Elliott, James (1838–83), boxer, was born in March 1838 in Athlone, Co. Westmeath. His family emigrated to the US when he was an infant, and he grew up in Brooklyn, New York. His father abandoned the family shortly after their arrival in America and Elliott worked from a young age in a variety of casual jobs, supplementing the family's income through minor criminal activity with an Irish street gang. His reputation as a capable street fighter saw him drift into the increasingly popular spectacle of prizefighting and he fought the famous American featherweight, Dick Hollywood, while still a teenager. His first notable fight as a heavyweight was on 25 May 1861, when he knocked out Nobby Clarke in ten rounds at the Palisades, New Jersey. One year later he fought Hen Winkle for $500 a side at Bull's Ferry, New Jersey. The fight was declared a draw after ninety-nine rounds. By then he had developed into a powerful fighter, six feet (1.83 m) tall and weighing about 180 lb (81.6 kg). He was an unsophisticated boxer, relying on a devastating right hand and a capacity to withstand terrible punishment in the ring to overcome fighters who were technically much more proficient. He also developed a deserved reputation as a dirty fighter, indulging in tactics such as head-butting, gouging, and even biting to intimidate his opponents. This tendency cost him the American heavyweight title in 1863, when he fought Jim Dunne, again at Bull's Ferry, and was disqualified for repeated fouling in the twelfth round. Prizefighting was illegal in New Jersey at this time and both men were arrested after the fight and sentenced to two years in Trenton state penitentiary.
On his release in 1865 he resumed his career as a fighter, issuing an open challenge to any man to fight him for any sum from $1,000 to $10,000, but found few challengers as the prizefighting game went into a slump in the 1860s. Short of money, he increasingly turned to petty crime and protection jobs to support a lifestyle that revolved around alcohol and gambling. In June 1866 he joined 600 other Irish-Americans who followed Gen. John O'Neill (qv) in the abortive Fenian raid into Canada, but this appears to have been his only real involvement with the Fenian movement. His boxing career picked up in the late 1860s, and in 1867 he beat Bill Davis in nine rounds to stake a reasonably creditable claim to the American heavyweight championship. He defended this title successfully on 12 November 1868 when he fought Charles Gallagher for $2,000 a side at Peace Island, Detroit, Michigan. He fouled Gallagher repeatedly over the twenty-three-round fight, and finally the challenger's seconds refused to let him continue. Despite this success, his reputation as a dirty fighter meant he found it increasingly difficult to find opponents, and he drifted back into crime. On 2 February 1872 he was convicted of the highway robbery of the popular black minstrel Hugh Dougherty. Dougherty sustained near-fatal injuries during the attack, and Elliott was sentenced to eighteen years in the Eastern state penitentiary, Philadelphia.
He was released after eight years, partly due to his rapidly failing eyesight. He re-entered the ring in 1879 when the Irish-American political contacts who had secured his early release from jail required a fighter to topple the reigning American champion, John J. Dwyer, who was a political rival. The fight, ostensibly for the American title, took place at Long Point, Canada, and was witnessed by fewer than 500 spectators. Out of shape and seriously affected by his limited eyesight, Elliott was no match for the champion and was being badly beaten after twelve rounds. During the break he dipped his gloves in turpentine and, when the fight resumed, attempted to gouge out the eyes of the younger man. Dwyer's seconds were able to rinse their fighter's eyes satisfactorily after he touched down to end the round, and he knocked Elliott out in the next round. His final fight took place on 4 July 1882, when he challenged the new American champion, the great John L. Sullivan, at Washington Park, Brooklyn. Disadvantaged by his age and lack of familiarity with the new marquess of Queensberry rules, he was completely outclassed by the champion and was knocked out in the third round.
On 1 March 1883 he became involved in a gambling row at Billy Langdon's Chicago saloon with Jere Dunn, one of Sullivan's financial backers. Dunn shot him dead when he emerged from the saloon later that evening. He was buried at Calvary cemetery, New York. He never married.