Rumble on the St. Louis River

George Gunther. (Image: Public Domain)

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.

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.

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.

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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.