The date is March 17, 1892, five years before Bob Fitzsimmons buried a left hook up the gut of James J. Corbett to claim his World Heavyweight Title in Carson, City, Nevada.
Tucked in a tiny enclave so obscure that it’s scarcely remembered today, Driftwood Creek, Nebraska, another legend of the ring and future heavyweight champion of the world was born, Luther “Luck” McCarty.
How many future heavyweight champs are born on the same day as such a momentous heavyweight title bout have there been? What are the odds you ask? Well, the short answer is only this one lucky young man, yet this wouldn’t be the first time the luck of the draw favoured young Luck McCarty.
His father,Anton P. McCarty, was reputed to be an Indian, standing well over 6 feet and well over 300lbs, a big man even by modern standards. With his mother standing 6 foot and weighing a stout 200lbs, it was obvious that young Lute as he was known back then, was gonna be a mighty big boy. Even his older sister was big and strong and athletic enough to tour as a woman’s punch bag champion.
Luther’s Ma passed away shortly after he was born, so Pa moved the family to Sidney, Ohio as his new base of operations where he could make the rounds as a travelling medicine man, selling snake oil remedies and other assorted and sordid medicines to the local populace while accompanied by a troupe of “entertainers.” Pa was known by his Indian name of Chief White Eagle and his business had a name, The White Eagle Medicine Company. He dressed in full Indian garb as part of the show, which performed as White Eagle walked through the transfixed audience to sell his cure-all elixirs.
Young Lute’s job was to raise and care for the snakes that were the source of the home remedies which may be where he developed his cool, calm and collected ring demeanor that stood him in such good steed during ring combat. He was mature enough to have been married to a local girl named Rhoda and had a baby daughter named Camelia by the age of 18 when he first left home to pursue a boxing career.
He hadn’t yet stopped growing and filling out before people really started to take notice of this young, strapping, handsome cowboy who as much at home breaking broncos as he was busting up grown heavyweights. His official record grew to an astonishing 15-0-1 (15 KO), before his 21st birthday, perfectly positioned to enter the front end of his prime years.
This was no tomato can record either. He was matched hard, early and often against some of the big names of the era. Sure, he was still raw and didn’t always look the most polished. The few bouts that went the distance were often criticized by the papers the next day, but regardless of this, his swelling audience and accolades quickly buried any criticism before the ink was dry.
Wait a minute, you say. Who is this Luck McCarty? Never heard of him, so how could he be heavyweight champion of the world?
Well, my friend, listen up to what the New York Times had to say about young 20 yr old Luck McCarty barely a year after his pro debut.
LUTHER M’CARTY THE LATEST “HOPE”;
Youthful Heavyweight with Terrific Punch, Who Is Expected to Regain Title.
June 2, 1912, Sunday
Luther McCarty, the youthful giant who surprised the world by tumbling Carl Morris to the ring floor, is not the fortunate child of a lucky punch, as some have intimated. Rather he is the embodiment of all that goes to make the ring champion, the possessor of speed, hitting ability, an aptitude for learning the finer points of the fistic sport, and one of the gamest men who ever laced on a glove.
It wouldn’t be the last time he garnered notice from the NY Times either. After all, he was still in his debut year when he fought a prime era great black contender, Jeff Clark. Folks tend to straighten up and take notice when a big rawboned kid from nowhere bursts through the ropes to fight era contenders.
What’s more, the kid appears to have had a sense of humor and destiny, fighting Jeff Clark as Walter Monahan, Jack Johnson’s sparring partner.
Midway through his second year of boxing, young “Walter” went on a tear, fighting future Johnson challenger and conqueror, Jess Willard, and Johnson challenger Al Kaufman who had gone the 10 round distance against Johnson, but was blasted out of the ring by Luck in the second round. Then it was on to Fireman Flynn who was fresh off his title challenge to Johnson, knocking him out in two bouts in between knocking out the White Heavy Champion, Al Palzer for his belt. Then he whipped Frank Moran a year before he challenged Jack Johnson. In that torrid eight month period, Luck had whipped four of Johnson’s title challengers, it had taken Johnson almost six years to fight them, and Luck hadn’t even turned 21 yet.
Great, you say, sign him up, but still never heard of him, so how could he be the champ?
Fair point, but consider that boxing was as fractionalized then as it is today. The white and black heavy champions were making big money and considered “separate but equal” by some. Here is McCarty’s diamond studded belt which was valuable enough to be legally attached by a lawsuit later on for example.
The NY Times again:
January 5, 1913, Sunday
The most meteoric in the history of pugilism aptly describes the career of Luther McCarty, whose decisive victory over Al Palzer at Vernon on Wednesday last has made him the most-discussed personage in all fistiana. Heralded everywhere as the white heavyweight champion of the world, he has the distinction of reaching the loftiest pinnacle in the boxing world in less than two years after he first climbed through the ropes.
It don’t get any bigger for a 20 year old kid until Mike Tyson stormed the ropes in 1986 some 73 yrs later.
Lute quickly accepted a $2000 per week vaudeville offer in New York City, an act where he dressed in cowboy gear and entertained the crowd with rope tricks and banter much like his Pa’s medicine show did.
A chip off the Big Chief’s block he was.
Speaking of White Eagle, who was always the entrepreneuring entertainer with the sharp eagle eye for opportunity, he was quickly besieged by reporters for interviews. Big Chief let it be well known that Luther was not undefeated since he’d never whipped his Pa yet!
With that cat let out of the bag, the Chief was quickly snapped up for a travelling vaudeville circuit, and reportedly made more money in a month than he made in a year of being a Indian medicine man. Luck’s good luck was contagious.
But Lute was still a country boy at heart, and when he took time off, his hobby was horses and the mountains.
One of his favorite pastimes was to pack into the mountains for a week or so, shooting game to eat, and soaking up the vast isolation like a sponge to cleanse himself of the maddening crowds that were now packing his fights. Maybe a dream or two about challenging the great Jack Johnson in between roping elk, chasing off grizzlies or other wild cowboy pursuits.
The Johnson fight appeared to be all but officially cinched. Here’s what was printed before Arthur Pelkey challenged him in Calgary, Canada, a homecoming to the source of Luck’s debut fight. Note that Jack Johnson is well into his legal problems that ultimately caused him to flee the US for Canada and then Paris, France.
McCarty Willing To Meet Johnson
White Champion Ready To Face The Black Title Holder
Johnson’s statement that he would fight Luther McCarty of Nebraska, white champion of the world, providing he could get permission from Judge Carpenter to leave the jurisdiction of the court…
Johnson’s proffer of a fight was immediately transmitted to Billy McCarney, manager of Luther McCarty, the white champion, who is training in Calgary, Alberta, for his match there on May 24, with Arthur Pelkey of New England, for the white heavyweight title.
“McCarty has signed for no battles after May 24…he would gladly declare everything except this Pelkey match off on the spot if assured a meeting with Johnson. Further, I want to say that right now McCarty is Johnson’s master, and would beat him sure.”
-Milwaukee Free Press. May 17, 1913
Yes sir, Luther McCarty surely was the luckiest young man in America, so much so that he had developed elaborate rituals with his Manager, Billy McCarney. Thirteen was the lucky number chosen as the basis of these rituals, or rather, it seems that the number imposed itself on the team.
As Billy McCarney explained it, there were thirteen letters in each of their names as well as in other members of his camp. It was in Luck’s 13th bout that he was propelled to stardom with a big showy KO over undefeated White Hope Carl Morris.Thirteen bouts later, he knocked out Palzer for the White Heavy Championship on the first day of the first month of the 13th year, commonly referenced as January, 1st, 1913.
Moreover, McCarty had gotten exactly $13,000 for that bout. The number thirteen started figuring so obviously in the career of Luther McCarty, that Billy McCarney had pins of number ’13’ made for the team to wear. Soon, travel and housing arrangements started to be made, with an eye to maintaining #13 in room and sleeping car numbers. Such as, Calgary, Canada, and the correct spelling of his next opponent, Arthur Peltier, both names having thirteen letters. The fight starting time was manipulated by McCarney to start in the newly innovated military time of 13:00, which seemed to buoy young Luck in the ring.
So the coffers of young Luck had been overflowing with bountiful good fortune, when he decided to take a few days off from training for a horseback ride into the nearby mountains of Calgary. Reports get murky here, but apparently he took a nasty tumble off his horse, (not a healthy thing to do even in pastoral conditions), much less in the in the high altitude of the Rocky Mountain wilderness, where the difference between good judgment and bad could mean the difference between life and death.
What is certain is that the fight against Arthur Pelkey at the Tommy Burns Arena went on as scheduled. However, as is far too often in the history of boxing, the sequence of events that followed the first sounding of the bell differ widely before the fateful conclusion of the bout, where everyone finally comes around to full agreement.
They met in the ring and had scarcely commenced to fight before falling into a clinch when young Luck collapsed in a heap on the canvas. Other reports indicate that McCarty had taken a right hand over the heart that caused “valvular” damage. Yet another indicates that Pelkey had landed a straight left hand that snapped McCarty’s head back, breaking a cervical vertebra, and causing a fateful hemorrhage. No time is ever given at the point of his collapse in that first round, perhaps because time itself was suspended in horror as the spark of good luck drained out of the fearless cowboy.
Or perhaps time was simply lost in the ring chaos that broke out once it was apparent that Luther McCarty was down for the rest of the ages to follow. Spectators stampeded the exits.
Arthur Pelkey was arrested on charges of manslaughter by authorities at his training facilities hours later, and had his bail posted by former champion Tommy Burns who was the promoter of the Calgary bout. The very next day, the Tommy Burns Arena burned down in what was thought to be a case of arson. Four gruelling days later, Pelkey was cleared of the manslaughter charges by the Coroner’s report.
By all accounts, Arthur Pelkey was a broken man from the moment that McCarty collapsed in front of him.
Offers by theatric promoters flooded in to put him on stage, no doubt in re-creation exhibitions of this bout, all of which he seems to have refused. It wasn’t until the following year that he was able to step back into the ring, losing his title to a formidable era contender and Jack Johnson sparring partner, Gunboat Smith. Reportedly Pelkey didn’t want to fight again, but was forced into it because of legal fees incurred to defend himself in the aftermath of this tragedy.
Arthur Pelkey had begun his career as a polar opposite to the young phenom of Luck McCarty. He turned pro in Boston, Massachusetts at the advanced age of 26, doubtless recruited by era advertisements and the clarion calls of newspapers scouring the land for a Great White Hope to restore the purity of the Heavyweight Title.
Pelkey had lost his first two bouts, but hard work combined with his natural size and strength had ledhim to the top of his profession as champion with an official record of 18-3-1 (15 KO), a solid contender making good. But this was no dream he was living anymore, it was a nightmare.
He could no longer defend himself in the ring, losing almost every bout after this fight, usually getting knocked out after a beating. Arthur Pelkey’s record is stacked with a who’s who lineup of up and coming Hall of Famers and era contenders who wanted and needed the eminence of his name on their records to bolster their own as happens in boxing. His fine record tumbled to 22-20-3 (17 KO), with a staggering 15 KO defeats.
Pelkey finally settled in Ford, Ontario to become a police officer and city councilman, and seemed to have recovered a semblance of redemption before tragedy was to befall him one last time.
Arthur Pelkey contracted a strange “sleeping sickness” that was sweeping Canada and died at a very young 36 years of age, having secured a draw against Young Peter Jackson three months prior.
The White Heavyweight Championship Title had fallen into the shadows by then, with both Jess Willard and then Jack Dempsey having regained the “official” Heavyweight Title. Pelkey was quickly forgotten in the heady days of the roaring 20s, but Luther McCarty remained an arcane talking point among boxing historians, most of whom rated him quite highly.
Chief White Eagle had buried young Luck in Piqua, Ohio in a ceremony attended by thousands. The remains of his estate went to his young wife, Rhoda, and his daughter, Camelia. Reports vary as to what was left after the vultures had picked through it, but it was estimated anywhere from $10,000 – $65,000, a small fortune in 1913 and a blessed relief for his small family.
Jack Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act and fled the country shortly after the Luther McCarty tragedy, passing through Canada on the way to Paris.
Few stars have ever streaked across the sky as brightly and fallen so tragically as did Luther McCarty.
Lute’s lucky 13 had turned into a very unlucky year by the end of it, but oh what could’ve been a classic between he and Jack Johnson had he not taken that fateful ride into the mountains. Such is the luck of the draw sporting men live by.
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