Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Illegal Prize Fight in Pelham in 1902

I have written about illegal prize fights that were a popular spectator and wagering sport in the Town of Pelham during the late 19th century and the early years of the 20th century.  For a few examples, see:

Tue., Oct. 04, 2005:  Front Page of the May 12, 1902 Issue of The Pelham Republican (describing the fight between Joe Gleacher and Joe Kerwin held in the spring of 1902; Gleacher was found in Mt. Vernon after the fight and was arrested, although Kerwin apparently escaped to Philadelphia before his arrest).

A Bare-Knuckled Prize Fight, Circa 1880's,
Like Prize Fights Held at Pelham Bridge.

The May 12, 1902 issue of The Pelham Republican carried an account of arrests following an illegal prize fight held in the Village of North Pelham between Joe Kerwin and Joe Gleacher on Tuesday, May 6, 1902.  The account of the arrests was straightforward and business-like; it was a solid newspaper account of the arrest of four men who were principals in the fight.  The account is published immediately below, but the account is not the main reason for today's Historic Pelham Blog posting.  It turns out that there is a very, very interesting and quite amusing story regarding how the arrests came about.

It turns out that J. Gardiner Minard of the Village of North Pelham kept quiet about the story for thirty-six years, until he published it as an amusing account that told the backstory of the arrests that followed the fight.  Although in his account he got the year of the fight incorrect, saying it occurred in 1901, there is no doubt from the original account that appears immediately below and the story he published thirty-six years later that the events described are all part of the same story.

Here is the newspaper account of the arrests published in The Pelham Republican on May 12, 1902:   

"Arrests in Prize Fight Case. 

Tuesday afternoon four men who were principals in the recent Kerwin-Gleacher prize fight were brought before Judge Karback [sic]. It was generally believed that nothing would be done about the affair, as it was said the local constables were bribed to keep away, but by the untiring efforts of officer Marks the miscreants are gradually being brought to justice. 

The alleged manager of the fight, Geo. Roberts, was arrested in White Plains. He plead guilty, saying that he was only a witness and not the manager. He was represented by counsellor VerPlank, of White Plains. 'Joe' Gleacher, one of the pugilists, was arrested a week ago in Mount Vernon. He was paroled until next Saturday in the custody of his counsel, Mr. Riggs, to appear at the time for examination. 

M. Silverstein, one of the seconds of the prize fight, was arrested last Saturday in Yonkers. He was put under bonds to appear last Tuesday and was paroled in the custody of his attorney, George Higgs, for examination next Saturday. 

Joe Kerwin, one of the fighters, is said to have gone to Philadelphia. 'Joe' Lackey, another principal in the fight, is said to have gone to Philadelphia also. If they do not return requisition papers will be gotten out for them."

Source:   Arrests in Prize Fight Case, The Pelham Republican, May 12, 1902, Vol. I, Issue No. 25, p. 1.  

What follows is the backstory that explains how the arrests described in The Pelham Republican article quoted immediately above came to be.


A volunteer fire department is always a prolific source of anecdotes, and while the Pelham Fire Department was a big help to me in filling the hungry columns in the newspaper, it was also indirectly the cause of my first serious blunder as a journalist.  It was about 37 years ago and the meetings were held the first Monday in each month in the old original fire house that stood on the 50-foot lot immediately adjoining the present building on the north.  A resolution had been passed directing all members to appear at all meetings in full uniform.  As stated in a previous article, the members would begin gathering in front of the fire house long before eight and a few minutes after that hour, they would go inside and light the lights to attract stragglers who had forgotten the meeting.  Then about 8:15 or 8:20 o'clock the meeting would be called to order.  I was secretary.  

On the night in question I arrived somewhat early and found half a dozen members who immediately demanded why I was not in uniform.  I replied that I had a very important engagement and would like to have a secretary pro tem appointed.  They immediately wanted to know what the important business was and that information being refused, told me quite decidedly that I would not be excused from the meeting.  A few minutes to eight I suggested we go inside, but this only betrayed impatience on my part to get the meeting started and over, and as the members had already resolved themselves into a committee to torture me, they merely asked 'What's the hurry,' and made no move to go in.  When we finally did enter, there was no haste in getting started and it was almost 8:30 o'clock before the foreman, in response to my appeal, called the meeting to order.  

I called the roll and again asked to be excused, but it was voted down.  I then suggested that we dispense with the reading of the minutes of the previous meeting, but the reading of them was demanded.  Under the heading of 'Unfinished Business' came a subject that ordinarily should be disposed of in a few minutes, but it now seemed to have assumed an unusual importance which demanded a debate in which all wanted to take a hand.  It was apparent that if these tactics continued the meeting would last three or four hours if these tactics continued the meeting would last three or four hours; jumping and interrupting the debate I said, 'If you fellows will promise to keep your mouths shut and not blabber what you see like a bunch of old women gossipers, I will tell you why I want to get away.'  The pledge was given and I said 'Joe Gleacher of Mount Vernon and Joe Kerwin of Tuckahoe are to have a finish fight in Pelham tonight.'  [Editor's Note:  A "finish fight" is a championship fight.]  

Immediately the room was in an uproar.  It was at a time boxing was forbidden in the State of New York and bootleg fights were being held almost nightly.  Half the members made a motion to adjourn and all seconded the motion.  Foreman Penny tried to get them back into their seats but all were crowded about the desk demanding to know where the fight was to be held.  I told them to first take their seats and put the motion to adjourn in orderly fashion and they would soon learn all.  This done, I told them to follow me but observe strict silence.

There was no police department in North Pelham then and the streets were very poorly lighted with gasoline lamps; one at each cross road and one in the middle of the block, but the trees lining the sidewalks completely smothering their light.  If there was any unusual noise at night you could hear windows being raised right and left as residents poked their heads out to see what was going on.  I led the way along Fourth street to Seventh avenue and turned north.  At the dead end of that street was John Godfrey's barn to the left and the old Godfrey homestead to the right.  Both have long since been torn down.

The 150 spectators were almost thrown into a panic at the sight of all the uniformed men coming up into the hay loft, but they soon recognized both men and uniform.  The fighters were too occupied to notice our arrival and we witnessed several rounds of good fighting before Kerwin won on a technical knockout.  It was then I discovered the bad blunder I had committed.  Over in a corner, two members of Liberty Hose Company were in a huddle.  They were Justice of the Peace Gustave I. Karback and Town Constable R. H. Marks.  They were not going to miss this opportunity for fees.  As soon as the Tuckahoe crowd -- numbering about 100 -- had left with the winner, Marks walked over and placed the loser under arrest.  He brought him before Judge Karbach and,, not waiting to press the more serious charge of violating the State Anti-Boxing Law which might bring in lawyers to say nothing of the District Attorney and Sheriff, both of whom were anxious to catch the fighters in the act, reduced the charge to disorderly conduct.  To this Gleacher agreed to plead guilty and Karback fined him $10.  After the case was over, both Karbach and Marks informed me that it was the first prize fight they had ever witnessed.  I assured them it was also the last.  It taught me a lesson to be careful whom I invited to these fights."

Source:  Minard, J. Gardiner, THE OLD DAYS, The Pelham Sun, Sep. 9, 1938, p. 4, cols. 4-5.

Of course, the recollections of J. Gardiner Minard 36 years after fact differed slightly from the newspaper account only a few days after the fight of four arrests made in Mount Vernon and White Plains.  Nevertheless, Minard's recollections shed interesting light on the practice of illegal prize fighting in Pelham in the early years of the 20th century.

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