Whether your name was Jack Johnson, the big African-American heavyweight champion, or Jack McAuliffe, the little Irishman whom Bangor contributed to boxing’s pantheon, you were idolized in the Queen City a century ago. But the tragic events that unfolded in Maine that year cast a shadow over the manly art, confirming once again the beliefs of reformers that boxing was a brutal activity in dire need of stricter regulation.
The year 1910 was a high water mark of public enthusiasm for boxing in Bangor. Mike Daly opened the Criterion Club, where fights were regularly staged. Bangor’s police chief was on hand the first night and “would not even allow loud talking” at ringside in an effort to keep things respectable, said the Bangor Daily Commercial on Jan. 11. A Bangor native, Daly is credited by some sports historians with being America’s lightweight champion for a time in the 1880s.
That fall, a more famous Bangor boxer, Jack McAuliffe, brought his vaudeville act to Acker’s Family Theater on Union Street, where he handed out autographs to admiring youngsters. A native of Ireland who grew up in the Queen City, McAuliffe is credited with being lightweight champion of the world between 1886 and 1893, when he retired undefeated.
The Bijou Theater showed pictures of Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries getting into shape for their heavyweight champion competition that summer in Nevada. Johnson’s victory over Jeffries on July 4 in Reno was a pivotal event in the Queen City’s boxing frenzy. The tragic events that followed, leading to the death of Billy Dun-ning, the so-called Sawmill Champ, surely were connected.
On the night of the Fourth, an estimated 4,000 people gathered on Exchange Street to hear the round-by-round results of the fight as they “ticked hot off the wire” and were announced over a megaphone by a man standing in an upper window at the Bangor Daily News. Inside the newspaper office, three men took well more than 1,000 telephone calls seeking information on the fight results.
The Johnson-Jeffries fight was no ordinary boxing match. It was a cultural touchstone involving the racial fears that dominated the nation then. Jeffries was trying to reclaim the heavyweight title for the white race. When the burly black man beat the Great White Hope, Bangoreans “Showed Plainly Their Bitter Disappointment,” said a BDN headline on July 5. The crowd in the street “was bitterly, cruelly, obviously disappointed. In all those thousands, there did not appear to be a dozen Johnson men. No doubt there were, but they wisely kept their elation to themselves.”
The folks on the telephone lines were more expressive: “Some of the men swore. The ladies said, “Isn’t that horrid? Is it really so?” There were riots in some cities, and Johnson received death threats. But in Bangor all seemed quiet after that, or at least no racial incidents were registered in the newspapers.
That November, Johnson appeared at the Bangor Opera House in his own vaudeville act. The announcement set off a clamor about who would spar with him on the local stage. The chief contender was Jack Leon, known as the Russian Lion, a heavy hitter from Chicago who had been spending some time fighting in Maine. An-other formidable contender was Jack McCormack of Woodland.
A third contender was Billy Dunning, a former firefighter for Great Northern Paper Co. in Millinocket. He had been dubbed the “Sawmill Champ” in a headline in the Bangor Daily News on March 5, 1909, back when rumors were swirling that he might meet Johnson for the world title.
These rumors were the result of what had happened on Labor Day 1906. Through some fluke of fate, Dunning had fought Johnson to a draw in Millinocket. Many people did not take the exhibition seriously because it looked like Johnson was giving Billy an easy time.
Later, Johnson told a reporter he had been warned by the local police not to knock out Billy. By November 1910, Dunning had been badly beaten by both Leon and McCormack, and many people joked about his draw with Johnson.
A crowd of 250 greeted Johnson at Union Station on Nov. 18. About 1,200 enthusiastic fight fans turned out to see him at the Bangor Opera House that night, where he went three short rounds with his sparring partner. Dunning had come down to the Queen City to socialize with Johnson, the man who had helped him make his questionable reputation. “The two had a very pleasant confab together,” said the Commercial.
The inflammatory fight rhetoric that Johnson’s appearance in Maine had touched off continued unabated. The locals had been rebuffed, but they were ready to mix it up among themselves. The Russian Lion defeated Jack McCormack with little effort the night before Johnson appeared in Bangor. Now he was ready to dispose of Billy Dunning. Leon vowed he wouldn’t take a cent from the bout if he didn’t knock out the Sawmill Champ in six rounds.
On Nov. 24, Dunning appeared in the ring with Leon at the Presque Isle Opera House. An early report in the Bangor Daily News said Leon knocked him out in the fifth round of a six-round fight with a hard right to the jaw. Other reports, however, indicated there had been very few clean hits, and Billy had simply collapsed from exhaustion because he was out of shape.
The Sawmill Champ died less than 24 hours later. The medical examiner concluded the cause was a brain hemorrhage, and that Billy suffered from coronary problems. Jurors at an inquest concluded Dunning died as a result of engaging in a boxing contest for which he was physically unfit.
Nevertheless, Leon was indicted for manslaughter and illegal fighting. Instead of being tried, however, he was fined $50 and the case was dismissed in April by the county attorney, according to John Llewellyn Hone in his book on the history of the Presque Isle Opera House.
Dunning had been known as “a very quiet unassuming man. … The sporting fraternity in Maine will regret the death of the ‘good sport’ who was known as one of the hardest men in the ring business to knock out,” concluded the Commercial. Thus, this hapless victim of “the manly art” had died fairly and squarely, a good fellow to the end, or so concluded the sport’s fans.
Thanks to Debora Brewer of the Turner Memorial Library in Presque Isle for information for this column. An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column may be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.