The Real Real McCoy

Feb. 06, 1995
Feb. 06, 1995

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Feb. 6, 1995

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The Real Real McCoy

Kid McCoy left his mark on pugilism, jurisprudence and the English language

A Famous athlete turned actor jolts the nation when he is arrested and charged with the brutal murder of the woman he loves. His trial in a Hollywood court is held against a backdrop of palms and packs of mad-dog journalists. It is an incredible but true melodrama.

This is an article from the Feb. 6, 1995 issue Original Layout

And to think that this all happened 70 years before O.J. Simpson's trial of the century.

Indeed, the Simpson saga is a remake: Fallen Hero II. The original featured a former boxer as celebrity-defendant—52-year-old Norman Selby, alias Kid McCoy. That name has long since been consigned to the dustbin of sports history, but decades ago it had big-time marquee appeal. The Los Angeles Times reporter at McCoy's 1924 trial wrote that the ex-boxer "basked in the glances of numerous admirers, a lot that has been his since the day he first sprang into prominence as a crafty ring fighter."

McCoy's arrest—much like Simpson's—represents a sordid episode in a life filled with remarkable accomplishments. According to The Ring Record Book and Boxing Encyclopedia, Kid McCoy's career lasted from 1891 to 1916 and comprised 80 wins, six losses, six draws and nine no-decisions. He won the world welterweight title in 1896 and later fought as a middleweight and light heavyweight. He was eventually inducted into both the International Boxing Hall of Fame and Ring magazine's own boxing hall of fame.

Onetime heavyweight champ James (Gentleman Jim) Corbett called McCoy "a genius of scientific fighting." Among other things, the Kid was credited with inventing the corkscrew punch, in which he snapped his wrist just before landing a blow. This bit of nastiness, McCoy contended, helped slice open his rivals' faces.

As a cub sportswriter for the Chicago Examiner, Damon Runyon described-McCoy as "one of the cleverest, craftiest men who ever put on boxing gloves." Runyon was probably just as appreciative of McCoy's freewheeling lifestyle.

The details of McCoy's background are blurry. Boxing lore has it that Norman Selby was born in 1872 or 1873, and left his home in Moscow, Ind., at the age of 13—or possibly 16. He learned to box either while riding the rails and beating up hobos or while hanging out at the YMCA in Louisville. And he may have borrowed his surname from one of the following: a railroad station sign; a struggling actor; or Pete McCoy, a friend of the celebrated fighter John L. Sullivan.

The Kid drifted into boxing in the Midwest, then worked his way east, becoming known for his speed. From the New York World, March 1898: McCoy's "movements are quick and cat-like. He does not look the prize fighter, nor is he built like one."

Modest of build though he was, McCoy could be buzz-saw tough. During one seven-year period he averaged a fight a month, once achieving two knockouts in a single day. In 1899 he had a memorable slugfest in San Francisco with Joe Choynski. McCoy suffered a broken nose and three broken ribs and was floored 16 times, yet he knocked out Choynski in Round 20.

The Kid was also known for his schizophrenic ring persona. McCoy the noble gladiator and McCoy the conniving trickster were one and the same fighter. In a 1904 bout against one Herr Placke, a Dutch boxer, McCoy supposedly whispered to his opponent that his shorts were slipping. When Placke reached down to pull them up, the Kid decked him.

A favorite McCoy tactic was to feign illness, before and even during a fight. He used that ploy in 1896 to snatch the welterweight title from Tommy Ryan, for whom he had previously labored as a sparring partner. McCoy requested the matchup as a favor, saying he needed to make some quick money to cover medical expenses for an unspecified illness. Ryan agreed but slacked off on his training. And why not? The bout, he reasoned, would be like sparring in front of paying customers. Much to Ryan's surprise, McCoy showed up in peak condition and knocked his former boss silly, putting him away with a 15th-round KO.

Some boxing aficionados say the Kid's ruse in the Ryan fight gave rise to the expression the real McCoy. Others claim the term was coined after the Choynski bout. Either way, McCoy left his imprint on both the public mind and the English language.

"Kid was very instrumental in popularizing boxing both in this country and abroad," says Nigel Collins, the managing editor of Ring magazine and author of the book Boxing Babylon, which recounts the history of the sport's darker side. Yet for all of McCoy's formidable skill, Collins adds, "his reputation was that of a guy who pulled a lot of tricks. Sometimes he also threw fights."

Purses were minuscule in those days. Boxers made most of their money by betting on (and, occasionally, against) themselves. One match held in 1900 at Madison Square Garden, during which Corbett knocked out McCoy in the fifth round, became notorious for having been rigged and led New York State to ban boxing for 20 years.

McCoy was just as controversial outside the ring. He owned two bars in his adopted hometown of Manhattan, including one in the Normandie Hotel that was reputedly a favorite hangout of jewel smugglers. McCoy distrusted banks, preferring to carry all his money with him. He likewise had an aversion to the institution of marriage—if not to the ceremony itself. The Kid marched down the aisle 10 times with eight different women. As Indianola Arnold, spouse number 6, remarked, "McCoy's a good fellow, but he's the kind of man who ought not to be married. He belongs to the public."

Said the Kid of his multiple failures as a husband, "I could always fight the men but not the women."

Had he been born later, McCoy would have been a godsend for tabloid TV. The word rogue fit the Kid like satin trunks. But Collins believes McCoy "was probably what we would call today a manic depressive." Indeed, his life had a decidedly up-and-down quality. While McCoy was winning bout after bout—and gaining such fame that Lionel Barrymore played a rascally fighter based on the Kid in the 1903 Broadway play The Other Girl—wives and money were slipping through his fingers. At various points in his career McCoy ran a few diamond stores, a detective agency and an auto dealership. All failed.

After a brief boxing hiatus, McCoy laced on his gloves again for two insignificant bouts in-1908, at age 35—or 36. Julia Woodruff, who was McCoy's third, fourth and fifth wife, commented, "I did not approve of his entering the ring again, but he was a winner in the ring, and he is a failure in business."

McCoy retired unofficially in 1909 and spent the next two years in Europe. He covered boxing for the New York Morning Telegraph and palled around with the prince of Monaco. The Kid was broke within a year, so he returned to New York and opened his Normandie Hotel bar and a boxing gym, where he taught a few moves to D.W. Griffith, the celebrated filmmaker.

After the bar was shut down for numerous liquor-law violations, McCoy came out of retirement once more, in 1911, and headed back overseas. He went undefeated in several fights against unknowns in the U.S. and abroad, and lolled around the Riviera with Maurice Maeterlinck, the Nobel Prize-winning poet-philosopher, whom McCoy taught to box. (Maeterlinck, perhaps buttering up his tutor so he wouldn't throw any corkscrew punches during practice, called McCoy "the handsomest human being in the universe.")

Ever the entrepreneur, McCoy traveled to England in 1912 in hopes of launching a string of boxing salons. Instead he got arrested in London and spent a few weeks in jail as a suspect in a robbery that had relieved a Belgian princess of her jewels. When the charges were dropped, McCoy hurried home.

In June 1916, as his money ran low and his plans to open a California health farm fizzled, the Kid enlisted in the National Guard. Mexico soon erupted in revolution, and McCoy's unit was stationed along the border. His duty consisted of giving boxing lessons and exhibitions. His last fight came that summer. In Mission, Texas, the Kid, who was then either 43 or 44, disposed of Artie Sheridan, an unknown, in four rounds.

It was D.W. Griffith who offered McCoy a chance at a new career after the fighter's discharge from the Guard. The Kid adopted the more respectable first name of Charles and made his acting debut in 1917 in the silent film The House of Class. Ironically he played a detective who investigates a jewel robbery. A handful of mostly forgettable roles followed. Robert Cantwell, in his biography The Real McCoy, hinted at what directors thought of the Kid's acting range by noting that he "played only the part of a detective or prizefighter (or both) in movies about jewel thieves."

In 1920 the Kid moved to Los Angeles. There he acquired yet another wife, Dagmar Dahlgren. The couple lived off what remained of the money McCoy had earned in the ring, but it wasn't long before he lost everything. By 1922 he was bankrupt, citing debts of $9,000 and assets consisting of several suits of clothes.

McCoy was working as a security guard at a petroleum company when Theresa Mors, the estranged wife of Albert Mors, a wealthy Los Angeles antiques dealer, took up residence in his apartment. On Aug. 14, 1924, the day after Mrs. Mors had an ugly encounter with her husband, she died from a gunshot wound to the head. The scene of the shooting was McCoy's dining room.

McCoy told the police, and later the court, that Mrs. Mors had been despondent about her marital difficulties when they sat down to dinner that night. "Without warning," he said, "she grabbed the butcher knife and attempted to stab herself in the breast." A struggle ensued. As McCoy tried to wrest the knife away from Mrs. Mors, she grabbed a gun from a nearby table.

"She seized the revolver and shot herself," added McCoy. "That's all there is to it."

Not quite, as subsequent headlines would indicate. The next morning McCoy showed up at Albert Mors's antiques shop waving a pistol. He would later claim that he wanted to kill the man who drove his lover to suicide. Mors was nowhere to be found, but seven other men were in the store. McCoy took a few valuables from them, then had them remove their pants so they couldn't get away. When three people—two men and a woman—attempted to bolt from the store, McCoy shot and wounded them. A few hours later he was arrested without a struggle. KID M'COY ARRESTED IN DEATH OF WOMAN; SHOOTS 3 OTHERS blared the next day's front-page headline in The New York Times.

The wheels of justice moved swiftly in the 1920s: no protracted pretrial hearing; no 75-page questionnaire for potential jurors; no quibbling about the admissibility of DNA evidence.

The prosecutors painted McCoy as a sweet-talking leech who became enraged when his latest meal ticket, Mrs. Mors, decided to heed friends' advice and clump him. McCoy's attorney offered an insanity defense to explain the antiques-store shootings. He and his client also reenacted the purported struggle with Theresa Mors, rolling around on the courtroom floor for authenticity's sake. The Kid's performance earned him great reviews in the newspapers—but not his freedom. On Dec. 30, after 78 hours of deliberation, the jury pronounced McCoy guilty of manslaughter. It was a compromise verdict, one that precluded any call for the death penalty. As one of the nine female jurors told The New York Times, "It would have been impossible to hang McCoy. He is not the type of man that hangs."

The Kid was sentenced to a total of 48 years in jail, later reduced to 24 years. In August 1925 he entered San Quentin, where he became a model inmate. He was head of the prison's fire department and was given the responsibility of showing new arrivals the ropes, eventually taking under his wing the former Los Angeles County prosecutor who had tried his case and was later convicted of taking bribes on the job.

McCoy was paroled in 1932, several months shy of his 60th birthday. He went to work for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit as head of security for the 12,000 acres of "thrift gardens" set aside for Ford employees during the Depression. The Kid married for the 10th and final time in 1938. By all accounts he lived a quiet, contented life thereafter, though he was said to lapse periodically into depression.

On April 18, 1940, McCoy checked into the Hotel Tuller in Detroit. He left a wake-up call for 10 o'clock the next morning, then went to his room and took an overdose of sleeping pills. An assistant manager discovered his body, along with $17.78 and a short suicide note, which ended with the words, "Sorry I could not endure this world's madness. The best to you all." It was signed. "Sincerely, Norman Selby."

In reporting McCoy's death, Time magazine recalled the fighter's "champagne suppers at Delmonico's...the carpet tacks he dumped into the ring to agonize a barefoot opponent in South Africa...night life in Paris...." The Los Angeles Times began its obituary. "The real McCoy is no more."

Long before he was laid out by that self-administered corkscrew punch, Kid McCoy knew he had met his match. He spent his final years working on a never completed autobiography. It was titled Life Jabs Back.

Tom Dunkel is a freelance journalist who lives in Washington, D.C.

PHOTOTHE RINGDespite his slight frame, McCoy was a heavy hitter.PHOTOBIG FIGHTS, INC.The Kid (top left) and Corbett went at it for a movie camera in 1904; McCoy faced the lenses again at his murder trial in '24.PHOTOARCHIVE PHOTOS[See caption above.]PHOTOARCHIVE PHOTOSAfter his release from jail in '32, McCoy put up his dukes for Ford in Detroit as a director of security.