John C. Heenan - Early Years

Early Years

John Camel Heenan was born in May 1834 in West Troy (now Watervliet), NY, on the Hudson River. The family had come to upstate New York from Templemore, County Tipperary in Ireland shortly before, and after receiving an elementary education, the boy began work at Watervliet Arsenal, where his father was also employed.

Meanwhile at Troy on the opposite bank of the river, lived John Morrissey. Three years older than Heenan, Morrissey had been born in America, but his family had also emigrated from Templemore. Their fathers had in fact been friends, but they fell out over a cock fight, and the two Johns inherited a bitter enmity.

At the age of seventeen, John Heenan crossed the continent to California, which had become a lawless and chaotic place following the 1849 gold rush. There is no detailed record of what he did there, but he is known to have spent some time in the workshop of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in Benicia, which served as state capital in 1853–54. Six feet two inches tall, and weighing around 190 pounds, his strength and endurance became legendary, and his success in many casual brawls earned him the nickname Benicia Boy. Spotting his talent, itinerant English trainer Jim Cusick took him to New York, where it might best be exploited.

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