On this day, 120 years ago, a couple hundred boxing fans stole out to a roadhouse near Hales Corners, after midnight and in a blizzard, to watch an illegal prizefight for the lightweight championship of Wisconsin.
Many of them ended up in worse shape than the combatants in the ring, after some customers expressed their disapproval of the referee’s decision in the fight by trying to kill him and, failing that, inflicting as much damage as possible on whomever else they could get their hands on.
"Enough faces were battered and blood spilled to satisfy the most sanguinary thug in attendance," said the Milwaukee Sentinel the next day.
The Evening Wisconsin called the post-fight riot "the liveliest contest, or battle royal, that ever took place in the West," with the result that "there are at least 20 men in the city today, some of them probably in hospitals, who will remain under cover for a week or more. Some of them are nursing broken noses, others swollen lips and bruised faces, while there are a number who wonder how they came bedecked with beautiful black eyes."
How it worked in the 1890s was that when a big fight was arranged the site, date and time were passed along by word of mouth in saloons and pool halls frequented by local "sports."
Sometimes the police heard about it, too, and intervened. Chief John Janssen was no fan of boxing and called those who were "the plug-ugly." He was embarrassed when a bootleg prizefight was pulled off on May 2, 1895 in, of all places, the third-floor gymnasium at Milwaukee police headquarters on North Broadway. A detective even served as referee.
On Dec. 5, 1896 word quietly spread throughout town about the 25-round match between local boxers Teddy Murphy and Harry Fails. It was scheduled to start after midnight in a roadhouse on Janesville Plank Road (now West Forest Home Avenue), a few miles west of Forest Home Cemetery.
"By 12 o’clock," reported The Evening Wisconsin, "there was hardly a (cab) left in the city."
Murphy and Fails wore five-ounce gloves for the fight that started at 1:50 a.m. Murphy weighed 120 pounds, Fails slightly more.
The close, exciting scrap ended suddenly in the sixth round when Murphy pushed Fails to the mat and then took a swing at him. Fails’ handlers piled into the ring, illuminated by a single lantern suspended overhead, crying foul. Referee F.S. Kammerer agreed and declared Fails winner by Murphy’s disqualification.
An outraged spectator leaped over the ropes and yelled at Kammerer, "What the hell do you mean by such rank work?" Others followed, and the free-for-all was on.
"It was a case of wherever you see a head, hit it," said the Sentinel, "and a dozen rowdies who comprise the elite of the Third Ward and Tory Hill fistic element waded in in slam-bang style and battered innocent spectators in a shameful manner."
The safest place was under the 15-square foot ring. Murphy and Fails dove there, joined by Thomas S. Andrews, sports editor of The Evening Wisconsin and holder of the $200 purse (80 percent for the winner), plus hundreds more in side-bet money.
As the battle raged inside, outside carriage drivers trying to get away were stopped at gunpoint and their vehicles searched for Referee Kammerer. "If I catch dat bloke," said a searcher brandishing a knife, "I’ll cut his heart out."
The lucky referee managed to elude his pursuers. Later his coat and hat were found in the roadhouse.
After things quieted down a bit the trio under the ring got away, too. Andrews had a close call when gun-toters stopped his carriage, but they didn’t see him or the satchel containing all the dough on the floor under coats laid over them by the other passengers.
Wearing only his ring gear, Murphy was carried on the back of a handler to a farmhouse a mile from the roadhouse and hid out there till daylight.
As for Fails, winner and new lightweight champion of Wisconsin, it was reported he "ran for the fields and about a half-mile away was found an hour later, fast asleep by the roadside in the rain."