It's the season for ghosts, apparitions, graveyard specters and headless horsemen, which makes it the perfect time to remember Slaughterhouse Henry Baker, boxing's headless heavyweight.
The rugged 1890s fighter once heralded by the Brooklyn Eagle as “the coming heavyweight champion” did have an actual head on his shoulders, of course. James J. Jeffries figuratively handed it to him in Baker's most notable fight. But according to newspaper reports widely circulated at the time, Baker and his noggin were literally separated by the wheels of a train on October 9, 1908.
Which makes it all the spookier that he kept popping up from time to time for another 50-plus years.
Boxing records that exist for Baker, as well as many newspaper reports of his important fights, call him a native of Chicago. Baker did fight several times in and around the Windy City in the 1890s, and his nickname, “Slaughterhouse,” was said to have derived from his employment in Chicago’s stockyards. (On October 30, 1893, Slaughterhouse Baker met Mike “The Stockyard's Giant” Queenan in Chicago. Baker knocked him out in two rounds to rule the meatpacking roost.)
But according to The Milwaukee Journal of May 23, 1895, Baker was “Milwaukee born and bred,” operated a popular tavern in downtown Beertown, and was also the high-profile boxing instructor at the Milwaukee Athletic Society. His nickname in his highly Teutonic hometown was not as colorful as the one he picked up in the abattoir. In Milwaukee they called him “Heine.”
When Baker got his start in prizefighting in the early 1890s, boxing was illegal in most places. Thus, when The Evening Wisconsin reported that Baker would fight Dick Moore for a $500 purse on June 4, 1892, the newspaper would only narrow down the location of the match as somewhere “within 100 miles of Chicago.” Baker lost that one, but the rematch the following November 20 –– “at, or at least somewhere near Chicago” –– was taken by him via 15-round KO.
In a newspaper series about his career published after he retired as heavyweight champion in 1905, Jeffries wrote, “Baker was a real fighter. He was built like Tom Sharkey, but more smoothly muscled, and his weight, like Tom’s was 185-pounds. He was one of the most confident men I ever saw.”
That confidence was born of Baker’s success early in his career as a middleweight. By 1894, noted The Evening Wisconsin, he “had a standing challenge to fight any man in the country at 158-pounds for $2,500 a side.”
In September of that year, Baker scored his biggest victory to date by whipping Denver Billy Woods in Chicago. The well-known Woods went down within 10 seconds of the opening bell, and was put down again in every succeeding round. Baker’s easy win led to a four-round match a couple months later against the famous Jim Hall. The agreement was that if Baker lasted all four rounds against the Australian who was knocked out by middleweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons a year earlier, the Milwaukee man would automatically get the decision. Which is what happened. (Right after he fought Baker, Hall went through the same drill with Billy Woods, who also got the decision for going the distance with the Aussie.)
Fitzsimmons himself arrived in Milwaukee right after the dawn of 1895, and the middleweight king and Baker met in an exhibition match at a local theater. “(Baker) was not only aggressive all through the bout,” reported The Journal, “but his protection was strong and effective.”
Another famous middleweight of that time was Dan Creedon of Australia. He and Baker fought a six-round draw in Chicago on April 8, 1895, after Baker broke both of his hands in the second round. It was the start of a downturn in the Milwaukee fighter’s fortunes. On June 9, Baker and Lem McGregor were matched in a private fight in the woods south of Milwaukee. But when less than $100 turned up in the hat passed around by the 60 spectators for the fighters’ purse, McGregor declined to go ahead with the match. “Baker called him a coward, but that did not stir his Southern blood to boiling,” reported The Evening Wisconsin. Out of the audience stepped one George Curtis, who agreed to spar with Baker for $50, and was knocked out in four rounds for his trouble.
A month later, Baker and a Chicago fighter named Michael Brennan stepped into a ring set up inside a dance hall on the city’s southern outskirts. Just after the bell rang to start the fight-to-the-finish, a posse of county sheriff’s deputies finished it by busting through the door and announcing that everybody there was under arrest for violating the state statute against prizefighting. “Consternation seized the crowd and there was the liveliest kind of a scramble for the freedom of adjacent fields,” reported The Evening Wisconsin the next day.
Baker and Brennan didn’t make it, and became the first persons charged with violating the anti-boxing law in Milwaukee County in eight years. It was a crime punishable by up to five years in the can and a fine of $1,000, but the next day they each pleaded guilty to mere assault-and-battery and were fined just $10 plus court costs. Supporters of the fighters in the courtroom took up a collection to pay their tab.
Heine Baker liked to live dangerously. Exactly one week later, he was on the lam from the law again. A private fight in the backroom of a northside Milwaukee tavern on July 22 between Frank Klein and Louis Schmidt ended when Schmidt, 18, was knocked out in five rounds. The knockout blow also ended Schmidt’s life. Klein was arrested for murder, and his chief second in the fight, Henry Baker, was also indicted. Baker lammed out of town, and was arrested a week later in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and extradited to Milwaukee.
This time the fine was stiffer, and Baker decided it was time to leave Milwaukee for good. He started a tour of the East by knocking out Yank Kenney in Cleveland, and made his New York debut by stopped Fred Morris in two. Then he KO’d 21-1-1 Joe Butler in less than three minutes, and fought a six round draw in Philadelphia with Frank P. Slavin.
On October 24, Baker and Dan Creedon fought 20-rounds to a draw, and at the end of the year he joined Bob Fitzsimmons on the West Coast to help prepare Freckled Bob for his December 8 match against Tom Sharkey in San Francisco. “The fact that Bob Fitzsimmons has selected Henry Baker of this city to assist him in training for his bout with Tom Sharkey goes to show that the Milwaukee boy is well thought of by the middleweight champion,” said The Evening Wisconsin. “There has never been a ‘Dutchman’ who has displayed more gameness in the roped arena than this same Henry Baker.” The paper went on to express the hope that Baker would “gain some valuable pointers while with Fitzsimmons.”
If he did, Joe Butler didn’t give Baker time to demonstrate them in their rematch on January 25, 1897. Butler, “the colored wonder,” knocked Baker out in 1:15 of the first round in Philadelphia.
Which brings us to May 18, 1897. “Baker Is Expected To Win,” said The Milwaukee Journal hopefully on the day that Slaughterhouse Henry stepped into the ring against undefeated-in-four-fights Jim Jeffries in San Francisco. It was scheduled for 20 rounds, and “the prediction is freely made by the Chicago sports that if Baker manages to land either glove on Jeffries, the latter’s gallop toward the championship will be stopped.”
Baker had his moments. He “did some pretty footwork for half a dozen rounds, and once or twice managed to land left and right on the Los Angelan when the latter least expected it,” according to the San Francisco Examiner report of the fight.
“I must say that the stockyards champion gave me good, hard work to do,” recalled Jeffries years later. “As soon as we began he rushed at me and swung on my jaw with all his might. It was a great punch. He kept on swinging and tearing at me. He surely was a husky, tough fellow.
“I began nailing him with lefts and rights, and as the fight went along I measured him and knocked him down half a dozen times. In the seventh round, I remember, I hit him so hard that his heels flew up in the air and he turned a complete somersault.”
They stopped it in the ninth, after two left hooks from the taller, heavier Jeffries made Slaughterhouse Baker flounder like a cow on his way to the hamburger factory.
Speaking of food, Jeffries also related that Baker was so confident of beating him that the Milwaukee fighter not only bet his entire end of the purse on himself, but also offered to stand a dozen of his backers to an expensive oyster dinner afterwards. He got nothing for fighting, said Jeff, and “poor Baker had to hustle around and make a touch” to cover the cost of the meal for his pals.
His gameness made Baker popular in San Francisco, and after the Jeffries fight he won fights there against John Miller and Tom Ball. But an increasing aversion to training made him an increasingly easy mark for younger, better fighters, and the losses mounted up.
In 1903, he was knocked out in eight rounds by Bob Long in Kansas City. Baker quit the ring and went to work for the street department in KC, and was out of the news until October 10, 1908.
Under the headline “Heine Baker Dead,” the Milwaukee Free Press reported that “The headless body of Henry Baker, one of the best known heavyweight boxers in the country at one time, was found on the railroad tracks near the Union depot” in Kansas City. “It is thought he was run over by a Burlington train.” The Kansas City Star reported that services were held at Stewart’s Chapel a few days later, and that Baker was laid to rest in Union Cemetery. He was 42.
“Baker was a big, good-natured German and he had many friends here,” eulogized The Evening Wisconsin. “He was never considered a clever man, but was as strong as a bull and (was) always picked out for the big fellows when they wanted a real try-out.”
Apparently, though, Slaughterhouse Henry was a hell of a lot stronger than a bull, and any big fellow he ever went up against in the ring. Because he didn’t let a little thing like losing his head stop him from living a very long life.
In April, 1951, a newspaper in California’s Bay area ran a small item announcing a sports entertainment show for residents of the Livermore Veterans Home. “Among participants,” it said, “will be Sailor Tom Sharkey and his former sparring partner, Henry Baker, who contributed so much to Sharkey’s standing as a heavyweight 50 years ago.”
In January, 1961, another newspaper brief from the West Coast reported that “Henry Baker, who was Jim Jeffries’ third San Francisco opponent in 1897, died here last week of a kidney ailment. Close friends say he was 91. Baker appeared on the old Orpheum circuit at various times with Jim Jeffries, Jim Corbett and Tom Sharkey.”
A simple case of identity theft? Maybe. But believers in the occult and the other-worldly might propose otherwise, and suggest that at the very least the Kansas City gravediggers didn’t do a very good job of covering their Heine.