Great White Hopes: The Quest to Defeat Jack Johnson

Great White Hopes: The Quest to Defeat Jack Johnson

by Graeme Kent, Harry Carpenter

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In Sydney, Australia, in 1908 the talented black fighter Jack Johnson won the heavyweight championship of the world from the Canadian Tommy Burns. There was an immediate storm of protest. It was predicted that his reign would lead to civic unrest and race riots. This is the story of sport, racism, corruption and larger-than-life characters.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752496153
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 03/17/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 318 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Great White Hopes

The Quest to Defeat Jack Johnson

By Graeme Kent

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Graeme Kent
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9615-3



It was several minutes past midday on the afternoon of 26 December 1908. The first World Heavyweight Championship under the Marquess of Queensberry rules between a white and a black boxer was about to end. In the fourteenth round, Tommy Burns, the totally outclassed Canadian heavyweight champion of the world, had been smashed to the canvas for a count of eight. As the fighter staggered to his feet, bleeding from the nose and mouth, Superintendent Mitchell, in charge of the 250-strong police contingent at the ringside in the open-air stadium at Rushcutters Bay, just outside Sydney in Australia, climbed into the ring.

Unable to make himself heard above the noise of the crowd, the inspector indicated to the referee, Hugh D. McIntosh, who was also the promoter of the contest, that he should stop the fight. McIntosh nodded and moved forward to do so. Ignoring him, Jack Johnson, the black American challenger, advanced to finish off the reeling Burns.

Sam Fitzpatrick, Johnson's manager, and his seconds, terrified that their man would be disqualified, screamed at Johnson to step back. Their cries rose to the cloudless skies; unable to borrow enough wood to complete the stadium, McIntosh had built it without a roof. The black heavyweight saw his handlers' wild gesticulations and hesitated. McIntosh shouted, 'Stop, Johnson!', and placed his hand on the black man's shoulder as an indication that he was the winner and new champion.

Realising what was happening, Tommy Burns turned on Superintendent Mitchell, who had instigated the stoppage, and swore luridly at him, demanding that he be allowed to fight on. Pat O'Keefe, a British middleweight boxer and Burns's chief second, hurried across the ring and led the still shouting and struggling former champion back to his corner. Burns was $30,000 richer, the highest sum ever paid to a boxer up to that time, compared to Johnson's $5,000, but his championship had passed out of his hands.

Towards the end of his life the Canadian would always deny vehemently that he had been outclassed by Johnson. He claimed that the police had intervened mainly because Rudy Unholtz, a Germanborn South African boxer on Johnson's payroll, had crept under the elevated ring as early as the tenth round. From here, Burns declared indignantly, Unholtz had kept screaming, 'Stop the fight!', thus influencing the police at ringside. Few spectators backed Burns's claim.

In the immediate aftermath of the Rushcutters Bay championship bout, Burns stayed on in Australia and lost much of his purse money at the races. He took his losses philosophically. A shrewd businessman but a pragmatist, he had been paid one dollar and twenty-five cents for his first fight, against Fred Thornton in Detroit in 1900, and he had once journeyed all the way to the Yukon to inspect a gold mine he had won in a poker game. Finding it to be worthless, he had earned his passage back by fighting the local champion, Klondike Mike Mahoney.

For some time Johnson had been pursuing Burns halfway across the world in search of a title shot. Over a nine-year period, he had defeated all the major black contenders and those white heavyweights who would fight him, and now he was 30. He had scraped a living across the USA, working as a sponge fisherman, stable boy, porter, dock labourer and sparring partner. He had ridden the rails as an itinerant wanderer and lived and fought in hobo jungles. Before he had been lucky enough to embark upon an organised boxing career, he had taken part in the horrific 'Battles Royal', where half a dozen or more black youths were pitched into a ring at the same time and forced to fight for the delectation of a largely white audience until only one was left standing. It was the right sort of background to produce a tough, bitter and fearless man.

After years in the doldrums, boxing was undergoing a worldwide resurgence, although there was little legislation anywhere to control the sport. There were no national controlling bodies and there was little organisation, just fights everywhere before huge crowds. Even President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House had his own resident fisticuffs trainer in 'Professor' Mike Donovan, a grizzled former bare-knuckle fighter and veteran of General Sherman's Civil War march through Georgia.

Taking advantage of the general enthusiasm for boxing, Johnson decided temporarily to remain in Australia, though definitely not in Sydney. A goodwill visit by a fleet of sixteen US battleships, which had occurred before the title fight, had aroused alarm and anti-black resentment in the city. Many citizens feared that the warships would be crewed almost exclusively by black seamen, who might not take kindly to the prevailing 'White Australia' policy. This had caused The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, to state reassuringly, 'It is not at all probable, however, that a very large proportion of the crews will be found to be coloured. There will be some on the battleships, but they will not be nearly as numerous as rumour is suggesting just now.'

Hugh D. McIntosh had relied on sailors from the fleet to support the Burns–Johnson contest. In fact the Americans showed very little interest in the bout, causing the promoter to remark, possibly with some exaggeration, 'Australians supported it. I had counted on American sailors for a possible sellout. Exactly two appeared in uniform. They started fighting and had to be evicted.'

Before the fleet had left to sail home, the Australian Defence Minister, Mr Ewing, had urged the departing Americans to tell their fellow-countrymen that they had seen for themselves that Australia was emphatically a white-man's country and would remain so.

The 'White Australia' policy had been sparked off in the 1850s to combat the influx of over 50,000 Chinese immigrants who came to join in the gold rushes. Not only were the new labourers distinctive in their appearance, maintaining their own social customs, they toiled hard and cheaply. Soon they became very unpopular with Australian workers in the goldfields. By 1888, legislation had banned any more Chinese from entering the country. It was not long before the policy was applied tacitly to all non-whites. This was emphasised in 1903, when a trading vessel was wrecked off the coast at Point Nepean. The survivors were taken to Melbourne by a rescuing tugboat, but only the white officers and crewmembers were allowed ashore. The non-whites were put on a Japanese mail ship and conducted to Hong Kong. Within another five years, by the time that Burns fought Johnson, most of the South Sea Islanders who had been recruited in the nineteenth century to work in the cane fields of the north had been sent back home.

So how did a black boxer become heavyweight champion of the world on Australian soil? White Australians loved their sport and were becoming increasingly good at it. The English cricket team which had toured the continent in 1907/08 had lost four of the five games it had played against the Australians, while at the 1908 Olympics the Wallabies had defeated England, the only other entrant for rugby football, 32–3.

In addition, boxing was immensely popular in Australia, and in Squires and Lang the country had just produced a pair of formidable heavyweight boxers of its own. So highly were these two regarded by their fellow-countrymen that the world's leading big men, Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns, had been imported in the hope that the favoured home-grown boxers would defeat them. Unfortunately, both Australians had been crushed by Burns, while Johnson had compounded the national disappointment by thrashing Lang. These impressive results had led to a public outcry for Burns to defend his title against the black challenger, and Johnson had been allowed to return to meet him.

The black fighter's subsequent victory was a watershed in the history of sport. For the first time, boxing left the sports pages and was featured all over the world in major news stories on the front pages of the contemporary tabloids and broadsheets alike. Typical was the New York Evening Journal, which published a picture of Johnson occupying most of the front page, unprecedented coverage for a sporting personality. Caucasian supremacy had been publicly challenged and humiliated. The fact that the breakthrough had occurred in the haphazard and often crooked world of professional boxing made matters even worse. What, people wondered, appalled, would happen to the established order with the scarcely known and unpredictable ogre Jack Johnson now bestriding the sport like a colossus, a figurehead for his oppressed race?

In the immediate aftermath of his victory the new champion felt that, under the circumstances, he would be more popular on a tour of the remoter areas of Australia than he would in the large cities. He cashed in on his new title by touring Western Australia, fighting exhibition contests and making public appearances. In the outback, with his outgoing personality, gold teeth, shaven head and colourful ring attire, he was a great success. By the end of his short small-hall tour of the Antipodes, he had almost doubled the money he had been paid for fighting Burns. If he had been self-confident before, Johnson was now positively ebullient.

An example of his strong self-worth and refusal to buckle under white pressure occurred in the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie, when he stopped for a drink in the Palace Hotel. While he was there, one of his many new-found instant friends admired Johnson's superb defensive qualities but remarked that it would not have been much of a fight at Rushcutters Bay if Burns had not done most of the attacking. Johnson disagreed in lordly fashion, stating that his ability was such that he could force any opponent to lead, while picking him off with his devastating counter-punches. At this, a 61-year-old respectably dressed gentleman with luxuriant mutton-chop whiskers stepped forward from the back of the crowd and informed Jack Johnson crisply that never in a million years could the new champion force him to lead unless he wanted to.

A murmur of recognition went round the bar. The challenger was Larry Foley, the father of scientific Australian boxing, the man who had learnt his trade from Jem Mace, the Swaffham Gypsy, and who had passed it on in turn to such ring luminaries as Peter Jackson, Frank Slavin and Bob Fitzsimmons. Now a local politician, he was in Kalgoorlie for an assembly of state councillors.

Lazily, Johnson unpeeled himself from the bar to face his affronted elderly opponent. He raised his massive fists and started swaying gently, his feet planted firmly on the floor. For three minutes, by the watch of one onlooker, Charlie Rose, who described the odd confrontation in his autobiography, Life's a Knockout,Johnson feinted, punched the air and made fake attacks. It was all to no avail. The vastly experienced Foley just stood his ground stolidly, refusing to respond to any of the champion's overtures.

The crowd began to grow restless and jeer at Johnson. The black fighter was not disturbed. Suddenly he bent forward and murmured a scatological remark about Foley's parentage. The Australian veteran flushed, spat an oath at Johnson and lashed out with his right hand. Johnson deflected the blow easily by placing a massive hand across Foley's biceps at the crucial moment. Calmly he murmured to the still outraged councillor that the drinks were on Foley.

It was Johnson's first public exhibition as the champion of how he could always get under the skin of self-important members of the establishment. However, Jack Johnson knew that the big money lay back in the USA, and that, scarred by his experiences, confrontational, self-assured and afraid of no one, he was about to return and make the whites pay dearly if they wanted the title back.

All over the world writer after writer began to stress the fact that Johnson had been completely superior to his outweighed opponent, and declared that a white contender must be found to wrest the title back from the black man. Jack London, the novelist, who had witnessed the bout, led the way. 'There was no fight,' he wrote in a New York Herald article syndicated across the world. 'No Armenian massacre could compare with the hopeless slaughter that took place in the Sydney Stadium today.' Australian writer W.F. Corbett, also present, demanded despairingly, 'We now have a black champion of the world. Who will dethrone him?' The Melbourne Herald said of Johnson's victory, 'Already the insolent black's victory causes skin problems in Woolloomooloo ... It is a bad day for Australia and not a good one for America. The United States has 90,000 citizens of Johnson's colour, and would be glad to get rid of them.'

The New York Times demanded the instant emergence of a white champion to undo what had happened in Australia and take the title back from Johnson. The black journal the Colored American Magazine, on the other hand, described the result of the bout simply as 'the zenith of Negro sport'. It was rumoured in the USA that President Teddy Roosevelt himself, a keen follower of boxing and smarting from recent public condemnation after the disciplining of a black regiment involved in an uprising in Texas, had expressed his concern that a black man had won the supreme crown of pugilism.

This was taking place at a time when blacks made up roughly 10 per cent of the population of the USA, and 89 per cent of the black population lived in the southern states. Only five months earlier there had been a major racial disturbance in Springfield, Illinois. A white man had died of razor wounds inflicted upon him by a black man, and a white woman had subsequently falsely accused a black man of raping her. In the riots that had ensued, businesses had been burnt to the ground, forty black men had been attacked and several killed. Armed militia had been called out and five white men had been shot and killed by the part-time soldiers. After matters had calmed down eighty people were indicted and brought to court. There had been only one minor conviction.

As Jack Johnson prepared to leave Australia for home, more and more newspapers in Europe and the USA joined in the campaign to find a Caucasian heavyweight who would bring the title back to the white race. Johnson was vilified as newspapers devoted hundreds of column inches to the search. Competitions for big men were held in halls all over the world. Managers began to scour the factories, farms, armed services and even prisons for a behemoth who would be their meal ticket in the lucrative scramble to dethrone the black champion. The White Hope campaign had started. It was to lead to seven years of trouble and madness.



The first fighter that Johnson met after winning the title was probably one of the worst. He was also one of the most interesting and irrepressible. The name of the first White Hope was Victor McLaglen. He was a 22-year-old English soldier of fortune, the son of a South African bishop. For the previous five years, since 1904, he had been working his way optimistically around North America doing a variety of menial jobs. His fighting record was negligible. He was matched against Johnson as a lastminute substitute because the champion and his connections knew that the burly and willing youngster had no chance.

McLaglen claimed to have been born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, in 1886, one of eight brothers and a sister, although his birth certificate gives the less salubrious East End of London as his birthplace. He had been brought up in South Africa, where his father became Bishop of Claremont. The family then returned to England in 1899, at the time of the Boer War. One of McLaglen's older brothers, Fred, joined the colours and left for Cape Town.

The 14-year-old McLaglen dearly wanted to follow him, but his father forbade it. McLaglen, who captained the Tower Hamlets schools' football team, was already tall and looked older than his years. He ran away from home, lied about his age and joined the Life Guards, in the anticipation of being sent to the war. The attestation book of the 1st Life Guards for this period records that he enlisted on 30 July 1901. He gave his age as 19, his trade as engineer, and claimed to have been born in Stepney, London. His complexion was dark and his eyes were hazel.

To his chagrin, Trooper McLaglen, instead of fighting the Boers, found himself spending most of his time on guard duty outside Windsor Castle. It was here that he first learnt to box and took part in his regimental heavyweight championships, fighting grown men when he was only 15 or 16.

For a future professional fighter McLaglen had joined the Army at just the right time. The first independent Army championships had been held only seven years earlier, in 1894. In the following year the sport was given an enormous fillip when Field Marshal Lord Wolsey, the Commander-in-Chief of all Britain's armed forces, attended the Guards' boxing competition at Chelsea Barracks and was so impressed by the fighting spirit he saw in the ring there that he declared that in future he wanted to see every soldier a boxer.


Excerpted from The Great White Hopes by Graeme Kent. Copyright © 2013 Graeme Kent. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Foreword by Harry Carpenter,
1. 'There was no Fight!',
2. The Future Assistant Provost Marshal of Baghdad,
3. The Philadelphia Irishman and Two Warm Bodies,
4. The Hobo,
5. A Hot Day in Reno,
6. 'His Chin Begins at His Knees!',
7. The Hopes and Hopefuls Assemble,
8. The Cowboy from Driftwood Creek,
9. The Bushman and the Blacksmith,
10. French Connections,
11. The Last Hopes,
12. The Pottawatomie Giant,
13. The Captains and the Kings Depart,

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