www.common-place.org · vol. 3 · no. 2 · January 2003
"No one seemed to anticipate that Bowen might die."
Storm of Blows
III. The Death of Andy Bowen
The former lightweight champion of the South, Andy Bowen, was a local boxer who had worked as a blacksmith, and in cotton yards; he sparred on the levee in his early days, in between handling bananas; he worked the fruiters to Honduras. He was the unofficial champion of Annunciation Square. A "suspected mulatto," in historian Jeffrey Sammons's words, Bowen passed for white, was said to be of Irish-Spanish extraction, and purportedly denied all charges of colored blood, a denial that was accepted by the boxing community. To fight or witness bouts in the sanctioned, upper-class athletic clubs of New Orleans, which usually adhered to segregation practices soon to be institutionalized, one would have to be white. Reading the coverage of the local fight scene, it also becomes clear that the consummate boxer is implicitly Caucasian—note, for example, a description of heavyweight champion James Corbett: "CORBETT, TALL, BROAD-SHOULDERED and whiter in the pale rays of the electric light than a statue of ivory, looked an ideal athlete."
Indeed, New Orleans' athletic clubs became exclusively white after George "Little Chocolate" Dixon's victory over the white boxer Jack Skelly for the bantamweight title, on the second night of the 1892 Fistic Carnival. This was the only night the host Olympic Club allowed black spectators, setting aside seven hundred seats in the upper gallery. Reaction to this interracial bout, and Dixon's victory, made news. "The colored people on the levees are so triumphant over the victory of the negro (Dixon) last night that they are loudly proclaiming the superiority of their race, to the great scandal of the whites, who declare that they should not be encouraged to entertain even feelings of equality, much less of superiority," the New York Herald opined. "They will become brutally insolent, and frequent and fatal collisions will be inevitable," the Daily States (a local paper founded by a zealous Confederate major) editorialized. But hints of racial unrest are few in the coverage of the carnival and its aftermath; they do not conform to boxing's claims to orderliness, and are generally missing from news accounts. Nevertheless, no black boxers would fight at the Olympic Club after that night.
Andy Bowen was a fixture of the New Orleans fight scene since its inception, and John Duffy often served as his referee. On December 14, 1894, Bowen lost an eighteen-round bout at the Auditorium Athletic Club to Kid Lavigne, the "Saginaw Kid." Duffy, once again the referee, would later say that Bowen was not himself before his match, that he did not pay close attention to the usual details, and his enthusiasm was uncharacteristically low. The fight itself was increasingly one sided. In the first round, "Bowen's left found a way to the nose, but failed to create much damage," a harbinger of his weak showing; later "when he began working his arms like windmills his friends knew that he was gone." In the last rounds of the fight "Lavigne did almost as he pleased with Bowen, though the latter would rally occasionally and land a rib-roaster. He had a habit of grunting pretty loud during the latter part of the fight, each time Lavigne landed a telling blow in the stomach, which he did pretty often, and the crowd laughed, which of course rattled him all the more." In the eighteenth round, Bowen "staggered around like a drunken man," clinched continually to save himself, and tried to avoid Lavigne's blows. A right caught him in the jaw, though, and Bowen fell back and "his head hit the wooden floor with a thud which could have been heard a block away." The ring, as it turned out, was not padded; it was simply wooden planks, with a canvas tarp stretched across the top.
In the early coverage of the fight, Bowen's condition was reported to be improving, though he had not regained consciousness and "since the knock-out [had] not spoken a word." Pokorny's shoes ran their usual ad, in which the winning fighter was revealed to be wearing the local manufacturer's boxing footwear (made from "the finest kangaroo"): "They stood him in good stead and carried him bravely to victory."
No one seemed to anticipate that Bowen might die. His fall was compared to Jim Hall's (who happened to be seconding Lavigne this night) the previous year, from which the fighter recovered. It was recollected that the Australian Young Griffo was once unconscious for four hours following a bout. Bowen showed signs of life in his dressing room—his hands continued to work, as if fending off opponents or delivering blows, and this was seen as a "favorable omen." He vomited up undigested peas. Doctors administered whiskey, which raised his pulse rate from thirty-two to seventy. An ambulance was summoned, but fears that a hospital admittance might create negative publicity for the sport kept him from there. In one report, Bowen was passed through a hospital on his way home; in another, the unconscious pugilist was dispatched straight to his small house on Thalia Street; in both, his wife, Mathilde, waited anxiously.
Bowen lingered for several hours while a crowd gathered outside his gate. His wife implored him to speak to her, but he died close to dawn without having regained consciousness. "There was no further need of time-keeping for poor Andy," the Picayune declared.
"PUT TO SLEEP" FOR ALL TIME
The principal fight participants were brought in to the Tenth Precinct station while Bowen was still unconscious. Confident that the boxer would recover, "the prisoners took their arrest lightly, singing, joking and laughing over the style of work they would be put to if sent to the penitentiary." At 2:45 a.m. Duffy was added to the group. After Bowen's death became known, George "Kid" Lavigne was charged with his murder at 8:30 a.m., and held on a $10,000 bond; Duffy and six others were booked as accessories and held on $5,000 bonds. The group sent a telegram of condolence to Bowen's wife, proclaiming that "no one regrets this fatal termination more than we do, and we hearby extend you our deepest sympathy in your bereavement." They also made it clear they believed the wooden floor to be the culprit, not Lavigne's fist. Indeed, the city coroner determined that Bowen's death was accidental, caused by a concussion of the brain, and blamed on the hard floor; local newspapers published detailed autopsy accounts. Bowen's autopsy is entered in the Coroner's Office:—Record of Views ("Occupation: pugilist . . . Time in the City: Life"). The prisoners were eventually released.
There was no shortage of opinion over the cause of Andy Bowen's death. Most held the unpadded floor responsible. (It was reported that Bowen had passed the club on a day prior to the fight and noted the lack of padding and thought it insignificant.) Some blamed Duffy for not stopping the one-sided affair, particularly the Daily Item: "[T]he referee and not the other principal is the person responsible to God and man for Andy Bowen's death." Duffy agreed that the fight should have ended sooner, but stated that Bowen's seconds should have "thrown up the sponge," and that he had no power to tell them to do so.
Duffy (among many) felt that Bowen was out of sorts from the get-go, and the fact that he vomited up undigested peas pointed to indigestion, thus causing his lackluster performance in the ring. This was a common argument that followed many boxing deaths at the time; one pugilist's death, for example, was blamed on the "hearty dinner [eaten] shortly before he entered the ring" and its "resultant indigestion." In another, a fighter's "meningeal hemorrhage" was "occasioned by undue mental excitement and over exertion." The ultimate failure of medical science to save lives within the pretense of a "scientific" sport threatened boxing's progressive image.
Proponents of late-nineteenth-century boxing often found themselves defending their sport by blaming deaths on external causes, by citing the numerous accidents in the newer sport of football, and, though it contradicted a penchant for order, by pointing to the inherently accidental nature of their world at large. "Don't men die by drowning and falling off of housetops every day?" Duffy asked. "A man at the opera, or dancing with his sweetheart, might fall and meet the same fate if the same combination of circumstances arose . . . Accidents are a part of the world, and death is waiting for all men as surely in one place as in another." But Duffy was also a pallbearer, and despite his practical philosophy, lamented, "[N]ow I'm awful blue about this. Really I don't think I could find words to say just how badly I feel, first for Andy and then for the women he leaves down here behind him." He was also reported to remark, "[E]ver since the said affair happened I am literally all broke up."
Despite his random and senseless death, Victorian visions of order still persisted in the press coverage of Bowen: his tidy cottage, where pictures hung neatly on the wall. That he was a family man, and lived an upright life, never drinking or gambling to excess; all these were published facts. But boxing's image in New Orleans was decimated. Even at its height, the sport's opponents had continued their crusade, particularly in the courts. Now the outcry over the popular Bowen's death was enough to undo boxing in the city. "The killing of Andrew Bowen in a prize fight in this city Friday night should sound the death knell here of that bloody brutality misnamed 'sport,'" the Daily Picayune declared. "The fistic carnival is over. It ended in a murder." Bowen's fatal bout would be the last legal, professional fight in New Orleans in the nineteenth century.
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