To do justice to the story of the Rev. Edwin F. See, we must begin with John L. Sullivan (1858-1915), the world champion of both bare-knuckle and gloved boxing who, in 1892, met his Waterloo at the hands of James J. Corbett.
James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett (1866-1933) on a trading card for X-Zalia, a patent medicine
A “scientific” boxer who based his style on footwork, finesse and counter-punching, Corbett was set to defend his title for the first time against England’s Charlie Mitchell, an infamous barroom brawler who had recently served two months as a guest of the British authorities for either biting the nose off a waiter or beating an old man, depending upon which account you read. (He’d done both; the accounts differ on which one landed him in jail.)
Charlie Mitchell (1861-1918)
The Corbett-Mitchell fight was to take place at Brooklyn’s Coney Island Athletic Club. Prize fighting was illegal in New York State, but Coney Island was known then as “Sodom by the Sea” and hosted frequent bouts. The local sheriff even attended with his sons so they might “derive educational advantages.” The promoters claimed the championship would be a “scientific exhibition” and thus not a violation of the law. In fact, said “Boss” Hugh McLaughlin, head of the Brooklyn political machine, “You can see just such a prize fight any day at the Young Men’s Christian Association.”
Big mistake. McLaughlin’s aligning of prize fighting with the YMCA’s healthful culture of “muscular Christianity” sparked, in the words of a New York Times reporter, “a flame of indignation and resentment, which threatens to sweep across the surface of the entire State of New York like a prairie fire.” And the keeper of the flame was the General Secretary of the Brooklyn YMCA, the Rev. Edwin F. See.
Edwin F. See (1860-1906)
While Brooklyn’s ministers thundered from their pulpits and newspapers described the coming bout as “one of the most heathenish and barbaric projects ever conceived,” the Brooklyn YMCA gathered signatures on a petition to be sent to the Governor of New York. The petition read, in part, “Whereas this proposed contest is hostile to every sentiment of morality and religion, and in flagrant violation of the laws of this State… we hereby express our unqualified condemnation of all such brutal encounters.”
Matters were not helped by the principals of the bout. Mitchell in particular was daily hurling invective at Corbett through the press as a way of getting the new champion off his “scientific” approach and into a more toe-to-toe frame of mind from which the brawler Mitchell would emerge victorious. But in the end, it was Edwin See whose hand would be held aloft. The moral upheaval in New York prompted the bout’s organizers to throw in the towel and move the rite of pagan brutality to Florida. (Mitchell’s strategy of goading his opponent, which continued right up to the opening bell, proved unwise; Corbett was so enraged that he beat on the Englishman like a drum.)
Edwin See, his features unmarked by the struggle, served as the head of the Brooklyn YMCA for 20 years, until his untimely death at the age of 46 in 1906. The building in his honor, See Memorial, was completed soon after his death, and dedicated in 1910.
See Memorial, July 2009
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“Governor Flower Appealed To: Petitioned by the Y.M.C.A. to Stop the Prize Fight,” The New York Times, October 11, 1893
Silver Bay Association: A Pictorial History 1900-1935, Silver Bay Association, 1992
Additional viewing: Gentleman Jim (1942) with Errol Flynn as James J. Corbett and Ward Bond as John L. Sullivan