Q: The Irish “Draft Riots” in New York City were a stain on American History. I’ve recently read that a similar riot occurred in Mamaroneck. Why did the riots travel north and into our region?
—Marc Hunley, Mamaroneck
A: The Draft Riots were indeed a shameful time for all Americans and not a very proud time for the Irish.
In 1863, Congress passed laws to increase the number of men the Union Army could draft. Many Irish immigrants, new to the country, weren’t interested in fighting a war they had no stake in, so they protested. They saw newly freed slaves as workforce competition, and they resented well-to-do Northerners who could pay $300 to escape the draft. Soon, the riots that started as draft protests were targeted at African-Americans, abolitionists, and institutions that supported the anti-slavery cause.
The Mamaroneck riot occurred seven years later and wasn’t related to the Draft Riots. During a large-scale renovation of the town, a group of Irish immigrant workers noticed the Italian immigrant laborers got paid, while they did not. That led the Irish to harass the Italians, and a riot ensued. Reports at the time claimed two to six were killed in the skirmish, but that was never confirmed.
Q: What do you consider the biggest sporting event in Westchester history?
—Elsie Ziegler, White Plains
A: You could argue that Seabiscuit’s four stakes wins at the Yonkers Raceway could qualify, but I’m partial to sports where the main participants are human. There have been some dramatic US Opens at Winged Foot, including the 1974 “Massacre at Winged Foot,” won by Hale Irwin, with a +7. There’s even Babe Ruth’s towering home run during an exhibition game at Sing Sing, which many believe was the longest he’d ever hit.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a professional-boxing judge for 20 years, so for me, the choice is easy. The biggest sporting event in the county’s history involved the nation’s first athletic superstar, John L. Sullivan.
Heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan in 1882.
In 1881, Sullivan, his manager, and a barroom full of fans boarded a barge at a Manhattan dock near 43rd Street. They headed north, picking up his opponent, John Flood, along the way and docking in Yonkers, at a spot that X2O Xaviars on the Hudson restaurant overlooks today. Sullivan knocked out Flood in the eighth round. The next year, Sullivan won the bareknuckle heavyweight title, defeating Paddy Ryan in New Orleans.
Long before Muhammad Ali, Sullivan, aka The Boston Strong Boy, was the most charismatic athlete anyone had ever seen. He was a brash, loutish braggart who swore he “could lick any son of a bitch alive.” He was also an unapologetic racist who refused to box African-American fighters. Later in life, he quit drinking, settled down, married and found the Lord, while championing the nation’s temperance movement.
He was the country’s first sports superstar, and his fight on the Hudson was his stepping stone to immortality.
Q: I moved to the Tarrytown area recently and was surprised to hear that Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner grew up around here. After winning the decathlon and being such a media darling, I’m surprised that half the town isn’t named after [her]. Is it the case that anything named after Jenner has been changed because of her transition?
—Caron Hughes, Tarrytown
A: Long before she’d become known as Caitlyn, Bruce Jenner of Mount Kisco and Tarrytown attended Sleepy Hollow High School, where she played football, basketball, and ran track. Jenner struggled as a student and was later diagnosed with dyslexia. Athletics were Jenner’s way out, and she was good enough in football to receive a scholarship to Graceland College (now Graceland University.) A knee injury sidelined Jenner’s football career, so she focused on the decathlon, and the rest is, well, you know.
There has been no snubbing of Jenner’s name here in Westchester. Sleepy Hollow High School’s track award is known as the Bruce Jenner Award. They do not plan on changing the name, because they believe it represents a local athlete who went on to make sports history.
It is important to note that the Jenner family moved to Newtown, CT, after her sophomore year, so she finished her last two years of high school there.
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