Being the wife of the ‘Great John L.


Annie Bates was 38 years old when she looked out the window of her Warwick home and saw an attractive man setting up a ring for a boxing match across the street. The man was 25-yearold John Lawrence Sullivan, who would eventually go down in history as one of the most famous boxers of all time.

Annie and John married on May 1, 1883. The union was not what Annie had imagined it would be. John’s fame was coming fast and she hated it. The fans, the intrusions into their personal lives, the excited chaos wherever they went; she got tired of it and made it known, which angered John to no end. He expected his wife’s full support where his career was concerned.

Within less than two years, Annie could take no more. Besides the noise of fame, she charged that her husband drank too much and had been physically abusive to her. The court denied her request for a
divorce, ruling there was no proof of her claims.

The couple began living apart and, the following year, their infant son died of diphtheria.

Annie attempted to contact John to inform him of the sad news but she was unable to locate him. She then learned he was in California, through a photograph in the newspaper. The picture showed him with a burlesque dancer named Ann Livingston who was referred to
as his wife.

Over the course of that year, John had sent several divorce petitions to Annie and she had refused to sign them.

If her grounds for divorce had not been acceptable then she was not going to sign something simply for his convenience.

Therefore, she wondered, how he could have legally married someone

The truth was that, despite referring to themselves as a married couple, John and Ms. Livingston were not actually wed. He continued sending divorce petitions to Annie, who had moved back in with her sister in Warwick and was managing a boarding house in Arctic. She refused to sign anything, publicly calling John “overrated,” a “coward” and a “big goodfor- nothing.”

In his petitions, he accused Annie of being the violent one and stated that once she had beaten him nearly to death with a broomstick. He alleged that, another time, she had hit him on the head with a club so hard she had knocked him out and let him lay unconscious for nearly an hour.

Even after Livingston’s death from heart failure in 1896, the petitions kept coming and Annie kept refusing to sign them. In the winter of 1908, she finally gave in. She signed the petition and John married an old childhood friend, Katherine Hartnett.

Retired from boxing, he and his new wife took up a life of farming.
Annie died at her home in Centreville in March of 1917. The “Great John L.” died of a heart attack 11 months later.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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