Joe Gans: The Old Master

27.11.07 – By Keith Terceira: Born in Baltimore, November 25, 1874, though a reporter at his death bed placed his birth date in 1871, this rare fistic phenomenon came from a poor family and went to work early in life on the Baltimore docks as a oyster shucker and fish monger. Joe was reported to have been born under several names Gamp, Gans, and Gaines but early on took the name Gans and for all eternity, it stuck.

At his death bed the fighter that reportedly earned over a quarter of a million dollars during his career as a boxer was destitute but accompanied by several friends and family including his wife Martha, foster parents Mr. and Mrs. Gamp, “Kid” North who had assisted Joe in his journey from Prescott Arizona, and lifelong friend Dan Pendleton . Joe Gans the “Baltimore Wizard” “The Old Master” died at 8:03 on a Wednesday morning August 10, 1910.

Tuberculosis claimed the life of one of the truly real geniuses of the boxing world and what stuck me during my research was just how long he may have suffered and succeeded with this debilitating disease.

Common rumor was that Gans contracted TB because of having to make weight ringside for his
Famous 42 round lightweight championship defense in Goldfield Nevada with Battling Nelson.

Tuberculosis resembles leprosy in that it often is a long-term illness that permits the sufferer to remain ambulatory, perhaps for years, while potentially infectious. The victim might recover, but the morality rate is high. The disease grew so deadly and widespread that out of fear of contracting the disease from African-Americans who performed most of the household duties in white homes at the turn of the century the first “Jim Crow” public accommodation laws was enacted.

Even the White House was not safe as President Harrison’s wife Caroline Harrison died of tuberculosis at the White House in October 1892.

According to Leiperville PA. resident James “the Baron of Leiperville” Dougherty, Gans came to Delaware County prior to his trip west looking for a loan for a ticket to Chicago where he would then proceed west for several fights including the Nelson fight.

Dougherty reported that at the time, Gans was already ill and he took him to his family doctor who notified the Baron that not only was Gans in the final stages of TB but also had other serious illnesses as a result and belonged in bed. The doctor was very shocked to learn that Gans was Lightweight World Champion.

Damon Runyon wrote “He should have been in a sanitarium years before the Nelson fight, Do not mention the names of any of the present day fighters in the same breath as Joe Gans” in 1938 as a result of Nat Fleischer not including Gans in his first volume of “Black Dynamite”

It is more likely than not that Gans contracted consumption in Baltimore or Philly because these cities were a hotbed of TB at the turn of the century and the very first health care aimed at TB was created in Baltimore. The following quote is an example of Baltimore’s rate of disease at the turn of the century.

“Now, what is our condition in this city, and what are we doing for the 10,000 consumptives who are living today in our midst? We are doing, Mr. Mayor and fellow citizens, not one solitary thing that a modern civilized community should do. Through the kindness of a couple of ladies — God bless them! — I have been enabled in the past three or four years to have two medical students of the Johns Hopkins University visit every case of pulmonary consumption that has applied for admissions to the dispensary of our hospital, and I tell you now that the story those students brought back is a disgrace to us as a city of 500,000 inhabitants. It is a story of dire desolation, want, and helplessness, and of hopeless imbecility in everything that should be in our civic relation to the care of this disease (The Life of Sir William Osler, by Harvey Cushing)

Small black-operated businesses took over the street front rooms of Druid Hill town homes. The narrow, crowded houses of Biddle Alley, just east of Homes, were the subject of two studies of urban conditions that won local renown, a city poverty commission publishing the first in 1907 and the Urban League the second in 1926. Despite the cleanliness of housing units, the reports alleged, the high rent block called “Lung Block” bred disease, especially tuberculosis.

More likely was the fact that Gans fought Steve Crosby in Louisville, Kentucky August 23 1901. The city of Louisville was the single deadliest city in America for Consumption at the turn of the century with more per capita deaths than even the biggest urban areas due to its low-lying wet valley and sweltering summer heat.

Here is a report of a fight Steve Crosby fought a few years before Gans in the middle of the deadliest breeding ground for TB.

In 1897, the state of Kentucky and the city of Louisville did not permit boxing matches between African Americans and whites for fear of race riots. However, that did not prevent the fight between African American Steve Crosby, a lightweight professional fighter, and a white Louisville native, amateur fighter Edmund “Kid” Rucker. The publicity was handled by Louisville Times newspaperman Verney “Screw” Sanders, and admission orders came from Nashville, TN; Evansville and Indianapolis, IN; and Lexington, KY. The location of the bout was not publicized. The day of the fight, those with purchased admission knew to be on the riverbank by 8:00 p.m. when tugboats would take the boxers and what was thought to be an all-male audience to Six Mile Island in the Ohio River. At the island, the white audience stood on one side of the makeshift ring and African Americans were on the opposite site. As the fight progressed, Rucker was knocked down again and again, but he continued to get up and keep fighting. During the 13th round, a rifle was taken away from a spectator who wanted to shoot Crosby for a perceived foul that left Rucker lying face down in the ring. Rucker was taken to his corner and given a whiff of nitrate of amyl, and the bout continued until the 20th round when the referee called it a tie. The fight was reported in the Courier Journal (Louisville) on September 18, 1897. For more see E. Rucker, “A Prize Fighter in the Nineties,” Harper’s Magazine, 179 (June/November 1939) pp. 243-255.

Tuberculosis claimed many but it also was a disease that could linger in your body for years before it took its toll or could disappear completely with the right climate and rest… Thus the reason for Gans life in Arizona prior to his demise. It could also be the reason why Gans again fought Steve Crosby in Hot Springs, Arkansas 1903 , known for its hot spring bath houses that claimed to be able to heal most anything you suffered.. Alternatively, Frank “Buddy” King in Butte, Montana a few months later, another area famous for its healing springs…

Perhaps it is just coincidence that Gans fought in the cities that drew the ill and diseased, or perhaps because of their popularity as resorts the cities just drew boxing. What is likely is that Joe Gans and many fighters at the turn of the century played a deadly game of Russian roulette by competing in the worst areas of the country and the deadliest cities for consumption . For the African-American fighter it was playing roulette with only one bullet removed from the gun.

The list of Champions and boxers who passed due to this terrible epidemic is long and deserves another article. Gans final record included 131 wins (88 KOs) 9 losses and 13 draws.

Bob Fitzsimmons declared, “Gans is the cleverest fighter, big or little that ever put on the gloves. He is also a hard hitter. He uses one hand as equally well as the other and can score a knockout with either”, Seattle Times, Sep. 2, 1906.

Should research prove out that Joe Gans fought 42 rounds suffering third stage Tuberculosis, would there be any doubt as to who was the greatest lightweight of all time?

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