News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 18, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: 1888: A year of transition in Terre Haute sports

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — 1888 — 125 years ago — might be called a year of transition for Terre Haute sports.

After a couple of years in organized professional baseball, the Terre Haute Hottentots began another season without league affiliation.

That void was filled July 3, when Crawfordsville, of the Central Interstate League, ran into financial trouble and the franchise was transferred to Terre Haute.

After hosting harness racing for two decades at the fairgrounds’ half-mile track at the northeast corner of Brown and Wabash avenues, the trotting association finally had a mile track, designed by surveyor George Grimes and superintendent Uriah Jeffers.

Yet it was not until October 1889 that the course, soon recognized internationally as Terre Haute’s “famous four-cornered track,” became the site of world records.

Football was in its infancy and was not yet played interscholastically. Basketball was not yet invented. Boxing, wrestling, cycling, swimming, roller skating and athletics (gymnastics and track and field) were played, but competition was unorganized.

Newspaper sports pages did not exist, but sports news was becoming popular. The front page of the Terre Haute Gazette on March 19, 1888, included this report:

“Yesterday the 440 yard running race between Morcum and Carr took place on Locust near Twentieth street. Six hundred saw the race. Morkcum won in 65 seconds.

“The Gazette is in receipt of a communication signed, ‘Not Sam Carter but his friends.’ It states that Carter is no match for Thompson, that they will not let him fight and insinuates that it is scheme of some of his white friends to have him done up.

“Mike Gainey, who is training Thompson, said that there was nothing whatever in this story as the two men came to him and asked him to make arrangements, which he did. He is in no other way interested.

“Carter, with his trainer, called at the Gazette office this morning. He said he knows nothing of the letter and thinks it was done by someone as a joke. He said he will fight Thompson as soon as proper arrangements are made no matter how many letters are written. The contest will take place in Clay County, either in Brazil or Carbon.

“The Shea-Jones fight at Peoria next Saturday is attracting a great deal of attention. Mike Gainey will handle Shea at the ‘scrap.’ About fifty people will go up from, here in a special (rail) car. The fight will be to the finish.”

Gainey, who resided at 718 N. 10th St., owned a saloon at 200 N. Fourth St. Two days later, the Gazette observed that “sporting men are jubilant” over the sudden revival of “challenges pro and con.”

The Thompson-Carter fight was scheduled in Carbon. Efforts to stage the fight in Terre Haute were rejected when Mayor Jacob Kolsem refused to issue a permit.

Both contestants were heavyweights, the Gazette reported. Thompson fought at 172 pounds, while Carter was several pounds lighter. Some were suspicious that McHenry Johnson, “the colored heavyweight champion,” was impersonating Thompson.

The Gazette claimed that “Johnson is the man who fought (George) Godfrey, the heavyweight colored pugilist of England, at Denver and won easily in two rounds. He is known as ‘Black Star’ on account of his wonderful success as a pugilist.”

That data is incorrect. According to extant records, Godfrey, born in Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1859, defeated Johnson on Jan. 25, 1888, at Bloomfield, Colo. As a result, he was declared the colored heavyweight champion of America.

The Gazette lamented that there had not been a state heavyweight championship fight since Ralph Conover won a gold medal offered by Professor Edward A. Hess after a match at Dowling Hall on Jan. 30, 1884. Conover had not been challenged since.

Conover, proprietor of Markle & Conover Saloon at 601 Tippecanoe St., displayed the medal at his place of business. A Gazette correspondent asserted: “Fritz Myers is the best heavyweight in this city and stands ready for a challenge at any time.” August “Gus” Yeakle, 218 N. Second St., quickly accepted Myers’ reported challenge. So did Jerry Shuckrow of Danville, Ill.

The following day, the newspaper published a challenge from “Terre Haute champion skater Charles E. Bivens,” dated March 22:

“As my challenge for from 1 to 10 mile race on roller skates has not been accepted, I claim the championship medal for the fastest skater in the city,” whereby Bivens issued to new challenge to all “champion fancy or trick skaters” in western Indiana to meet him at the Prairie City Rink in two weeks.

A Gazette reporter asserted that Bivens had been soundly defeated by Boyd, Howe and Bryant, among others, two to three years ago and has “no basis to claim he is a champion skater” even if those men ignored his current challenges.

On March 23, the mystery surrounding Thompson’s identity was solved when McHenry Johnson, known as “Black Star,” visited Terre Haute. A native of Baltimore, Johnson was not Thompson, a former Terre Haute resident.

Meanwhile, the fight between Harry Jones of Peoria and Bart Shea of Terre Haute was cancelled on the night of the match due to a nine-pound weight discrepancy, and the Carter-Thompson fight was shelved indefinitely. Behind closed doors, Thompson, weighing 192 pounds, and Johnson, at 173 pounds, were negotiating a duel.

A 15-round match with four-ounce gloves was scheduled for 10 p.m., April 3, in a large barn on the outskirts of Macksville. At 9 p.m., the crowd began to arrive in wagons, hacks and buggies. A total of 150 watched the fight with a $281 purse.

Johnson floored Thompson in the first round with a hard right but Thompson regained his feet before the count of five and forced the rest of the fight. Thompson won the second round on technique and knocked Black Star over the ropes in the third. The fourth round was even, full of hard inside fighting and multiple clinches. Conservatism dominated the fifth round before a slugfest exploded. Thompson landed a blow in the pit of Star’s stomach and followed with another that sent Johnson over the ropes. The Black Star had had enough. Thompson was declared the winner and claimed 65 percent of the purse. Two weeks later, Johnson had not yet appeared in sporting circles, and it was speculated that he was still recovering. It may have been his last fight. He died in September 1889.

Another important question: What happened to Thompson?