Everything Librarian: Who Was Inmate Jack Johnson?

Monday, June 4, 2018

Who Was Inmate Jack Johnson?

Jack Johnson (1878-1946) is an African American boxer with a colorful history including one stay in Federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1920. While in prison, Johnson made good use of his time by penning an autobiography on post office stationery.

Birth of a Fighter

John Arthur Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas on March 31, 1878. And, according to his autobiography, nothing eventful happened to him until he was twelve. During an encounter with a neighborhood bully, Johnson's Grandmother Gilmore encouraged him to fight back by telling him that if he didn't whip his bully, the grandmother would whip Jack. In the words of Grandmother Gilmore, “Arthur, if you do not whip him I shall whip you.” This one event helped Johnson overcome his flight or fight mechanism and set it permanently on Fight. From Johnson's point of view, it was this turning point that made him realize he had a talent for fighting.

Jack Johnson in Leavenworth Prison

The autobiographical document of Jack Johnson is handwritten mostly on the stationery of Leavenworth post office. So what was the crime that caused Jack Johnson to serve time in a Federal prison? He was charged with a violation of the Mann Act and ordered to serve a year and a day. The Mann Act is a piece of legislation that makes it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes-- in this case the crime was a black man who traveled with a white woman. The woman was Lucille Cameron a prostitute from Milwaukee who was the companion of Johnson just a month after his wife Etta Duryea killed herself in 1912. He was convicted in 1913 and Johnson fled the country for about 7 years to avoid going to prison but eventually turned himself in in 1920.

In Federal Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, Johnson was a celebrity. On the outside, Johnson was also a celebrity. As a powerful black man who chose to have white women as companions he was intensely investigated by the Department of Justice, the predecessor of the FBI. You can read the government reports of Johnson's comings and goings here.

Names, Dates, Rounds, and the Purse

So what can we learn about the first African American heavyweight champion of the world from his prison autobiography? First of all, Johnson has a detailed memory of his fights, especially the Tommy Burns fight that took place in Australia in 1908. Jack Johnson has a great memory for numbers -- especially in recalling his fights he specifically remembers how many rounds the fight went, how much his opponent weighed, and how much money he wins as the purse. Regarding a fight with Klondike in Memphis, Tennessee, Jackson recalls,

'I was 22 years of age then and I received a thousand bucks for that fight, some dough for a youngster, eh? Well I knocked Klondike out in the 12th round, and believe me Klondike will never forget that fight for I sure gave him a lacing.'

Johnson Effected By Racism

We also know that racism effected Johnson very strongly and very personally. Johnson describes a fight in Philadelphia with Jack O'Brien,

"As soon as I entered the ring I was greeted with a tremendous groan of hisses and cat calls intermingled with but a few cheers of my admirers. I was there to fight as best I could and although I was credited with being crooked in my dealings, my opponent O’Brien was equally guilty by his own confession. The sole reason therefore to account for the hisses and catcalls hurled at me was my racial difference. Why should a man who is trying to do what his audience expects him to do and pays for, be the target of vile abuse, all on account of his color of skin?"

Johnson and Women

While Johnson had many white women in his life, his prison-penned autobiography only makes mention of his mother (Tiny Johnson), his grandmother (Grandmother Gilmore) and he refers to bringing his wife (unnamed) along to Australia when he fought Tommy Burns. Other than that there are no mentions of the many women in Johnson's life. By most accounts his relationships with women were tumultuous and contained violence. According to American documentary filmmaker Ken Burns at least four of his female companions, Clara Kerr, Hattie McClay, Belle Schreiber, and Lucille Cameron (wife number two), were prostitutes. Johnson's first wife, Etta Duryea, was a well-educated woman who was allegedly prone to depression. When Johnson suspected his wife of having an affair he beat her so badly she had to be hospitalized. Duryea shot and killed herself, unable to handle Johnson's infidelity and abuse. In his autobiography, Johnson ironically goes out of his way to talk about his graciousness,

"I had already determined to become a great fighter, and I realized that to whip a boy smaller than myself was no credit to me, so for that reason I never forget a boy smaller than myself, as a rule I choose those who were larger than myself."
Sadly, Jack did not apply this rule to the women in his life.

Johnson's Work History

The handwritten autobiography of Jack Johnson describes most employment situations as brief. Johnson is often hired as a trainer for other fighters but soon loses his job, he says because he was too good of a fighter, but perhaps Johnson also had trouble getting along with others. Many of his stories are very similar to this one,

"...I set out to find another job and was successful in securing the same in Frank Child’s training camp. I only worked for Frank for about 20 days when we had an argument which caused me to lose my job but at that I didn’t lose much."
At the very least, I think we can all agree that Jack Johnson had a very strong personality to match his fighting spirit. It has to hurt to be the heavyweight champion of the world but still treated like a "colored person" in his home country. This social inequity would definitely make someone prone to have a chip on their shoulder.

A Life on the Road

Jack Kerouac would have enjoyed reading the escapades of this iconic American prize fighter. Jack Johnson begins his life in Galveston, Texas but ends up traveling to Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, California, and Tennessee. Jack Johnson travels all over the USA to fight, but these are the states he specifically mentions in his prison autobiography. Jack Johnson also travels all over the world to England, Canada, Australia, France, Spain, and Mexico. Johnson definitely spent a lifetime traveling for his work. In one particularly colorful episode, Jack talks about traveling by freight train:

It was early in the morning and I had been sleeping soundly when I was awakened by a tattoo in the soles of my shoes. Upon waking up, I gazed into the face of a big brakeman. He held a lantern in one hand, and in the other he held a club in a most threatening way. He addressed me in a tough manner and said “Well boy if you haven’t any money you will have to jump off.” This remark and the slap he had given me on my feet angered me and I raised to my feet and replied that I didn’t have any money and I didn’t feel like committing suicide. I would not jump off. The train which I was riding was what is known as a high call (?) and at that particular time it was traveling at a very dangerous rate of speed and no doubt I would have been severely injured or perhaps killed had I been foolish enough as to jump off. Well when I made this remark the brakeman made a pass at me with his club, but I side stepped it and hit him in the jaw and followed that with an uppercut to his nose which knocked him into the land of nod. He was just coming to when I noticed that the train had slowed down a great deal and looking out the door I saw many lights so judging that we were in K.C. I jumped off. I hustled something to eat in K.C. and after waiting all day I boarded another freight for Chi.

2018: Jack Johnson is Pardoned

I found this prison autobiography online a few months ago and thought that the handwriting quality and length made it a liability to transcribe, but when Jack Johnson received a Presidential pardon in May 2018, I had to return to these documents. Ironically, it is Sylvester Stallone the movie star whom we have to thank for this pardon. Stallone is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Rocky Balboa in the American films that began with Rocky (1976). So, a fake white fighter championed for a real African American fighter to be pardoned for his racially motivated conviction from almost 100 years ago. In signing the pardon, President Trump criticized President Obama for not signing the pardon. It is interesting to note however that the Justice Department advised against the pardon.

"In a television interview, Mr. Obama’s attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., had also raised the fact there was a history of domestic violence accusations against Johnson."
So Johnson may have been wrongfully imprisoned but his track record with women was really abyssmal.

A note about my transcriptions which are quite sloppy. A few pages of the first chunk of document that I found are a contract about a fight and that's as far as I got with that. The last pages of the second document linked above are repeating events already written about in previous pages. They seem like a rough draft but in different handwriting. I have only made a cursory read and analysis of these documents-- a closer read by someone more archaeological in their thinking might be able to build something bigger out of this. But I am also presuming that Jack Johnson's autobiography, Life in the Ring and Out, has these stories within. I think for Jack Johnson, writing his autobiography was an important way to remind himself, and others, that he was an important person, that he would have good times ahead, that he didn't belong in prison.

Appendix: National Archives Documents

For no apparent reason, this handwritten piece of history is contained in two separate digital files on the National Archives site that contains historic Federal prison records. There are two distinctly different sets of handwriting on these documents. One set of documents, sometimes marked as 'Old' may have been written by Johnson himself and seem to use courser language with more colloquialisms and grammatical errors. The other document seems to be a refined version of the older one. Both documents share similar stories of Johnson's career and tell us a lot about this famous black pugilist who obviously loved his job. This first part I transcribed may be found here, the second part may be found here.

Also, if you love to research and transcribe from original documents the National Archives has plenty of digitized items in their online collection that need to be transcribed. I spent about 16 hours transcribing these documents and then copied and pasted onto each record. That took about 45 minutes, no time at all. So if you have some free time and want to contribute to this cool collective, check out the National Archives.

1 comment:

  1. Jack Johnson has always fascinated me. Handsome, talented, charismatic, it's little wonder he was a threat to many white men. It's unfortunate his legacy is tainted with violence against women. I do hope his best side is long remembered.