|With Evander Holyfield's recent upset victory
over Mike Tyson, the sports world is once again talking about professional boxing. Perhaps
there is no other sport that encompasses so many elements of the dark side of human
nature, yet continues to arouse man's passion. The people of Sidney, Ohio have known both
sides of this story.
The raucous crowd had grown
louder with each round, each punch, as the two determined fighters circled each other,
looking for an opening to attack. The scene was the Vernon Arena in Los Angeles,
California. The date was January 2, 1913. As the bell signaled the start of the eighteenth
round, Luther McCarty stung Al Palzer with a left to the jaw, followed by a right to his
head. Palzer reeled away, wobbly and shaken. McCarty stalked him for the kill. Suddenly,
referee Eyton knifed in between the two, raised his hands, and the bout was over. Luther
McCarty of Sidney, Ohio, was the new white heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
Boxing in America has had at best a checkered past. Some historians point to the period
of the early 1900's as the most sordid chapter in the history of the sport. McCarty played
an interesting, and ultimately tragic part in this colorful era. This is his story.
The successful black athlete is so commonplace today that it is difficult to imagine a
time when a champion of color would not be well accepted by white America. As the century
began, however, there were no Negroes in professional sports. Enter Jack Johnson. A
splendid athlete at six feet and a finely tuned two hundred pounds, he dominated boxing
for a decade as no one has since. He fought a succession of white challengers who were no
match for the powerful, yet lightning quick Johnson. Even with this success, he was not
recognized as champion by the sports fans of white America.
Johnson lived a lavish lifestyle, and it was reported that he traveled frequently in
the company of white prostitutes. Many considered this, along with his marriages to two
white women in a row, scandalous behavior. When Johnson was indicted for taking another
white prostitute across state lines in violation of the Mann Act, the cries increased for
a white champion to "take back" the title.
In Sidney, boxing was a popular sport. Local matches were often held in a makeshift
ring set up on the courtsquare. Early local favorites included Will O'Leary, who would later serve
as Sidney's police chief for over five decades. One lad showed particular promise. Luther
McCarty received his first boxing lesson from Web Sterline at the Young Men's Athletic
Association gym in Sidney. Sterline, who was a local sports promoter of sorts, also
captained Sidney's first football team. What were the makings of this future champion,
In a couple of articles published after he later gained fame, the Sidney Daily News provided
details on his fascinating background. His father, Anton P. McCarty, was known to everyone
as White Eagle. He was believed to be a full-blooded Indian. White Eagle was a patent medicine man. Operating as the proprietor of
the White Eagle Medicine Company, he sold rattlesnake oil on the square in Sidney as well
as in Piqua.
As a youngster, Luther was charged with
caring for the snakes. The oil was touted as a cure for gout, toothache, rheumatism and
other assorted ills of the day. "Dr." White Eagle had a picturesque outfit, and
would sell snake oil from his stand while his troupe of performers entertained the crowd.
Both Luther's parents contributed to his physical attributes.
His mother was reported
to be a stout six feet and 200 pounds. White Eagle stood six feet, five inches tall, and
tipped the scales at 315 pounds. Luther's sister toured the vaudeville circuit as "Hazel
Kirkman, world's champion woman bag puncher."
From this impressive gene pool Luther McCarty grew to six feet five inches, 215 pounds
of fighting talent. The talent, however, was not immediately apparent. His first boxing
match in Sidney occurred on a hot August night in 1911. Harry Hollinger, an employee at R. Given and Sons Tannery, landed a left punch early
in the fight, knocking out McCarty. The News later reported Luther's retort after
regaining consciousness: "You made a dub of me, Harry, but I'm going to stick to
this game and show up some of you fellows before I am through." Shortly
afterward, McCarty left town. He also left behind his wife, Rhoda, and infant daughter
For a short period of time, McCarty apparently fought under the name of Walker Monahan.
His obvious physical talents caught the eye of Billy McCarney, Philadelphia sportswriter
and boxing promoter. Under McCarney's watchful eye, Luther fought his first professional
fight in Culbertson, Montana, beating a fighter named Adams in two rounds.
McCarney lined up two bouts in New York City. His man beat Jim Stewart and then bested
Jess Willard in a ten round bout during the summer of 1912. The New York media was less
than kind in assessing McCarty's talents, however. McCarty was determined to become a
champion and prove his critics wrong. In short order he fought Carl Morris, Jim Barry, Al
Kaufman, and Jim Flynn. His progress was rapid. He was now ready for a shot at the title.
McCarney apparently knew that McCarty, still relatively unknown, was ready to take on
Al Palzer for the championship. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported a week after the
fight that McCarney had encouraged all his friends "to get a bet down on his
protege, as he is a cinch to beat Palzer." Luther, then only 20 years old, was
probably less certain.
The night of January 2, 1913 found him in L.A. in the ring fighting for the heavyweight
belt in front of 11,000 screaming fans. Three thousand others milled about outside the
arena, hoping for a way to slip in for a peek at the action. Fight promoter Tom Carey
filled the role of the present day Don King. The News carried a blow by blow
description of the contest. In typical home town fashion, the paper trumpeted that the
"fight was so one-sided that the referee stopped it...to save the reeling Palser
from further punishment." With some pride, the account noted: "McCarty,
Palser's curly-haired superior, was smiling and scarcely scratched when the fight ended."
His triumph made McCarty an overnight
sensation. The Enquirer proclaimed in a headline: "McCarty's Rapid Strides to
Fame the Sensation in the Boxing World." Within a few days, he had accepted a
vaudeville engagement at Hammerstein's in New York City for two weeks at $2,000 a week.
Someone, probably manager McCarney, decided the new champ should appear dressed as a
cowboy and entertain the crowd with rope tricks.
Many Sidney residents were quick to
claim a fast friendship with the new media darling. When a reporter from the Cincinnati
Post arrived in town to write a story on McCarty, people lined up to tell their tales.
"Why, me and Lutie used to work on the South Water street paving job together,"
one man boasted. "Lute was one of the best sewer diggers in the county, and I
ain't no slouch myself," another told the reporter.
Others were not amused at these developments. Willard, who was destined to dethrone
Johnson and claim the title in 1915, immediately demanded a chance to fight McCarty. The News reported that Willard "... is so confident he can whip the new champ that he
announces he is ready to match practically at McCarty's terms."
What about Jack Johnson, the true champion? The Enquirer reported that McCarty
"has no use for a negro, and will not fight Jack Johnson under any circumstances."
The Enquirer correctly noted: "This does not change the true state of affairs, as
Johnson is still the heavyweight champion."
Back home, Harry Hollinger, Luther's first opponent, even wanted a shot. He told the Cincinnati
Post reporter: "I guess Lute made good all right, but remembering the soft
pickin' I had, I honestly would take another try at him." White Eagle also
reminded the media that "Luther's a fine boy, but he hasn't won a decision over
his dad." Being an old Indian medicine showman, White Eagle knew that the
newly-found fame of his son presented opportunities for himself as well. On January 11,
only nine days after the fight, the News announced that the champ's father had
booked a thirty week vaudeville engagement on the Columbia circuit. He was billed as 'the
only man who ever whipped the champ.' The paper noted that his salary for one month would
be "more than he made in a year as an Indian doctor." Before heading to
the east coast, White Eagle gave the locals the first chance to pass judgment by appearing
at the Bijou theater in Piqua.
McCarty's vaudeville tour started out west, and had moved to Columbus by February 2.
His tricks with the lariat and his demonstration of shadow boxing were well received by
the crowd. Meanwhile, the promoters were at work scheduling a match between the champ and
Bombardier Wells, the British heavyweight title holder.
Ever since the victory over Palzer in January, Billy McCarney had been offering up the
usual rhetoric. "McCarty is one champion who does not intend to do any
side-stepping," he stated. As for the contenders who were clamoring for a chance
at McCarty, McCarney fired off the following reply: "Let Willard, Daly and a few
of those 'no decision' demons come to the roast and fight among themselves. If the
survivor looks like the genuine article we will give him an early date."
Luther fought a couple of tune up matches against opponents of questionable ability,
including Jim Flynn in Philadelphia on April 16. As is the case today, such tactics did
not go unnoticed. James Corbett, the famous bare knuckle champion, criticized McCarty in a
news release on May 16 for losing his aggressiveness and picking up "little" in
additional boxing skills since winning in Los Angeles. The champ was picking up money,
however. His handlers had put away nearly $65,000 for him by this time.
McCarty's next title defense was in Calgary, Alberta, Canada on May 24 against Arthur
Pelky. All of Sidney waited for the news of the next victory for their champion. A shocked
Sidney read the headline in the News the next day: "Luther McCarty Killed By Blow
Over The Heart." As the sketchy details filtered in over the next couple of days,
disbelieving turned to grieving.
In the first round of the fight, Pelky delivered a sharp left to the jaw, snapping
Luther's neck back. A straight right to the chest dropped the champ. McCarty was dead soon
after he hit the canvas. A subsequent coroner's inquest found that the first punch had
broken his fourth cervical vertebra, causing a fatal hemorrhage. Arthur Pelky was charged
with manslaughter. Four days later, a coroner's jury cleared him of the charge. The papers
reported that the acting premier of the province indicated the ban against professional
fighting in Alberta would now be "rigidly enforced."
In the years after Luther left Sidney, his father had moved to Piqua. Now a heart
broken White Eagle made preparations for the funeral and the burial in Piqua of the
champion. The Daily News reported that "...several thousand persons looked
upon the face of the dead fighter as his body lay in state." Among the mourners
were Luther's estranged wife, Rhoda, and Cornelia, his daughter. They had traveled from
their home in Fargo, North Dakota.
The body of Luther McCarty was laid to rest the next day. In many ways, he represented
the best and worst of the sport. By the age of 21, he had amassed what was considered a
fortune in 1913, but in the end he died a victim of the violence that still characterizes
boxing. Rhoda and Cornelia claimed the $65,000 fortune.
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