Rumble on the St. Louis River

Duluth pugilist Walter Whitehead. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin in the St. Louis River appears inexplicable when you gaze upon it from the Google Earth god’s eye, and where and how it meanders through the channel seems even more mysterious from the seat of a canoe or kayak. History details the political border sketching and surveying, back-and-forth court arguments and legislative posturing, and according to an article by local historian, W.E. Culkin, published in the Duluth News-Tribune on July 27, 1913, we can apparently blame this murkiness on the 1814 Treaty of Ghent and some guy named Mitchell who made a bad map. Whatever—the story of where and how the border came to be is not our story.

Instead, let’s take to the river on the afternoon of Saturday, September 18, 1909, when local favorite Walter Whitehead and “The Melbourne Kangaroo” George Gunther went toe-to-toe in an illegal prizefight on a scow in the middle of the river, hoping to avoid the long arm of the law.

Whitehead was the reigning light heavyweight regional champion, fighting at 165 pounds, and considered an up and comer by his fans. His trainer Curley Ulrich described him as “a wonder… a little defective on boxing, but he has two of the most beautiful wallops that I ever saw one man possess. He is game to the core, and fights hard all the way. He has exceptional ability for taking punishment and being able to come back. I really think he is headed for the top of the list.”

A mysterious figure, nothing is definitively known about Walter Whitehead’s origins. Some said he was Cuban, but the racist characterizations of his accent in contemporary newspapers point to the American South. Either of these possible origins could be indicated by his death certificate, which notes his birthplace as Florida and his father a man named William Collier. (This information came from one source: his bereaved wife of three years. Census records have not yet yielded anything definitive.) One early newspaper account mentions that he served in the United States Army, but no evidence of his service has been found.

Whitehead first appears in the public record in Fargo, North Dakota in 1904, working as a waiter by day, but already gaining local notoriety as a “pug”—short for “pugilist”—by night. After two unfortunate encounters with the Fargo police, including one in which he was shot at after running from an arrest for vagrancy, he and his fifteen-year-old fiancée Marie Brown moved briefly to St. Paul to marry (with her mother’s reluctant permission) and thence on to Duluth.

Between 1908 and 1909 Whitehead fought bouts on the Iron Range and in Michigan’s Copper Country in matches against other pugs including “Chicago” Jack Johnson, Kid Flandrie, Mike Schreck and Tom McCune. “Chicago” Jack Johnson was described as “a monster in size” but was not the same famous Jack Johnson who knocked out Tommy Burns to become the first African-American world heavyweight champion in 1908.

Whitehead encountered the same racial barriers and prejudices arrayed against all black boxers of the era. Descriptions of him in local newspapers mocked his speech, his lack of financial resources, and his appearance. Despite a clean reputation as a boxer, white fighters often pointed to his race as a reason to refuse matches with him. Tom McCune even declared after fighting Whitehead one time that he’d “never fight a negro again.” As a result, fans (and gamblers) were desperate to see Whitehead meet his match, despite laws prohibiting prizefighting.

In the winter of 1908, Whitehead was said to be at peak condition. His daily training schedule included a run from his gym downtown to Lester Park and back, eight fast rounds with his trainer and other sparring partners, shadow boxing for twenty-three minutes, jumping rope for eight minutes and the punching bag for fifteen minutes. He was described as a “big rangey fellow, possessed of great cleverness. Anyone he can hit he can whip.”

In February 1909, Australian boxer George “The Melbourne Kangaroo” Gunther blew into town, seeking a fight with Whitehead. He announced to local reporters that he was willing to fight “under almost any conditions suitable to the other fellow, so long as he [got] a square deal.” He fought at 154 pounds, and so was smaller than Whitehead, but was willing to give advantage in order to get a fight. He too reportedly had encountered white fighters who refused to “cross the color line” with him.

After months of wrangling, with Whitehead pleading a too-full schedule and problems with state law enforcement stopping prizefights in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Gunther and Whitehead finally entered the ring together in Duluth in early May. They fought fifteen fast rounds to a draw, with Whitehead breaking a bone in his right hand in the tenth but fighting on.

A rematch was long in coming, though the two fighters exchanged “hard names” around town and Whitehead scheduled and sometimes succeeded in fighting other matches in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The first week of September, the two rivals were foiled in their efforts at a rematch. In the September 11, 1909 Duluth Herald it was reported that, “For one solid unbroken hour some 300 Duluth fight fans sat about the empty ringside last night and patiently waited for Walter Whitehead and George Gunther to arrive and give them an exhibition of the manly art. They sat and smoked long black cigars and stogies and other things which polluted the atmosphere until it was decidedly uncomfortable.” The promoter pleaded with the five-dollars-a-head audience to stop smoking so much, as the fighters were due at any moment. Because the police had staked out the front entrance to the hall and planned to prevent the fight, the organizers declared they would be “forced to haul the fighters up from Michigan street by a rope. They will appear through yonder window presently.” But the fight wasn’t to be. Gunther and Whitehead were arrested in the midst of their awkward entrance.

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.