As I stood beneath an old forked maple tree in the Forest Hill Cemetery one rainy evening this past week and looked down on the mostly forgotten grave of Luther McCarty – nationally celebrated as the so-called “White Heavyweight Champion of the World” until he died in the ring in Calgary, Canada in May of 1913 – I realized it was covered by more than just lichens and leaves and a little moss.
There was also some fallacy attached to it.
The grave site was designed by his colorful father, Dr. Aaron P. (A.P.) McCarty, who was known as White Eagle and often wore American Indian garb as he sold his cure-all elixirs in downtown Piqua and Sidney and also in the American West, where he toured with his traveling medicine show.
Luther’s grave – in a plot that now includes his dad, his stepmother, Caroline, and his older sister Elleta – has a front stone bearing the appropriately chiseled thought “The Champion Rests.”
But it’s the main stone in back – the one engraved up top with roses and lilies – that doesn’t quite espouse eternal truth.
It claims: “He Knew No Wrong.”
The exaggerated epitaph is true to form for his dad.
It’s doubted AP McCarty was Native American and as for that snake oil he sold – an old flyer in the wonderful collection of McCarty materials at the Piqua Public Library claimed the tonic was good for everything from rheumatic faints, catarrh and la grippe (flu) to toothache, neuralgia, stiff joints and worms – it was suspect enough that Nebraska newspapers warned people that the pitch and the pitchman were bogus.
That prompted A.P.’s return to Ohio and a more receptive buying public.
As for Luther – who was born in Nebraska, but grew up in Piqua – he embraced some wrong once he moved back out West at age 18 and, after working as a cowboy, decided to use the boxing skills he’d first learned in Sidney gym.
After a string of victories, he was positioned to fight “The Iowa Giant” Al Palzy for the White Heavyweight Championship of the World, an invention of a white sporting world that despised the reign of the real heavyweight champ, Jack Johnson, an African American who was proudly black and not deferential to or intimidated by whites and the suffocating Jim Crow laws wielded by many.
With Johnson seemingly unconquerable in the ring, the separatists came up with a way to avoid him and hopefully marginalize him.
McCarty became the white champ on New Year’s Day in 1913. Soon after, in an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, he has quoted as saying he had “no use for a Negro” and would not fight Jack Johnson “under any circumstances.”
The saga of Johnson and McCarty and the social tempest of those times was brought to mind again last weekend when President Donald Trump tweeted that he was considering giving a “full pardon” to Jack Johnson.
He said he had been urged to do so by actor Sylvester Stallone, who is best known as Rocky, the cinematic White Hope who conquered all.
In real life, after other avenues had failed to curb Johnson, those who wanted him gone turned to shady legal maneuverings for the kayo.
Johnson – who drew special wrath for his penchant for white girlfriends, three of whom he married – was arrested on a trumped-up charge that he had violated of the Mann Act, which forbids transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. It was enacted to stop human trafficking, but the woman in question with Johnson was his girlfriend and soon to be his wife.
When that charge fell through, he was quickly arrested again for his association with another white girlfriend who was said to be a prostitute. Never mind that association came before there was even a Mann Act in place.
A lawyer for the Justice Department argued Johnson’s relationship was a “crime against nature.”
The judge was Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the future commissioner of Major League Baseball, who enforced the segregation of baseball until his death.
The all-white jury took less than two hours to deliberate and convict Johnson.
He eventually fled to Canada and then Europe and South America. He would lose his title to Jess Willard with a 26th round knockout in a bout in Havana, Cuba, in 1915 and, some five years after that, he turned himself in to U.S. authorities at the Mexican border.
Win spurs violence
As W. E. B. Du Bois, the celebrated American sociologist, author and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) put it, Johnson’s only sin was his “unforgivable blackness.”
Growing up in Galveston, Texas, the son of former slaves. he took up boxing at age 19 and a decade later was 48-9-5. After a worldwide pursuit of heavyweight champ Tommy Burns – finally promising him $30,000, the richest fight purse in history, while he took $5,000 – Johnson got his title fight.
They met December 26, 1908, in Sydney, Australia, and although Burns was a 6-4 favorite, Johnson pummeled and taunted him from the opening bell until police finally stopped the fight in the 14th round.
At ringside famed novelist Jack London wrote:
“The fight? There was no fight. No Armenian massacre could compare with the hopeless slaughter that took place today. The fight, if fight it could be called, was like that between a pygmy and a colossus.”
London then added: “But one thing now remains. Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you! The White Man must be rescued.”
Johnson had not just destroyed the myth of white athletic superiority, but he was flattening social norms outside the ring, as well.
He was rich and flamboyant. There was that gold tooth, the fancy clothes, the fast cars and the fact he was always in the company of white women.
Remember, this was a time when, in some places, a black man could end up hanged for just walking too close to a white woman.
Against that backdrop there arose a cry for Jeffries, the former heavyweight champ who had retired unbeaten five years earlier, to return to the ring.
When enough money was raised, Jeffries did agree to fight. The bout — scheduled for an incredible 45 rounds on July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada – was the richest, most talked about sporting event in American history.
With it, the racist reactions reached new heights. Some newspaper columnists and Major League Baseball players said they hoped Jeffries “killed” Johnson in the ring.
“If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than physical equality with their white neighbors,” wrote the New York Times.
America was transfixed and the day of the fight a crowd of more 15,000 filled the corner of Fourth and Ludlow streets at the Dayton Daily News building downtown. There, sportswriters on elevated perches held megaphones and relayed the round by round results sent by Western Union.
Jeffries, who had dropped 80 pounds before the fight, was no match for Johnson, who taunted him and knocked him down three times before the fight was stopped in the 18th round.
In Dayton, a group of angry whites dragged a 57-year-old black man into a downtown stable and beat and robbed him. Blacks and whites fought in Springfield and in Columbus.
Across America more than 20 people were killed and hundreds of others were injured in riots in 25 states and 50 cities.
In Uvalda, Georgia, three blacks were shot and killed. In Wheeling, West Virginia, a black man was dragged from his fancy car and hanged.
The doors to a black tenement in Manhattan were barred shut and the building was set on fire. In Washington, DC, two whites were stabbed to death.
Film of the fight was banned from being show in many cities, and by 1912, Congress prohibited the distribution of fight films across state lines, a law that held for 28 years. Even President Teddy Roosevelt, a fight fan, pushed for the banishment of the sport.
Death in the ring
Six months after Johnson beat Jeffries, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound McCarty had his first pro bout in Culbertson, Montana, and knocked out Wat Adams. Within two years he was matched against Palzy for the white heavyweight crown.
McCarty won with an 18th round TKO and along with a $10,000 payday and a diamond-studded title belt, he got adulation from around the nation. He had that showman’s flair he learned from his dad, the looks of a young Marlon Brando and the speed and skills of few ring practitioners of any color.
“The most meteoric in the history of pugilism aptly described the career of Luther McCarty, whose decisive victory over Al Palzer made him the most discussed personage in all of fistiana,” gushed the New York Times.
He accepted a $2,000 a week offer to appear on a vaudeville stage in New York, where he did rope tricks dressed as a cowboy, appeared in a top hat and tails and exchanged easy banter with the crowd.
He next was matched next with journeyman Arthur Pelkey in Calgary. The bout, promoted by McCarty’s old rival Tommy Burns, was held in the barn-like Tommy Burns Arena.
Following the opening bell, McCarty landed a couple of jabs and looked back at his corner and winked. Then, following a clinch, Pelkey connected with an uppercut that jolted McCarty’s head back.
The champ was caught by two more punches and dropped face first onto the canvas.
A few minutes later he was pronounced dead.
He was just 21.
The stunned crowd soon melted in despair.
Later that day, the despondent Pelkey was arrested and charged with manslaughter. Those charges would later be dropped when McCarty was found to have suffered a neck injury in a recent fall off a horse.
A day after the fight, the arena mysteriously burned down.
As for McCarty’s dad – who was appearing in Cynthiana, Kentucky, with his medicine show – he was interrupted on stage by a man carrying a telegram from Luther’s manager. Today that missive is part of Piqua’s library collection:
“Dr. A .P. McCarty…Luther died in the ring today of heart paralysis no blow landed. Am bringing body to Piqua will advise time of leaving. Wire me… Billy McCarthy.”
Another telegram soon followed:
“Cannot ship until Monday account autopsy inquest and investigation. Am coming east with body and effects. Wire me full authority to act for you …Am heart broken. Sincere sympathy to you….Billy McCarthy.”
Seeking a posthumous pardon
Once Luther’s body arrived back home, his casket was set up at the Wagner, Grover and Company furniture store and more than 7,500 people filed past it in one night and the following morning.
The casket was then paraded through town in a hearse drawn by the two white Arabian horses A.P. used to pull his medicine show wagon. They were some of the only possessions that he had been able to save when the Great Miami River that runs through town overflowed its banks in the Great Flood of 1913 and washed away the family home on Water Street.
Some 2,500 people joined the funeral procession to Forest Hill Cemetery.
By then, Johnson was a fugitive accompanied by his wife, who once had been a prostitute.
It was her mother, thanks to an under the table payment, some said, who had publicly stoked the racist fires by telling the press:
“Jack Johnson has hypnotic powers and has exercised them on my little girl. I would rather see my daughter spend the rest of her life in an insane asylum than to see her the play thing of a (racial epithet).”
Following seven years of exile, Johnson turned himself in and spent 10 months in the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Upon his release, he continued to fight into his 60s, although his skills were diminished. His last ring appearance was on November 27, 1945. He was 67 and fought three one-minute exhibition rounds against two opponents, John Ballcort and Joe Jeanette, in a benefit for U.S. War Bonds.
A year later, after being refused service at a North Carolina diner, he angrily sped away in his Lincoln Zephyr, crashed and was killed.
Although he would be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and have a Broadway Show and movie made about him, his reputation still was stained by that cooked-up conviction.
His relatives – with the help of Senators Edward Kennedy (D) and Orrin Hatch (R) – first petitioned President Bill Clinton for a pardon. Then a pair of Republicans, Sen. John McCain and Rep. Peter King, along with Sugar Ray Leonard and rapper Chuck D, did the same with President George W. Bush.
When Barack Obama was president, he was petitioned again by McCain as well as N. Y. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D). And now Sen. Cory Booker (D) has joined the fight.
The problem, in part, has been that past presidents defer to the Department of Justice to pardon applicants, and the DOJ puts all its efforts into people who are still alive.
Only two posthumous pardons have ever occurred.
But now Stallone has reached out to Trump.
In Johnson’s case, that finally would allow him to share in that chiseled assurance that graces McCarty’s gravestone.
Jack Johnson deserves that epitaph:
“The Champion Rests.”