This is the first installment in Carlos Acevedo’s Rat Bastards series, which takes a look at the fight game’s greatest miscreants.
“Hell, winning was the big thing. I never could stand a loser.”
It could only be considered fitting that Jack “Doc” Kearns pulled his last scam from beyond the grave. In 1963, Kearns, the amoral flimflam man in floral shirts and ties, was already dead when an excerpt from his forthcoming autobiography, The Million Dollar Gate, ran in Sports Illustrated. In it, Kearns gleefully recounted how he had prepared a plaster of Paris mix for Jack Dempsey to use against Jess Willard. The myth of loaded gloves had shadowed Dempsey ever since he had left Willard resembling the by-product of a meat grinder in Toledo, and here was Kearns, more than forty years later, confessing to that sinister feat in one of the most popular magazines in America.
It was one of the few shams that failed Kearns in toto: Dempsey successfully sued Sports Illustrated for defamation and the plaster of Paris bit never made it into the book. But his last gambit—an attempt to sell copies of The Million Dollar Gate via slander—underscored just how low Kearns was willing to go for a paying lark.
From a distance of more than fifty years, Kearns has seen his stiletto-sharp edges considerably dulled. Now he is viewed as a rascal, or a loveable rogue, or that old standby, Runyonesque. But Kearns never viewed himself that way, and his posthumous devaluation into a colorful scamp would have made him narrow his permafrost eyes and sneer at the mere hint of sentimentality. “I do not apologize for or pretend to a sanctimonious remorse over some of my early escapades,” he wrote. “They were, I contend, a necessity of the times. Remember that those early years were part of a raw, unwashed age in which men packed guns openly and thick layers of dust gathered on the Ten Commandments.”
His life was American picaresque—with more than a dash of larceny thrown in. Jack Kearns, born John Patrick Leo McKernan in 1882, was barely fifteen years old when he joined the Yukon Gold Rush, inspired by the yarns his father used to spin about scouting for General Custer. In Alaska, Kearns hobnobbed (in snowshoes, no doubt) with Jack London, soon to be the most famous writer in America, and the overall scalawag (and king of the bon mot) Wilson Mizner. It was London who gave McKernan the name Kearns (and would later use it for a character in a novel) and it was Mizner who taught McKernan the art of bunco.
A patchwork teen growing into a patchwork life, Kearns hustled in Dawson City, the Barbary Coast, and Seattle, Washington. He was a faro dealer, a crooked weights and measures man (Gold Rush style), a chuck-a-luck entrepreneur, a saloonkeeper, a kidnapper of sled dogs, a bouncer, a taxi driver, a semipro baseball player, a sand and gravel impresario, and an all-around catch-as-catch-can grifter. And at every moment, Kearns recognized that his shadowy world was a divided one: there were the winners—embodied by himself—and then there were the suckers. Charles Samuels, author of a biography of Tex Rickard, gave a succinct summation of the Jack Kearns worldview: “There was nothing unclear about his attitude; he simply talked and acted as though he had been born with the divine right to chisel, swindle, and outwit others at will, while remaining immune to retaliation.”
Not until he drifted into boxing, however, did Kearns find his calling. For years he was a roving journeyman welterweight during the days when organized prizefights were outlawed throughout the country. Although the floating demimonde of boxing satisfied his wanderlust and his craving for action, it was less remunerative than his Klondike days. And because Kearns was rarely in condition, it was far more painful than fleecing suckers in a gambling hall. With physical well-being part of his calculus, Kearns decided to abandon the ring and pursue a career on the management side.
As early as 1909 Kearns was making scandalous headlines. In Spokane, Washington, he was arrested for forgery, a charge later dismissed but one that nevertheless seemed to set off a chain reaction. His cohort in those days was a passable featherweight named Kid Scaler, whom Kearns managed to a local reputation along the Pacific Coast. Scaler also owned a saloon and employed Kearns as one of his bartenders. Together, the duo was found guilty of contributing to the delinquency of a minor in 1909. After Kearns paid his fine, he fled to Calgary, where he was immediately accused of fight-fixing. Early in 1910, Kearns resigned as matchmaker of the Eastside Athletic Club in Spokane, when police raided a show on the grounds that Kearns was a disreputable character. That appraisal was something Kearns would not dispute. “I was a product of the days—have they ever ended? —when it was every man for himself,” Kearns would write years later. “In those times you got away with everything possible.”
Unless you count his appearance as a character in Burning Daylight, a serialized novel published in newspapers by Jack London, Kearns did not appear in the public eye again until February 1913, when he was jailed in Vancouver on a morals charge. He rebounded from that setback by taking charge of the weatherworn “Mysterious” Billy Smith and lightweight Dick Hyland in British Columbia before settling in Butte, Montana, a wide-open town closer to his heart, and where he had fought often as an in-and-out journeyman pro. In no time Kearns was arrested for embezzlement and settled into county jail until he could reimburse his victim.
By the end of the year, Kearns was in California, scouting money matches for Hyland, a main-event fighter if not a first rater. Kearns also managed Petaluma middleweight Billy Murray and latched onto an also-ran named Red Watson after Watson kayoed Hyland. That daisy chain move was a Kearns favorite—signing the fighters who had beaten his charges—and it would eventually make Kearns a fortune.
Sometime in 1916, Kearns read about a fighter who had beaten one of his former heavyweights, Joe Bonds. A year later, Kearns, with his stable thinning, sent a train ticket and a $5 bill to a washed-out drifter named Jack Dempsey. A former hobo struggling to make ends meet, married to a wayward bordello pianist whose sideline was prostitution (or vice versa), and driven from Utah after a KO loss to Fireman Jim Flynn left the local cognoscenti muttering “dive,” Dempsey was at loose ends.
But within two years he became heavyweight champion of the world, and Jack Kearns would leave behind the penny-ante lifestyle of a nomadic flesh peddler. Indeed, the Kearns–Dempsey partnership would generate millions of dollars—from film productions, vaudeville engagements, circus tours, personal appearances, sponsorships, and even the occasional championship fight—and produce an unlikely American folk hero.
Among their major scores was walloping an ill Billy Miske in three rounds and lighting the American sporting scene on fire with a title defense against an aging Frenchman, Georges Carpentier, who had once fought as a flyweight. “He was a crafty alligator, a real slicker, as expert at making a fortune as at losing one,” Dempsey wrote in one of his memoirs. “He was a man who connived for success, and any method was good enough just so long as it worked. Jack Kearns would stop at nothing, and nothing would stop Jack Kearns.”
Of all their gimmicks, however, none compared to the day when Kearns and Dempsey left Shelby, Montana, in financial ruin. What happened in Shelby was less a sting than a genuine case of concretizing an idiom; in this case, squeezing blood from a stone.
In White Hopes and Other Tigers, John Lardner set the scene for how a backwater became the unlikely site for a heavyweight title fight. “Up to 1922, Shelby had been a village populated by 400 or 500 cowhands, sheepherders, and dry dirt farmers,” Lardner wrote. “In 1922, oil was struck in the Kevin–Sunburst field, just North of town. The population rose to over 1,000. It was not much of a jump superficially; the significant difference was that all the new citizens had money.”
Soon those well-heeled citizens established an informal committee bullish on the prospects of a town no one had ever heard of. “Before long we were advertising ‘Shelby, the Tulsa of the West,’ and believing it ourselves,” recalled Mayor James A. Johnson. They also believed that a heavyweight title fight would bring Shelby, one hundred miles from the nearest big city, the kind of publicity it needed to become more than just a boomtown. And so, Jack Dempsey and St. Paul veteran Tommy Gibbons found themselves in the middle of nowhere preparing for a title fight. Kearns used his spellbinding four-flusher palaver to coax an outlandish $300,000 guarantee from a batch of cow patch citizens who had never promoted a fight before and who had, in a case of collective hysteria, seemingly confused their parched grasslands with Madison Square Garden. These men, out of their depth in prizefighting, paid Kearns $100,000 upfront and would deliver the rest in two installments.
Shelby was so barren (two banks, one hotel, and half a dozen saloons) that Dempsey pitched his training camp in Great Falls, a move that locals found obnoxious. But far worse was to come. Shelby struggled to raise the second installment and Kearns threatened to pull the plug on the entire show and stalk off with the $100,000 already paid. A day after the deadline passed, the promoters came up with the second installment. Where the last $100,000 was to come from nobody knew; and when the July 2 deadline arrived, Shelby was tapped out. This time, Kearns agreed to take over the box-office and pay himself from the gate. Unfortunately, the gate was nowhere near the $1,789,238 that Dempsey–Carpentier had produced. In fact, it was short by at least $1,716,00. Here, Kearns had outwitted himself, since his constant threats to scotch the fight had discouraged potential spectators from traveling to Montana. Not only did Kearns ruin a slew of banks in Shelby (something he would boast about for the rest of his life), but he also cost himself anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 (something no one ever heard him admit for the rest of his life).
On the afternoon of the fight, a menacing crowd, many of whom had simply crashed the gates for entry, hissed and booed Dempsey as he made his way to the ring, accompanied by a pair of bodyguards, Wild Bill Lyons and Mike Trent. For fifteen rounds, Dempsey and Gibbons, by far the crowd favorite by now, milled half-heartedly in the merciless heat until the final bell rang.
“When the bout ended and the decision was announced, bottles and seat cushions were thrown into the ring,” wrote Randy Roberts, “it was not a protest against the decision as much as it was a comment on the entire affair.”
Almost as soon as the decision was announced, Dempsey and his entourage rushed from the arena to a waiting Packard that burned rubber to the train station. Kearns remained on-site, collecting the spoils from the box office, but he too had arranged for a quick getaway: a caboose attached to a locomotive. In Great Falls, Kearns and a few of his cohorts spent the night in the cellar of a barbershop before departing for Salt Lake City in a private train car arranged with the help of a $500 bribe. Within days, the banks in Shelby began to fall like dominoes, and Kearns had spawned a legend that continues to resonate today.
The fiasco at Shelby troubled Dempsey, but it took another three years before he finally split with the man who had resurrected him. Where Dempsey wanted to polish his manners in Beverly Hills and settle down with his wife, Estelle Taylor, Kearns wanted the wanton bacchanals to continue—underwritten, naturally, by the heavyweight champion of the world. Eventually, Dempsey realized what was obvious to all who had ever dealt with Kearns: he made his financial calculations with an abacus missing half of its beads. “Kearns handled at least $5,000,000 I earned and never gave me an accounting in writing,” Dempsey would write. Dempsey essentially fired Kearns.
Losing Dempsey put a serious crimp in his bankroll, but Kearns found another meal ticket, “The Toy Bulldog,” Mickey Walker. One of the most popular fighters of his era, Walker was also more temperamentally suited to a partnership with Kearns. Walker was a hard-drinking hellraiser whose lust for the louche and the lavish nearly rivaled that of Kearns. If not for the fact that Walker had to train occasionally, he would have surpassed Kearns on every level of a debauchery checklist. According to Kearns, they even brawled one night at the Roosevelt Hotel, when Walker found out that Kearns had been secretly managing his most recent challenger, Ace Hudkins.
This madcap relationship lasted nearly a decade and kept Kearns in the money during the bleakest years in American history, when The Era of Wonderful Nonsense gave way to the Great Depression. By then, Walker began getting pulped in the ring as often as he got stewed out of it. When Walker was finally through, Kearns scaled back, and his former high life now began to resemble his days scuffling in Spokane and British Columbia. At his peak, with Dempsey as his supercharged gravy train, Kearns repeatedly alternated between prosperous and penniless—the boom-bust cycle of the cardsharp or pool hustler or chiseler. Only now, it was mostly bust.
In the early-to-mid-1930s, Kearns oversaw a stable so middling (Wes Ketchell, Jimmy Smith, Hank Bath, a comebacking Jackie Fields), that he had to supplement his income by moonlighting. He ran a cafe at the Continental Hotel (ROOM AND TWO GOOD MEALS $8.50 PER WEEK) and sold cemetery lots in his spare time. Then came another court order for child support, a $30,000 lawsuit for a brawl at a party, and yet another fight-fixing scandal that earned him a suspension from the California commission. (Kearns notched another suspension a few months later in Illinois, along with his fighter, Lorenzo Pack.)
In June 1936, Kearns took over the Cafe Chicago; in August 1936, he shut it down. Just before the year was over, Kearns somehow obtained the position of promoter for Olympia Stadium in Detroit. It hardly helped with his crooked balance sheet. In March 1938 Kearns declared bankruptcy, claiming $150.00 in assets against $23,882.24 in debts. Never one to slow down, Kearns was banned in Chicago, after his heavyweight hopeful, Jimmy Adamick, scored a suspicious knockout of Jack Trammel.
In no time, Kearns was out at Olympia Stadium, and he began crisscrossing the country as a cut-rate promoter. After a fallow period during World War II (when Kearns had been indicted on mail fraud stemming from a fire extinguisher scheme), Kearns suddenly rematerialized in the early 1950s with another world champion: light-heavyweight junk artist Joey Maxim. It was a fluky TKO over Sugar Ray Robinson in sunstroke heat that gave Maxim the biggest payday of his career, but there was nowhere to go after that. Kearns realized how limited Maxim was and how public demand would lead only to a losing proposition against wily Archie Moore, the long, long, longtime contender, who had been fighting since the 1930s. Once again, Kearns would put his daisy chain act into effect. He would offer Moore his elusive title shot against Maxim with one onerous provision: Kearns would have a cut of Moore going forward. Already in his mid-thirties, Moore had no choice and signed on. He whipped Maxim three times after joining forces with Kearns. That was the last good run Kearns had and it included a pair of heavyweight championship fights, the most important title in sports on the line with Kearns in the corner for the first time since 1925.
Kearns was just shy of eighty-one years old when he died on July 7, 1963. A few months later, he would hoodwink his final sucker.