The legend of Ned Price – boxer, lawyer, playwright

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At a charity benefit for ex-boxers in a theatre in Newark, New Jersey in 1850, the master of ceremonies was struggling to find members of the public willing to get in the ring to spar with a gigantic African-American fighter named Molyneux. There was reluctance because every individual who had already braved the ropes ended up receiving a severe beating. Eventually, a man with an English accent stepped forward. The crowd oohed and aahed in anticipation of what a whipping this poor, unassuming volunteer might receive in this spectacle. They weren’t to know that this diffident character had once been a promising young middleweight back in London

“Don’t worry boy,” whispered the giant. “I won’t hurt you.”

The Englishman didn’t reply. He just smiled.

Two minutes of swift and dramatic combat later, the giant was flat on his back and the crowd were cheering for the unlikely hero, the fistic David who had put down the Goliath. Even though he didn’t know it then, 21 year old Ned Price had just taken the first steps in his professional boxing career….

More than half a century later, Price took ill suddenly at his law offices on Centre Street in Manhattan. As colleagues bundled him into a cab to take him to hospital, he died. When word reached Chinatown of his passing, locals quickly gathered on the street corners in large groups, animatedly discussing the news and weeping openly for the Englishman they loved as “Mleester Plice”.

“How many cases have I tried for you over the past 25 years, Tom?” asked Price of a Chinese friend one time.

“More than 1200,” replied Tom Lee, the unofficial mayor of Chinatown.

“And how many have I lost?” asked Price.

“Not a one,” answered his friend.

Although nobody knows if his win-loss record was really that pristine, there’s no question that the Chinese community in New York went into mourning at his passing.  Little wonder they did. They knew they had lost their own personal “human rights” lawyer, somebody willing to fight their corner in every court in the city, handling cases ranging from petty offences to criminal conspiracy on their behalf.

Between those two landmark events, Price led the most extraordinary life. He was a bricklayer by trade, a bareknuckle boxer by profession, a henchman for politicians in Civil War America, a lawyer immersed in Chinese American affairs, and a playwright whose work sold out theatres on Broadway and all across America. He also wrote one of the first training manuals for fighters, a book extant copies of which change hands for hundreds of dollars today. A forgotten figure in 19thcentury British sporting history, an Englishman who made a huge impact in America, Price never married and left behind a fortune worth nearly half a million dollars.

Born in Islington, North London in 1829, he began his travels when he accompanied his father George, a Welsh contractor, to northern France where the elder Price had signed on to build a section of the new railroad. There, Ned apprenticed as a bricklayer and also began picking up the various languages spoken by the other workers on the project. By the time, he arrived in America, he was reputedly fluent in French and Italian, linguistic skills that would come in handy in his new country, a place teeming with newly-arrived immigrants.

Following his boxing cameo in Newark, Price began training full-time and was soon getting into the ring with some of the biggest names of the bareknuckle era. However, the fight which would earn him a footnote in boxing history also proved to be his last competitive bout. On May 1st, 1856, he took on Joe Coburn from Ireland at Spy Pond outside Boston for the middleweight championship of America.

Although some eyewitnesses alleged referee Louis Bleral declared that contest a controversial draw to save himself the large sum he’d wagered on the outcome, all present testified that they received value for money.  Coburn and Price traded punches for, depending on which account you believe, 106 or 160 rounds. The placement of the zero scarcely matters. Either number captures the spirit of the time and the nature of the combat.

After a nearly four-hour epic that would go down in fistic lore, Price was so disgusted by the officiating and what he perceived as obvious corruption that he walked away from the ring. Using his flair for languages, he became an interpreter for the United States Circuit Court in Boston. There, he became embroiled in Democratic politics, and in 1860, he accompanied Benjamin Butler, a prominent Massachusetts legislator, to the Rump Convention where his job was to ensure his man came to no physical harm. He did this successfully and later moved on to Washington where he worked security at a hotel during the Civil War and studied law.

At the end of the war, he was called to the bar and the first client he took on was an African-American. That set the tone for a legal career which took him back to New York and into the service of those in that city whose ethnicity, as much as their criminal activity, often attracted undue attention from law and order. In a turbulent and violent era made famous in the movie “Gangs of New York”, Price was an outsized character whose reputation was that of a man capable of using his mouth or his fists to settle an argument, depending on whether he was inside or outside the courtroom. When either of those options failed to do the job, bribery was another tactic Price and able lieutenants like Tom Lee were liable to use to get defendants off the hook.

His legend as a man not to be trifled with had been amplified by the fact that in 1867, he’d written “The Science of Self-Defence – A Treatise on Sparring and Wrestling”, a book that was, for the longest time, regarded as the definite coaching manual for those interested in wrestling and bare-knuckle boxing. Price began writing the book in 1860 but was interrupted by the outbreak of the war. The lengthy gestation time didn’t harm its marketability any and copies remain in circulation more than a century and a half later.

“But our work is not a treatise on medicine-and we must not frighten our readers, nor must

we commit the worst of offences in this wide-awake age by becoming prosy,” writes Price in the introduction. “Our object, then, in this volume is to give a correct and reliable Manual on the “Art of Self Defense”, not founded on ‘obsolete’ rules of a by-gone age, but on the practical results of our own experience and observation, and we trust, with a clearness and precision that will render it invaluable to the pupil and interesting to the amateur and general reader. We also give such hints on training as will be useful to all persons engaged in sedentary pursuits.”

 

Writing became another major facet of his life.  Through his legal career, he became involved in some of the biggest cases in New York towards the end of the 19th century. Most famously, he represented James T. Holland, a Texan accused of murdering a man named Tom Davis who had tried to dupe him out of money in 1885. Davis was a sawdust operator, a type of street hustler common to the era who would fool naïve new arrivals in the city into parting with money under false pretenses. When he tried to take $500 from Holland, the Texan shot him dead.

Having got his man acquitted in a sensational case that gripped America, Price, who had also done some acting from to time, turned the material into a play called “In the Tenderloin”, the title referring to the crime-ridden part of New York  where so many of the lawyer’s clientele operated. The work authentically captured the underbelly of the city, at least in part because he hired actual crooks like George Appo, the most legendary pickpocket of the age and a man as infamous as any mobster today, to act in the play.

This work was a smash hit which toured the country afterwards and Price went on to write a dozen more plays. He was among a wave of writers who brought the criminal and seedy underworld of New York onto the hitherto polite stage for the first time, producing works where the bad guys were often portrayed as heroic and admirable figures.  His creativity was helped by the fact he was on first names with the likes of Billy McGlory, Matilda Hermann, and Tom Gould, colourful characters who ran the brothels and the shebeens and the casinos, often in cahoots with the NYPD.

Price also knew corruption from both sides and his involvement in the legendary Tammany Hall political machine offered him one more insight into the city’s diorama. With an eye on the box office, he cast John L. Sullivan, the undisputed champion of the bareknuckle age and the most famous athlete of the time, in two of his major works, “The Man from Boston” and “The True American”.

Although he had never boxed competitively again after the draw with Coburn, that aspect of his life still drew attention more than half a century later. On January 30, 1907, somebody in his law office had unearthed a newspaper clipping referring to his time as one of the most famous fighters in America.

“Fifty years ago, I could whip any man alive,” said Price, tears streaming down his face as he read the report, “and look at me now, I can hardly walk without assistance.”

He died the next day.
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