Rumble on the River

Walter Whitehead’s Last Fight

PrintThe 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.”

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

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.

George Gunther. (Image: Public Domain)
George Gunther. (Image: Public Domain)

 

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.

The Businessmen’s Excursion

Thus, the plot to evade the law by holding a prizefight on the St. Louis River was hatched. Newspaper accounts alleged that the original plan was to have a steamer tow a scow three miles out on Lake Superior. The Duluth Herald called the plan a “brilliant idea for evading the law” but also questioned whether it was all a big joke. The article ended with, “The suggestion that the loser be made to swim ashore will not be seriously considered.” The next day, the same newspaper noted, “The ropes will be close to the side of the barge. It is hoped that neither of the fighters will be knocked through the ropes and into the arms of cold old Mother Superior.”

Perhaps it was the weather that moved the scheme to the St. Louis River instead, or wiser and more sober heads prevailed. In any case, a large scow was towed to the area on the river “between the states.” The Duluth Herald headline on September 19, 1909 blared, “Black Men Battle on the Historic St. Louis: ‘Business Men’s Excursion Ends in Arrest of Two Fighters” and began, “Stung again!”

Messrs. Gunther and Whitehead, shrewd and driving business men of lower Michigan street…furnished the diversion for the week end outing.

Taking everything into consideration, the afternoon was one long and strident scream. It was as afternoon of mismanagement, of delay and of butting in of the strong arm of the law. But if one were looking for a study of human nature under those conditions, the excursion could not be called a failure.

Some of our leading citizens stated that they took the trip for their hay fever. If so, and why should we quibble over the prompting motive—the trip was a hearty triumph. Nature was there with all her fall wrappings, the river basked under the September sun like a lazy dog after a generous portion of porterhouse.

The scow reached its undisclosed location on the river after 4 p.m.; the impending sunset reportedly making some spectators nervous that the fight wouldn’t happen. Soon enough, boats with “leading business men” of Superior arrived, the launch with both fighters, and finally, “the trim little craft carrying that august personage, Sheriff [Gustav] Carlson, of Douglas county.” The sheriff did not act to prevent the prizefight at first, however.

Walter Whitehead. (Image: Zenith City Press.
Walter Whitehead. (Image: Zenith City Press.

Instead, there was a delay, while a promoter identified only as “Hi” got into the ring and announced that unless more money was put forth by the attendant “business men,” the fight would be limited to six short rounds. The fans had already paid $3.50 (equivalent to approximately $90 today), so “there was protest and loud shout of fraud and deceit.” But another promoter “with vicious mug and heavy cane” joined the first promoter and insisted, in a move the newspaper reporter compared to strong-arm robbery. Another fifty dollars was unearthed from the fans’ pockets, and after an abortive exhibition by two unnamed young boxers who went three “polite rounds” before being booed out of the ring, Whitehead and Gunther finally made their appearance.

The description of the fight in the Duluth Herald was detailed, blow-by-blow. Clinches, hay-makers, kidney wallops, vicious rights, uppercuts and hard left and right swings to the head ensued, mostly led by Gunther. Whitehead emitted a “guttural sound of much expressive inflection” after Gunther landed a swing to his stomach in the third round, and got rocked by a left to the jaw in the fifth round. Whitehead drew first blood in the eighth round, dominating with uppercuts as some fans stood on their chairs, while Whitehead’s seconds yelled for him to put the bloodied man down as he forced him around the ring. In the next few rounds the fight peaked, heavy punches landing on both sides. According to the reporter, both fighters were strong, but Whitehead appeared to be fading. In the twelfth round, the two were fighting hard when Sheriff Carlson finally intervened.

This interruption at the climax of the fight was met with indignation and uproar by the crowd.

Attention, yentlemens,” pleaded Mr. Carlson in that accent that stamped him as a true son of the North. “I vant to tell yous dat the last legislator passed a law dat gives me power over dese here vaters. I tell yous dat dese h’are fight must stop.”

Like water thrown on a cozy grate fire did the chilling purport of Mr. Carlson’s discourse fall on the ears of the businessmen. It was, indeed, like interrupting where a loving couple are talking something that is none of your—business.

Some one suggested that Mr. Carlson be thrown into the placid waters of the legend-hung St. Louis. The suggestion made a great hit. It seemed as if the suggestion would be carried out. Mr. Carlson was rudely jostled about. But finally order ruled. The fighters stated that they had fought long enough for one afternoon, that the sun was getting peeved anyway, and besides, look what they were fighting for!

And so Sheriff Carlson held victory in his clasp. He was called many names that he did not receive when baptized, to be sure; yet he held the bridge, and as he steamed toward Superior in his little launch his face was lit with pride and sense of duty. It was a great day—for Carlson.

Gunther and Whitehead were arrested when they landed at the dock at Fifth Avenue West in Duluth and were whisked off to jail, held as “fugitives from justice.” They emphatically refused to cooperate in their extradition to Superior, and spent some days together in the juvenile section of Duluth’s jail awaiting paperwork that would send them across the river. When they finally reached Superior, bail was set at a very steep $1000 each, which neither could afford to pay. (It would be equivalent to more than $25,000 today.)

Much was made in Duluth newspapers over the next few days about whether or not Sheriff Carlson had jurisdiction in those particular waters, why he waited until the twelfth round to intervene, and why the two Duluth detectives who were present for the fight did nothing at all.

A key problem for the prosecution over the course of the trial proved to be securing willing witnesses. The defense claimed the fight was simply a “friendly boxing exhibition,” and not a prizefight. It was claimed that neither boxer sustained any injuries (contradicted by the account in the Duluth Herald). In fact, rumors began to circulate that the whole fight was “bogus” with some witnesses insisting it was “the tamest thing they ever saw.” One unnamed man said he was so disappointed he’d never go to another fight in his life—but on cross-examination admitted that he was most upset about the law getting involved and that his wife found out. In the end, no prizefight could be proven to have taken place.

Jack O'Brien. Image: Public Domain)
Jack O’Brien. Image: Public Domain)

On October 19, 1909, the case was dropped and Whitehead and Gunther were released from jail. Local newspapers insinuated that disappointed fans might “get them.” Though it appeared neither Whitehead nor Gunther gained financially from their supposed prizefight, the promoters got their money, and the Grand Forks Evening Times claimed that the next time they tried to “start anything in this vicinity they will be given a cleaning that will make the jobs the night riders are doing look as tame as the stunts of a peaceable bunch of infants on a Hallowe’en expedition.” Gunther immediately left town for Philadelphia and went on with his career, fighting matches in London and Paris.

Whitehead on the other hand never managed to enter the ring again. He was scheduled to fight a mystery boxer named Al Goodale in Hancock, Michigan, that November, but word got out that Goodale was actually a ringer named Jack O’Brien from Philadelphia, who reporters claimed “would have killed” Whitehead. Governor of Michigan Fred Warner ordered the fight canceled at the last minute. Afterward, a prominent boxing promoter from Chicago, “Doc” Reid, made overtures to Whitehead, promising him bouts out East and perhaps even Europe. Whitehead declared his intentions to pick up stakes and depart for more welcoming pastures.

Tragically, this was never to be. On January 6, 1910, Walter Whitehead was stabbed in the back by Ralph “Gashmouth” Jones in a dispute over a dice game at the Douglas club, located at 14 W. Michigan Street in Duluth. He died a week later in St. Luke’s Hospital at the age of 27, and lies in an unmarked grave in Forest Hill Cemetery.

And thus ends the tale of the one and only boxing match ever held on the waters of the St. Louis River.

Walter Whitehead’s Last Fight

Leave a reply