Boston’s 1956 May Queen was not your usual suspect. The organizers of that year’s event decided to go against the grain and coronate not an aspiring debutante or a bubbly bobbysoxer, but an elderly three-time widow from the South End who had also buried every one of her eight children. Her current husband, whom she had wed less than a year prior, was battling what would turn out to be a losing battle with tuberculosis. Despite being temporarily hobbled by a recent automobile accident, the devoted 83-year-old whose blue eyes still twinkled like stars in the night sky traveled eight miles every single day to be at the bedside of her beloved Joseph at Mattapan Hospital.
“She’s always smiling. Always friendly. Always keeping the gloomy side of life to herself,” said Billy Day, spokesman for the Park Department which sponsored the parties held in honor of the Golden Age Club, of which the newly-crowned May Queen was a member. “Hessie Donahue will greet you with a million-dollar smile when she hasn’t a penny in her pocket.”
Make no mistake, Hessie Donahue was not being patronized as a charity case with a hard-luck sob story, nor would she have accepted the recognition as May Queen under such circumstances. In fact, one almost-too-good-to-be-true event in Hessie’s sensational past (though she always swore it really happened just the way would she tell it) set her apart from your average old-age pensioner, establishing Donahue as a sort of local celebrity. Earlier that same month, a panel of guests on Garry Moore’s nationally televised quiz show I’ve Got a Secret was tasked with finding out what exactly that was.
Forked-tongued satirist Henry Morgan; Jayne Meadows, a renowned actor of stage and screen whose younger sister Audrey played Alice on The Honeymooners; actor and consumer affairs advocate Betty Furness; and radio personality Bill Cullen, who would soon after become the original host of The Price Is Right, all took their best guess as to what Hessie Donahue’s secret might be. None of the panelists came within a country mile of solving the mystery, earning Hessie a nice little grand prize, not to mention bragging rights to the fact that, with a single punch, she had once laid out the great John L. Sullivan, the legendary bareknuckle-turned-Marquees of Queensbury heavyweight boxing champion who enjoyed boasting that “I can lick any son of a bitch in the house.”
“Poor John L. would shake, rattle, and roll in his grave right now, if he ever knew I went on television and told the entire nation about that knockout,” laughed Donahue. “But he was good-natured. I’m sure he would have forgiven me once he found out it meant a trip to New York for me, and $80 in the bargain.”
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1873, Hessie Donahue married Charles Converse shortly after turning eighteen. Converse ran a boxing academy out of a Worcester gymnasium which was frequented by then-heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, a resident of the Commonwealth who was often referred to as the Boston Strong Boy. Charles and John L. were close acquaintances as well as sparring partners. Even before marrying Charles, Hessie herself spent a good deal of time at the training school where she would meticulously study the hopeful pugilists. She absorbed so much knowledge that Converse would often ask her to tutor certain fighters whose mechanics were in need of correction.
“Sometimes, strictly for fun, I’d get into the ring with Charles and we’d box a couple of rounds together,” recounted Donahue. “I was a powerful woman and my husband never tried to hit me hard, so I was in no danger. Sullivan got quite a kick out of watching us together.” So much so that The Great John L. asked them to barnstorm the country with him, staging boxing exhibitions as members of his theatrical touring company. This offer came at just the right time for the cash-strapped couple. Money was stretched so thin in their household that Converse could no longer afford to fund his academy and was forced to close its doors. As you can well imagine, life on the road with John L. Sullivan was never a dull affair.
“We were in Providence one time when he was still champion. There was quite a crowd so John decided to see if he could twist a horse over on its side,” Hessie remembered. “The particular horse he chose was a small one, but it was hitched to a wagon loaded with apples. Well, John got the horse around the neck and sent it over on its side. The wagon went with it and the apples were all over the street. John started gathering them up and as he did the young Italian who owned the horse and wagon appeared. The Italian was angry, but he didn’t remain that way long. As soon as John would pick up an apple somebody would want to buy it. The Italian ended up selling his apples at 10 cents apiece, a good price even today.”
During each evening’s performance, Charles would take the stage to put on a punching bag demonstration before a packed house and occasionally engage in some low-impact fisticuffs with Sullivan. “I don’t know who thought of the idea of my sparring with John L. I can’t recall,” Hessie stated. “I do remember Sullivan thought it would be quite an attraction. It was a chance to make $15 for a few minutes’ work, so I didn’t mind. That was good money in those days. We worked out quite an act together. The audiences really loved it.”
Cash prizes were offered to anyone foolhardy enough to think himself equal to the challenge of overpowering Sullivan. Needless to say, no money ever changed hands. Most nights, John L. made quick work of dispatching these poor deluded souls. Some nights, there might be no intrepid takers at all. Either way, this was Hessie’s cue to jump into action.
“The announcer would shout, ‘And now we have a woman who has volunteered to fight John L. Sullivan!,’” she said retrospectively. “I’d come out wearing a blouse, skirt, bloomers, long stockings, and my boxing gloves.” Sullivan had a fifty-pound weight advantage over Donahue, who remembers weighing in at in at approximately 145 at the time. Nevertheless, she would have her way with John L. throughout these spirited but staged exhibitions, all to the howling delight of the standing-room-only spectators.
“The audience would roar. Sullivan would let me punch him all over the ring. It may seem silly now, but everyone enjoyed it in those days,” Donahue recalled in a 1956 interview. “At the end of round three I’d hit Sullivan and he’d go down. It was all an act. I’d put my foot on his chest. The referee would hold my hand up and say I was the new champion. John would bounce up laughing,” elaborated Hessie. “He got as big a laugh out of it as the audience did.” One night in 1893, however, the narrative went off-script during a stop in Arkansas, necessitating an improvised bit of business which would ultimately place Hessie Donahue’s name in the history books.
“It was in the third round,” as Hessie remembered it. “John hit me in the face. It was a hard blow and hurt. I became very angry at him. After he hit me, John was off-balance for a second. He was always awkward. I swung back at him in anger with a right hand and hit him flush on the jaw. He went down. Yes, John L. was out for about a minute, no doubt about that.”
Although stunned by this shocking turn of events, the quick-thinking referee proceeded with their usual worked-out finish, giving Sullivan time to gradually regain consciousness. “You should have heard the words he muttered to me when he got up. I wouldn’t dare repeat them,” Hessie recalled sheepishly. The incident may have evoked an immediately belligerent reaction from Sullivan, but the hard feelings dissipated rather quickly. “John didn’t remain mad long. He was too good-natured,” insisted Donahue. “He knew it was an accident. We resumed our boxing act together a few days later.”
Despite the fact that Charles Converse died in 1899, Hessie’s theatrical career continued for another four years, until she remarried and settled into a contented, less transient life in South Boston with her second husband, Fred Proctor. During her heyday, however, she rubbed elbows with some of the most notable personalities of the day and was not shy about sharing her honest opinions about them.
Of Buffalo Bill Cody, Hessie remarked, “He was a peacock. He spent so much time in front of the mirror preening himself, I wonder if he ever had time enough left to shoot a buffalo.” Annie Oakley, said Hessie, “dressed like a man in those Wild West britches and could shoot a hole in a playing card from several yards away. She should have worn dresses and tried to act daintily. Buffalo Bill was prettier than she was.” Lillian Russell, a well-known singer and stage actor who made headlines for her beautiful soprano voice and ribald lifestyle in equal measure, “owes most of her fame to the fact that she had a good corset and was able to stuff herself inside it,” joked Donahue.
Incidentally, John L. Sullivan was not the only boxer with whom Hessie traded blows. She had also gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Sam Langford, George Dixon, Stanley Ketchel, and ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett. Hessie retained fond memories of these celebrated sparring partners, with the exception of Corbett who Donahue recalls not being quite as chivalrous as his ring moniker would have you believe. “He didn’t want to seem to hold his punch. Once he got inside the ring he automatically started punching away—no matter who was in there with him,” Hessie commented about Corbett. “He was conceited too. I wanted to go on the stage with him, but he wanted our bout to end in a draw. He didn’t want to have it said that he lost to a woman, even as a joke.”
Asked whether she thought Corbett could hold his own against the top heavyweights of the modern era, Hessie stated, “Corbett was a stylish boxer and Joe Louis would have done a number on him. Marciano would have probably put up a good fight against Corbett, but I wouldn’t want to guess the winner.” As far as John L. was concerned, Donahue swore that Sullivan would have “pulverized Rocky Marciano and beaten Joe Louis in a good fight.” Generally speaking, she had a fairly dim view of the work ethic maintained by contemporary boxers. “Most of them look like dancing students,” she opined with a dash of acerbic wit thrown in for good measure. “Sometimes I think they’re going to kiss each other at the end of the fight.”
Hessie’s second marriage came to an untimely end after one decade, upon the death of Fred Proctor in 1903, and she next tied the knot with Arnold Wanner four years later. Having first lost his sight, Wanner lived until 1952 and, in 1955, the 79-year-old Hessie then met Joseph Donahue who would become her fourth and final husband. “I realize it was a little late in life for both of us to get married,” Hessie admitted, “but we wanted the companionship.” Sadly, they would both be robbed of that companionship after only one year when Joseph succumbed to tuberculosis.
Before that, though, was Hessie’s coronation as Boston’s 1956 May Queen at the Vine St. Auditorium in Roxbury before a party of 200 attendees. She received a dozen roses from Mayor John Hynes and a promise from the Boston Housing Authority to secure her a first-floor apartment in one of the new South Boston developments to make street level access less of a burden for her. Hessie was also treated to a radio, a supply of food, new clothing with complimentary laundry services, a beauty parlor appointment, kitchen appliances, a sitting with an artist who would paint her portrait, and an invitation to live it up at a local nightspot called Binstrub’s Village. “And to think it all came about because I knocked out John L. Sullivan 63 years ago,” mused Hessie.
The following year, Donahue was asked to attend the 9th annual reunion dinner hosted by the Old Time Boxers Association of Lancaster, Pennsylvania which was held in the ballroom of the Hotel Brunswick. The recent loss of her husband John and the lingering effects of her car crash more than a year and a half earlier notwithstanding, Hessie made the trip to Pennsylvania. “I should have broke my neck, but I only broke both my legs,” she boasted to the congregates regarding her injuries. Hessie had the opportunity to mingle with dozens of retired participants of the fight game, headliners and curtain raisers alike. Lew Tendler, Paul Berlenbach, and boxing columnist Barney Nagler were there as well as Jack and Joe McCarran, Izzy Schwartz, and Frankie Ritchie, to name a select few. “It’s nice to be alive and hear the nice things said about you,” enthused guest of honor Barney Ross. The three-division world champion illustrated his point quite nicely and succinctly by saying, “Too often it’s ‘he was a nice guy’ after you’re dead.”
Hessie Donahue died in 1961 at the age of 88, but not before she related the story of one last memorable encounter with John L. Sullivan outside Boston’s transit hub called South Station that occurred just before her first husband, Charles Converse, passed away. “There was a big crowd, so John L. decided to scale the new stone wall on the side of South Station to show off,” Hessie recounted. “He got a good way up when I shouted, ‘If you had a tail, you’d make a pretty good monkey’ at him. He broke into laughter and you could hear him roaring as he slid down the side of the building uninjured. Another man would have broken his neck.”
Donahue also remembered him as someone who may have been rough and tumble, but was a soft touch when it came to youngsters. Later in life, she never forgot how much John L. loved children and “cried like a baby when my 10-months-old Lillian died.”
Clearly enchanted by Sullivan, Hessie raved, “He was a big showoff, but the people loved him. There were no movies, radios, television, or things of that sort. A man like John L. was important to people. He was a hero,” she proclaimed with a sense of pride. “Why, men used to pay money to sit in the barber chair he used. When he was in shape, John L. Sullivan could really whip any man in the house.”
There was that one night in Arkansas, though, when The Great John L. was knocked out cold as a corpse by a future May Queen.
Richard O’Donnell. The South Boston Woman Who Knocked Out John L. Sullivan (The Boston Globe, March 18, 1956)
Richard O’Donnell. Boston’s Hessie Donahue KO’s Video Secret Panel (The Boston Globe, May 3, 1956)
Richard O’Donnell. Hessie’s Greatest Thrill: Hub to Crown May Queen, 83 (The Boston Globe, May 25, 1956)
Joe Wachtman. Gill, Buch, Loechner, Murphy Honored By Old Time Boxers (Intelligencer Journal, Lancaster, PA, November 7, 1957)
May Queen (The Boston Globe, May 25, 1956)
Hessie Donahue Reigns as Boston’s Queen of May (The Boston Globe, June 1, 1956)
…Then There Was The Lady Who KO’d John L. (Carlsbad Current-Argus, May 20, 1973)