On May 24th of last year, President Trump put his pen to paper and signed for the pardon of former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. The boxing world rejoiced, and boxing forums are filled with comments of how it was long overdue. But was it? Should Johnson have received a pardon at all? What was the motivation for the pardon? Maybe it was simply more publicity for President Trump. Or did the president, like most boxing fans, not know what kind of person Johnson was, what things he had done as well as the charges he was convicted of?
No matter why it was done, it was a grave mistake. When I comment that Johnson was undeserving of the pardon and got what I think was a light sentence to begin with, many boxing fans are in shock. Their astonishment is of no surprise to me, however, and a lot has to do with the twisted tales of Jack Johnson. For some boxers in the sport’s rich history, time has been very good to them. As time ticks away and is lost forever, so is some of the negative aspects of their legacy—Jack Johnson being a prime example.
Johnson as a fighter was a brilliant defensive counter-puncher who loved to work the clinches—punch-catching, blocking and parrying punches, sliding out of danger with great timing and tying his opponent into knots in the clinches, all made Johnson a world champion and a great fighter. Unfortunately, Johnson’s reign as a champion is where some of his legacy begins to be warped. I often hear Johnson being considered “one of the best heavyweight champions of all-time,” yet he avoided anyone that was a threat to his crown and picked all his title defenses carefully. Top contenders Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette and Sam McVey all had to watch from the sidelines as Johnson plowed through his handpicked foes. Johnson had beaten all three men before and that is often mentioned, but what is usually left out is the fact that they had not hit their primes, and some had not grown into their best weight. Johnson wanted nothing to do with these three fellas at their best—especially Langford and Jeanette, which Johnson didn’t deny.
Johnson kept a stronger grip on his belt than he did his opponents in the clinches. There was a lot of perks to being heavyweight champion of the world—even as a black man at the turn of the 20th century. Many fans have the view that everyone was out to get Johnson from the start, but this is simply not true. Johnson himself stated that once he was able to show people he could fight, most of the public supported him. Of course, it goes without saying that most doesn’t mean all, but fans, like today, wanted to see top talent all the same. And being the heavyweight champion of the world gave a lot of advantages to Johnson that he didn’t want to lose, including living the high life. But it was Johnson’s own actions that would be part of what turned many against him. Although avoiding his top challengers didn’t set well with the public, it wasn’t the only reason why many stopped supporting him. Johnson loved the money, the opportunities, and of course the women (who were mainly prostitutes) that came along with being one of the most talked about people on the planet. But his cruelty and appalling treatment of others outside the ring soon showed.
During Johnson’s era prostitution was a serious problem throughout the country and it was steadily spreading. Some women were being forced into the lifestyle, while others chose it as their form of income. Unfortunately, some of the girls forced into it were also underaged kids who suffered cruelty and abuse on a regular basis. With access to cars and railroads it made it a lot harder to prevent such things from happening and very difficult to capture and convict those who were guilty of the abuse. It was because of this that the Mann Act was put in place. It was also a way to crack down on prostitution and the transporting of the girls from state to state. Johnson, like many others in his time, was also fond of prostitutes and often traveled and of course slept with them.
Even before winning the title Johnson enjoyed the companionship of working girls. Clara Kerr was a black prostitute who Johnson met in a whorehouse in Philadelphia. The two would travel together for several years until they separated for good. A prostitute who went by the name of Hattie McClay was another who traveled with Johnson for a few years with an on and off relationship that ceased completely in 1911. Johnson also met a woman by the name of Belle Schreiber in March of 1909. Schreiber was a prostitute and one of the many women Johnson was traveling and having sex with. Later that year, in October while attending the Vanderbilt Cup, Johnson met Etta Duryea. Johnson and Duryea would eventually marry but it ended tragically. Johnson had been unfaithful to her throughout their relationship and had even beaten her terribly while they were together. One report that was made around Christmas time in 1910 said Duryea arrived alone to the hospital in a taxi cab with “bruises from head to foot” from a physical altercation. She wouldn’t tell anyone of who beat her, most likely due to the fear she had of Johnson. With the beatings, the infidelity, the depression, and the fact she had nowhere to go and no way out—Etta Duryea committed suicide in September of 1912.
Johnson showed his compassion by remarrying less than 3 months later to Lucille Cameron. Lucille’s mother claimed her daughter had been kidnapped but the charges were dropped when it was proven to be false. However, in 1913, Johnson was charged with violating the Mann Act, with Belle Schreiber as a star witness. It is often thought that the Mann Act was put in place specifically for Jack Johnson–that everyone was out to get him and remove him of his title, but these claims are false. If the world wanted Johnson’s title wouldn’t it have been much easier to simply take it in the ring? It would have been much easier to strip Johnson in the ring with a disqualification (especially considering Johnson fought dirty many times) than it would have been to put a federal law in place that affected people across the country.
Johnson wasn’t even the first charged or convicted under the law, which seems to be unknown to many. The law was approved on June 25th, 1910 and went into effect as of July 1st, 1910. Under the law the maximum sentence in prison was 5 years plus a maximum fine of $5,000. In May of 1911, Effie Hoke from Beaumont, Texas and Basile Economodies, a New Orleans saloon-keeper, were sentenced to 6 years each for 3 counts of violating the Mann Act. They received 2 years for each violation. This shatters another often-told myth that Johnson got a harsh sentence because of who he was. Johnson was sentenced to 1 year and a day in prison yet others before and after him did more time for violating the same law and they were unknown in comparison. It is even stated that before the trial, Johnson was willing to plead guilty and pay a hefty fine if he didn’t have to do jail time. This being the same man that often-fought speeding tickets (yes, they had those back then) in court.
Schreiber, who was still a prostitute, testified to the court that Johnson had sent her $75 in October of 1910 to travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago with the intent of her having sex with him. This of course violates the law when a woman is paid to travel across state lines for immoral purposes. She also named other locations and times where they traveled together, and she exchanged money for sex. While on stand she also told of how Johnson often beat her, which Johnson denied. Schreiber stated that Johnson had given her a large sum of money (about $2,000) to open her own whorehouse where she could work as a madam and a prostitute. This was said to have been a gift and he had claimed to have no knowledge of her intent with the money—a woman that had always made her living as a prostitute. Johnson admitted to sending her $75 but when questioned if he had sent a telegram asking her to travel to see him for immoral purposes he didn’t seem to want to answer the question. Johnson claimed he didn’t know and then said he might have sent her one but wasn’t sure. When Johnson tried to elaborate he put the blame of his amnesia on someone else claiming one of the men that worked for him might have. He would go on to say he never gave the call for anyone to send it if so. Of course, the jury didn’t buy that claim. Johnson’s chauffeur who is not to be confused with the chauffeur Johnson was accused of intimidating and assaulting in another trial for smuggling a necklace into the country, testified that he had drove Schreiber from place to place for Johnson before. Mr. Jacobowski stated: “Johnson engaged for me to drive for him on Aug. 14, 1910. After our arrival in Cleveland, he told me to go get Belle Schreiber. His wife was at the time staying with friends. Belle Schreiber was known under a different name. I drove her to the theater. There she met Johnson. Four days later, in Detroit, Mich., I was again sent to a hotel to bring the Schreiber woman to Johnson.”
After the trial and Johnson was found guilty of violating the Mann Act. Johnson made a statement to the Chicago Defender saying, “I made a game fight and I lost, but I am satisfied.”
The Chicago Defender was an African-American paper that started in 1905 and was a big supporter of Johnson’s and stood up for the rights of black Americans during that time and would go on to be one of the leading press to fight for civil rights. The Chicago Defender thought Johnson got a fair trial and stated so: “The Chicago Defender is also satisfied. It has championed the champion when no one else would, its only object being to secure fair play.”
Even the time he was given was more than fair. Another man got the same time and a judge called the amount of time “moderate”. In that case the defendant didn’t jump bail like Johnson had, something he didn’t get charged for. Johnson requested for a retrial but was denied but again, nothing that had not happened before. Effie Hoke and Basile Economodies also had their request for a retrial denied.
Not all cases under the Mann Act ended in a conviction however. A black fighter by the name of William ‘Kid’ Brown was tried under the Mann Act in 1920. Brown was accused of transporting a black woman across state lines for immoral purposes and for draft evasion. He was tried, and the charges were dropped, and Brown was then set free.
Johnson was far from being targeted or singled out. He got a light sentence because of who he was, a famous world champion.
Johnson is often viewed as a man who was just trying to live his own life as he saw fit, and although this is true it is often forgotten just what kind of life that was. This article doesn’t even scratch the surface on that subject. But as far as the undeserved pardon that Johnson has received, I guess it can be added to the collection of excuses that Johnson’s legacy has. Time has been good to Johnson and history has a way of being molded into what makes for a better story. If the grueling truth is to be told, Johnson was a great fighter, a poor champion….and an even worse man.