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The National Police Gazette
A Little Visit to the Lower Depths via
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
As for pictures, the Police Gazette was supreme. Its woodcuts have never been surpassed. Their technical detail in the period before the photograph came in with a rush was a wonder of journalism. The artists, full-time employees, worked usually from imagination, occasionally from direct observation. The details of the clothing portrayed, the wagons, buildings, kitchens, implements, and the old-fashioned faces, give us as good a picture of those days as is likely to be found.
The heart and soul of the Police Gazette consisted of sports and theatre coverage, plus crime and Sin. Fox, by creating wild definitions, managed to include almost every phase of human activity imaginable under the category of sports. He sponsored bizarre contests for which he offered Championship Belts adorned with his name and that of his publication. Without his inspiration it is doubtful that America would have had a Champion Hog Butcher, Water Drinker, and Teeth Weight Lifter.
More significant were his contributions to boxing. Had Fox never lived, Dempsey and Louis and Ali might have lived out their years fighting on barges moored in rivers where the sheriff ventured not. Almost alone, the Police Gazette made boxing big business and so popular that the result of a Sullivan-Ryan bout was of immensely more interest to the citizens than the result of a Garfield-Hancock Presidential election.
Fox was interested in all classes of fighters and faithfully gave his Championship Belts to men of all weight divisions. But his passion was for the heavyweights. In 1881, at the Gentlemen’s Sporting Theatre in New York’s Bowery, he saw a brutally tough Boston lad who was pointed out as a comer in the prize ring—in which disputes were settled by 100 or 115-round bare-fisted contests. Fox told a waiter to have the fighter come to his table. In reply to the waiter’s request, the tough said, “It’s no farther from him to me than it is from me to him. If he wants to see John L. Sullivan, he can do the walking.”
This to the proprietor of the Police Gazette! Fox set out to destroy the thug. He imported English brawlers and New Zealand sluggers; he brought forth Hibernian bravoes and American heroes and charged them one by one to humble John L. They all failed, but the prefight build-ups—Ryan and Wilson and Mitchell and Greenfield and Slade sawing wood, doing roadwork, eating raw steak, pitching hay—set sporting America aflame.
Eventually Fox came up with Jake Kilrain, whom he presented in his paper as a knightlike figure who talked in gravely polite tones and never ventured into the street without his high silk hat. For various reasons, Sullivan did not immediately arrange to battle Kilrain. Booming that Sullivan feared his man, Fox anointed Kilrain as America’s champion and sent him to England to take on Jem Smith, the British titleholder. The two slugged at each other for hours, until darkness made it impossible for them to go on. Fox decided that although officially the bout was a draw, Kilrain was the winner and hence, by his logic, the champion of the entire world.
The decision was more or less accepted by sporting gentlemen everywhere, even as they accepted the Police Gazettte’s highly popular column of answers to sports questions as the final determiner of all bets. But there remained Sullivan. When John L. agreed to meet Kilrain, the whole country held its breath waiting for the outcome. To the chagrin of the Police Gazette , Sullivan won. After that there was nothing to do but make it up with the Boston Strong Boy. He was given the Championship Belt and is remembered as the first of the official heavyweight champions.
Fox campaigned to make boxing not only popular but legal. (Both the Kilrain-Jem Smith and Kilrain-Sullivan bouts violated the laws of the places where they were held.) He ended by making the sport respectable. In the ten years that elapsed between the moment of Sullivan’s insulting remark in the Gentlemen’s Sporting Theatre in New York and Sullivan’s defeat by Jim Corbett in New Orleans, boxing came of age. Before and after this happy ending, Fox continued wildly to push all sports: rat killing, lady wrestling, one-legged clog dancing, water walking, everything. He himself knew very little about the technical details, but it did not matter. Our great-grandparents lived lives that generally precluded visiting a big city more than once or twice in a lifetime. They had no television, no movies, no radio. Where the European peasantry to a certain extent partook of the great world through their interest in His Royal Highness or Her Imperial Majesty, Americans lived in part through their interest in sports heroes whom they would never see in the flesh. Fox understood that. There was not a saloon or barbershop, not a club or volunteers’ firehouse that in time did not hang in a prominent place a portrait of John L., or Corbett, or, later, Bob Fitzsimmons. Those pictures were purchased from the Police Gazette printing plant in the giant building at Franklin Square, New York City—the country’s largest newspaper building, Fox often pointed out—and it was Richard Fox who created the interest that made men hang those pictures up on the wall.