February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
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”
When Jack Johnson beat Tommy Burns for the world heavyweight professional boxing championship at Sydney, Australia, on December 26, 1908, he became the first Negro to hold the highest title in boxing, with all its symbolic and economic importance. It was not a popular victory. Perhaps the white public at this period would have accepted a modest and respectable Negro as champion, but never one like Johnson. A former drifter who had seen the inside of countless jails throughout the United States, he had begun his pugilistic career fighting in barrooms and back streets. He cut a figure in international café society, was frequently drunk and in trouble for speeding in his racing car, played the bull fiddle, and made no secret of his liking for handsome blonde white women of the sort who generally travelled with boxers, jockeys, and criminals. So it was that the famous writer Jack London, covering the Burns fight for the New York Herald , ended his dispatch with the appeal that James J. Jeffries, who had retired undefeated in 1905, should “emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you!”
Thirty years old when he won the title, the Texas-born Johnson was a superb fighter—some authorities say the best who ever came along. It seemed so, after he defeated Burns, although other powerful Negroes like Sam Langford, whom he had previously beaten, might have made trouble had Jack allowed any of them a return match. But his virtuosity was now so great that he could show disrespect both to opponents and audiences in a way that set the brutal fight crowds gibbering with rage. In vain were the “White Hopes” sent against him. The burly Al Kaufman, who was taller and heavier, could do nothing. Victor McLaglen, the future movie star, was badly beaten. Capable boxers like Tony Ross, Billy Delaney, and Philadelphia Jack O’Brien were helpless against him, and the middleweight champion, Stanley Ketchel, was floored in twelve rounds. There grew up a general belief that only Jim Jeffries could put Johnson on his back. Flourishing in a thousand barrooms, the desire to see the Negro defeated at last became so intense that it focussed attention on Jeffries like the converging of the sun’s rays through a burning glass.
Born in 1875, James Jackson Jeffries had grown up in the boiler-making trade in California and turned to the ring as a young man. In 1899, after only twelve professional fights, he won the world’s heavyweight championship by knocking out Bob Fitzsimmons. When Jeffries retired six years later, he had never been knocked off his feet. After an elimination bout, which he refereed, he conferred the title on Marvin Hart, who promptly lost it to Burns. An awesome figure in retirement, Jeffries had ballooned to a weight of more than three hundred pounds, but retained his great strength, and could still break any man’s grip with either hand. He had the myth-making quality of a real folk hero; people believed, for example, that he had cured himself of pneumonia by drinking a case of whiskey in two days. It was widely held that he had a mortal hatred for Johnson, and bartenders told steady customers that if the fight could be arranged, Jeffries would “probably kill the Negro.”
Though flattered by the general confidence in his strength and skill, Jeffries had doubts as to the wisdom of returning to the ring. All the same, there was something hypnotic in the way the sporting public pressed its consensus upon him by assuming that the match was made. “Proud to shake the fist that’s going to kill Jack Johnson!” a barfly would say, grabbing Jeffries’ huge paw. “When’s it going to be, Jeff?” Hundreds of letters from strangers came into his California home, the writers telling Jeffries of their certainty that it was his duty to fight Johnson and his destiny to hand him the biggest defeat in the history of the boxing ring.
Early in 1909, Jeffries decided he must take inventory of his life and career, look into the business aspects of a match with Johnson, and decide what to do about it. He appointed a sporting San Francisco hatter named Sam Berger as his personal manager, and sent him to hold confidential talks with Johnson’s representatives. These preliminary negotiations took place in various Chicago and San Francisco hotels; their successful concealment from the press showed that Johnson, who had been called crazy over publicity, could keep a close mouth when it suited him.
Roving in the hotel barrooms, reporters sensed the drama of high contracting parties moving to a deal. Lacking information from the principals, they circulated rumors that Johnson was agreeing to throw the fight to Jeffries for a large sum. How this money was to be raised no one seemed to know, still less why Johnson would bargain away his earning power. Johnson and Jeffries made a private agreement to fight. The exact date on which they came to the decision still is not known, but it can be deduced that Jeffries made a conditional agreement late in the spring of 1909, the condition being his ability to get down to 227 pounds without ruining his health. With this problem in mind he set out for the weight-reducing headquarters of the time, the mineral baths at Carlsbad in northwest Bohemia (now part of Czechoslovakia). Here he proposed to consult the medical staff; he would begin heavy training only if they said it was safe. And at Carlsbad Jeffries received final proof that the world took it for granted he would destroy Jack Johnson.
It happened that King Edward VII of England was a frequent patron of Carlsbad, finding the waters beneficial and the place convenient for his attentions to a number of ladies in the spa’s luxurious hotels. Thus it was not surprising that on his first morning in town Jeffries encountered the King taking his usual walk. Edward VII was identifiable—in spite of the dark glasses over his brandied and protuberant eyes—by the familiar gray Homburg, “torpedo” beard, and projecting paunch. The lantern-jawed Jeffries was also a recognizable celebrity because of his great height and bulk, and the King hailed him in his characteristic wheezing and guttural tones.
“Hello there, Jim Jeffries!” said the genial monarch. “Going to fight the blackfellow, eh? Jolly good! I say it’s great luck to meet you. I hear all Americans know about furs. Come along and help me pick out a few.”
With that, the King seized Jeffries’ arm and pulled him into a furrier’s shop. Jeffries was strait-laced where women were concerned, and looked on in disapproval as the fawning proprietor laid out skin after skin; the King demanded his opinion of each item. At last Edward bought five thousand dollars’ worth of silver fox scarves and allowed Jeffries to go. Later in the week the Carlsbad doctors told him he could safely reduce to ring weight within a year. He took the waters, and then travelled back to the United States at a leisurely pace, sending word to Johnson early in October that all they needed now was an acceptable promoter and financier.
While this matter was being settled, Johnson continued to cut a fashionable figure with his dozens of well-tailored suits, his handmade shoes, his racing cars, and his women—who always seemed to be white, blonde, and not given to formality of manner. Today they would be called “models” or “starlets,” but they were in fact prostitutes. Johnson paraded them with ostentation, thus arousing disapproval not only because the racial mix irritated both white people and conservative Negroes, but also because his flouting of morality stimulated the reformers and stirred them to action against drinking, gambling, and prostitution. Johnson made things bad for everybody, and so was detested not only in Sunday schools but among the host of pimps, whores, gamblers, distillers, brewers, and their customers, who believed that where business and pleasure were concerned the less said the better.
Johnson’s favorite companion was a well-known prostitute named Belle Schreiber; he had another, named Etta Terry Duryea, also a white woman, who occupied a respectable station in life. Born twenty-eight years before in Hempstead, Long Island, and brought up in Brooklyn, Etta had been divorced from Clarence C. Duryea, an eastern racing man. Jack referred to Etta as “Mrs. Johnson,” but continued to associate with Belle Schreiber; in spite of this Etta maintained the relationship, and it was eventually legitimized in marriage on January 18, 1911.
The search for a promoter continued. Jeffries’ man Sam Berger had been talking with Tuxedo Ed Graney, who had staged a number of sporting events in California, then one of the few states where the law permitted “exhibition boxing bouts.” Tuxedo Ed and his associate Jack Gleason proposed to raise money for a San Francisco stadium and to supply the gratuities for local officials and the press. Graney and Gleason knew their business, yet failed to convince Jeffries and Berger that they saw the full possibilities of the Johnson-Jeffries fight, which was to be called the Battle of the Century. Jim Jeffries believed that an unusual opportunity called for a unique entrepreneur, and so the choice remained in the air.
Then, out of Alaska came a man who seemed to meet every requirement that Jeffries demanded a fight promoter should have: his name was George Lewis Rickard. Respected as a gambler who always paid off, “Tex” Rickard travelled first class even when he was broke. Except for his metropolitan tailoring, he might have passed for the steely-eyed western movie star William S. Hart; he had acquired that same cold, level gaze as a faro dealer in the Klondike. Back in the United States now and looking for a sound proposition, Rickard talked to Jeffries and suggested that the fighters ask potential backers to bid for the match. He also interviewed Johnson, giving a journalist the chance to manufacture a tale that he poured out a shower of gold coins to dazzle Johnson into agreement. The truth is that Johnson was far from simple-minded and needed no tricks to catch his attention when Rickard sat down to talk. Rickard had the backing of Thomas Cole, a rich Minnesota mining engineer with whom he had done business in Alaska, and looked as good to Johnson as he did to Jeffries. Both principals agreed to come to New York to make a final selection among the possible promoters, naming December 1, 1909, as the day of decision.
Though public formalities still had to be attended to, Rickard was by now clearly in charge, and he carried off the signing ceremonies with his customary flair. In holding a meeting to discuss the fight in New York City, he would be breaking the law: even the planning of a fight to be held in another state was forbidden there. But Rickard wanted the coverage of the metropolitan press and thought the authorities might overlook the meeting, which was to be held on Broadway at the Albany Hotel. Then, on the day before the conference, word came that District Attorney William Travers Jerome had ordered his police to break up any meeting at which a prize fight was to be organized or announced. Rickard solved the difficulty by booking a private dining room at a German hotel across the river in Hoboken. He had already given the newspapermen their gratuities, and all that remained to be done was the ordering of cold meats, sandwiches, whiskey, champagne, and a tub of potato salad. Then as now, reporters numbered free food and drink among their natural rights.
In Hoboken, Tuxedo Ed Graney protested that Rickard had “horned in on the whole thing.” Johnson said that so far as he was concerned, money had always done the talking. Jeffries seemed to be in a bad humor that was not helped by the clownish sight of Jack, Gleason’s overcoat, a tentlike garment that reached within an inch of the ground. Among others present was the politician Sunny Jim Coffroth of San Francisco, who was said to “control all boxing on the Pacific coast.” Someone identified as “a man close to Rickard” passed the word that “Sunny Jim has been taken care of, and Gleason will be in on the deal, but Ed Graney is out in the cold.” From their expressions in the news photographs, this would seem to have been an accurate statement. The fight was definitely scheduled for July 4, in San Francisco, and it became known that no opposition was expected from Governor James C. Gillett of California or San Francisco’s Mayor Edward H. McCarthy.
In fact, everything was set. Rickard called for order, and one of his assistants opened the envelopes containing the bids. Apparently to no one’s surprise, Sunny Jim pledged the fighters a purse of $51,000; Tuxedo Ed Graney offered $81,000; and Rickard’s guarantee was $101,000, which he laid on the table in sight drafts on Thomas Cole’s Minneapolis bank. Rickard was declared proprietor and promoter of the Battle of the Century, and as such his first act was to hand each fighter a bonus of $10,000 for signing the contracts that his lawyers placed before them. With this business concluded, the reporters hastened to the telephones, and then trampled elderly German waiters in a rush at the buffet tables, which they stripped with practiced voracity.
Out to the United States and the world went the news: Johnson and Jeffries were going to fight. Not included was a rumor that in addition to the bonus for each fighter, Rickard had paid $12,000 to settle a gambling debt incurred by Jeffries. Nor did the wire services carry any of the complicated rumors as to the “actual” deal between Jeffries and Johnson. Indeed, there was no deal, other than that Rickard’s guarantee should be divided at sixty per cent for the winner, forty per cent for the loser. But what most mattered now in the public mind was that the “hopes of the white race,” as one newspaper put it, would be carried “on the worthy shoulders of sturdy Jim Jeffries, undefeated champion of champions.”
With their match settled, each of the fighters proceeded in his own manner. Jeffries returned to California to continue training and weight reducing under the direction of James J. Corbett and the famous wrestler Farmer Burns. There is evidence that he had been secretly training even before his trip to Carlsbad. In any event, he now settled down to it under the eyes of the press, and much material got into print about the solidity and strength of his arms and legs and the aggressiveness of his disposition. Johnson set out on a tour of the European music halls, performing an act which consisted of a few songs, a dance routine, a bit of playing on the bull fiddle, and a brief lecture on boxing. Etta accompanied him, along with a party of managers, valets, and secretaries; they spent Christmas of 1909 in London. On this expedition, Etta did something to earn her keep; in previous years she had shown talent in Brooklyn amateur theatricals, and she began to appear as part of Johnson’s act. Thus they unconsciously tapped a deep vein of public emotion, by bringing to mind the folk tale of beauty and the beast.
Back in the United States, Johnson stopped in Chicago as the publicity for the big fight got under way and was arrested for speeding in his scarlet racing car at Twelfth Street and Michigan Avenue. Putting into Johnson’s mouth the picturesque language reporters had invented for him, the Chicago Inter-Ocean had him saying, “Stand back, Mr. White Offisah, and let dem colored peoples hab a look at me.” Unperturbed by the linguistic libel, and unrepentant after paying a fine, Johnson went to San Francisco the last week in May, 1910, to start his training for the Jeffries fight.
Meanwhile, reports from Jeffries’ camp at Rowardennan in the northern part of California had it that “the big fellow” was in a ferocious mood, that he ran fifteen miles a day, and that his sparring partners lived in fear of demolition. This propaganda was handed out by the former heavyweight champion, Jim Corbett, who was general manager, chief tactician, and director of psychological warfare for the Jeffries crowd. “Take it from me,” he would say to the newspapermen, “the black boy has a yellow streak, and Jeff will bring it out when he gets him into that ring.” Such training-camp dispatches soon got away from the sports departments and out on the front page, where they unrolled for column after column under headlines about “The White Man” and “The Giant Black.” Thus, as July 4 drew nearer, a feeling of racial rivalry began to permeate the air; people were exposed to it as they took in their newspapers with the milk in the morning or read the headlines over a fellow passenger’s shoulder coming home on the train.
Some educated Negroes did what they could to deflate the idea that Rickard’s boxing show symbolized a struggle of race against race. The Reverend Reverdy C. Ransom of the Bethel African Methodist Church in New York City, for example, said, “No respectable colored minister in the United States is interested in the pugilistic contest between Johnson and Jeffries, from the standpoint of race. We do not think that Jack Johnson thinks or has ever thought of holding the championship for the ‘black race.’ Johnson is not trying to win the Negro championship, but to hold and defend his title against all comers, regardless of race or color.”
Not all Negroes in the United States took Mr. Ransom’s position, for many black people liked the idea of a symbolic champion as much as some of the whites found satisfaction in the same idea from the opposite racial point of view. The Chicago Defender was the first highly successful crusading newspaper founded by and for Negroes, and it accepted the theme that racial rivalry was implicit in the match between Johnson and Jeffries. Indeed, it hammered this one note as hard as Jeffries was supposed to be pounding his sparring mates. The Defender was worthy of attention: the paper had made a fortune for its publisher, Robert Sengstacke Abbott, who lived in a mansion, kept a box at the opera, carried a gold-headed cane, and wore a silk hat, long-tailed coat, striped trousers, and spats. Little of this dignity came through in the columns of the Defender , for Abbott believed in keeping his readers stirred up. His gift for sensationalism almost equalled that of William Randolph Hearst, as he showed in a cartoon which was printed on the front page of the Defender a few weeks before the fight. The picture had Jack shaking hands with Jeffries in the ring, with the front rows occupied by men exhibiting a sign that read: “ JIM CROW DELEGATES .” The referee was a figure with the face of Satan, bearded and dressed as Uncle Sam, and labelled “Public Sentiment.” He was saying to Jim Jeffries, “We’re with you this time—go ahead.” Ranged beside Jeffries were three menacing figures labelled “Race Hatred,” “Prejudice,” and “Negro Persecution.” The legend above the cartoon was: “ HE WILL HAVE THEM ALL TO BEAT ,” and below: “The future welfare of his people forms a part of the stake.”
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Rickard seemed to have found the ideal site for a big professional heavy-weight boxing match. Local boosters had called the city the Paris of America, and though San Francisco may not have justified the sobriquet on cultural grounds, it was second to none in greedy hack drivers, exorbitant hotels, and unspeakable vices advertised and practiced in the resorts of the night-life area known as the Barbary Coast. But even in the Paris of America there were reformers, who made up for their small numbers by their earnestness and zeal. The moment the fight was announced they opened a campaign by letter, telegram, public meetings, and private interviews to get it stopped. Governor Gillett felt the heat and became uneasy. Hoping to please everybody, he announced that so far as he knew, the match was merely a “sparring contest,” and he found nothing in the state law to forbid it. Needless to say, this merely increased the reformers’ fury. Gillett had an exaggerated notion of his own importance and dreamed of Washington. It is therefore understandable that his anguish increased when a Mr. George Rockwell of Cincinnati brought into being “a national organization of business men and church people to prevent this outrage.” Rockwell printed one million postcards addressed to Gillett with the message: “ STOP THE FIGHT. THIS IS THE 20TH CENTURY .” Thus the institution of professional boxing itself and not the color of Johnson’s skin became the point of issue. Groaning in his mansion at Sacramento, Gillett cursed the day Tex Rickard came to California.
What pained Gillett was balm to Rickard, who heartily approved of the reformers, considering them so many unsalaried press agents for the fight. He continued preparations and built a yellow-pine arena to hold 25,000 spectators. Nevertheless, though Rickard was not aware of it, Gillett was beginning to cave in. There were signs and portents: one of the most startling was the spectacle of fifty ministers praying before the state capitol that the Governor would be moved to stop the fight. Rickard took this as gilt-edged publicity —that was the way he did things. Then one morning while he watched the driving of the last nails into the pine stadium, he received a private message that made him take seriously the thought of treachery in the Governor’s mansion: even that wily politician Sunny Jim Coffroth was worried. He had reason to be, as Rickard soon found out, for heat from Washington was being felt in Sacramento.
The first hint of trouble had come to Sunny Jim from a spy in the office of the San Francisco Board of Trade. Its president, a respectable San Franciscan named William R. Wheeler, had received a telegram from Congressman William S. Bennett of New York, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, stating that the “prospective fight” stood in the way of efforts to secure the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 for San Francisco. This was very bad. While it was true that the Johnson-Jeffries match would bring from fifteen to twenty thousand visitors into town and would : greatly increase business for the various institutions catering to the wants of tourists, that bonanza would continue only for a week at most; the exposition would last all summer. Governor Gillett knew that nothing must be allowed to jeopardize it, and after learning of the Bennett message, he called for his attorney general. “Go to San Francisco and tell Rickard to get out of my state,” said Gillett. “Tell him to take Johnson and Jeffries with him. What he is planning is a prize fight, and against the law.” Rickard received the order in a few hours; though forewarned, he was helpless. This was on the evening of June 15, less than three weeks before the fight. Next morning the front page of every metropolitan paper in the country carried as its banner headline some variation of: “ GILLETT VETOES THE BIG FIGHT .” Rickard had the publicity of a lifetime—and no place to cash it in.
The circumstances under which Congressman Bennett had sent his telegram demonstrated the power of reform in that era: it showed, moreover, that the central strength of the movement lay in organized Protestantism. A good churchman, Bennett had gone as a lay delegate to the annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Atlantic City early in June. The consensus of the ministers and laymen at this highest gathering of Presbyterians was that all citizens and legislators be admonished to consider the evil of prize fighting and stamp it out. It was therefore obvious that, though not officially acting for his fellow Presbyterians, Mr. Bennett was reflecting their conviction when he used his influence to stop the San Francisco fight.
Mayor McCarthy of San Francisco was out of town when Gillett’s announcement hit the front pages. Now he cut short an eastern trip and hurried back, pausing between trains in Chicago to say to reporters: “I am running San Francisco. I am taking no orders from Gillett or his attorney general. You can bet your last dollar the big fight will be pulled off in my town just as advertised.” But he quieted down when he got home and heard about the danger of losing the Pan-American Exposition. As for James C. Gillett, he was lucky that Sacramento was not the Klondike. However, he had his reward. The New York Times editorialized, “Governor Gillett has assumed national stature. He deserves the heartiest praise of all good citizens.” This praise was echoed in church and reform circles for the next few weeks, but Gillett sank into obscurity and was forgotten.
Those who thought expulsion from California meant cancellation of the fight were disappointed by Rickard’s next move. Instead of giving in, he ordered the stadium dismantled and the timbers held in readiness for shipment to another location. Searching for a site within the United States, he called on Governor Denver S. Dickerson of Nevada, a man of broad views who ruled over a population of only 40,000 people, of whom a negligible number were ministers or women. Nevada was the only state in the union where prize fighting was not forbidden by law. Indeed, the state seemed to have few laws about anything, and was altogether a pleasant sort of place, with magnificent diamond-clear desert nights compensating for the heat of the days. When Rickard asked permission to hold the fight in the small but lively city of Reno, the Governor had only one question.
“Just tell me, man to man, it’s on the level, Tex,” said Dickerson. When assured that the bout would be honestly fought, the Governor gave his blessing; the promoter shipped the stadium timbers to Reno, and the boxers followed with their staffs of trainers, advisers, and jesters. It should be noted that Governor Dickerson’s doubts about the honesty of the fight seemed not entirely baseless. On all sides the tale was told that Johnson had guaranteed a victory for Jeffries. “You heard nothing but fake, fix and double cross everywhere,” wrote the foremost boxing expert of the day, Tad Dorgan. Partly because of the incessant rumor, Jeffries was a ten to seven favorite in the betting when the boxers encamped near Reno. Few people asked why a fix would be necessary if Jeffries was so powerful he could kill a man with one blow. And no one tried to explain what advantage there could be for Johnson in such an arrangement. Johnson had in cash a $2,500 loan from Rickard plus his f 10,000 bonus; even if he managed to get his training expenses entirely on credit, and so had this bankroll intact to bet on Jeffries—and getting the money down would be an extremely delicate transaction—the returns at the quoted odds would be less than $9,000. But the winner’s end of the purse would be $60,600, and if Johnson bet his roll on himself to win, and beat Jeffries, there would be around $17,000 more. So it was clear that someone would have to find a great deal of money to buy Johnson off. Moreover, it would have to be assumed that Jack had no pride—an assumption not justified by the facts of his fighting career: pride, indeed, was the power of his life.
It should be borne in mind, however, that amid the babble about fixes, frames, and yellow streaks there were men of judgment and discrimination. Governor Dickerson was one of these, and he went to Johnson’s camp at The Willows, a roadhouse four miles outside Reno, to have an unbiassed look at what was going on. Wearing a wide-brimmed Panama hat, the Governor bowed in courtly fashion when presented to Belle Schreiber and looked on with interest as Johnson boxed with the gigantic Al Kaufman, once an opponent and now a training partner. The newspapers reported that the Governor remained calm when Jack “drew the claret” in “tapping Kaufman on the beak.” The next sparring partner was George Cotton, who “drew the ruby” by cutting Johnson’s lip. Jack’s return was so rapid that Dickerson did not see the movement of his arm; Cotton’s knees gave way, and he held himself up by the ropes. Johnson stepped back, Cotton left the ring semiconscious, and Johnson’s manager, Sig Hart, threw a bucket of water over his head to bring him around.
“What happened to him there?” asked Dickerson.
A reporter answered, “Johnson hit him on the jaw with his left and almost put him out.”
“Put him out of where?”
“Quit your kidding, Governor,” said the reporter. “You know what I mean. He was nearly knocked out.”
“Oh, I see,” said Dickerson.
“Didn’t you ever see a fight before?”
“Lots of ’em, but not like this. The others were with guns, where men sank to their death. In this affair, no one seems to suffer much hurt.”
Though disappointed at the lack of fatalities, Governor Dickerson called the reporters together at the conclusion of his visit and announced, “I have never seen a man who can whip Jack Johnson as he stands today, and I am forced to bet on him.”
The Governor was too sensible to issue such a statement without having first seen Jeffries; but this made no impression on the thousands of bettors throughout the country who were putting their money on “Big Jim.” Nor did Dickerson’s estimate have any effect on the experts who were now beginning to flock into Reno. It was turned aside, for example, by the elderly and famous trainer and physical culturist William Muldoon, who was later to be New York State Boxing Commissioner and who possessed such immense rectitude that he was called “the Old Roman.” Muldoon faced an attentive half-circle of reporters in front of his hotel and said, “The Negro won’t fight. I pick Jeffries.”
Equally sure of the outcome was Jack London. He arrived in the town accompanied by two tramps called Watertank Willie and Seattle Sam; the author’s face was swollen with bruises he had sustained in a fight with a bartender at Ogden, Utah. London at once began to load the wires with copy and generally to take himself with the intense seriousness that seems to overcome literary men amid the aura of importance and significance surrounding a heavyweight championship fight.
London’s first dispatch had hardly cleared the wires before the renowned old ex-champion John L. Sullivan arrived on the scene. He was there on Rickard’s invitation as the elder statesman of boxing and was also under contract to report the fight for the New York Times . Sullivan had not touched liquor for five years; he had grown immensely fat and wore a little gray cap that made him look like Tweedledum or his twin as he waddled down the main street of Reno. Sullivan’s first statement was, “It looks like a frame-up.”
When Sullivan’s remark reached Jeffries’ training quarters at a roadhouse called Moana Springs, on the Truckee River, he was so annoyed that he cried, “That big stiff better not come here or I’ll turn the fire hose on him! I always hated a knocker!”
The atmosphere of Jeffries’ camp was unhappy. The staff had grown: the Olympic trainer Mike Murphy had joined as physical director, while Eddie Leonard (“the Minstrel Man”) and Walter C. Kelly were in attendance as entertainers. In time, Kelly was to become the uncle of the future Princess Grace of Monaco, but at the moment he was known for a vaudeville act called “The Virginia Judge,” which drew its humor from the supposed combination of craftiness and stupidity displayed by Negroes before the bar of justice. Side by side with Leonard, Kelly could put on a show that would fill a Broadway theatre, but at the Jeffries camp the comedians worked in vain. Jim was in such a bad mood that not even the administering of a Mickey Finn to one of the camp servants could bring a smile to his drawn face. Nor could the wonders of nature divert him: he remained morose at the sight of Halley’s comet sparkling across the Nevada skies. “I told you not to wake me up to see no comet!” Jeffries cried. “Who cares about comets? I want my sleep!”
While Jeffries continued to fret, Johnson worked hard. His evenings, however, were all gaiety and relaxation. Jack liked the desert sunsets, and he would stand outside the roadhouse watching the blue sky turn to amethyst and rose. Cool air drifted from the mountains; he would hear the mechanical piano in the taproom strike up “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” and see the glow of oil lamps at the windows. It was time to go inside, get out the bull fiddle, and cut a few capers. Two volunteer masters of ceremonies were usually present at these festivities in the persons of the wine agents Bob Vernon and Harry Lehr.∗ Lehr was also the social consultant to Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish of New York City. As the late afternoon sky began to deepen, Vernon and Lehr would drive out to The Willows at the head of a train of automobiles loaded with eastern society women and hampers of champagne; Japanese butlers accompanied the two salesmen and opened the plentiful bottles, pouring and serving the wine. The fashionable women had not come to Reno to see the fight, but to obtain divorces under the Nevada six weeks’ residence law. Sometimes they caught a glimpse of Belle Schreiber; on the last day of June, Belle went to San Francisco, and Etta Duryea appeared. Like Belle, she stayed in the background, and reporters confused the two women, referring to each of them, on occasion, as “Johnson’s white wife.”
In spite of the merriment in the taproom, The Willows was an armed camp. Johnson owned several pistols, keeping one in his pocket and the others near his bedside. Each night, after the mechanical piano was stilled and the last car had rolled away to Reno, a sentry paced beneath the windows of the house. He was a dependable man named Cal McVey, an old-time National League catcher, and he carried a shotgun. Perhaps these precautions were excessive, but like everyone else, Johnson was reading the papers with their stories of fixes and frames and unidentifiable figures lurking in the background. More practically, however, he was afraid of a robbery. Some of the ablest thieves in the United States had come to Reno, or were on their way. The eminent bank robber Cincinnati Slim was already there, and the bandit known as the Sundance Kid, later to be shot to pieces in South America, was expected any day. Also walking the streets of Reno were such celebrities of terror as Won Let, the hatchet man for the New York branch of the Hip Sing Tong, who was known to have dispatched between twenty and thirty fellow Chinamen. And in the same newspapers that poured out column after column about the training, the gathering crowds, and the betting rumors, there were items about Jack’s money and jewelry, which any reasonably alert jewel thief would surely have noted; Johnson took pains to make it known that Cal McVey was on hand.
Reno came to a boil in the final week preceding the Fourth of July. Rickard had the timbers from the San Francisco arena in town at midnight of June 27; before dawn, carpenters were working by torchlight. They were to get premium pay, but inspiring them even more than the extra money was the meeting of an emergency, the paving of the way for a great event. To the public, Reno became for the next seven days the hub of the universe. Thinking it over when he had become a veteran editor, Henry Wales of the Chicago Tribune wrote that no event in modern times so permeated the mind of the world until Charles Lindbergh’s flight from Long Island to Paris seventeen years later. And no event, said Wales, had attracted so many reporters; by his count more than three hundred were at work in Reno by the end of June. At the time, newspaper pages were broad and deep and set in small type except for the headlines. Reporters therefore had to write long stories, and those at Reno made their editors happy by sending out around one million words a day. What this coverage would have amounted to with radio and television added is beyond estimate.
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.”
By now Johnson was in a state of euphoria. In the evenings, on his big fiddle, he plucked a rhythmical background for “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers,” “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” and “I Love My Wife, But Oh, You Kid.” He clowned for the reporters and obliged them by falling in with the traditional vein. of melon-devouring, chicken-stealing humor that was regarded as appropriate to his color.
“No stolen chicken ever passes the portals of my face,” Johnson would say, pointing to his gold-filled teeth. “Chickens see the gleam in my eye and keep out of my way. Chicken and corn fritters are affinities. They are meant for each other and both are meant for me.”
Jocosities of this sort lent credence to the rumors, now rising to their climax, that Johnson did not take the fight seriously; and in some quarters, such comedy was interpreted as meaning that Johnson had gorged himself out of shape to insure victory for Jeffries. A newspaper writer named W. P. McCloughlin went farther. First he posed the question, “Is Johnson a typical example of his race in the lack of that intangible ‘something’ that we call ‘heart’?” McCloughlin thought Johnson had a great need of that intangible something, for he had “observed closely Jack’s ‘impenetrable guard’ ” and could not “see any reason why it is so designated.” However, in “James Jeffries, the hope of the white race,” he discerned “a gradually growing sullen ferocity.” It might be supposed that Johnson was in danger if one also believed that this ferocity had at its service the most powerful physique in America. Indeed, the study of Jeffries’ body in the training ring had inspired many a burst of purple writing, and the following sentence in a dispatch to the Chicago Inter-Ocean was regarded as worthy of Oscar Wilde: “Under his skin of bronze the muscles rippled like the placid surface of a body of water touched by a gentle breeze.”
When Jeffries read this passage, he said it made him sick. Indeed, the more the writers extolled his size and strength, the deeper grew his melancholia. He was by now so dispirited that when Corbett brought John L. Sullivan out to Moana Springs, Jeffries not only failed to turn the fire hose on him, but shook his hand, and said, “I know you didn’t mean what you said about me, John.” Then he asked Sullivan how he should fight Johnson, and before the old champion could reply, went on to remark, “I don’t see why I have to be the favorite.” Sullivan looked him over carefully and said, “Jim, all I know is God Almighty hates a quitter.”
As the time before the fight grew shorter, there came another indication that betting on Jeffries would be throwing money away, and now it was William Muldoon who uttered the caveat. He visited the camp at Moana Springs and returned to the center of town to announce that “Jeffries’ judgment of distance and timing is not what it should be. He will take punishment.” And finally, those who were skeptical about Jeffries saw their doubts expressed on July 1 by a cartoon on the front page of the Chicago Daily News . The picture showed Johnson in ring clothes strumming on a bass fiddle that was labelled “Jeff.” The caption beneath read: “Hush, hush, don’ yo’ talk so loud!”
Three days later, on the morning of July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson got up early. For breakfast he ate four lamb cutlets, three scrambled eggs, and several slices of rare steak. Jeffries took only a little fruit, toast, and tea, but each man issued a statement in hearty style. Jeffries’ manifesto was,
When the gloves are knotted on my hands and I stand ready to defend what is really my title, it will be at the request of the public, which forced me out of retirement. I realize full well just what depends on me, and I am not going to disappoint the public. That portion of the white race that has been looking to me to defend its athletic superiority may feel assured that I am fit to do my very best. If Johnson defeats me, I will shake his hand and declare him the greatest fighter the sporting world has ever known.
Johnson told the public,
Every fighter on the eve of his fight declares that he hopes the best man wins. I am quite sincere when I say that I do, and if Mr. Jeffries knocks me out or gains a decision over me, I will go into his corner and congratulate him as soon as I am able. My congratulations will not be fake. I mean it. Let me say in conclusion that I believe the meeting between Mr.Jeffries and myself will be a test of strength, skill, and endurance. I plan to gradually beat him down and finally make him take the count. However, should I meet defeat I will have no excuse to offer and will proclaim Mr. Jeffries king of them all.
This mood of statesmanlike tact was missing in the office of the Chicago Defender , where Robert S. Abbott pounded his typewriter in a frenzy. “If Johnson is forced to fight Jim Crow Delegations, race prejudice and insane public sentiment,” Abbott wrote, “and if he wins in the face of all this, he is truly entitled to a Carnegie Hero Medal.” There was no doubt in Abbott’s mind as to the outcome of the fight, and he went on, “When the smoke of the battle clears away, and when the din of mingled cheers and groans have died away in the atmosphere, there will be deep mourning throughout the domains of Uncle Sam over Jeffries’ inability to return the pugilistic sceptre to the Caucasian race.” The pastor of St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, near Abbott’s office, felt no such certainty about the result of the match. To help Johnson win, the minister opened the sanctuary early on Fourth of July morning for a prayer service that continued through the time the men were fighting at Reno. And numerous other Negro congregations all over the country did the same.
One of the most discerning reporters at the center of the nationwide web of excitement, emotion, and prayer was Arthur Ruhl, representing Collier’s magazine. Sensitive to the surroundings as well as to the fight itself, he described the scene on the early after noon of July 4, 1910, after the crowd was seated, and just before the fighters made their entrance:
You must imagine a bright green little oasis, ten or fifteen miles across, set in a sort of dish of bare enclosing mountains —brown mountains with patches of yellow and olive-green and exquisite veils of mauve and amethyst, and at their tops, blazing white in the clear air, patches of austere snow. In the center of all this a great pine bear-pit had been raised, glaring white and hot in the blazing desert sun, and into this at 1:30 o’clock that afternoon 20,000 men were crowded with their eyes fixed on a little roped square in the center.
The betting was 10 to 6 on Jeffries and the talk about 1,000 to 1. You couldn’t hurt him—Fitzsimmons had landed enough times to kill an ordinary man in the first few rounds, and Jeffries had only shaken his head like a bull and bored in. The Negro might be a clever boxer, but he had never been up against a real fighter before. He had a yellow streak, there was nothing to it, and anyway, “Let’s hope he kills the coon.”
“That was about the mental atmosphere as Johnson, wrapped in a dressing gown and smiling his half-puzzled, rather pleading smile, climbed into the ring,” Ruhl reported. Then, accompanied by Corbett and other trainers, Jim Jeffries strode down the aisle. Ruhl continued:
I had a seat directly opposite him, and I can unhesitatingly state that I have never seen a human being more calculated to strike terror into an opponent’s heart than this scowling brown Colossus as he came through the ropes, stamped like a bull pawing the ground before his charge, and, chewing gum rapidly, glared at the black man across the ring. If looks could have throttled, burned, and torn to pieces, Mr. Jack Arthur Johnson would have disappeared that minute into a few specks of inanimate dust. The Negro had his back turned at the moment, and as he took his corner and his trainer and his seconds, crowding in front of him, concealed the white man, a sort of hoot, wolfish and rather terrible, went up from the crowd. “He daresen’t look at him! O-o-o ! Don’t let him see him! Don’t let him see him!” And when Jeffries pulled off his clothes with a vicious jerk, and standing erect and throwing out his chest, jabbed his great arms above his head once or twice, I don’t suppose that one man in a hundred in that crowd would have given two cents for the Negro’s chances.
Jim Corbett, however, was not looking at his man Jeffries. He had neglected making a visit to the enemy camp, depending for information on faulty intelligence of the gin-and-watermelon school, and as Corbett now got his first glimpse of Johnson, a terrible fear assailed him. He knew condition: Jack had not acquired that flat stomach leaning against a bar. “Jeff will find his yellow streak now,” Corbett muttered to Farmer Burns. He did not need to add that if they had been mistaken about that streak, they were in for trouble.
Arthur Ruhl had overestimated the crowd; counting the journalists and politicians who came in on free tickets, there were just over sixteen thousand people in the arena. As a special attention, Rickard had installed curtained boxes for the women getting divorces, who for the first time constituted a noticeable group of females at a prize fight.
Students of this affair should bear in mind that although women were present, many of the spectators were drunk, and others were enduring hangovers in dreadful heat that was retained and magnified in the wooden arena. Well might they shift on the resinous planks as Uncle Billy Jordan, the portly master of ceremonies, called up Sullivan, Corbett, Tommy Burns, Fitzsimmons, Tom Sharkey, Battling Nelson, and Abe Attel for perfunctory applause. Jordan endured the blast of heat in a high-crowned derby, watch-chained waistcoat, claw-hammer coat, and gates-ajar starched collar. At last the celebrities took their final bows, and Jordan yielded to Rickard, who, protecting his head from the sun by a hard straw hat and taking off his coat to reveal a pair of silk suspenders, prepared to referee the Battle of the Century—forty-five rounds for the championship of the world.
Rickard signalled for the opening gong. Outweighing Johnson by about twenty pounds, Jeffries advanced from his corner, and Jack came to meet him with his characteristic shuffling gait. Jeffries in his crouching style immediately took the fight to Johnson, and Jack worked with extreme caution in avoiding these opening rushes. His face was impassive, and his movements so economical that only an expert and unprejudiced eye could appreciate their smoothness and speed. As for Jeffries, for all his crouching, rushing, and swinging, there was no continuity to his attack, yet the crowd cheered him at the end of the round. Most of the spectators believed Jeffries was going to pin Johnson in a corner and beat down his defense by main strength and that everybody would then go home happy and rich. There was a comfortable murmur throughout the arena, like that of a concert audience settling down, after preliminary selections, for the main symphonic work.
The second round was much the same, Jeffries trying to reach Jack by means of a straight left, but doing no damage. Johnson still looked solemn and thoughtful, with the expression of one who is listening to sad news or attending a funeral. The sports took this as evidence of fear—and did not know what to think when in the middle of the next round Johnson suddenly flicked out his left glove in a jab that brought the crouching Jeffries up straight as though he had run into the edge of an open door. Now it was seen that Johnson was smiling and talking to Jeffries. Corbett heard him say, “Come on now, Mr. Jeff. Let me see what you got. Do something, man. This is for the cham- peenship .” There was less rejoicing in the audience when this third round ended, but they were more puzzled than alarmed.
In the fourth round, Johnson took the offensive, and kept the left jab flickering in Jeffries’ face. “I can go on like this all afternoon, Mr. Jeff,” Johnson taunted. At the opening of the seventh round, Jack shuffled out with such deceptive quickness that he was able to land a stupefying right cross to the jaw before Jeffries’ hands were in position. From this point on, anyone who knew about fighting could see that unless Johnson left himself open to a lucky blow, Jeffries had no chance. Boxing wildly, visibly slowing down, the former champion managed to last the round, then collapsed on his stool with his right eye closing, his face marked and swollen. He endured more pounding in the eighth round. In the ninth, he tried desperately to take the initiative again, but he hit only elbows and gloves.
To the horror of the crowd, Jeffries had lost his breath by the end of the twelfth round; he was still struggling to get air into his lungs when the bell brought the men out for the thirteenth. There were scattered cries of “Stop it! Don’t let him be knocked out!”—but Rickard allowed the fight to go on, and Johnson kept smashing away with left and right. By the final seconds of the fourteenth round, Jeffries was in such distress that he could barely raise his arms. In the fifteenth, Jack knocked Jeffries half out of the ring; friends pushed him back, Rickard ignoring this violation of the rules, and Johnson chopped him down again with a left to the head. Somehow Jeffries got on his feet, to receive three snapping blows to the face that knocked him back to the floor. Sam Berger threw in a towel to concede defeat, but Rickard did not see it, and counted ten over the inert Jeffries. Then Rickard lifted the fist of Jack Johnson as indisputable heavy-weight champion of the world.
A few seconds later, at the Pekin Theatre on Chicago’s South Side, where 1,500 Negroes gathered to receive bulletins of the fight, a man holding a slip of paper ran on the stage. The master of ceremonies took the paper, glanced at it, raised himself on his toes and filled his lungs. With arms extended he bellowed, “Johnson wins!” It seemed as if the roof fell in; then the members of the audience rushed for the street, climbing each other’s backs in the doorways. Into State Street they poured to join thousands of other Negroes, who were capering, shouting, and beating on dishpans, while over it all the continuous thundering of extra-large firecrackers made a sound like a great battle. Across the country similar parades were forming, principally in Negro neighborhoods, but sometimes on white territory as well. At first, white persons viewing the Negro demonstrations took no action, and some applauded the celebrators, though probably with ironic intent. The trouble would come with darkness when the liquor got to work.
As night came on frolic turned into riot, and riot into civil war, small in scale but deadly in result, in both North and South. Exulting Negroes clashed with frightened or resentful whites, and by morning reports of death and injury had come from towns and cities in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Mississippi, Virginia, Missouri, Georgia, Arkansas, and Colorado. There had been a gun battle at Uvaldia, Georgia, leaving three Negroes dead and scores of whites and Negroes wounded. This was the worst rioting of the night, but throughout the country there were eight other deaths that could be directly charged to the racial friction arising from Johnson’s victory and Jeffries’ defeat. In the New York metropolitan area, Irish hoodlums as well as Negro rowdies welcomed the chance to make trouble. A typical uproar took place in Brooklyn when three Irish toughs heard a Negro named Edward Coleman say to a dog, “Lie down there, Jeffries.”
“You have your nerve to call that dog Jeffries,” said John Dermody. “Why don’t you call it Johnson?”
“Because Johnson is black and this dog is yellow,” the Negro answered. Then the fight started, but it was not one-sided, as Coleman had friends nearby.
In Muskogee, Oklahoma, a man who claimed to be a second cousin of John L. Sullivan attacked two Negroes with a knife but was seized by the police before he could do any damage. There was rioting in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Wilmington, and Norfolk, resulting in many injuries and hundreds of arrests; the entire town of Keystone, West Virginia, was in the control of a Negro mob until late in the afternoon of July 5. All told, two white persons and nine Negroes met death, the Negro victims including two killed by their own people. Observing these lamentable events across the gap of more than fifty years, it is possible to theorize that the trouble did not come so much from the undeniable circumstance that Johnson was champion, as from the glorying over whites in which the blacks, perhaps understandably, indulged.
At Reno, the series of happenings that triggered the rioting had come to a confused end. As Rickard dropped his arm, Johnson said to Sig Hart, “I think I’ll give one glove to Corbett and one to Jeff.” But Corbett hurried Jeffries away without waiting for any gestures from Johnson. With his closed eye, bloody and swollen face, and fumbling movements, Jeffries looked like the loser he was. Corbett and Farmer Burns helped him from the ring; then he pulled himself together and stalked away. One has the feeling that Jeffries was entitled to some recognition of his gameness; but his performance had been so poor, and his defeat such a disappointment—and to many, such an unpleasant surprise—that there were no cheers to warm his heart as he left the arena.
But the situation held at least enough tension to start some long-lived rumors. One still generally believed today has it that Sig Hart hustled Jack out of the arena to an automobile and drove a fast fifty miles into the desert to a special train waiting at a lonely stop. The fact is that Johnson walked out unmolested and went to The Willows, where he put on a blue silk suit and a crimson bow tie. Etta had watched the fight from one of Rickard’s box seats for ladies; she now changed her costume, putting on a fresh pongee dress and picture hat, and joined Jack for a ride through the center of Reno in the back seat of an open touring car. Johnson appeared to be in no danger, and the crowd was apathetic. It seemed that those who had an emotional as well as financial investment in Jeffries were still in shock. Indeed, when Jack’s car halted in the crowd on the street in front of the Golden Hotel, many persons came up and shook his hand. He left Reno at 9:50 P.M. in a special car attached to a train bound for Chicago. The car was fitted with a buffet, phonograph, and piano; Jack was happy and chatted genially with Hart and others. He was observed to be consuming “his share of the champagne” but not to be drunk. Over the desert sped the car, its lighted windows passing with a jangle of ragtime and a swirl of dust that settled under the stars.
Jim Jeffries also was riding in a private car, but heading in the opposite direction, for San Francisco. He was attended by his wife, Berger, Farmer Burns, Corbett, and several reporters. Morose and melancholy, Jeffries took no liquor; surprisingly, he spoke with frankness to the newspapermen. “I could never have whipped Jack Johnson at my best,” the former champion said. “I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in a thousand years.”
This time Jim Jewries’ retirement was permanent; he returned to his farm in California, and there he lived to a prosperous old age. The victorious Jack Johnson was hardly so fortunate. The years that followed were more notable for his misadventures with the law than for his exploits in the ring. Women were his undoing. In September, 1912, Etta Terry Duryea Johnson shot herself at his Chicago cabaret, the Café de Champion; she was in her grave scarcely two months when he married another white girl, Lucille Cameron. The next spring Johnson was charged with and convicted of violating the Mann Act (that is, transporting a woman across a state line for immoral purposes), largely on the testimony of his old friend Belle Schreiber. He promptly fled the country, one step ahead of his jailers. Two years later, on April 5, 1915, Jack Johnson finally lost his title. In a bout held in Havana, he was floored after twenty-six rounds by an other “white hope,” the 250-pound giant, Jess Willard.
Not until 1920 did the first black champion end his exile, surrendering himself to federal authorities at the Mexican border; he served a year and a day at Leavenworth—where, ironically, the warden was the former governor of Nevada, Denver S. Dickerson. For the rest of his life, Johnson made a shabby and unspectacular living from carnival side shows, vaudeville, and an occasional fight. In 1945, when another great Negro boxer, Joe Louis, held the heavyweight title, Jack Johnson fought his last exhibition; he was then sixty-eight years old. That April he died in an automobile accident: to the very end he never lost his penchant for fast cars. At the funeral in Chicago, a minister of his race delivered what may well have been Johnson’s truest epitaph: “Jack struck a double blow when he became heavyweight champion. If we hadn’t had a Jack, we wouldn’t have a Joe now.”