By C.A. Tremayne
July 8th 1889 – An estimated 3,000 spectators turned up at a secret location in Richburg, Mississippi, to witness the last bare-knuckle world heavyweight title fight between the great Irish-American boxer John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain. What they witnessed was 75 brutal bloody rounds of a planned 80 rounds of action, which resulted in John L Sullivan, who was known as The Boston Strong Boy, knocking out Kilrain and being declared the winner.
Born in 1858 in an Irish neighbourhood of Boston, John L was the son of Michael Sullivan from Abberdorney, County Kerry and Catherine Kelly from Athlone, Westmeath. From a young age John L was interested in sport, all kinds of sport, but eventually settled on Boxing. At this time all boxing was bare knuckle, and illegal, and John L loved it, becoming one of the most famous boxers in history, winning and holding the World Heavyweight Crown for ten years, and earning him the nickname of the Boston Strong Boy.
John L was also recognised as the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing, holding the title from February 1882 to 1892. The Boston Strong Boy passed away on the 2nd February 1918, he was aged fifty-nine and almost penniless. Because the weather was so cold the ground was frozen so the gravediggers had to use Dynamite in order to get his last resting place ready for him.
July 26th, 1913 – This was the day when Hannah and James O’Rourke had their twelfth child in Dunbarton, the new arrival was a girl and named Mary by her parents, little did Hannah and James know at the time that their new arrival would turn out to take the world by storm, but not as a girl but a boy.
James worked as a joiner and in order to find work the family moved to a tenement in Glasgow. Despite working very long hours the pay he received hardly covered the family’s outgoings. Times were hard, but the family were happy and the young Mary loved every minute of it, especially Saturday night when the Mission and Temperance societies organised talent contests with free food. This was a great attraction to the young people of the area who inspite the best efforts of the parents were always hungry. Even if they couldn’t sing everyone turned up and had a go.
At these evenings Mary and her brother Joe turned out to be the stars making quite a reputation for themselves. Although Mary longed for the chance to make it her full time occupation it was Joe who managed to be spotted by an agent and secured a position with a touring company. Now eighteen years of age and her dreams shattered Mary managed to secure employment in a local shop. Then the family had a visit from Uncle Ted who was a variety turn in London and looking for a soprano as part of his act. Knowing that Mary had a sweet voice Ted had formed an idea to dress Mary as a boy and make her part of his act in London, all he had to do was convince Mary.
Although at first the whole idea repulsed her, she knew that she wanted to be on the stage and she was also keen to leave her shop job. So off to London with uncle Ted she went. Now dressed as a boy and calling herself Master Joe Petersen she took to the stage night after night, soon Master Joe was a big hit, so big in fact that she received a recording contract from Rex records. During this time she turned out many songs, The Old Rugged Cross, That Old Fashioned Mother of Mine to name two, but there were many more, all of these were recorded and released with Mary dressed as a man.
With things going well Ted was very happy as nobody suspected that the golden voice of Master Joe was in fact that of a girl, that was until Mary fell in love. Not only that but she soon became pregnant, the man involved was one George Lethbridge who wasted no time agreeing to marry her. Despite this Mary still continued to tour right up until the time she gave birth to a bouncing girl which she named Margo.
But the stress of the birth had taken its toll she was also felt unsure of keeping up the charade, which was becoming intolerable – so intolerable in fact that she started drinking on a daily basis. Leaving young Margo with Ted and his family she decided to return to Scotland and live with her father, but still continued drinking.
The years rolled on and Mary found herself still dressing as a man to perform but she was unable to sound like a choir boy, her career had dramatically practically come to an end as she found herself singing in Bingo halls during the intervals. Now fifty, the end was in sight, still drinking far too much on a daily basis, her dream finally at an end, her once glorious voice was gone forever.
Just a year later Mary passed away and was laid to rest with no formal tombstone to identify her grave.