- Historic Sites
“jeff, It’s Up To You!”
When the Negro Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries at Reno in 1910, more than the world heavyweight championship seemed at stake. To the many alarmed by Johnson’s unsavory reputation, Jeffries seemed nothing less than the “Great White Hope”
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
That final week in Reno may have been the last stand of uninhibited American masculinity; undoubtedly it was the last great convention of men who carried the title of “sport.” The term described a man who was an amateur or semiprofessional gambler and therefore a student of form and odds, a man of wide and easy views, tolerant, willing to live and let live—most probably something of a dandy according to his means and background—in short, a Corinthian, a blood. In his highest form he could be called a sportsman. The ordinary sport of the big cities and his brother of the small towns could be anybody from a barber in Kokomo to Harry Payne Whitney of New York, who booked four private cars to take a party of “Wall Street men” to Reno; the sport could be a tobacconist in Petoskey or he could be the old Yale halfback Tom Shevlin, who arrived in Reno wearing a dovegray waistcoat and a straw hat with a club ribbon and took Johnson for a run in his racing car. If a sport could by any imaginable means get free of his women and put his hands on ticket money, with a stake for drink, wagers, and shelter, then some time toward the end of June he was up and away and heading for Reno in the Great American Desert.
There the sports of whatever degree found a city of little more than ten thousand trying to take care of some seventeen thousand visitors. Not even a pool table could be rented for sleeping purposes and every private house that accepted paying guests was full to overflowing. Hundreds of the sports, to be sure, had come in special trains and lived in the Pullman cars lined up on the spur tracks of the Southern Pacific at a junction three miles south of town. Other hundreds arrived in honking, dusty automobiles carrying signs that read: “Reno or Bust!” and slept in these vehicles. Some slept on the floors of saloons, and others by all accounts did not sleep at all. For their accommodation, the gambling houses employed croupiers in shifts, so that the blackjack layouts, roulette wheels, and bird cages in which dice were mechanically thrown kept going night and day. In these places men crowded four deep around the tables. The proprietors expected them to bet substantial money; as the Chicago Daily News put it, “the two-bit man is not wanted in Reno today.” A Colonel Horatio Byrne stated that “you will see the solidest type of man at the ringside. Nowadays the cheap man can’t afford to patronize the pugilistic game with any ostentation. It takes money to see a big fight right.” Jim Corbett’s brother Tom, who called himself official bookie for the match, said, “Three million dollars will change hands on the outcome of this fight.”
Another source of profit in the great gathering at Reno was in the robbing of the careless and often drunken sports who were easily identifiable among the crowds of Indians, cowboys, Mexicans, and miners on the streets. There were two elements among the professional thieves at Reno. The better class were the pickpockets, who worked in pairs known as the wire and the screen. The latter screened the victim’s eyes with a newspaper, or otherwise distracted his attention, while the wire lifted his purse or watch. Even as a victim, the two-bit man met with scorn: more than one observer reported seeing scores of nickel-plated watches in the gutters of Reno, where thieves had thrown them in disgust on recognizing their low value. In the large cities, pickpockets were respected as skilled craftsmen by the police and often lived in amity with them. In Reno, however, Governor Dickerson held that the state’s honor was involved and ordered all known pickpockets to be chased out of town on recognition or instantly jailed if caught with the goods.
The other class of thief, socially inferior to the pickpocket, was the lush-roller, who followed drinking men and robbed them when they collapsed. He would sometimes help induce collapse with a blackjack, and was despised by all bartenders, sports, and policemen as a human jackal. Against these predators, Dickerson assembled a strong force of deputized citizens, together with detectives from New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco; a detachment of Nevada State Rangers; and a patrol of Arizona Rangers, headed by their celebrated commander, Captain Cox. Even the bandits and vacationing bank robbers hesitated to cross Cox’s path, for fear he might go into the dreaded gunfighter’s crouch and draw one or both of the pistols that hung at his belt. But in spite of the guardians provided by Dickerson and the Reno Chamber of Commerce, many of the sports had unfortunate experiences, such as being robbed, cheated, sickened by bad liquor, or given diseases in the brothels.
The majority of the visitors, of course, knew their way about, and understood that losing money in gambling houses was entertainment rather than speculation. An example of a sport who would be hard to swindle was Colonel Abe Slupsky, a St. Louis politician who arrived in his home city after the fight with three thousand dollars under porous plaster on his chest. “It was the only way to carry money in Reno,” said the Colonel. “I would have stuck it on my back except there wasn’t anybody I could trust to do it for me. The night before the fight, I kicked away twenty empty pocketbooks on the plank walks. The dips would take out the money and throw them away. The streets were full of them.”