GENTLEMAN JIM CORBETT’S BIG FIGHT
John W. Cowart
Gentleman Jim Corbett, Boxing Champion of America, fought and fought and fought in Jacksonville, Florida.
On January 25, 1894, he fought Charles Mitchell, champion of England.
But, before he fought the Englishman, Corbett -- along with members of the Duval County Athletic Club -- fought churches, civic groups, the mayor of Jacksonville, the governor of Florida, the Second Battalion of Ocala Rifles of the Florida State Militia, and even the local humane society.
The big fight was over whether or not any prize fight ever could be held in Florida.
The November 16, 1893, Evening Telegraph newspaper printed a wire from Harry Mason, president of the Duval Athletic Club:
"Final arrangements have been completed for a glove contest between Corbett and Mitchell... The purse is $20,000 and there are side bets of $10,000 each... All hands have signed the papers and the thing is settled."
Mason was wrong.
The matter was far from settled.
In the following weeks, over 300 newspaper reporters converged on Jacksonville to cover the fight. This sporting event was the 1894 equivalent of a Superbowl game. Most newspapers used line drawings to illustrate their coverage.
Through Western Union, the sports reporters wired an estimated three million words to their respective papers. Most were fighting words. They concerned the battle between the fight promoters and other groups.
In one corner gathered the group know as "Sports", who wanted the fight to take place.
J.E.T. Bowden, owner of Florida's first taxi company, was spokesman for the Sports who included dignitaries identified by papers of the day as "Bat Masterson, gunslinger; Henry Stedker, New York bookmaker; and Kit Muller, an all round good fellow and one of the most popular traveling men who do Florida in the interests of houses that sell the nectar of white corn".
Also included among the Sports were: "Snapper Garrison, noted jockey and official time keeper of the club; Phil Dwyer, great patron of the turf; H.B. Perkins, popular mixologist (bartender) of the St. James Hotel; 100 members of the East End Club of London; Inspector McLaughlin of the New York Police Force; H.B. Miner, well-known theatrical man; Johnny Ward, the great baseball manager; Dr. J.P. McCombs, prominent physician; George Smith, better known as "Pittsburgh Phil", the famous plunger who has won thousands of dollars on the race track; and Professor C.R. Ramsey, inventor and patentee of Ramsey's new and improved punching bag.".
Politicians, ministers, businessmen – virtually everybody joined in the verbal free-for-all over the Big Fight
In the opposing corner, with the governor of Florida, the Hon. Henry I. Mitchell (no relation to the English prize-fighter) as main spokesman, were vocal and vigorous opponents to fighting. These contenders were referred to in contemporary papers as "Church folk and the moral element of the country".
In the tag-team battle over the morality of fighting, everyone got in at least one lick.
"I had hoped and believed that my instructions to the sheriff of Duval County to prevent the fight in Jacksonville would be sufficient warning to cause the parties promoting the fight to desist," the Governor said.
He cited state laws against dueling.
J.E.T. Bowden counter-punched saying, "We do not propose to have a prize fight, or anything like a fight, and my efforts in drawing up contracts, etc., have been with that one object to eliminate everything pertaining to a fight and to only have a scientific glove contest, pure and simple."
Jacksonville Mayor Duncan Fletcher issued a statement through the city attorney saying, "Members of the city government say that they are law-abiding and God-fearing and that a prize-fight, although cloaked under the name of 'scientific glove contest' will not be tolerated within the confines of their official jurisdiction if there be any legal method of preventing it."
The Evening Telegraph lamented, "City authorities put their foot down thus bringing to the hearts of the sporting fraternity consternation and anguish unspeakable."
Soon, the Sports sponsored a mass meeting at Metropolitan Hall where city councilman Boyd announced that, "The council had passed an ordinance (over the mayor's veto) regulating glove contests and granting to the holders of such contest a license giving them the legal right to give the exhibition."
Boyd said, "The proposed contest would bring into the state money, which, God knows, we need."
An Evening Telegraph editorial said, "Bluff, Blow and Gas seemed for a while to be the order of the day...
"Pugilism is simply a branch of athletics and physical culture and, when not carried to excess, is commendable and worthy of cultivation and there is interest and instruction for the spectators."
Nonsense! said governor's aide Arthur C. Jackson.
"If there were no laws in Florida which will prevent prize-fights, it is high time that vigorous ones were enacted," he said.
"The proposed prize-fight in Jacksonville is a disgrace to the city and if it ever comes will do more harm than an epidemic of yellow fever.
"It would bring the presence of the scum of creation in the persons of the Sports, plug-uglies, gamblers, prostitutes and thieves who will gather to witness the two imported professional prize-fighters hammer each other until one is pounded into insensibility.
"Prize-fighting anywhere and under any circumstances is wholly demoralizing and detestable.
"It has no more relation to physical culture than cutting throats has to shaving, and any jackass is vastly the superior of any prize-fighter yet produced in knocking-out ability," Jackson said.
A letter from the East Coast Conference of Congregational Churches said, "We enter our united and earnest protest against the occurrence of such a disgraceful and demoralizing event."
The Methodist General Conference issued a similar statement.
The secretary of the Humane Society of St. Augustine wrote, "We hereby express our abhorrence of and opposition to all pugilistic encounters!"
The Duval District Union of Christian Endeavor sent a letter to the governor, the mayor, the sheriff and the newspapers saying a prize fight "would be a lasting detriment to the moral and material interests of our city. Its legitimate results can only be to blunt the moral sentiment of our people and arouse the brutal instincts of humanity."
Bowden countered saying, "The club has made a public announcement that the fight would come off, the governor's assertions notwithstanding, and again we wish to assure the public that this contest will come off in this city as advertised."
His club also initiated a covert attack.
Since there was no precedent for a boxing match in Jacksonville, the club, without publicity, acquired a city license for Green Harris and Perry Watking, two local men, to fight at the Opera House.
The other side took no notice of this until that bout was over.
A local newspaper observed, "There is considerable comment in town today because the governor's forces did not arrest the negro 'prize-fighters' last night. Friends of peace and good order say, 'If the governor has law on his side, why didn't he prevent that fight last night?"
The governor tried a covert tactic of his own.
Since most travel in those days was by train, he asked railroad owners to suspend train service to Jacksonville for 48 hours around the proposed day of the fight.
Caught in the middle, one railroad manager, a Mr. Plant, replied, "I have never seen a prize fight in my life and do not care to see one. But if anybody wishes to go to Jacksonville to a prize fight, we shall be glad to have them travel over our line. We would carry delegates to a church convention with equal, if not greater, pleasure."
The governor received a better response from hotel and railroad magnate Henry Flagler.
"Mr. Flagler will use all of his influence to checkmate any movement that the club may make to have the fighters adjourn to the country in which his hotels are located... He does not want it held in Florida... He thinks the bad name it will give the state will injure the whole of it," reported the January 17th, "Times-Union newspaper.
A sports writer for the New York Recorder said, "The railroads seem to have settled the differences existing between the governor and the Duval Club, and, as we all know, railroad companies can do a great deal in the way of straightening out..."
Dodging the governor's fancy foot work, The Sports swung again:
"So honorable and above board have been our actions and so thoroughly did we want a ridged test of this case," said a club spokesman, "But Governor Mitchell is afraid to submit the case to the courts and we hereby in this public manner throw the gauntlet at his feet and not only invite but dare him to ask the Supreme Court for a decision in this case.
"We assure the public at large that the sentiment of the people of the city of Jacksonville and the state of Florida is to favor the contest."
Meanwhile, as the verbal, tactical and legal fights raged, the newspapers of the day also carried some news about the boxers:
Reporters told about Corbett's dogs, Billy, a setter, and Bert, a collie. They told of his breakfast (chops, toast, eggs, oatmeal and fish); and they told about his wife -- the actress Vera Stanhope.
Mrs. Corbett excited the city when she arrived.
She "looked very pretty and attractive in a gown of soft black wool material with a Scotch plaid silk blouse-waist. Her eyes were unusually bright and the large cluster diamond ring on her finger and a beautiful gem at her throat spoke volumes for the financial success of Jim's business."
She said, "As my relations with my husband are purely domestic, I don't know much about prize-fighting. Pugilism is Jim's business -- and very few wives know much about their husband's business. But I can tell you this much -- Jim is going to whip Mitchell.
"It's Jim's business to win and he always attends strictly to business," she said.
The papers also carried reports about Mitchell's training in St. Augustine and even details of the voyage by Pony Moore, his father-in-law, from England.
"Yesterday, Mitchell ran up and down the stairs of the Anastasia lighthouse nine times. Once is an awful Journey for the average citizen," said one reporter.
Also, while the battle between Sports and moral people raged, businesses in Jacksonville bet that the fight would come off. The city's oldest stationary store ran ads offering "Boxing gloves -- every kind and style."
Railroads scheduled chartered trains to Jacksonville from Kansas City, Memphis, New Orleans, New York, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Cincinnati.
The Merchants and Miners Transportation Company, and other steamship companies, sold cruises from Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Savannah.
And the following ad ran in Jacksonville newspapers daily:
"BOXING -- S.F. Monra, manager of L.N.F. Co., 71 Laura Street, challenges the world on preparing a box of fancy fruit and delivers at any door in U.S or Canada at lowest rates."
In Tampa, Col. G.W. Hall installed a special Western Union line to a circus tent where acrobats would enact a blow by blow account of the fight as an announcer read it from the wire.
Jacksonville continued to gear up for the fight.
One paper announced that "while Maynard's Transatlantique Troubadour Company continues to delight its audience at the Star Theatre, Corbett and Mitchell will appear on the stage next Thursday night, after the fight for the championship of the world, and receive the $20,000 check, then (each) box three rounds with his sparring partner."
But would there be a winner to collect the check?
Sheriff Napoleon Bonaparte Broward
No! declared Jacksonville Sheriff Napoleon Broward.
"The fight will not take place in Duval County... I have been ordered by the governor to stop this fight and I propose to obey orders," he said.
Yes! declared Sport J.D. Hopkins.
"It's all rot, this talk about thugs and toughs overrunning the state. Thugs and toughs do not have money enough to travel thousands of miles nor to stop at first-class hotels. The patrons of this kind of sport are gentlemen of means, who would not walk one step to see a brutal prize-fight, but who would come any distance to sit in comfortable chairs round an arena to witness a scientific glove contest, as this is unquestionably going to be," he said.
D.J. Lang, the governor's private secretary, said, "The Governor will use all lawful means should it be necessary to prevent the fight and to bring to punishment every citizen of the state who aids and abets any such disgraceful breach of the laws."
The governor issued, "A proclamation to all the sheriffs of the state calling upon them to use all lawful means to prevent the fight and promising them the aid of the entire civil and military force of the state..."
Jacksonville businessman L. Furchgott led a committee to draft a resolution stating, "We deem the massing of troops in this city under the circumstances unwarranted by law... We earnestly protest against such rumored action on the part of the governor and most respectfully request that he desist therefrom and leave the conduct and guidance thereof to civil local authorities."
The city council passed, on first reading, an ordinance drafting special police officers into the city's service.
Governor Mitchell conferred with Adjutant-General Patrick Houstoun, commander of the state militia.
As these battle lines formed, Bowden said, "We don't care in the least what conferences are held between the governor and the militia authorities. We will have this contest and the militia will not interfere."
Brave words. But rumors abounded that the club was being forced to move the location of the match. Reporters learned that the arena constructed by the club was a pre-fab structure which could be torn down, moved and re-constructed in two hours.
The fight will be in Fernandina, or Green Cove Springs, or St. Augustine, various "insiders" claimed.
One Branford paper printed this item:
"At a meeting of the LaFayette Sporting Club this afternoon resolutions were unanimously adopted to send an invitation to the Duval Athletic Club to have the Corbett-Mitchell fight under the auspices of said club at Pumpkin Swamp, LaFayette County, Fla. Everything is as quiet and serene as a mud puddle here and there would be no disturbance whatever to the combatants in this rural district except from mosquitoes and alligators."
One report said that the fight would take place on a raft anchored in the St. Johns River -- out of the jurisdiction of any sheriff.
Would the fight take place in Georgia?
Fearing that possibility, Georgia Governor W.J. Northern shipped crates of 300 extra rifles to the Fifth Georgia Cavalry in Waycross. There, he personally led his militia in patrolling the border to repulse any invading Sports from Florida.
Would the fight be possible anywhere?
Bowden and Governor Mitchell conferred in Tallahassee and each issued statements to the press:
"Bowden says the situation is unchanged and the contest will take place. He advises those who desire to witness it to assemble in Jacksonville on or before the 24th instant.
"Governor Mitchell asserts, so far as he is concerned, the situation is unchanged and he will not desist in his determination or in his effort to prevent the fight."
The threat of martial law in Jacksonville upset people and swung some to the side of the Sports.
A physician wrote, "The unfair treatment which the club has been the victim of has elicited the sympathy of many fair minded people... A large majority of the best people in the state are in sympathy with them."
Another Jacksonville businessman said, "It is probably true that the class from abroad in attendance will not be composed of strictly church-going persons, but they are usually well-to-do and proverbially lavish in expenditure."
On the other hand, a "Well-known Boston business man" wrote, "I have considerable property near Palatka and for the past ten years my family have made it their winter home. I have come to the conclusion if the state of Florida permits that pugilistic encounter between Corbett and Mitchell to come off within its jurisdiction I shall dispose of my interests there and cease to make the place my winter home."
Corbett sent a circular letter saying, "The contest between Charles Mitchell and myself will positively take place in Jacksonville, or in that city's immediate vicinity."
But the American Champion faced arrest -- for burglary!
"Claus Meyer, the well-known ship owner and wholesale grocer, has a claim of $500 against Corbett," said the January 22 Times-Union. "His attorney will go to Mayport today accompanied by a special officer and make a demand on Corbett for that sum of money and if it is not paid, he will attach the American Champion's outfit, training apparatus, baggage and all."
It seems that the Corbett training team had technically broken into Myer's Mayport home to use it as a training camp; that is, they paid rent to a middleman who had not passed the money on to the owner. So he charged them with burglary.
That same day, another round was being fought over the $20,000 check which the club had given to referee, "Honest John Kelly", as the purse.
The referee insisted the check be cashed before he would permit the fight, but Bion Barnett, vice president of the bank the check was drawn on, insisted his bank would not cash the check until after the fight proceeds were deposited.
The club cashed its own check out of ticket sales.
Mitchell said, "I am simply holding out for the purse of $20,000 to which the winner is justly entitled, and so long as it is possible I shall try to keep it in sight and so will Corbett, if he is not a fool...
"But this I will tell you -- If I found that it was impossible to secure any purse, I am willing to meet Mr. Corbett at any secret place and, in the presence of twelve witnesses, settle the question of superiority."
In the final rounds, Circuit Court Judge H.M. Call issued an injunction against Sheriff Broward prohibiting him from trespassing on club property or interfering with any club activity.
The governor ordered troops into Jacksonville.
The railroads refused to transport the troops unless paid cash in advance for the men's tickets.
The state paid.
Crowds hissed the soldiers as they marched up Jacksonville's Bay Street.
The Hotel Carleton's chef cooked supper for the troops.
At the last moment, the governor ordered the troops to merely stand ready. "Florida shall be disgraced by a prize fight," he conceded.
Bowden "evidently drawing a heap of dry comfort out of a short unlighted cigar stump screwed deep into the corner of his mouth until that orifice was wrinkled," smiled at reporters.
The fight was over -- the fight was on!
Newspaper illustrations show a bit of bias in their portrayal of the two fighters entering the ring at Moncrief Park.
Two days after the “scientific glove contest”, the Duval Athletic Club permanently disbanded.
The January 27, 1894, Times-Union observed:
"To one familiar with them for the past week there is a look of loneliness and desolation about the rooms of the D.A.C. which reminds one strongly of a picnic ground after the merrymakers have feasted and departed... But such is mortality; today a rainbow spans the spangled heavens and its glorious coloring excites the awe-struck admiration of the world, but lo! it fadeth and becometh nothing."
Oh, the prize-fight?
In only 12 minutes of boxing, Corbett had knocked out Mitchell thus becoming Heavyweight Champion of the World
This 1894 photograph shows the start of the Corbett-Mitchel match at Moncrief Park.
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