously, “but prizefights between women never. I think that the men who would engage in it must have forgotten the mother that bore them. They must have forgotten that their mother was a woman and I trust as an outcome of this affair that these men shall be severely punished at the hands of the law, and that never again can it be said that men can get together and pollute the honor of womanhood.”
Recently established at 191 Main Street in downtown Buffalo was an inn owned and operated by a French-Canadian expatriate by the name of Napoleon Prenevau. It was here, inside the Napoleon Hotel’s restaurant on the afternoon of July 11, that Hattie Leslie and Alice Leary met to sign the articles of agreement. The document stated: “We hereby agree to fight a fair stand up prizefight with skin tight gloves, according to the new rules of the London prize ring, to take place between August 23 and 27, place to be agreed on August 20, the fight to be for $500 a side and the championship of the world.”
Hailing from Bradford, Pennsylvania, the six-foot-tall Alice Leary was characterized as “quarrelsome” and “very handy with her fist.” It was further said that “she has not as much science as her opponent, but is more of a slugger.” Alice was accompanied to the Napoleon Hotel for the signing by her backer, Jack Kehoe. A fighter out of Pittsburgh, Kehoe had five months earlier dueled to a draw with a novice named Benny Strauss in a four-rounder at Buffalo’s Adelphia Theatre which was refereed by Billy Baker. Himself a boxer of some renown, Baker had previously squared off against the likes of ‘Nonpareil’ Jack Dempsey and Jack Burke, and would later scrap on three occasions with the legendary ‘Black Prince’ Peter Jackson. Kehoe would serve as co-trainer to Leary, alongside Charley Dwyer, and Baker would ultimately assume the role of Alice’s second for the fight itself.
Hattie Leslie’s walkaround weight was approximated at 180, or twenty pounds more than Alice Leary who was around 160 on any given day. By the time their fight actually happened in mid-September, after a few postponements which pushed the bout back from its intended date by roughly three weeks, the weight differential was exactly the same, as Leslie had trained down to 168 while Leary likewise shed twelve pounds to tip the scales at 148 on the day of.
In the late afternoon of Saturday, September 15, John Leslie conveyed both his wife and her opponent from Black Rock up the West River to the Niagara by canoe. No lodgings were available at Sheenwater, where they docked at seven in the evening, forcing them to proceed on foot to the McComb Hotel, a magnificent five-story structure on Grand Island where they had a late dinner of sandwiches and retired to their respective rooms to partake of a good night’s rest for the momentous day ahead.
The fight’s spectators, numbering somewhere around fifty, began their trek in the early morning hours, traveling up river on a barge through a teeming rain storm. They would pay five dollars each to attend the fight to produce a gate of $250 which would have to suffice for a winner-take-all prize for the competitors, since the $500 a side Leslie and Leary had agreed upon at the Napoleon Hotel back in July was evidently never put up by either party.
Seeing as though Navy Island had covertly played host to several prizefights (Billy Baker had contested three bouts there in recent months) as well as dog fights, it was considered the ideal destination for this rain-soaked landing party of ne’er-do-wells. An outdoors bout was impossible due to the inclement weather, so a nearby barn adjacent to an unoccupied house was cleared out with the use of pitchforks to make enough space suitable for a boxing ring—about eight feet wide by eighteen feet long. Conveniently, bales of hay were arranged in such a manner as to provide padded benches for the more fortunate onlookers, while others were left to tough it out on the barn floor. Reporters staked out a bird’s eye view of the action by clambering up onto exposed roof beams.
Meanwhile, a tug boat was dispatched to collect Hattie and Alice from the McComb Hotel at about six o’clock Sunday morning. Roused from their slumber, the women arrived an hour later and donned their fighting attire aboard the vessel before disembarking and making their appearance inside the barn shortly after eight.
Hattie Leslie, who would show up to the trial outfitted in nothing but black, conversely wore tights, skirts, and a sleeveless wrapper which were all pure white on the day of the bout. She was seconded by George LaBlanche, the fighting Marine from Quebec, Canada who briefly interrupted his boxing career by enlisting in the U.S. armed forces in late 1883. A good friend of John L. Sullivan, he put the pointers given to him by the ‘Boston Strong Boy’ to good use and was frequently asked to travel with John L.’s touring company which crisscrossed the map, giving boxing exhibitions in small towns and big cities along the way.
Among LaBlanche’s more notable donnybrooks were those opposite Jake Kilrain, Jimmy Carroll (on multiple occasions), and his personal nemesis ‘Nonpareil’ Jack Dempsey with whom he would squabble more than once over the world middleweight championship. LaBlanche was also no stranger to Alice Leary’s second, Billy Baker. The two had faced off against one another just eight days before, and Baker had enough fight left in him to take on Jack Fallon, known as ‘Brooklyn Strong Boy’—an obvious homage to John L. Sullivan’s moniker—the same night.
Leary, with her “Celtic cast of countenance” and “abundance of brown hair” that had been braided at the nape of her neck for the occasion, dressed for the fight in wine-colored tights pulled over black trunks and a white sleeveless wrapper similar to that worn by Hattie Leslie. At approximately quarter past eight, the two women shook hands—which were covered by skin-tight fingerless gloves, per their original agreement—and retreated to opposing corners where they sat on overturned peach baskets that served quite nicely as makeshift stools. A couple of local scrappers, Jack Leonard and ‘Fists’ Carroll, were appointed, somewhat spontaneously and after negligible debate, as referee and timekeeper, respectively.
Officiating under Marquees of Queensbury rules with rounds set to last three minutes, Jack Leonard called “time” and the women commenced to skirmish. After thirty seconds or so of feinting and cautious jabbing, Hattie Leslie landed the fight’s first blow with a right to Leary’s nose. Alice offered a rapid rejoinder by way of a shot to Leslie’s cheekbone. A left from Leslie clubbed Alice on the ear as hostilities resumed in round two. Hattie followed up with a barrage of body shots, one hitting Leary in the right breast. Shrinking away from the onslaught, Leary took a blow to the neck for her effort but, once resituated, managed to catch Hattie with a shot just below her left eye in retaliation.
The third round, which eyewitnesses all claim was much shorter than the rest, was a humdrum affair anyway, with nothing of consequence landed, much less thrown. Leslie and Leary made up for it in the following frame, taking turns knocking each other across the improvised ring and practically into the laps of the bystanders seated on blocks of hay. Alice opened a cut on Leslie’s face courtesy of a right hand to the mouth, violently mashing Hattie’s lips against her teeth. Despite George LaBlanche’s best efforts to wipe away the claret, Billy Baker called “first blood!” on behalf of his fighter which was acknowledged by referee Jack Leonard.
No doubt feeling full of herself, Leary greeted Hattie for round five with a disdainful smirk. Leslie promptly wiped it off her face with a right cross to Alice’s left eye. This set up another bombardment from which Leary once more attempted to duck and cover, turning her back and absorbing blows to the neck and liver as a result. Launching an unexpected sneak attack, Alice turned an abrupt about-face and socked Leslie in the mouth which got the blood flowing again. A three-punch combination from Hattie—connecting with her rival’s neck, jawline, and face—caused Leary’s opulent head of hair to come undone from its plait which required attention during the rest period.
Leslie scored the only significant blow over the following three minutes, a counterpunch to Alice’s cheek. Otherwise, the two women sparred defensively for the majority of round six, their lackadaisical output earning jeers from the impatient, bloodthirsty spectators. Billy Baker urged Alice to put forth a better effort in the seventh round, but it was pretty apparent that this wasn’t going to happen. With Leary looking visibly shaken and winded, George LaBlanche demanded that Hattie show her no compassion and go for the kill. She bumrushed Alice and struck her a blow in the face then three to the body before unleashing a wild torrent of punches, one of which closed Leary’s eye.
At the end of round seven, Alice pulled off her gloves in a show of capitulation and Billy Baker was left no choice but to throw in the sponge. Jack Leonard awarded the fight to Hattie Leslie, who was sporting a pair of shiners, and a $10 collection was taken up among the attendees as a consolation prize for Alice Leary. The participants and spectators alike set off down river in tugs and scows shortly after the bout’s conclusion, returning to Black Rock right around noon.
News of the fight spread fast, and reports began to appear as early as the afternoon editions of the Monday papers beneath rather uncomplimentary headlines such as Women Not Ladies, A Disgraceful Match Between Amazons Near Buffalo, and Dainty Features Cut and Bruised by Hard Gloves. The Buffalo Times declared, in its account of the punch-up, that “it seemed repugnant and unnatural to see two women fighting.”
Well before the newsprint was even dry, the local authorities had been tipped off and begun their roundup. Hattie and Alice were both collared, and Billy Baker had already been arraigned on charges of “aiding and abetting a prizefight.” He was released after posting $200 bail, and George LaBlanche had avoided capture, momentarily anyway, by fleeing for New York City. Hattie’s husband John was naturally branded as a person of interest, as was John Floss who had given the couple $15 to cover training expenses. Each and every one, of course, pleaded not guilty.
District Attorney Quinby was tasked with interrogating the defendants during October’s Superior Court hearings, beginning with Hattie Leslie. Quinby requested that she begin by identifying the guilty parties, which, given little choice in the matter,
she proceded to do. Hattie then ran through her recollections of the prizefight which were contrary to certain accounts read aloud by Quinby.
Two reporters—Walter Nurrey, who was present at the fight, and F.C. Gram, who was not—were called on next to offer their testimony, but it was said to amount to nothing in the way of collaboration with either the defense or prosecution other than to attest to the fact that John Floss did not attend the bout. This was consistent with the eyewitness accounts subsequently given by Frank G. Smith and Charles H. Thomas, sporting editors of the Commercial and Courier out of Buffalo, respectively, neither of whom offered nor confirmed any incriminating evidence one way or the other.
Following the afternoon recess, a motion to acquit was put forth by the defense attorney, one Mr. Thomas, based on his premise that “there had not been any prize fight, and that the battle was simply a friendly one to gain notoriety.” Not surprisingly, the motion was denied by Judge Hatch. Lastly, Hattie Leslie’s husband John was called forth and he confessed under oath to having played a role in arranging the contest.
The jury returned after a brief deliberation with guilty verdicts for everyone involved. Sentencing was handed down for the guilty parties the following day, with John Leslie and Billy Baker given the stiffest penalties—six months’ hard labor. George LaBlanche and John Floss were each to serve three-month prison sentences.
Incredibly enough for the two women, Alice Leary’s indictment was dismissed and Hattie Leslie was deemed free to go.
Margaret Frisbee. The Fight of the Century: The Regulation and Reform of Prizefighting in Progressive Era America (University of New Mexico Digital Repository, August 17, 2011)
Women in the Ring: Two Dames Training for a Prizefight at Buffalo, NY (Crawford County Forum, July 13, 1888)
A Sunday Mill: Hattie Leslie and Alice Leary Fight Seven Rounds (Buffalo Times, September 17, 1888)
Hattie Leslie Wins (Buffalo Evening News, September 17, 1888)
Women Not Ladies (Argus-Leader, September 18, 1888)
Women in the Ring: A Disgraceful Match Between Amazons Near Buffalo (Wilkes-Barre Sunday News, September 23, 1888)
Hattie Leslie Swears (Buffalo Evening News, October 3, 1888)
Pugilists Sentenced to Imprisonment (Bucyrus Evening Telegraph, October 6, 1888)
Obituary: Napoleon Prenevau (The Buffalo Commercial, January 2, 1909)