Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The First Girl "Mysterious" Billy Smith Ever Loved

To cover discoveries not directly connected to the old waterfront I have started a new blog, Oregon Ozone. I stole the name from an Oregonian column from the 1890s.

The first girl “Mysterious” Billy Smith ever loved met her tragic death on their honeymoon. Billy had a monument erected over her grave that cost a fortune. Today the beautiful monument—a large sculpted angel—is part of the Historical Monuments on the Cemetery Tour page of the River View Cemetery website. The fact that her husband was a famous prizefighter has escaped everyone’s notice, until now.

Read the story in the very first post on Oregon Ozone

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Asthmatic Weakling Writes Book on Prizefighting in Portland

It is true, an asthmatic weakling, who used to regularly give up his lunch money as tribute to bullies, has written a book on prizefighting. Not only this, History Press has just published it! Oregon Prizefighters: Forgotten Bare-knuckles Champions of Portland and Astoria, will hit the shelves on Monday.

What was it that made someone like me, born without the “sports gene,” to become interested in the bare-knuckles prizefighting of yesteryear? It was the people: brash, na├»ve youths, wracked by passions, ruined by limelight. Then there is the model Portlander, Dave Campbell, for many years “Our Dave,” beloved chief of the Portland fire department. He was self-educated, intelligent, measured, and fearless, and gave up a sure championship career as a boxer to fight Portland’s fires. Add to the mix the original all-time champion, Jack “Nonpareil” Dempsey (died 1895), and “Mysterious” Billy Smith—both legends in the world of boxing history—and you soon begin to wonder why these fellows aren’t at least well known in Portland and Astoria.
A publication by the New York Police Gazette

Both places were big on boxing, and in those days the two cities were joined at the hip due to the shipping business and the shallowness of the rivers in dry season. Much business had to be conducted from Astoria when the waters were too low for deep ocean vessels.

I spent about 3 years researching these men, and have managed to dig up a lot of fascinating detail (fascinating to me, at least), and hard to find material. One of the great finds, for lithograph images, at least (the info is a little sketchy) was The Life and Battles of Jack Dempsey, published by the New York Police Gazette in 1888, while Dempsey was still a champion “nonpareil.” This my daughter, Molly Gunderson, helped me obtain from Tulane University in New Orleans. It comes in handy to have a wife that is an editor, a daughter that is a librarian, and a cat that keeps my chair warm.

It would be more than ironic if this book were to become more popular than my other two Portland history books, and I became known as a sports writer. I prefer either "historical biographer" or "time travel writer."
"Mysterious" Billy Smith lived in Portland most of his adult life. He was once world famous, but he is buried in a pauper's grave in the county cemetery on Southeast 82nd and Holgate.

David Campbell gave up a prizefighting career to fight fires. He became Portland's favorite son, "Our Dave."

This illustration, called "The Champion" shows the awe commanded by prizefighters at the end of the 19th century. Boston Sunday Supplement, 1906

Oregon Prizefighters: Forgotten Bare-knuckles Champions of Portland and Astoria goes on sale October 19, 2015. Anyone extremely anxious to get a copy can preorder now.

click to buy

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The End of Summer—and a new book in time for the Holidays

As the sky takes on more red color, causing the little green plants to spurt forth buds, and the year turns toward Indian Summer I find it necessary (at least for my own conscience sake) to give some explanation, or apology for my slackness in contributing to my own blog.

I was having fun. After eight years of being a, sort of, shut in I have been out riding my bike, going to the pool, working on illustrations, playing my guitar, and visiting folks. My long time relationship with the opium poppy (due to rheumatoid and osteoarthritis) has been over for some time, and other improvements of a nearly miraculous nature have gotten me off my ass and out in the wide world.

I have not been idle. I wrapped up my next book, The Oregon Prizefighters: Forgotten Bare-Knucked Champions of Portland and Astoria to be released by History Press in mid October. The book centers around the three world famous prizefighters who called Portland home: Jack (Nonpareil) Dempsey, David Campbell, and “Mysterious” Billy Smith. As it was with my previous two books, it is remarkable how little was known about the people involved in this business—compared to all the horsefeathers  brought forth by fiction writers disguised as historians.

So the blog goes on.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Riversdale Incident

The full-rigged ship, Riversdale

Back in the palmy days of the Portland sailor’s boarding masters the occasional landlubber that was shipped was small fry compared to the steady trade in deserting seamen. The following article is from the April 1903 edition of the British ship owner’s trade magazine, The Syren and Shipping News. The events mentioned in the article on the Riversdale marked the beginning of the end for the Portland shanghaiers. Within three years the mighty Sullivan, Grant Bros.& McCarron would “throw down their hands in sheer disgust” as reformers got the upper hand in Portland politics.

On Watch
T’ is gratifying to find an Englishman, in this degenerate age, having the pluck to pit himself against the combination of sailors' boarding-house proprietors, their runners and the whole evil fraternity that have long made Portland, Oregon, a place to be avoided by shipmasters, officers and men under the British Red Ensign. Captain Porter, of the Riversdale, belonging to Messrs. Leyland, of Liverpool, deserves the sincere thanks of every right-minded subject of His Majesty King Edward VII., and also of every citizen of the Great Republic who has a reputation to lose, for the fearless stand he has recently made against the hellish combination that is for some reason allowed to dictate terms to masters of British ships with respect to the shipment of seamen at Portland, Oregon.

There are not wanting those who boldly assert that some shipmasters and their employees find it convenient, if not absolutely profitable, to work hand in hand with the remorseless crimps of the Pacific Coast of the United States who make a golden harvest out of the ignorant and defenseless foreigners so often found in the forecastles of British sailing ships engaged in the long voyage trade. But the action of Captain Porter, backed up by the owners of the Riversdale, clearly shows that there are not wanting British shipmasters competent and willing to hold their own against the class of crimp who, in this country, would soon be cooling his heels on the stone floor of the nearest gaol.

British shipowners have for many years past been the best customers of the authorities connected with Portland and Astoria, and, owing to circumstances apparently beyond the control of the City Fathers, the former have been harassed almost in excess of the bounds of belief by a small but malignant band of sailors' boarding-masters who seem to be the very salt of the political earth inside the bar of the Columbia River. Had our shipmasters and shipowners years ago combined forces against the common enemy, and shown the cruel crimps an unwavering front, there would not be prevalent the state of anarchy such as now makes Portland, Oregon, an object-lesson to every civilized nation as to the necessity for local authorities to prevent persons of this undesirable class from becoming a power for evil at the polling booths.

Citizens of Oregon have for some years past been fully alive to the bad odour in which their city is steeped owing to the actions of men whose aim is to keep the sailor in a state of thraldom by the aid of every artifice known to the lowest class of liquor-saloon keeper around the city front; ship him, like a white slave as he is when under the crimp's control, on board some ship of the latter's choice and scoop in the dollars on every deal. San Francisco is bad enough in all conscience, but never, not even in his palmiest days, did the 'Frisco boarding-master hold such a full hand.

When freights are high and men difficult to obtain, we fear that the shipmaster prefers to pay a considerable sum to the crimp-euphoniously known as "blood money" -rather than have h is ship held up by the close combination of the very lowest class of sailors' boarding house master. We venture to say that, if the Shipping Federation could, and would, enter as strongly into this serious business in Oregon as it has done of late with far less important strikes on the Continent of Europe, the Portland crimps would throw down their hands in sheer disgust at the altered run of the cards. As matters stand to-day, the crimps play with marked cards; and there are far too few of the stamp of Captain Porter who will dare call the sharper's attention to the fact that there is a short shrift for rogues of this description.

American deep-water vessels do not visit Portland, and the coasting seamen are, as a rule, of quite a different class from the men who come to the port in foreign ships. Hence the crimp confines his operations solely to vessels under the flags of England, France and Germany, and often grows rich in this nefarious business of inducing sailors to desert and forthwith reshipping them in a strange vessel, after a few hours of dire dissipation, having first taken care to demand and obtain from 30 dols. to 50 dols. for each dissolute white slave and a substantial advance in addition. This class of shanghaied sailorman has positively nothing to lose by displaying a mutinous spirit, and not much to gain by obedience to orders, and it is useless to expect discipline so long as the crimps of Oregon and California are permitted to work their evil will upon the sailors of British ships.