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Mural Stories: The Fourth Scene

Some people might say that including the 4th scene on this mural was an unusual choice, given all the other noteworthy historical “moments in time” that could be depicted and celebrated on this prominent artwork. One of the most interesting bits of Stoneham’s past is the story of the sporting days on Spot Pond’s Great Island. Stoneham was rapidly growing in the 1850s and the burgeoning shoe business brought many new families to town. The scenic and pristine area provided a recreational center where people hired boats for fishing, held picnics, played games, and enjoyed leisure activities.

In the 1860s prizefighting was against the law but research reveals that Great Island was perfect for boxing matches, held far from the eyes of the local sheriffs and protected by local fans left on the shore. One of the longest bare-fisted matches took place on May 1, 1856. Two professional fighters, Joe Coburn and Ned Price arranged a hefty $500 winning purse. misleading information was posted to indicate to the sheriffs, that the fight was planned on a different date and location in an effort to throw authorities “off the track”. Watchmen were staged at Ezra Sprague’s Boat House to warn those on the island of any potential unwanted visitors. $5 admission was charged and all boats bringing spectators were kept on the island to prevent any arresting of fans. This historic fight with bare knuckles went 160 rounds and lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes. Referee Dave Blanchard described it as “a bloody, brutal bout that only the setting sun terminated.” The final decision remained a draw.

It is also said that well-known boxer John L. Sullivan fought on Great Island on at least two occasions but confirmation of the dates has never been found. In recent years, teams of reporters have ventured out to Great Island in search of clues to confirm these historic events.

Richard M. Gibney was not from Stoneham or familiar with the town’s rich history. A 1968 press picture from the mural unveiling at the (then) Middlesex County National Bank included Helen Kinsley, (then) President of the Stoneham Historical Society along with bank and town officials. It is assumed that she and the artist collaborated on the eventual content to fill the 45′ x 6′ of Belgian linen. How else would Gibney have known to include this event with the ropes for the ring tied to trees or the setting with the spectators and whatever they carried out to the island? 

We can imagine that those conversations took place at the Museum where all the documentation was stored. Believing that Mr. Gibney most likely visited the building where his mural will be viewed, interpreted and enjoyed by future generations provides yet another reason for saving it from the dumpster. 

_ Bee Russo.