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A Fight To The Death

9/22/2004:

It was at 2 o’clock in the morning, on this date in 1888, that a crowd of cowboys, gamblers and drifters crammed into Frank Church’s horse barn in Grand Forks. They were there to watch prizefighter George Fulljames go up against an undisclosed opponent in a fight to the finish.

Fulljames presumably needed the money – there was no other reason to fight in such a setting. He had had a successful career in England before becoming the Canadian Lightweight Champion, and when he moved to New York City in 1883, he continued to win.

Boxing researcher, Robert Carson, writes, “Who was this little terror...that was making a name for himself? A spare man at five foot, four and one half inches and weighing between 122-130 pounds, with jug ears and an over-bite, George didn’t appear the man killer one would imagine.”

In 1884, Jack “Nonpareil” Dempsey knocked out Fulljames in the 22nd round and was considered welterweight and middleweight champion because of the victory. Fulljames never really recovered from the setback, and after that, he fought wherever he could – which presents one possible reason he was fighting an unknown in Church’s barn in the middle of the night.

Carson writes, “The smell of hay and horse sweat mingled with the pungent odor from the kerosene lantern hanging from the center of the barn. The eerie glow made the spectators’ faces look like demons from Dante’s Inferno. A sort of ring was formed with the audience. In the center was the husky, young fighter they called “Tramp” or “Hobo,” surrounded by his handlers.”

Carson writes that Fulljames wore a pair of skintight driving gloves, but Tramp used his bare knuckles. As the fight was about to start, Fulljames extended his right hand for a pre-fight handshake. His head was down, and when Tramp shook Fulljames’ hand, he simultaneously threw a hard left hook to his right temple. Another report says it was three blows, not one.

Cries of “foul” went up, and George floundered. Carson writes, “They went to blows...with Tramp being the aggressor. After much prodding from the frenzied crowd, time was finally called. Fulljames staggered back to his corner with blood running down the right side of his head. The fight wore on doggedly...There were more clinches and at the end of three rounds George complained of being sick to his stomach.”

George’s backers led him to a wooden box near the door. He was declared winner because of Tramp’s opening foul, but he was clearly in trouble. When he started vomiting blood, the crowd quickly disappeared. He was carried into the barn office, where a doctor found him alone and unconscious the following morning. By that afternoon, the 30 year-old boxer was dead.

Tramp was found and thrown into the Grand Forks jail. It was believed he was actually a professional prizefighter from out East – a ringer – whose real name was Jack Barrett, Young Barrett or Tom Bannon. Later that day, someone broke the lock on the station house door; he escaped and left town, so his identity wasn’t clearly answered.

A coroner’s jury ruled that Fulljames was killed by an unknown spectator with a “slung shot,” rather than a blow from a fist. After the ruling, the jury members reportedly left town to avoid being questioned – the gamblers who lost the night before wouldn’t have to pay up because of the opinion they had rendered.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm