If boxing historian Bill Schutte has his way, there soon will be a headstone on the grave of 19th century ring great Jim Hall.
If Hall had his way, he’d probably prefer a different kind of memorial – say, a jug of Jack Daniels poured over his parched bones in Plot 283 at Oak Hill Cemetery in Neenah, Wisconsin.
That was always the trouble with the Australian middleweight. His considerable talent was exceeded only by his unquenchable thirst. Otherwise, today there would likely be plenty of memorials to Jim Hall, including a plaque in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
“He had an ungovernable temper and the rigors of hard training made him ugly and unhappy,” noted the Beloit (Wisconsin) Daily News in 1918. “He also had an appetite like an ox, and no matter how hard his trainer had to work to get him down to weight, Jim could always find a way to steal food and liquor and upset the labor of weeks on the part of his conditioners.”
The other side of the equation was reported in the April, 1935 issue of The Ring magazine: “A remarkably brilliant boxer,” wrote George T. Tickell of Hall, “his catlike grace and agility, combined with a thorough knowledge of ring craft, and the ability to think and act simultaneously, made him a perfect specimen of the bruising glove artist.”
After James J. Corbett knocked out John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight title in 21 rounds, Hall’s trainer, John Kline, said Hall would’ve done it in four, and that Corbett would be a cinch for him.
Considered the best and most astute conditioner of his time, Kline made his bold proclamation as he prepared Hall for what was the most anticipated match of that time, for the richest purse – $40,000 – in boxing history.
Hall and Bob Fitzsimmons had been rivals dating back to the days when they were the best middleweights in Australia. Hall was born in Sydney on July 22, 1868. Fitzsimmons, five years older, emigrated there from New Zealand. The record book shows four meetings between them Down Under. The last one, in Sydney on February 10, 1890, was for the national middleweight championship held by Hall. One hundred sixteen years later, what happened then is still a matter of great mystery and controversy.
Fitzsimmons was counted out in round four, that much is certain. But later the Fighting Blacksmith claimed that he had taken a prearranged dive so that Hall would have an impressive scalp on his belt when he shortly thereafter embarked for the United States to seek a title match with world champion Jack “The Nonpareil” Dempsey.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the boat. Drunk, Hall got into a fight and was stabbed in the right hand. His American invasion thus postponed, while Hall recuperated Fitzsimmons made his own beeline for the States. Upon arriving, he explained his KO loss to Hall with the story of the dive, for which, he complained, he’d never even been paid the $75 Hall promised him. On January 14, 1891, Fitzsimmons won the middleweight title by knocking out Dempsey.
Hall always vehemently denied Fitzsimmons’ version of their fight. So did respected Sydney sportswriter and novelist A.G. Hall, who refereed it. But boxing historian Gilbert Odd voted with Fitzsimmons in Odd’s biography of Freckled Bob.
In any case, Hall finally made it to America in 1891, and ran up an impressive string of wins. When he and Fitzsimmons signed to fight on July 22 of that year in St. Paul, Minnesota, one newspaper reported that “the bad blood between them is almost as much of an incentive as the big stakes [$12,000], and a sport who is in the confidence of both men said he believed that they would be willing to get together even if the stake money were withdrawn.”
Hall trained at John Kline’s “Manly Art Institute” in Beloit. According to press accounts, he not only worked hard but even abstained from liquor “except for an occasional touch of claret,” and was in prime shape for what was anticipated as “one of the fiercest battles ever fought by middleweights in this country.”
But on the day of the fight Minnesota Gov. William Merriam ringed the St. Paul amphitheater with four companies of rifle-toting National Guardsman to prevent it from happening.
A year later, Hall won the British version of the middleweight title by knocking out Ted Pritchard in four rounds. Then he and Fitzsimmons agreed to try again in New Orleans on March 8, 1893.
Again Kline rode Hall hard in camp. “I have him in bed every night at 9:30 o’clock and out at 7:00 in the morning,” Kline wrote to a friend. “My work on him is very hard, and he tells everybody that if he loses it will not be my fault, and it will not, for I did not think I could stand to do what work I have with him.” But there were some ominous signs. The New York World reported that the fighter “eats what he pleases and drinks a quart of Burgundy a day.” Still, Hall entered the ring the betting favorite, and heavyweight champion Corbett was one of many who lost a bundle when Fitzsimmons knocked Hall out in the fourth round.
John Kline was so distraught and disgusted that he never handled another fighter. Infuriating and alienating the people who cared for him most was old hat to Hall. On August 23, 1891, he got drunk in a tavern in Mount Clemons, Michigan, and started arguing with his manager, Charles “Parson” Davies. The latter was a mild-mannered gentleman, but when Hall took a swing at him with a whiskey bottle, Davis picked up a small paring knife and shoved the blade into the fighter’s neck, deftly missing the jugular by a mere quarter-inch.
“Next time,” said Davies cooly, “I’ll make a sure job of it if you don’t behave.”
But as police blotters on both sides of the Atlantic would attest with increasing frequency, Jim didn’t take the hint.
In Louisville, Kentucky, a doctor sued him for “maintaining guilty relations” with his wife. Then Hall was arrested in Cleveland for assaulting a man in a hotel lobby, and then going to a nearby poolroom where, according to the Police Gazette, he “terrorized all the players and compelled them to stop playing.” In London, Hall and his best friend, heavyweight Charley Mitchell, were pinched for engaging in a drunken slugfest outside a hotel.
Hall continued fighting in the ring, too. He knocked out heavyweight Frank “Paddy” Slavin in London after visiting the latter’s tavern nightly in top hat and tails and offering a toast for “enough courage to Paddy Slavin to fetch him into the ring with me.”
Arrested for public drunkenness the night before his fight with heavyweight Charles Lawler in Memphis, Tennessee, Hall was still blotto when the cops let him out to fight and was seeing two Lawlers until he sobered up and won the fight in the tenth round. Then Hall went out and got drunk again.
Joe Choynski knocked Hall out twice. The first fight was going the Australian’s way until Hall faded. Before the second one, The Evening Wisconsin newspaper posited that “if Hall has trained for the fight…(he) will come near whipping the Californian, but it is hard to believe that Jim has behaved himself long enough to get into proper condition.” Choynski, KO 3.
By the dawn of the 20th century, Hall was ravaged by dissipation and tuberculosis. He was a patient in a charity ward of a Chicago hospital in the early 1900s. He stole personal effects from unclaimed corpses in the Cook County morgue next door and sold them for booze money. Invited to leave, Hall drifted north to Wisconsin, and died on March 15, 1913, at the state TB sanitarium in Stevens Point.
“The boxing game (has) lost another of the old time fighters who fought mostly for the pure glory of combat, rather than for the purse that was offered,” said The Milwaukee Journal.
An admirer from Hall’s ring days named Patsy Callahan arranged for his interment in Oak Hill Cemetery. “Hall received a decent burial in Neenah and the remains of one of the best little fighters that ever lived, who met heavyweights or middles, just as they happened to come along, now lie at rest to be troubled no more by the clang of the gong or the call of the referee,” said the Journal.
But no headstone marked Hall’s grave. It’s pure speculation, but that may have been to keep his remains untroubled by a Chicago surgeon named Rahde. When Hall was a charity patient in the Windy City, he signed a contract with the sawbones agreeing to let Rahde have his skeleton after he died, in exchange for $150. After the money had been drunk away, Hall ripped up the contract and punched the complaining Rahde in the nose.
Any claim on Hall’s bones has long since lapsed, and Bill Schutte figures it’s time that the fighter’s resting place was properly marked. Toward that end, Schutte has been setting aside a portion of the proceeds from his monthly sales of boxing memorabilia on Ebay to buy a headstone for Hall’s grave.
Considered one of the preeminent historians of the pre-1920 era in boxing, whose contributions to the sport include three published record books and biographies of Leach Cross and Mysterious Billy Smith, Schutte lives in Whitewater, Wisconsin. In the 1970s, he spearheaded an effort to erect a tombstone on the unmarked grave of 1890s featherweight champion Solly Smith.
“I just think it’s sad when these fighters who were famous so long ago have been forgotten by both family and boxing fans,” says Schutte. “And what is sadder than someone lying in an unmarked grave?
“Also, it seems that someone like myself who has benefited in so many ways from my boxing history hobby should replay the sport in some way, and this seems like the perfect way.”
Schutte hopes to have a granite marker on Hall’s grave by early summer. It will have an engraving of a pair of boxing gloves, and a one-line epitaph under his name: “Prize Fighter.”
Jim Hall would drink to that.