Western Neighborhoods Project is dedicated to the history of San Francisco's Richmond, Sunset, OMI and West of Twin Peaks districts.   read more ...
 

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 471: The Heavyweight Champ at Ocean Beach

The first African-American heavyweight boxing champion made Ocean Beach his headquarters for a few years, including while training for the "Fight of the Century."
by Nicole Meldahl - Aug 27, 2022

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 471: The Heavyweight Champ at Ocean Beach Outside Lands Podcast Episode 471: The Heavyweight Champ at Ocean Beach


Podcast Transcription

WNP471 - The Heavyweight Champ at Ocean Beach

Nicole: [00:00:00] It’s Outside Lands San Francisco, podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Nicole Meldahl.

Arnold: And I'm Arnold Woods.

Nicole: Hey Arnold.

Arnold: Hello, Nicole. How are you this week?

Nicole: I'm good. I'm in, I'm in, I'm in fighting condition.

Arnold: That’s good. I think you'll need it tonight.

Nicole: Yeah, and you know, we'll admit upfront here that this podcast is one of those with a lot of information that's really not specific to the west side, but we do feel it's necessary to tell the entire story that will eventually get to the west side. And much of it does take place in other parts of San Francisco, though. Let's throw our hat into the ring and take a jab at it, and let's also see how many old timey boxing puns we can just [00:01:00] lob on into here.

Arnold: Yeah, I see what you're doing there.

Nicole: Yeah.

Arnold: You know, most of you today probably don't think of San Francisco as a boxing town. However, there is actually a long history of championship bouts being fought here in the City and, by way of example, each of the first six heavyweight champions had fights, often title bouts right here in San Francisco. This includes the first champion John L. Sullivan, who once defended his title at the Mechanics Pavilion in 1886.

Nicole: Heck, the second heavyweight champion was James J. Corbett, who was originally from Ireland, but graduated from high school here at Sacred Heart. He fought here numerous times, including a title defense in 1897, also at the Mechanics Pavilion. The next four champs, Bob Fitzsimmons, James J. Jeffries, Marvin Hart, and Tommy Burns all had fights in San Francisco, and all sound like they [00:02:00] should be on an episode of Peaky Blinders, with Jeffries defending the heavyweight title four times in San Francisco at either Mechanics Pavilion or Woodward's Gardens Pavilion, which was his last four fights before retiring, undefeated.

Arnold: And all of this is preliminary information leading to the subject of our podcast, and to show you that San Francisco was once a major destination for boxing matches. In fact, we've only told you about the heavyweights who are fighting here. San Francisco was a boxing mecca where boxers of every weight class came to fight. Most of what we've told you so far though, has nothing to do with the west side. That changed with the seventh heavyweight champion of the world who made the west side his training home in the early 20th century.

Nicole: Yeah, you're not kidding, Arnold. There used to be a whole section in the San Francisco Chronicle, maybe it was the Examiner, one of them, one of the big newspapers, that was all about boxing, amateur boxing, professional boxing. Like tips [00:03:00] of the trade, all kinds of things. I found it several times in researching other subjects. And this big west side training facility was home to none other than Jack Johnson. No, not the Hawaiian folk singer, like many people in their mid-30s might be thinking. Jack Johnson, the boxer who not only was a heavyweight champion, he was the first African-American heavyweight champ. Johnson was born on March 31st, 1878 in Galveston, Texas. Although born and raised in the South during the Jim Crow era, Johnson later started, stated, excuse me, that he grew up with many white friends because everyone was from poor working-class families. He quit school early and worked a variety of jobs, including at the docks and in racing stables, until beginning a carriage painting apprenticeship with a man named Walter Lewis. And Lewis was an avid boxing fan and actually helped [00:04:00] Johnson learn how to box.

Arnold: This is all when Johnson was still quite young because when he was 16 years old, he moved to New York for a brief period, and he lived there with a West Indies boxer named Barbados Joe Walcott, not to be confused with Jersey Joe Walcott, another boxer later on.

Nicole: Naturally.

Arnold: When Johnson returned to Galveston, he got a job as a janitor at a boxing gym owned by German heavyweight Herman Bernau. Johnson sparred as often as he could and saved up enough money to buy his own gloves. At the age of 20, Johnson fights his first professional bout, knocking out Charlie Brooks in the second round of what was called the Texas State Middleweight title fight on November 1st, 1898.

Nicole: So, over the next two plus years, Johnson engaged in nine matches with a variety of results, before taking on Joe Choynski, who I, whose name I probably butchered again, on February 25th, 1901. [00:05:00] So, Choynski was a white Jewish boxer from San Francisco, with connections to the Fleishhacker family, who we've mentioned several times on this podcast. Their fight was in Galveston, despite a Texas ban on prize fights, or any fight that ended in a knockout, that had been enacted. Choynski had come to town for boxing exhibitions, which were permitted, at the Galveston Athletic Club. White boxing promoters thought Johnson was a bit too cocky. So, they set up the match with the veteran Choynski to teach Johnson a lesson. And it was neither the first nor the last time that Johnson would be subjected to racism in his career.

Arnold: Choynski did, in fact, knock out Johnson in the third round. It is unclear whether Johnson was actually expecting hard punches because again, prize fights and fights ending in knockouts, those were outlawed. Because of Choynski's knockout, both he and Johnson get arrested by the police and [00:06:00] thrown in jail. The bail was set at $5,000, which neither could afford. In a perhaps not too surprising display of hypocrisy, the sheriff had Choynski and Johnson spar at the jail each day, bringing in spectators to watch.

Nicole: Good grief.

Arnold: We would not be surprised to learn the sheriff was actually earning a little side money, charging admission for these exhibitions.

Nicole: By the way, as a quick aside for some of the listeners who might be into this kind of information, if you Google Joe Choynski, C-H-O-Y-N-S-K-I, you will see an extremely attractive, shirtless photo that comes up. So, history hotties on the lookout. So, here's where the story gets an even more delightful twist, and soon brings us to San Francisco. During their sparring sessions in the jail, Johnson and Choynski become friends, and the latter was impressed with Johnson's innate ability. While they were locked up together, Choynski began [00:07:00] training Johnson, telling him, and I quote, “a man who could move like you should never have to take a punch.” Because they were finally released nearly a month later on March 22nd, 1901, and because Choynski's influence, Johnson came to California to continue his career. On his way to the Golden State, Johnson stopped in Colorado for two fights in April and August, 1901 that both resulted in draws.

Arnold: But finally, Johnson gets to California and on November 4th, 1901, he makes his California debut. But he lost on points after 28 rounds to fellow African-American boxer Hank Griffin at Bakersfield's New Armory Hall.

Nicole: Bummer.

Arnold: Curiously, the Chronicle described Johnson as being from Chicago.

Nicole: Close enough.

Arnold: Maybe, maybe that's because Johnson had fought there once in 1899 [00:08:00] in his fourth pro fight. Johnson and Griffin would fight to a draw again a month and a half later at the Reliance Athletic Club in Oakland on December 27th, 1901. In the preview for that fight, the Chronicle stated that Johnson had a good Eastern reputation, having quote “bested some of the cracks in his class.” Strange language. At the time, Johnson only had a record of five wins, three losses and four draws, and had never actually fought east of Chicago and Tennessee. So not sure where that Eastern reputation comes from.

Nicole: Arnold, we talked about the definition of crack in the Pacific Coast Swimming Championship Podcast about Duke Kahanamoku.

Arnold: Some things never change. Before his fight, Johnson trained with Kid Carter, a white boxer in Alameda. At the time, it was not uncommon for black boxers to spar [00:09:00] with white boxers and sometimes even engage in prize fights. However, black boxers were not getting championship bouts then. A third bout between Johnson and Griffin in LA on June 20th, 1902, also resulted in a draw. Johnson would later call Griffin, one of the toughest fighters he ever fought.

Nicole: Have any of you picked up on the fact that neither of us watch a lot of boxing and know almost nothing about the sport yet? Bear with us. We're trying to get through this. So, Johnson had another fight in Oakland on March 7th, 1902, knocking out Joe Kennedy, who the Chronicle described as being, and I quote, “overburdened with superfluous flesh.”

Arnold: I think that means he was overweight.

Nicole: It means he was in peak physical condition, Arnold. It's what I think of every time I look at myself in the [00:10:00] mirror and I get ready to go. The Chronicle also now described Johnson as the Denver man. We guess because of his two fights in Colorado. So, you know, newspapers are always totally 100% accurate. Johnson then went to Los Angeles for three bouts, including the third Griffin matchup.

Arnold: Now we get Johnson coming here to the city.

Nicole: Here we go.

Arnold: So, he fights for his first time in San Francisco on Halloween 1902, defeating Irish boxer, George Gardner, at the Pavilion in Woodward's Gardens.

Nicole: Which was in the Mission District, by the way.

Arnold: Exactly. Their contest came just 10 days after Johnson had defeated Frank Childs in L.A. Prior to that fight, Gardner was a heavy betting favorite, despite Johnson having a 15-pound weight and a reach advantage. The Chronicle all but declared ahead of time that Gardner would win in their preview [00:11:00] of the fight. After Johnson actually won, the Chronicle conceded that Johnson had the better fight, but focused its story on Gardner's quote, “unaccountably bad fight.”

Nicole: They're like, we're not wrong, he was just particularly bad that day. Excellent journalism, San Francisco Chronicle. So, it would be a year before Johnson returned to the Bay Area, but he did win seven consecutive fights in the interim, mostly in Los Angeles, but some in Philadelphia and Boston as well. One of those fights in February, 1903 was for the World Colored Heavyweight title, where Johnson defeated Denver Ed Martin on points. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds important. It was a title that Johnson would retain for the next nearly six years. On December 11th, 1903, he out-pointed Scotsman, Sandy Ferguson at the Colma Arena after 20 rounds. Papers called the fight [00:12:00] a farce, with Johnson taking no chances and Ferguson barely trying and apparently treating it as a joke.

Arnold: Now Johnson's first three World Colored Heavyweight title defenses were all against Sam McVey. The first two were in 1903, but the third on April 22nd, 1904 was at the Mechanics Pavilion again. Leading up to that fight, there was huge interest and it was rumored that James J Jeffries, then the world heavyweight champion and who had, to that point, refused to give black boxers a shot at the title, may actually give a title shot to the winner of the third Johnson-McVey clash. Johnson did, in fact, deliver a knockout in the 20th round. But the papers described it as a poor showing by both boxers not worthy of a fight with Jeffries. The Chronicle went so far as to declare that it was, quote, “a safe gamble that Jeffries could take the pair of them,” meaning Johnson and McVey, “in one night and send them [00:13:00] both to sleep in 10 rounds.” End quote. We're seeing a real pattern here with the papers, downplaying the wins by black boxers, while lauding white boxers, even after their losses.

Nicole: You know, if this were today newspapers, would, he'd have like a cool title, right? Like Triple J instead of James J Jeffries. After two fights elsewhere. Johnson returned to San Francisco on March 28th, 1905 to face Marvin Hart at the Woodward’s Gardens Pavilion. Hart was considered one of the top white boxers of the day and did his training for this bout at Sheehan's Tavern at Fulton and Great Highway. Johnson wanted a shot at the heavyweight title, so the fight with Hart was this opportunity for him. However, bad reviews of his fights gave Jeffries the ammunition to not offer him a shot. Jeffries racist attitude didn't help either. When asked if he would give Johnson a shot if he beat Hart, Jeffries replied and I quote, “no, [00:14:00] I'm not fighting skunks as yet. Not while there are white men in the field. I'm not going to discuss Johnson's abilities as a boxer. He may be a wonder and all that, but if anyone is to take my title, I want that to be of my own color.” Honestly, when we research old articles that deal with issues of race, this kind of deplorable attitude doesn't surprise us anymore. But it doesn't make it feel any better saying it on the podcast. It's really hard to say these things and not be like, whoa-agh at the end.

Arnold: Exactly. Anyways, Johnson lost the fight to Hart on points after 20 rounds. In reading the description of the fight, it seems evident that Johnson would've won had it been scored today. The Chronicle admitted that Johnson was the cleverer and better fighter. However, Hart was the aggressor in the fight, and the referee stated he would award the fight to whoever was more aggressive, [00:15:00] whether or not they had actually been effective with their aggression. We're sure the fact that the crowd was heavily behind Hart had nothing to do with the referee's decision.

Nicole: Oh, this sounds like most political elections these days. Whoever's the meanest wins, despite the fact that they didn't actually win. Anywhose it, Jeffries would retire undefeated several months later, and Hart would win the vacant crown, but lose it to Tommy Burns in his first title defense. Meanwhile, Johnson went back east for a string of fights over the next several years, winning most, drawing a few and losing one on a disqualification. He came back to San Francisco to fight Fireman Jim Flynn, a white boxer, on November 2nd, 1907 at Coffroth’s Arena at 8th and Howard Street. Johnson thoroughly outclassed Flynn and knocked him out in the 11th round. Although the papers had given Johnson some minor credit in the past, [00:16:00] this victory seemed to have turned their opinion of him around. Now it seems that they thought he might be a legitimate title contender. So, think of scenes of Rocky and like, I could have been a contender. I am a contender. That was the worst accent. Please everybody, strike that from your memories. So, prior to the fight though, the champ Burns left for England, and over the next eight months, Burns would beat five challengers in England, Ireland, and France for his title.

Arnold: Now Johnson wasn't going to let Burns avoid him, so he went to England himself and knocked out top English fighter Ben Taylor in eight rounds. The English fight experts all stated that Johnson was a better boxer than Burns. Meanwhile, Burns continued to duck Johnson by leaving for Australia around the time Johnson got to England.

Nicole: Crafty.

Arnold: The top boxing promoter of the day, Tex Rickard, [00:17:00] was looking to get that fight though and signed Johnson to a deal for a prize bout with Burns and said he hoped to get Burns signed when he returned from Australia. However, it was those crafty Aussies that finally got the deal done, reaching an agreement with Burns for a title match against Johnson in late 1908. The catch, of course, was that the clash of the titans would occur in Australia, where Burns already was and Johnson would have to sail to. Burns was also guaranteed $30,000, while Johnson would only get $5,000. This is win or lose.

Nicole: Yeah.

Arnold: This shows how far Johnson was willing to go to get that title shot.

Nicole: That shot occurred on December 26th, 1908, and Johnson made the most of it. Johnson pummeled Burns so badly that the police actually stepped in to stop the fight in the 14th round, on the grounds that Burns could no longer defend himself. Which is wild. [00:18:00] The world's first black heavyweight champion was crowned. While in Australia, Johnson also had an affair with Alma Toy, aka, Lola Toy, a white Australian woman, and this caused a lot of controversy at that time. And newspaper reports about a possible marriage may have scared Toy, so she demanded a retraction and won a libel lawsuit against the paper that reported it.

Arnold: Johnson then makes his way back to San Francisco, stopping off in Philadelphia for two title defenses in mid-1909, both of which ended up in draws. He also, while there, met Etta Terry Duryea, a white divorcee and Brooklyn socialite. And they started a relationship that caused further controversy for Johnson in those times.

Nicole: Ooh, now we’re getting into territory I do understand.

Arnold: People weren't having that, and there was plenty of miscegenation laws [00:19:00] around the country at that time.

Nicole: Oh, you know, the more America changes, the more America kind of doesn't change. So, back in the City, Johnson was set to face California State heavyweight Champion Al Kaufman on September 9th, 1909. As with Burns, Johnson easily handled the big crowd favorite, who was Kaufman, at Coffroth's Arena. While training for his next fight, with Stanley Ketchel, Johnson ran afoul of the law by speeding on South Drive in Golden Gate Park. According to Johnson, and I quote, “I just can't make that machine of mine go inside the limit, Sergeant. I try, but it's no use.” End quote. I'm gonna use that the next time I, or if I ever get pulled over for speeding. It's not my fault. The car just wants to drive. The paper said Johnson's wife was with him [00:20:00] at the time of his arrest, and that may have been Duryea, although they were not married then. But Johnson would receive a $20 fine from the judge, and he was told not to let it happen again.

Arnold: And, as we promised, now we get to the point in the story where we arrive in the Outside Lands,

Nicole: Like fully in the Outside Lands.

Arnold: Really, yeah.

Nicole: Not casually.

Arnold: For his match with Ketchel, Johnson set up a training camp at Ocean Beach. His headquarters were in the Seal Rock House and he sparred in the gym at the Ocean Beach Pavilion. And Johnson was a runner. He liked running a lot in his training. And for his road work, Johnson would run down the Great Highway to Sloat, then east on Sloat to 19th Avenue. From there, he heads back north into Golden Gate Park and then came through the Park, back to the beach. That's a nice little run.

Nicole: It is. Do any of our listeners run that run? While you can tell that I'm a, I'm [00:21:00] an indoors kind of person. If you do, let us know if that's your usual running route. Oh my God.

Arnold: I'm not a runner myself either.

Nicole: Oh gosh. We're really exposing our true athletic nature on this podcast. So, back to our story. Johnson also entered into an arrangement for a motion picture to be made of the title fight, securing 40% for himself while Ketchel and Coffroth, the arena owner, split the other 60% of the profits made off the film. Yeah, that sounds totally legitimate and fair. Remember, there was no television at this time, so only the crowds at arenas saw the fights and the film of the fight could be shown around the country. So many others could see the fight, albeit after the outcome was known. But still, interest was so high, Johnson and Karos saw a chance to secure [00:22:00] a really big profit here.

Arnold: This contest between Johnson and Ketchel took place on October 16th, 1909 at Coffroth's Mission Street Arena in Colma. He actually owned, I think, three different boxing arenas, including the one at 8th and Howard and the Colma one. And another one a little bit further south.

Nicole: A boxing empire.

Arnold: Indeed. He, it featured a, this fight featured a spectacular finish when Ketchel knocked down Johnson in the 12th round. However, Johnson gets up, dusts himself off, then went right after Ketchel knocking him out with two vicious lefts and a right to the jaw. However…

Nicole: Look at you sounding like an old timey like boxing match calling person.

Arnold: I'm trying my best. In a return to its former criticisms of Johnson though, the Chronicle claimed that Ketchel’s knockdown of Johnson was just a glancing blow and that Johnson went down to make for a better film. Despite the fact that Johnson, Ketchel and the referee all declared that [00:23:00] Ketchel actually landed a very solid blow to Johnson's head.

Nicole: Good Lord. So, after Johnson had beaten Burns for the title of year previous, all kinds of people began urging our good old friend Jeffries to come out of retirement to face Johnson, saying he had to retrieve the honor of the white race. Oh god. So, Jeffries rebuffed their efforts initially, but finally agreed after the Johnson-Ketchel clash. He stated that he was doing so for, and I quote, “the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” End quote. And it's hard to imagine now having all this blatant racism right out in the open. But then again, it's actually not hard to imagine now because we have a lot of blatant racism right out in the open.

Arnold: So, the bidding to host the fight was hot and heavy, with promoters [00:24:00] from around the country submitting offers. In early December 1909, Johnson and Jeffries agreed on a bid that would pay them $101,000, with 75% to the winner and 25% to the loser, and each of them receiving one-third of the profits from another fight film that would be made. Although Jeffries was in terrible shape and needed to lose about a hundred pounds before the fight.

Nicole: What?

Arnold: Remember he'd been retired at this point for four or five years, it didn't take long before Jeffries was the betting favorite. The bout got scheduled for July 4th, 1910, giving Jeffries seven months or so to get in shape.

Nicole: Wait, remind me, is this the guy that was described as fleshy earlier?

Arnold: Not the same guy. He had gotten fleshy after he retired.

Nicole: Fair enough. It happens to us all. So, after spending some time out of state, Johnson returned to his Seal Rock House headquarters in early May [00:25:00] 1910, and got down to the business of training for the so-called fight of the century. On the first day of training, Johnson ran approximately 12 miles on a tough trail at a good pace. He added another more leisurely paced five mile jog in the afternoon. Johnson also began ring work in the gymnasium of the Ocean Beach Pavilion. His training drew a lot of spectators. And the Chronicle noted women who brought children to the beach would take advantage of the opportunity to, you know, watch Johnson while they're there. Kind of like how my mom would talk about, in kindergarten, how it was hard to get volunteers except for the day that all the firemen showed up to talk to kids. And then all the moms were present. Anyways. And we have a picture of Johnson and his trainers on our OpenSFHistory website dated to June 26th, 1910, which was almost definitely taken at Ocean Beach. They're really awesome photos. I [00:26:00] recommend y'all look it up.

Arnold: As before, one of Johnson's passions was driving his car, which was described as a quote, “racing machine” in the papers. And he'd liked to drive it without regard for speed limits. On June 22nd, 1910, remember, this is just a couple weeks before this big fight, Johnson was out with his former opponent, Al Kaufman at the beach. Kaufman asked Johnson to take him up to the Cliff House, so they ran the car up there and when they got up to the top of the hill by the Cliff House, they turned around and headed back down the hill, where Johnson's heavy foot on the accelerator once again, landed him in trouble with the law for speeding. A police officer told him to stop, but Johnson continued all the way down to the Seal Rock House.

Nicole: Yeah, I'm sure it was just speeding. That's the only reason he was pulled over. So, when the officer tried to arrest him there, Johnson told him that he couldn't be arrested as he had to spar that afternoon. Also, it's not his fault. The car just wants to go, [00:27:00] right? We know this from before. The officer persisted, so Johnson took off for his room and barricaded himself inside. So now we're in like a full-on tantrum fit, right? These are grown men. Three officers would break down the door and draw their guns to arrest Johnson and take him downtown, which is an insane escalation of force, right? Johnson ended up driving the police to the station in his car, treating them to some more speeding along the way, which is something that only happens in 1910.

Arnold: You know, I didn't put it in the notes, but when they broke down the door and got into Johnson's room, they found him sitting there calmly reading a book, as if nothing was happening.

Nicole: Oh, hello there. Fancy seeing you in my boudoir.

Arnold: When they get Johnson downtown, the Chief of Police Martin had a sense of humor about [00:28:00] the situation. Greeting Johnson by saying, “arrested again?” Johnson replied by saying, “yeah, but it took three of them.” Martin told Johnson to post bond and leave, whereupon Johnson drove back to the beach and held a sparring session at the Ocean Beach Pavilion.

Nicole: I hope even faster than what he was driving before.

Arnold: Probably. Johnson thereafter left for Reno for the final training for the fight, and to get used to the altitude up there.

Nicole: So, before a crowd of 20,000, in a ring built for the occasion in downtown Reno, the Johnson-Jeffries clash took place on Independence Day, naturally. From start to finish, Johnson dominated Jefferies, knocking him down several times, and practically beating him senseless before Jeffries’ trainers threw in the towel in the 15th round after carrying him to the corner from the second knockdown.

Arnold: There was some dispute as to whether the round ended before the [00:29:00] referee could count Jeffries out, which would've been a knockout if that was the case. But to some, the trainer stopping the fight by throwing in the towel was a way to prevent their fighter from having a knockout on his record. Remember, he was undefeated before this.

Nicole: Right.

Arnold: And particularly they didn't want a knock out against a black man.

Nicole: What a Jack.

Arnold: Nonetheless, Jeffries would admit afterwards that he could not have beaten Johnson, even if he had been at his best,

Nicole: In the aftermath of the loss by the, and I quote, “great white hope” that Jeffries represented, race riots broke out across the country, mostly in the east and the south though. At least 20 people were killed and hundreds more injured in these riots. Within three days, there was a movement to ban the film of the fight from being shown anywhere, and we're certain that this was not because a black man won the fight, right? There had to be some other reason for it.

Arnold: I hope everybody could hear the sarcasm dripping [00:30:00] there.

Nicole: Yeah.

Arnold: Even former president and Nicole favorite, Theodore Roosevelt.

Nicole: Don’t call him my favorite in this context.

Arnold: Teddy weighs in two weeks after the fight to support banning the film and to ban prize fights generally. Now Teddy claimed that the reasons were because of the crookedness of the sport and the gambling on it. He's probably not wrong there.

Nicole: Well, he's got a mixed record in terms of like racial relations and stuff for his time. So, I will admit to that. But enough about my love of Teddy Roosevelt. The Jeffries fight was the last fight where Johnson trained at Ocean Beach, and it would be two years before his next fight, also on Independence Day, July 4th, 1912, in New Mexico. Another win against Fireman Jim Flynn. And immediately after the bout with Jeffries, Johnson filled the rest of the year with, and I [00:31:00] quote, “theatrical” work, making a $1,--- to $1,500 a week.

Arnold: The story's gonna take a dark turn at this point.

Nicole: Oh, this is the dark turn?

Arnold: Even worse than before.

Nicole: Oh boy.

Arnold: Johnson returns to San Francisco in February, 1911 to live in an eight-room cottage at 48th Avenue and K Street, now Kirkham. Not too far from somebody we know.

Nicole: Neighbors.

Arnold: And he was living there with his wife Etta Duryea, cause they had been married the month before.

Nicole: Aww.

Arnold: Within a year though, he would leave and head to Chicago, and thereafter, he begins to go through a whole host of legal and personal troubles.

Nicole: And we should note that when he was living out here in this cottage, it was incredibly remote. Like this was way out west and cottage is a very accurate term. They were very small kind, usually shingled residences out here. So…

Arnold: And that should have been right on the edge of like Carville at the time.

Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. [00:32:00] So, already prone to depression, Etta’s mental health deteriorated, in part allegedly, because of abuse from Johnson. And, in part, because she had been ostracized from her former socialite world for marrying a black man. She attempted suicide several times before killing herself with a gun on September 11th, 1912 in Chicago. Johnson claimed that Etta had broken down from worrying about him because of his injuries and mental anguish after the Jeffries fight. Actually testified at the inquest that he was not himself for a year after the bout, and that Etta had saved him twice from killing himself. The inquest jury ruled that Etta was temporarily insane when she shot herself, so he was in the clear.

Arnold: By then, Johnson had met Lucille Cameron, a white 18-year-old, alleged prostitute in Minneapolis. She came to Chicago to work at Johnson's nightclub, ostensibly working as a stenographer, [00:33:00] but they were seen about town as a couple.

Nicole: What does a nightclub need a stenographer for?

Arnold: Well, it's a nice job title if you wanna hide a relationship, I guess.

Nicole: I guess, anyways. Okay, please carry on.

Arnold: About a month after Duryea's death, Johnson was arrested for violating the Mann Act, which banned transporting women across state lines for quote, “immoral purposes.”

Nicole: Because we are just property to be carried across state lines.

Arnold: Exactly. And there's no national vote for women yet then.

Nicole: Good grief.

Arnold: Anyways he was arrested for the Mann Act, for bringing Cameron to Illinois. Cameron, however, refused to cooperate with authorities and the case fell apart. Johnson then married Cameron on December 3rd, 1912. This is less than three months after his former wife had killed herself.

Nicole: So, less than a month after his Mann Act arrest, [00:34:00] which feels very like an appropriate title, for bringing Cameron to Chicago, Johnson was arrested again on another Mann Act charge, this time for allegedly bringing a woman, a white prostitute named Belle Shreiber, from Pittsburgh to Chicago, also for immoral purposes. Back in 1909, I'm just, I'm having déjà vu, because we're having so many debates about whether or not women can cross state lines to do things with their bodies right now. I'm sorry. I can't not say something about it. Anywhose it. This time the case went to trial and Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury in June 1913, even though the alleged incident leading to his arrest occurred before passage of the Mann Act in June 1910. And again, it is not hard to see the racism that Johnson was subjected to here. He was sentenced to a year and one day in prison.

Arnold: Johnson wasn't having any of this though, and he [00:35:00] skipped bail and fled to Canada. There he posed, he poses as a member of an all-black baseball team to get to France.  He would live in exile for the next seven years. During that time, he fought overseas defending his heavyweight title two more times in Paris before losing the title to Jess Willard in Cuba on April 5th, 1915. Undoubtedly, life on the run affected his ability to train and probably led to Johnson losing his title.

Nicole: So, he returned to the United States in July 1920, surrendering to border agents, and served nearly a full year at Leavenworth Prison before being released. He returned to boxing in 1923 at the age of 45 and continued until the age of 53 with a roughly equal record of wins and losses. And he actually, which is maybe of no surprise after hearing about his driving record, he died in an auto accident [00:36:00] in North Carolina in 1946, after angrily leaving a diner that refused to serve him because he was black.

Arnold: So even at the time of his death, it's kind of racism leading to it.

Nicole: Yeah.

Arnold: It's a sad life there at the end. That's the abbreviated version of the Jack Johnson story, the heavyweight champion of the world, who brought that world to Ocean Beach to watch him train when he was at the peak of his boxing powers. If not for a white judge and jury, perhaps Johnson would've spent more time at the Seal Rock House and Ocean Beach Pavilion training for other championship fights. San Francisco would, however, continue to host championship fights thereafter. But these days, few would understand how boxing mad this city was a century ago.

Nicole: And if I may, as a person who does not watch boxing and doesn't intend to ever watch boxing, I'm okay that the city is [00:37:00] not boxing mad anymore.

Arnold: It's not to say that there isn't boxing going on here still today. You just don't really hear about it like you used to.

Nicole: Is there? Where would I even go? Do they still, okay, pardon my ignorance, but do they still do boxing in school? Like Is this a thing that kids at Sacred Heart do?

Arnold: I don't know about schools, but they have Golden Gloves stuff going on and amateur gymnasiums where people go and get trained. And you hear all the time about, you know, these young kids who basically, you know, have tough childhoods and some trainer at a gym becomes their surrogate father and leads them on to growing up and becoming champions. So that kinda thing still happens. But San Francisco doesn't seem to really care about it anymore.

Nicole: If we had any money to pay for the rights, this is where we'd cue the Rocky theme song. Da, da, dah, da-da dah.  Okay, anyways, Arnold, I think we should move on.

Arnold: And [00:38:00] ask, say what now?

Nicole: Please again, scrape your memory clean from what I just started singing to you, because no one asked for that or wanted it. I'm so sorry listeners. We're going to get into the Mann Act trial that Johnson was subjected to, even though the Mann Act was not yet a thing at the time of his alleged violation. The judge in that trial was none other than Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Oh boy. Who would later become the first commissioner of baseball? Wild. One of his first acts as commissioner was to kick the players indicted in the 1919 Black Sox scandal out of baseball, despite the fact that all had been acquitted at trial. Boy, this is the, this is, these are some wild connections.

Arnold: So, Landis's other quote, “achievement” was to maintain baseball's color barrier, [00:39:00] while saying at the same time, he wasn't actually doing that. That's probably what numerous others said over the years. It wasn't until after Landis died in 1944 that the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson and broke that color barrier. So, Landis' racist worldview had a negative impact on perhaps the two biggest American sports at the beginning of the 20th century.

Nicole: Kennesaw Mountain Landis. It, was a judge. Ugh. Anyways.

Arnold: Let's put this out of our minds and move on to listener mail.

Nicole: So first of all, Arnold, how does one send us listener mail?

Arnold: It's quite simple. Send an email to podcast@outsidelands.org or comment on some post on our [00:40:00] Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook accounts. Very simple and easy to do. Lots of people do it, so join them and send us a message.

Nicole: And before we get into our listener mail, I just wanna say a shout out to who might be our youngest podcast listener, Benji. Hello. You came in to see us at the museum this weekend, and you are the most adorable thing of all time. So, thank you, Benji. Under one years old already listening to the podcast. That's a born historian. So Arnold…

Arnold: We'll check back and we'll check back in 20 years and see how that's going.

Nicole: He'll probably be running the Western Neighborhoods Project. We like to start 'em young here. Arnold, did somebody send us real listener mail.

Arnold: Indeed, they did. In episode 469, which was our interview with Rob Thompson, the Federal Preservation Officer for the Presidio Trust, we talked about how terrifying the [00:41:00] old Doyle Drive bridge approach was before the seismic renovations. In response to that, Kevin wrote in and said quote, “safety, bah!. Merging east towards the Marina from the northbound bridge approach at speed was a rite of passage for young San Francisco drivers. No sweat. Once you got past the gut clenching, inclination to lean too far right.” Kevin then finished his message by saying, quote, “a fascinating piece, history of a place I've only passed through for decades. Keep up the good work.” Thank you Kevin.

Nicole: Yeah. And it may be too late for you to contribute a Playland memory for our podcast that we have scheduled and we've been talking about constantly that's happening next weekend. However, if you visited Playland before it closed in 1972, you are still completely welcome to send us your memories of it. If you do so right away, we may even be able to squeeze it into the podcast itself, but if not, we [00:42:00] can still use it in a future listener mail segment.

Arnold: And this podcast is made possible by people becoming members of our organization and people donating to our organization, because we are not making money off this podcast directly.

Nicole: No. We make very little money directly off anything we create.

Arnold: So, we would like to encourage you to get the benefits of membership. Which include our quarterly membership magazine

Nicole: Yep.

Arnold: Discounts on events, and some other exclusive perks.

Nicole: Yeah.

Arnold: Your membership also supports all the good work we do and make available for free, like this podcast. Like our OpenSFHistory.org picture trove with over 54,000 old historic images of San Francisco on it. Like the Cliff House collection that we've got on display up at the Cliff House. [00:43:00] So, please go to the top of any page and clickety, clickety clack on either the Become a Member or Donate buttons on our website.

Nicole: Ah, that catchphrase looks good on you, Arnold. And may I say we need your funding and support more than ever now, cause we did a wild thing this week. We onboarded our second, our first second employee of all time. That's right. Western Neighborhoods Project doubled in size this week by adding our new director of programs, Chelsea Sellin, who of course isn't new to the organization, who's been around for a very, very long time. That means WNP hopefully will be able to do twice the amount of work with half the amount of stress. And also, that means we're one of the few history organizations stewarded by two women under the age of 40. And we are continuing to evolve the legacy started by our two co-founders David Gallagher and Woody LaBounty, [00:44:00] who were also best friends. That's right everybody, Chelsea Sellin is my bestest friend in the entire world besides Arnold, and we can't wait to see what we're able to do together with two people power.

Arnold: And you won't have to wait long to see some of the current things going on because we have announcements.

Nicole: Absolutely. Well, that was kinda an announcement, but it's all part of the same soup. You can see Chelsea Sellin this weekend. I know she's gonna love this because I'm going on vacation. Wild. It's my birthday and I'm taking a vay-kay. And you can see Chelsea at The Museum at The Cliff. Maybe you've heard us talk about this. It's our free pop-up in the old Cliff House restaurant and gift shop. It's an immersive exhibition and a full history of the area. It's totally free. Saturdays and Sundays 11 to 5:00 PM. We do ask that you register in advance, so we kind [00:45:00] of have a heads up on who's coming, but you don't need to. We can register you at the door as long as we're not totally inundated with folks, which might happen. We're clocking over 250 people a day if you can believe it.

Arnold: Yeah, the crowds at The Museum at The Cliff have been wild of late. We're getting a lot of them.

Nicole: Absolutely. We are totally out of magazines now. But we also have other events coming up. We're very excited to announce a projection party. That's September 3rd, that's a Saturday, 6:00 to 9:00 PM. Ben Wood, who we've been working with for almost our entire tenure at the Cliff House, he's got a brand-new projection that's focused specifically on Kelly's Cove and Playland at the Beach. That'll be projecting out over Kelly's Cove through the windows of the lower terrace of the Cliff House. It's beautiful, never before seen footage that Ben had digitized. We're doing something a little bit different for this [00:46:00] event. You can join us for the fancy pants party, which you get to be indoors and we serve you refreshments as WNP is want to do. Those are ticketed, 6:00 to 8:00 PM. That's $15 for WNP members and $30 for non-members. But then the screening is free and open to everyone. So, we'll head outside around 8:00 PM and then everyone can join us. That will be BYOB. And we do appreciate if you'll register, just so we know how many volunteers we need to control the masses. But again, we hope you'll join us and we have something else after that Arnold. What would that be?

Arnold: We do, and I'm hoping of course, that we don't get a huge amount of fog for that projection premiere.

Nicole: Oh yeah. That would be a bummer.

Arnold: We'll see. But besides the museum, we have other stuff going on.

Nicole: Yep.

Arnold: And that includes a Sutro Heights History Walk led by former National Park Service Ranger John Martini. That's coming up on September 17th. [00:47:00] And as everybody knows who's been on a Martini-led history walk, he is simply the best tour guide around.

Nicole: Yeah.

Arnold: Tickets are just $10 for WNP members and $20 for non-members. You can find the link to sign up for it on our Events page. In fact, you can find the links for all of our events that are upcoming on our Events page, which is outside lands.org/events.

Nicole: And there's one that we forgot. So, I will be reading, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture at the San Francisco Botanical Garden, I will be reading a children's story to children, and any adults that may be present. As is the case with most of my children's story times. That's on Saturday, September 10th. The whole event is a big celebration of their anniversary from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. I'll be reading at 11:00 AM, and then I'll be leading kids in a vintage inspired craft afterwards. [00:48:00] So, that should be really fun. Totally free. You don't have to register. You can just come on up and see me read a book from the library's library.

Arnold: So, Nicole.

Nicole: Yeah.

Arnold: What is the least surprising preview we've ever done for this podcast?

Nicole: Oh, yes.

Arnold: Coming up next week.

Nicole: So, we've been talking about it for over a month now.

Arnold: We've already mentioned it on this podcast.

Nicole: We're very excited about it. So, we will be reliving Playland at the Beach with all the people who were there. I, you won't wanna miss this. It's gonna be a really fun house of a good time, podcast.

Arnold: That sounds like so much fun. Join us next week for it. Until then, I bid you adieu Nicole.

Nicole: Adieu to you as well. Insert Laughing Sal cackle as we play our way out. Good night friends. We'll see you soon. [00:49:00]

Ian: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley. Content creation and media production at ihadley.com.

Nicole: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more on San Francisco history, go to Outsidelands.org. You can also find us on social media at Facebook, which is outsidelands with an S, at Twitter, which is outsidelandz with a Z, and on Instagram, which is outsidelandz, also with a Z. And check out our historic San Francisco images website at OpenSFHistory.org.

On the Map (click marker for larger map)
More Podcasts
  • Podcast # 194: Sloat Boulevard

    From the zoo to St. Francis Circle, stories about San Francisco's widest (maybe) street. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Oct 16, 2016)
  • Podcast # 377: Ray Bandar - The Bone Collector

    Ray Bandar had a passion for bones. It was his collection featured at the 2014 CalAcademy exhibit "Skulls". Special guest, Lindsay Palaima worked with Ray, and visits the pod to share some stories about this unique San Francisco teacher and scientist. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast May 2, 2020)
All Podcasts...

The Outside Lands San Francisco podcast is also available as a subscription via iTunes and by RSS feed.

Save SF History