A MYSTERY REVEALS A NASTY MESS
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." An hysterical wail swept the packed church. "Oh, sweet Jesus," a woman moaned. The mourners filed by the open coffin, and the choir sang, Shall We Gather at The River. Ernie Knox was dead.
Ernie Knox died in Provident Hospital, Baltimore, at 6 o'clock in the morning, Wednesday, October 16. The deceased was a Negro, age 26, the youngest of 10 children. By profession he was a hod carrier and a professional boxer. He was a member of the Simmons Memorial Baptist Church, the 19th Masonic Lodge and the Northwestern Investigating Bureau, Inc. He was also a human being, and this is what too many people who were involved seem to have ignored.
Ernie Knox died of subdural hematoma, hemorrhage of the brain, having incurred the fatal injury during a fight with Wayne Bethea at the Coliseum, Monday night, October 14. Bethea had a $500 guarantee. Knox got a purse of only $243, which was 15% of the gross gate paid by a sparse crowd of 869. A few hours after the announcement of Knox's death, Dr. Charles S. Petty, assistant medical examiner for the city, came up with startling news. He said that Knox, who supposedly weighed 178 pounds the day of the fight, weighed only 153 when his body was submitted for autopsy.
October 28, 1963
Knox had fought as a heavyweight and, according to the rules of boxing, a heavyweight must weigh 175 pounds or more. Bethea weighed 205 pounds on the day of the fight, the Maryland State Athletic Commission reported. The difference between 178 pounds and 205 is considerable, but not unusual among heavyweights. As long as a man weighs 175, he can fight any licensed opponent over that, even if the opponent weighs 300. But a man who weighs less than 175 has no business boxing an opponent weighing more than 200.
Dr. Petty's finding at once prompted State's Attorney William J. O'Donnell and the Baltimore grand jury to investigate the discrepancy between Knox's announced weight on Monday and the weight of his corpse on Wednesday. Subpoenas have been issued and witnesses called, and even though the grand jury conducts its investigation in secrecy, it is possible at this time to present some of the facts in the tragic affair, including facts of which even the grand jury may not be aware.
All told, Ernie Knox had 21 professional fights. Of these he won 10, lost eight and drew three. In his last five bouts, if the figures are to be believed, he fought as a legitimate heavyweight. On one occasion he scaled 183 pounds. By fighting Bethea, Knox and his manager, Mack Lewis, were hoping to get into the big time. Lewis, who lives in Baltimore and works for the Internal Revenue Service, has never had a fighter who made it big. According to Joseph Sheppard, a well-known Baltimore painter and a faculty member of the Maryland Institute of Art, Mack Lewis has never been the type of manager to put a boy in. a fight in which he did not belong. Sheppard is so interested in painting boxers that he works out as an amateur himself in order to bring greater understanding to his work. As a matter of fact, he occasionally sparred with Knox, whom he knew well. On the Thursday before the fight, Sheppard happened to be in the gym when Knox weighed himself. The scales read 178. That figure sticks in his mind because he remembers that Knox did not want to weigh any less than that for Bethea.
At one o'clock Monday, the day of the fight, Knox, Bethea and the other fighters on the card at the Coliseum weighed in. Among those present were Leon Yarneth and Phil Jachelski, commission inspectors (Jachelski is a Baltimore police sergeant who was moonlighting against department rules), Drs. Evan Gilkes and Charles Tommasello, commission physicians, D. Chester O'Sullivan, commission chairman, and Jack Cohen, executive secretary of the commission. Representing the promoter, Civic Sports, Inc., a curious outfit about which there will be more later, were Sylvan Bass and Henry Moulden. Civic Sports was founded by Benny Trotta, an old pal of Mobster Frankie Carbo. Also present was Bobby Gleason of The Bronx, Bethea's manager. As a regular practice, boxers strip to be weighed, but last week after the grand jury met, Gleason said in New York that both his fighter and Knox stepped on the scales wearing trousers, shorts, socks and shoes. "With those clothes on," Gleason said, "Knox weighed 184 pounds. They credited his clothes with weighing six pounds and made his weight 178." If Ernie Knox had lead weights in his pockets, no one bothered to check.
Whatever his weight, Knox looked fit when he entered the ring in the 10-round main event. Bethea, a plodding boxer who likes to stay on top of an opponent, seemed out of shape. At the end of every round he was breathing hard. For the first four rounds Knox held his own, slipping away and jabbing his opponent. But then Bethea began to bull Knox against the ropes, where he scored with his right uppercuts to the body and short left hooks to the head. The blows were not hard but they were insistent. Early in the ninth round Bethea hit Knox with a looping right to the head. Knox stumbled back against the ropes and slid to the canvas. Accounts disagree as to when Knox arose, but it was no later than the count of four. After giving Knox the mandatory eight count, Referee Tom Kelly let the fight resume. Knox tried to clinch, but Bethea knocked him to his knees, and the referee counted him out.
Knox tried to get up to walk, but he could not. Three men, and it is uncertain who they were, tried to lift him up to force him to walk. At ringside was Lee Halfpenny, a former lightweight boxer who now works for the YMCA public health service and teaches boxing there. The clumsy attempts to make Knox walk prompted Halfpenny to jump into the ring. "I thought I could be of some help maybe, but by the time I got there they had put Knox down," Halfpenny recalls. "Then I went over and talked to the boy. I said to him, 'You can hear me. Now take a long, deep breath.' His eyes opened and he looked right at me."
Evidently someone tried to move Knox, because Halfpenny recalls saying "Don't anybody move him until the stretcher comes."
It took 10 minutes to get the stretcher to the ring. According to Halfpenny, the stretcher probably was back in the dressing room. He did not feel that any one particular person was in charge of bringing a stretcher in such cases. Halfpenny went to the dressing room after Knox was brought in and stayed for a short time. "Somebody was massaging his heart," Halfpenny says. That somebody was Mack Lewis, a man that Halfpenny respects. "Massaging his heart was good."
An ambulance took Knox to Provident Hospital. At one o'clock Tuesday morning he asked a nurse for a glass of water. Those were his last words. He fell into a coma. To relieve pressure on the brain, a neurosurgeon drilled two holes in the skull. It was of no avail. On Wednesday morning Ernie Knox died.
In accordance with regular procedure at the morgue, Dr. Petty weighed Knox before performing the autopsy. The body weighed 153 pounds. For sake of argument, Dr. Petty concedes that Knox might have lost a pound a round under the hot ring lights in the grueling fight. That would have made his weight 169. Thirty-one hours elapsed between the knockout and death, and Dr. Petty says that a person deprived of all fluids and foods for 24 hours would lose from one and a half to four pounds. Allowing Knox to lose the maximum of six pounds, that would bring his weight down further to 163, still 10 pounds off the mark. And, as Dr. Petty points out, Knox was not deprived of fluids but was fed intravenously. At most, the brain operation would account for only a half-ounce loss in weight.
The grand jury now has the case, of course, but no matter what the jury decides, the death of Ernie Knox served to blow the lid off the deplorable conditions of boxing in Maryland—and perhaps elsewhere. This was all the more shocking in the light of the national revulsion generated by the recent deaths of Davey Moore and Benny (Kid) Paret. Both signaled the need for more stringent supervision of boxing and greater fidelity to the sport by those involved in it. These lessons evidently were lost—at least as far as Maryland was concerned.
Aside from questionable practices in the Knox case, the State Athletic Commission is obviously a poor one, run by the pals of the politicians who now seek to abolish the sport. First of all, appointments to the commission—as, alas, in a number of other states—are made on the basis of political expediency. The present governor of Maryland—and one of the first to lament Knox's death—is J. Millard Tawes, sometimes known jocularly to State House reporters as J. Mallard Duck. An appointment to the commission is not any political plum—it is a sort of political grape, since the job only pays $1,200 a year—and so instead of getting the upper-echelon political hack the athletic commission gets the lower one.
The chairman of the commission is D. Chester O'Sullivan, a Baltimore Democrat who is cashier of an investment house. He is an amiable, 58-year-old churchgoer who has served as a leading light of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, in various drum and bugle corps and as a loyal member of the Coggins-O'Malley bloc that has been known to deliver a lot of Irish-Catholic votes when chips are down in the third district. O'Sullivan tries to do his best. He shows up at fights and is interested in learning all he can, but he is like a baby among crocodiles. Frankly, he is frightened of boxing, and when Tawes put him on the commission, he said he was "flabbergasted." Admitting that he had little, if any, background in the sport, O'Sullivan said, "I'll do the best I can do on this job as soon as I find out what I'm supposed to do." At the time friends of O'Sullivan were quoted as saying he was a "tireless committee worker who never has received much for his efforts and deserves a good break like this."
Interviewed last week, O'Sullivan seemed shaken by the Knox tragedy—and still somewhat unfamiliar with his job. Jack Cohen, the executive secretary of the commission, reportedly has said that he never has seen either of the other two commission members, Lee S. Gillis, an attorney from Easton appointed by Tawes in December of 1959, and Edgar L. Lane, a mortician who lives in Church Hill, down on the Eastern Shore, appointed in June of this year. Cohen says this is a lie, and that if he was quoted as saying this it was only "an expression"—a manner of speaking.
Boxing people say that Cohen, although basically a man of decent instincts, is slow to seek change in the face of political pressures on the state commission. Told about such criticism, Cohen says, "That's not being critical. That's paying me a tribute."
Like the commissioners, Cohen is a creature of politics. A onetime first baseman for the Trenton Democratic Club softball team, he was pushed for the job by James H. (Jack) Pollack, the once powerful boss of Baltimore's fourth district. Pollack loves softball. Not long ago Cohen was given his commission job virtually for life. Asked about this, Cohen says, "Yes, I have just been put under the merit system." The job pays $4,902 a year. Pollack's power is fading now, but he was once indicted for murder in what the papers delicately called "an incident growing out of a liquor hijacking job" during Prohibition. The prosecution dropped the case because of "insufficient evidence."
Investigation last week reveals that Baltimore might well have had another death on the Knox fight card. The Knox-Bethea fight was originally scheduled for Friday night, October 4, but it was postponed to Monday, October 14 because of an injury to one of the preliminary fighters, a Baltimore welterweight named Johnny Gilden. Gilden, a veteran of 29 fights, was supposed to box a Washington boy named Hal Bristol. On the day of the Knox fight, a "fighter" named Kenney Joseph appeared as a substitute for Bristol. Why Bristol did not show no one professes to know. At any rate, when the fans in the Coliseum first saw Joseph totter down the aisle they booed. According to one boxing man present, Joseph did not appear to weigh more than 125 pounds. Gilden weighed 147½, half a pound over the welter limit. Joseph did not even know how to get through the ring ropes, and the crowd booed this fraud all the more. When the bell rang, Joseph came out, obviously seeking a place to lie down. Gilden was all over him with punches, and Joseph acted as though he had never been in a fight before. He tried to keep Gilden away by fending him off with his knee. After 62 seconds of farce, the referee wisely stopped the fight.
"I'd better clam up"
Asked about this fiasco, Cohen said "I hate the word 'mismatch,' but in truth I didn't think the boy was trying or had the ability. It looked to me like he wanted to get out of here in a hurry." He refused to say more on the grounds he wanted to present the matter to the commission. Leon Yarneth, commission inspector, old AAU official and occasional promoter of teen-age beauty contests, apparently was the man who approved the substitution of Joseph for Bristol, but Yarneth refused to say anything other than, "You've taken me by surprise. I'd better clam up. I've got to appear before the grand jury. I don't want to be detrimental to anyone."
It is hard to write about the promotion of the fight without being detrimental to someone. As noted, Civic Sports, Inc. originally was formed with Benny Trotta as president. Trotta is the well-known Baltimore thug, convicted draft dodger and host of the notorious Club Troc ("and here, directly from Cleveland, O-hi-yoh, Flora the Flower Girl") located in a raunchy section of town known as The Block. When Frankie Carbo was riding high as gangster overlord of boxing back in the '50s, Theodore McKeldin, present mayor of Baltimore but then governor of the state, forced the athletic commission to strip Trotta of his boxing promoter's license. But in August of 1960, the athletic commission restored it, declaring, "Our only interest is to encourage good, clean fight entertainment in Maryland and to do all that we can to preserve the good reputation of the sport and its participants." Mr. Trotta, or Fat Benny as he is known to intimates, wept copiously during the hearing.
Given the green light for good clean entertainment, Fat Benny formed Civic Sports, Inc. to promote fights in Baltimore. But last June internal revenue agents arrested Trotta and his brother, Little Tony, for making book without a federal gambling stamp, and on August 27 two of Fat Benny's "lobs," boxing slang for fronts, wrote to the commission on Civic Sports stationery announcing that Trotta was no longer an officer in their corporation. Examination of the letter shows that Trotta's name was crossed off as president, but the address, 400 East Baltimore Street, and the phone number, 685-7988, remained the same. They are the address and phone number of the Club Troc. Asked where Civic Sports now has its office, Cohen plays it cagey. "They were getting ready to set up an office," he says. Where did they operate in the meanwhile? Cohen: "I don't know." Well, how did you reach them? Cohen: "They would reach me." Well, were there times when you had to reach them? Cohen: "I had no reason to reach them." Trotta has since been convicted but not sentenced and this latest escapade apparently does not hurt his reputation with Cohen, who seems sort of sorry to see Fat Benny go. "I can only say," says Cohen, "that we have had no problems with Benny Trotta in the promotional field. I might say further—that's all."
But that will not be all. Whether Knox was underweight or not, something must happen in Maryland. The situation cannot go on. Baltimore is lucky there have not been 10 other ring deaths.
AN ARTIST AT RINGSIDE SAW THE COLLAPSE
On the night of the fatal fight, Artist Joseph Sheppard, an amateur boxer, was in the Coliseum to see his friend Ernie Knox fight. When Knox collapsed after the knockout, three men tried to make him walk. At once Sheppard began drawing the scene in his sketchbook. Says he: "I didn't think the men were doctors because they didn't know what they were doing."