Tuesday, February 11, 2014

M.M. Dee and the Giant Fake

A Well-known Portland Character, Well-known No More

One of the small multitude of interesting characters to pass through Portland in the last part of the 19th century was Matthew Mark Dee. He was born in 1858 in a Tammany ward in New York City to Irish immigrant parents. When Matt was just a wee lad his parents sent him to live with relatives in Ireland, ostensibly to “receive an education.” In relating this story in later years he would often say that all he learned in Ireland was “to speak with a brogue.” I have an inkling of an idea that maybe little Matt was a pain in the ass. It wasn’t long after the boy returned home from Ireland that his papa made arrangements with captain Campbell, of the British schooner, Sea Hawk,1 to take the little fellow off his hands, maybe for good this time. Matt was only 12 years old. 

It was quite common, in those days, for sailing vessels to take on several young boys—often family friends of the captain, or shipping company officials. These youngsters were usually called apprentices, and the dangers of the sea were expected to turn them into men. The usual age for beginning as an apprentice seaman was 14, which causes me to presume Matt was big for his age. The able-bodied seamen and ship’s officers tended to be protective of the apprentices, some of whom were children of important men, but the job of seaman, even at its very best, was fraught with danger. Shipwrecks, somewhere in the world, were daily occurrences, as were fatal accidents—such as falling from an icy yardarm into the frothing waves, in the ice-choked passage below South America.

From the day young Matt stepped on board the Sea Hawk he would follow the seas for the next 12 years, rising from the lowest estate of a lowly apprentice to becoming a ship’s first officer. Near the end of his career he was the chief mate aboard one of the first 3000 ton, steel-hulled vessels to sail the Atlantic.

Matt Dee (or Mark, he could never settle on one name) was a very charming “Irishman” with an enchanting brogue. His obituary (as printed in Portland and Seattle newspapers) claimed that while Dee was in San Francisco he met and married the world renowned star of the stage (and later on, the silents), Blanche Walsh. This is highly suspect, since it was not mentioned by any of her biographers. She was married at age 23 to the English Actor, Alfred Hickman. This marriage lasted from 1896 to 1903. She then married a man named William Travers in 1906, to whom she was married at the time of her untimely death, in 1915, from appendicitis. This left little time for a deep relationship with Dee, whom it is likely she knew. I wouldn’t think a man like Dee would pull her name out of the air, and she was the daughter of a New York Tammany boss, giving them common ground. It is more likely the reporters got it wrong.

Blanche Walsh

Dee came to Astoria sometime during the 1880s. It is highly likely that he thought, as did many of his era, that Astoria was destined for greatness. Situated at the mouth of the Columbia river, with a large, natural fresh water harbor, it seemed logical that Astoria would someday rise to equal, or surpass, any other port on the Pacific coast.

At first Dee went to work for the famous shanghaier, Jim Turk, as a sailor’s boardinghouse runner. This fact is clearly shown in an April 1885 arrest record. He was arrested by deputy U.S. Marshal, E.D. Curtis, along with Tom Ward (a pugilist of some local fame), and a hoodlum named Frank Silva, for soliciting for Turk’s boardinghouse. This was during one of those rare seasons when such laws were being enforced. Later on, in his time in  Astoria, Dee went into business with Richard McCarron, becoming a partner in the “Liverpool House,” a sailor’s boardinghouse on 1st Street, between La Fayette and Washington. This was called “Swilltown,” a place lined with saloons and whore houses, and within smelling distance of the canneries. During this period of “shipping sailors” Dee also put his hand to promoting boxing matches. Since these were illegal within the city at that time, they were often conducted in farm yards. 

1889 Astoria Directory

In November 1885 Dee promoted a famous prize fight, between the first Jack Dempsey (Nonpariel) and Dave Campbell. It was conducted at a farm across the river from Saint Helens. The steamboats carried about 1,000 spectators from Portland and Astoria to the rain soaked mud of the farm. Men and boys rowed across the wide, rough waters from Saint Helens, and farm boys came on horseback. The second feature was a bout between Tom Ward and a  new kid named, Larry Sullivan. (You may read about this fight in great detail in my upcoming book, The Oregon Shanghaiers: Columbia River Crimping From Astoria to Portland.)

Dee, having been a sailor himself, probably had little taste for the business of “shanghaiing” (as the business was referred to by all and sundry). Soon he moved to Portland where he became influential in starting the Portland Athletic Club. He opened a saloon on 124 1st Street (old address system) called The Turf Exchange. Not only could you play the cigar slot machines, and drink yourself into a coma, you could place bets on far away horse races via telegraph (hence the name). Matt Dee became a famous fellow around Portland, promoting boxing matches and taking suckers' money from them on the races. In the 1890s, when boxing matches within the city were made legal (under certain restraints), Dee worked out a relationship with the association leasing the old Mechanics Pavilion to use as a venue for the “sport of sports.” From the era of Rutherford B. Hayes, up to the era of Herbert Hoover, if there was anything a man like better than a good cigar, it was a boxing match.


 A Giant Fake

On January 31, 1891, the Oregonian reported an event that occurred the previous evening at the Mechanic’s Pavilion under the headline, “A Giant Fake. The Cuff-M’Hugh Fight A Fiasco.” It seems that on the previous evening Matt Dee was involved in a bit of a riot at the hall in which he barely escaped without being beaten by the fists of “about 300 thoroughbreds who had forked over their bright $1 pieces to see a fight that never came off.”

Ed Cuff (great name for a pugilist), a bruiser from Spokane, and Pat McHugh, of Wisconsin, the heavy-weight champion of the Northwest, were scheduled to beat on each other for the enjoyment of ticket purchasers, most of whom had money on one or the other. The fight was preceded by some amateur bouts that were far from satisfying for the fans filling the room. At 9:30 the ring emptied, and stayed empty for some fifteen minutes—a time that the fans filled with stamping feet, hoots, and cries demanding that Matt Dee appear. The “big O” reporter described the scene thus:

Matt climbed upon the stage with a dented hat, and with despair pictured in every line of his face, and extending his left arm, commanded the crowd to “shoo!” The crowd would not “shoo” worth a cent. They wanted a fight, or their money back.

The story, as told by Matt Dee to the seething crowd, was that Con Struthers, and ex-baseball umpire who was handling the door, had “garnished” the gate receipts. Cuff and McHugh wanted money to fight, and there was no money to pay them. Dee suggested that the crowd ante up another shiny dollar so the fight would go on.

The crowd was reported as answering with cries of: “Fake!” “Come off!” “Bring up the animals!” etc.

McHugh, standing by the ring in street clothes jumped up and began cajoling Cuff to come and fight him, money or no money, or he would declare him to be a coward. Cuff was then carried into the ring by a “host of his admirers.”

“Speech! Speech!” some jokers shouted.

Cuff was then reported to have said, with characteristic eloquence:

“Dis yere Con Strouthers is a bunko man. He ‘greed to train me, and said  he’d pay me board and now I find out de darn bloke h’aint got only 15 cents. I am ready to fight right now, but I want some money.”

Following this speech Cuff disappeared into the night. McHugh then appeared in the ring, wearing his fighting tights, and the referee declared all bets off, and McHugh as winner of the (missing) purse. The crowd went wild at this point, and could only be satisfied by tearing Dee limb from limb, but Dee, like the loquacious Cuff, had also disappeared into the night. Following a period of threats and murmurings, the crowd finally dispersed, muttering  threats and describing to each other the various and painful methods in which they would exact revenge in the near future.

In the days following the event at the Mechanic’s Pavilion the charade was discovered to be a conspiracy. Ed Cuff “for reasons best known to himself” was reluctant to fight Pat McHugh, but being a pliable sort, was talked into doing so by the aptly named, Con Struthers. The ex-umpire then preceded to talk Cuff into signing a contract making Struthers his sole manager, entitled to half of his take. After Cuff meditated on these terms for a period of several days he came to the conclusion that it was a bad situation. He then told Struthers that he would not abide by the terms of the contract. The deal, according to Cuff, was off.

Con Struthers was not born yesterday, and could not be brushed off like a bothersome house fly. He visited one of Portland’s many low life attorneys who drew up papers authorizing Struthers to “garnish” money coming to Cuff, an activity that Struthers saw fit to do shortly after the last shiny dollar clinked into the money box at the pavilion gate.

At the end of this report the Oregonian reporter prophesied an end to the Portland Athletic Club as well as Matt Dee’s career as a promoter of pugilistic exhibitions. 

Dee managed to hang in with Portland for awhile longer,  purchasing the New Pendleton Saloon on 1st and Oak Streets. He was reported to be friendly with the prize fighter Dave Campbell, who frequented his watering holes while in Portland. His obituary also identified him as being John L. Sullivan’s manager for 3 years. For those 21st century folks who don’t follow either boxing history or American popular culture history, John L. Sullivan was the most famous man on earth for a season. Even those who stepped into his shoes (like Dave Campbell) were never as famous. As much as this would enhance the importance of M.M. Dee (and thus, the importance of this little post) I have to debunk the report that he was John L. Sullivan’s manager. Dee’s name just can’t be found in this connection anywhere, apart from Dee's obituaries. It is only reasonable to assume that Dee was Larry Sullivan’s manager for 3 years while in Astoria and the confusion lies in the similarity of the names.

In 1898 Dee moved to West Seattle where he started a boxing gym. In 1910 he opened the Haller Beach Bath House and CafĂ© on Alkai Point. Then the name “bath house” did not mean what it what it does today, but rather, a place for people to change to go swimming in a protected area of the waters, in this case the Puget Sound. (There was a similar bath house at Oaks Park, on the Willamette in Portland.) Matt Dee’s bath house was a family affair, with no alcohol allowed. By this time he was famous as a local sportsman, being called the “sage of West Seattle” in the newspapers. Like any Pacific Northwesterner worth his salt he was also well known for selling real estate, bootlegging, and breaking jaws with his fists.

Matt Dee died in 1931, a decade that saw many of the characters that made up the social landscape of the wild and wooly West finally succumb to the scythe of the Reaper.

1. As the name of a ship, the "Sea Hawk" seems fishy to me. Usually I have no trouble tracking down ships from the period in maritime records, but this one is not to be found. It was the name of a famous 18th century privateer, and has a decidedly romantic ring to the sound of it. Once again I suspect poor reporting.