The Curious Case of Norman Selby
By Kelly Nicholson
Norman E. Selby was born in the hamlet of Moscow, Indiana, on October 13, 1872. He was one of five children reared by Francis and Emily Selby, proud parents who imagined – for awhile, at least – that Norman was meant for success in law or medicine. But early on, and despite his natural keenness, he showed that he was, as one friend would put it, “allergic to books” and to formal education.
Regarding his fighting moniker – Kid McCoy – and much else about him, stories abound. The Kid himself, in fact, was not always consistent in his telling. But as to his genius inside the ropes, no one had doubt: Said James J. Corbett, the grand ring master of the era, he was “a marvel, a genius of scientific fighting.” By the reckoning of Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, he was “vicious, fast, and almost impossible to beat.”
Vicious indeed – on that, too, was consensus. In some eyes, he was morally bankrupt. As John Lardner would put it, “Kid McCoy lived by violence, by trickery, and by women.” Said Stan Weston, his life story “would scandalize a P. T. A. meeting and the complete story of his life would make Lolita read like Sunday School literature.” More than one observer called him sadistic, and late in life he was almost certainly the slayer of one of his mistresses.
Then again, he was not purely bad – at times, like practically every man, he could be likeable and even virtuous. Overall, it seems, he was complex – kind or cruel, depending on the moment, and an odd paradox of sly underhandedness and raw courage.
That slyness was legend: In the ring, the Kid would get one-up on an opponent by any way imaginable. In later years, for example, he admitted to having developed a treatment of his hand wraps that aided his cause. Prior to a tough go, he said, “I used to douse my bandages with alcohol before putting the gloves on.” The alcohol would evaporate, leaving a slight residue of gum on the wrap, and when that substance dried he had a mite extra whack in each mitt.
So, too, his fighting nerve: By any gauge, it was remarkable. At 5’11, slat-thin alongside some of the men he faced, he would concede to a world-class opponent 20 or 30 pounds without a qualm. On occasion, weighing in the range of 145 to 160, he faced men who cleared 200. And when the going got tough, he could fight like a wounded badger. As to the size of his foes, he said, the bigger the better, for the bigger ones could take more of what he dished out.
Not that nature set him back in every department – his reach of 76 inches would befit a heavyweight and he hit (with or without those doctored bandages) with uncanny impact. Nat Fleischer would one day call him, even at that modest weight, his number one light-heavyweight of all time. The Kid’s speed and savvy, in the estimate of some, made him pound for pound as good as any man they had seen in the ring.
Along the way, writers would ask the fighter how his McCoy label had originated. One answer was that he had seen a stage show featuring the exploits of two real-life safe-crackers, Kid McCoy and Spike Hennessey. In the theater lobby, he said, he later picked up a dime novel on the crooks and was taken with McCoy’s daring nature.
Another time he told it like this: At the age of 13, he and a few schoolmates had managed some of their usual mischief. Seeing that they were now due for a major hiding, Norman proposed that they flee the scene.
“Instead of returning to class,” said McCoy, “we headed for the freight yard and hopped the first train east.” On the way they passed a sign of some sort that read McCoy, and when the refugees came into a station in Cincinnati, a cop was waiting.
“Which one of you is Selby?” he asked.
“Not me, mister,” answered Norman. “My name is Charlie McCoy.”
As the others were being questioned, said the Kid, he slipped off on a freight headed for Indianapolis and landed back home before anyone else. But that first taste of adventure, he would say, “was all I needed. After that I was never home.” A few years later, when he was embarking on a ring career, that name seemed right.
Again, fact and legend blur – one other account has him acquiring the name by way of one T. A. McCoy, a roughhewn sort who worked for a time as a meat cutter near the place where Norman grew up. (In the ring, it was said, his cutting blows invited fast comparison with “that old butcher.”) But whatever the case, these stories are not all or nothing – there could be a strain of truth in more than one. And soon, however exactly it happened, the world knew him as Charles “Kid” McCoy.
Stories of this period often include mention of rail riding, whereby a young runaway makes his rounds free of charge by hopping a train on the sly. Such travel, which was common in the day, may conjure a romantic picture, but in truth, it was peril-ridden. A lone wayfarer like Norman could end up in the company of seasoned thugs who abused him, sometimes in violent and perverted ways, much as a young convict can suffer at the hands of hardened inmates in the penal system. He caught hell, too, at the hands of club-wielding guards who hounded free riders at every stop.
The very travel itself – often in boxcars in sub-freezing temperature – was hazardous. All the more so when “riding the rods,” which meant hanging onto the car from underneath, supported only by a narrow length of steel and hovering inches above death for a good many miles. At times it was a contest of endurance, the rider having to stay awake while flying exhausted down that steel river, day or night, hour by hour, come what may.
McCoy’s first real taste of fighting, it is said, was on one of those rail excursions. One evening, as his train pulled into St. Paul, the teen aged Selby was spotted by a cop who came trotting alongside the car with stick ready. Climbing out from underneath, Norman tried to run. When cornered, he had no choice – but this time, instead of taking the usual hit, he lashed out with a kick to the groin of his attacker. Then, raining down retaliation on the man until his blood ran, the young refugee knew what it was to be predator instead of prey. (It was a feeling, said McCoy, that he never forgot.)
One of a Kind
Somewhere along the way, the fighter developed the punch with which he is associated. The idea stirred in him one day when he was watching a kitten swat a sewn cloth ball and became intrigued with the way that the little feline made its strike. It seemed to McCoy that this strike had in it a certain twist, which he then tried to impart to a blow that resembled a left hook. (In time the Kid would add to this account a nice wrinkle, saying that the idea owed also to his study of guns, and the effect of the grooves that give spin to a bullet in a rifle barrel.) Some, on the other hand, said that this celebrated “corkscrew” punch was but a left hook, or a jab-hook with a slight snap of the wrist. Either way, it dropped some mighty big game before he was done with it.
McCoy discovered his talent for fighting in his teens, and apparently while employed as a restaurant dishwasher. When he turned professional at 18 as Norman Selby, it was the first and last time that he would use his real name in the ring. In a day when long-range fights slowed often into writhing tests of patience for those who paid admission, he was a crowd pleaser. In less than three years he was undefeated in close to 20 fights with a fair string of knockouts to his credit. Some of his opponents, in fact, quit the ring after the beatings they took, prompting the charge that young McCoy was too aggressive in his style.
In response the Kid would later say, “A quick knockout could be construed as merciful. I always tried for one.” While he might not always have tried for one, the remark does make an interesting counterpoint to the notion that he chose constantly to prolong the agony of his victims. But oh, the ruses – “You never hear people squawk,” he said, “if a clever quarterback pulls a fast one in a football game. Why should it be any different in the ring?” At times, he would create the impression that he was ill, or had not trained, when no such thing was the case. Once or twice, it appears, he even used cosmetics to create the effect.
In 1895, goes one story, he went to this length with welterweight Jack Wilkes in Boston. On this occasion Wilkes, first into the ring, was loosening up in his corner when the Kid made his entrance. On seeing his opponent, Jack did a double-take: Fair and slender to start with, rumored often to be unwell, the young fighter now looked to be at death’s door.
In an opening round clinch, the Kid muttered, “I’m sick as hell, Jack, take it easy, okay? I shouldn’t be fighting, but I need the money.” Wilkes, buying it wholesale, started to pull his punches. Then, in the second round, McCoy fell prey, so it seemed, to a coughing spasm. Taken aback, Jack dropped his guard in a show of concern – at which moment, a haymaker ended his evening. Back in the dressing room, the Kid washed away the skin lightener and the dark touches under his eyes that he had used to create his wasted look. (The deathly cough, he would say, he had mastered after seeing it in a ward during a goodwill visit of a Philadelphia hospital.)
Fact or legend – if half the yarns are true, the sport had, in McCoy, a one-man circus of gags and stunts. One time, in mid-round with Australian import Shadow Maber, he managed to intone, in some oblique fashion, that the round was over. When Maber, thinking that the directive had come from the ref, started for his corner, he got clobbered with a right hand that swung the battle in McCoy’s favor. Another time, against a gigantic Holland import named Plaacke, he allegedly stopped in mid-action and told the fighter that his pants were slipping – when the credulous Dutchman reached down, a gratis bomb floored him. Once, too, paired with a humongous barefoot native in a town in South Africa, the Kid had an ally slide discreetly a few tacks into the ring that soon rendered the hometown fighter an easy target.
An odd contrast to the Kid’s scheming nature was the boyish look that carried well into his maturity. Noted playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, seeing him fight in Europe, would call him “the handsomest human on earth.” McCoy himself was taken with physical beauty, and for decades he ran wild after any woman who caught his eye. He fared well in the chase many a time.
Just when he discovered his aptitude in this arena is not known (surely, thought Weston, in puberty, the very first time that his desire gained strength). In 1895 he married for the first time, to Lottie Piehler, a quiet Ohio girl who worked in a millinery store. It would not last long. McCoy, it seems, while he was easily struck, was never anchored by deep feeling to the women he wooed. “Women are attracted to a fighter,” he was known to say. “But how can you promise to love a woman all your life? You change – the whole world changes.” Indeed he would remark, in later years, that he remembered his ring opponents better than he remembered his wives.
Most of them, he said, had married him in order to reform him – “and that was their mistake.” Of Lottie he would recall, “A few months after I married her, I met a burlesque queen who finished me as a married man.” That marriage, at least, was soon done. So would be others. In 1897 he met the woman who some said was the one real love of his life, the noted actress Julia Woodruff Crosselmire. It happened when the two chanced to share a car on a train and a fight broke out. In a sudden show of his ring wares, McCoy caught her eye, and before long the two were an item. In fact, they would marry and divorce three times in coming years. The Kid’s marriages would one day reach double digits.
In 1894 Tommy Ryan became the welterweight champion with a 20-round win over Mysterious Billy Smith. Infamously rough, Billy would win grudging renown in coming years when he held his own in several bouts with the dreaded “Barbados Demon” Joe Walcott. By every account, he was a dirty handful, but in Tommy, who would be ranked by Fleischer in the mid 20th century as the second best middleweight of all time (Billy being his number two welter), he met his match.
The Kid’s acquaintance with Ryan began at around this time when he was brought on board as a sparring partner. By his own statement – one that surely did come from his heart – he was treated in backhanded fashion by the champion during that whole engagement. In the ring with Tommy he got plenty of lumps, and he was allowed precious little, he would claim, for food or lodging.
Just how hard Ryan might have been on his young employee is open to some question. Overall he enjoyed a good reputation in the game – and then again, it was well known that Tommy’s sparring partners earned every cent of their money. However it went, the Kid played his role dutifully in the early going without asking for a break. And all the while, he was becoming a better fighter. As to the personal end of it, the decisive moment came, said McCoy, when he arrived home late one night with no cash and found the rooming house closed.
“So,” as he would recount years later, “I went into Considine’s Saloon where Ryan was spouting off, as usual, and I told him my problem. In a loud voice he said, ‘Here’s a dime, kid – go buy yourself some coffee and a roll.’ I hated him ever since, and when I walked out of that saloon with his dime in my hand I swore I’d make him pay for it someday.”
In this case, the Kid had up his sleeve not just a trick, but a long-term plan. In the months that followed he began to wrangle from Tommy every favor he could get, pleading poverty, hunger, frailty, and illness – playing upon the champion’s sympathy and his ego while defusing any notion that he himself might pose any threat as a challenger down the road. On occasion he would ask for restraint in the sparring – such as not to be struck in his heart region.
“It makes me sick, Mr. Ryan. And it gives me a sharp pain that scares me. I wouldn’t fight if I didn’t have to.”
In about a year, McCoy departed camp with what he needed. Later he broached the idea of a fight between himself and Tommy, “just for the money.” While Ryan saw little likelihood of it, he eventually agreed when a $5,000 purse (largely, it was said later, of the Kid’s own arranging) was put up for a fight at the Maspeth, New York Athletic Club on March 2, 1896.
Now, with the papers inked, McCoy convinced his former boss that he was neglecting work in his own training camp. “I was sure I could lick Ryan,” he would say afterward, “but I didn’t want him to think I thought so.” He proposed, in seeming anticipation of his being whipped, that the loser ought to get 35% of that total. He also planted the idea in Ryan’s head that he was having trouble making the weight, and as a result, when the time came, the pre-fight scaling was foregone in order to expedite the event and the payday that came with it.
And all the while, McCoy worked with ferocity. He engaged heavyweight Steve O’Donnell as a sparring partner and the two had at it in serious fashion in a gymnasium off the beaten track. Between his early morning roadwork and the sessions with O’Donnell, McCoy was in the shape of his life when the time came. Arriving, by some accounts, at a well-muscled 158, he had off-record some 13 pounds on Ryan to go with four inches in height.
Arriving early at the arena, the Kid donned his fight togs and stayed out of sight. When the champion got there, he went to his dressing room and lay face-down on the rubbing table. Before Tommy dozed off, there was a knock at the door. In came McCoy, looking like he owned the world.
After all the subservience he had shown in the year prior, the challenger was transformed. There was a hard blade edge in his voice when he stood over Tommy and asked, “Ready for a damned good beating?” Ryan, speechless, could only watch as the Kid wheeled and went out.
“The flamboyant McCoy,” said Weston, “had no peer when it came to the cold calculating annihilation of opponents.” Here, as the fight unfolded, was an example. “McCoy’s cleverness,” declared the New York Herald the next morning, “was a revelation to the spectators, and to none more than Ryan, who in the early part of the fight seemed to think he would win easily.”
Tommy, entering the ring a 2 – 1 favorite, got his first jolt early in the opening frame when he fell short with a left hand and got back a rousing left in turn. Shortly after, another hard left spurred him to the attack, but before the round ended a right uppercut had stunned him again.
A murderous cold front, which had gripped the area of late, all but froze the spectators who sat shuddering en masse through most of the evening bundled in full dress. But McCoy gave them something to take their minds off it. The Kid himself, it would be said in admiration later, was as cool as the ice on neighboring Newtown Creek.
Ryan’s stock rose some as the fight progressed – after a few rounds he had got home with some good body shots and bruised McCoy’s right eye with his left hand. Yet McCoy never lost his composure. Making Ryan miss and pressing the fight much of the way, he amazed the audience with poise and punching accuracy that began turning this fight into his masterpiece.
An exclamation point was added to this composition in the eighth round when Ryan planted a hard right hand over the challenger’s heart and the Kid’s right hand counter put him on the floor. Some of those present said later that McCoy could have finished Ryan at this point, but chose to extend the lesson instead. Quite possibly so – in the ninth round the champion was down again and he was in serious trouble at the bell.
Taunting Ryan on a couple of occasions, the Kid openly laughed at him at the end of the tenth. When the champion landed a hard left hand in the next frame on that damaged right eye, it was his only good moment in the round. In the twelfth, he was down once more. In the 13th it was a massacre as the Kid nailed him with shots that refunded every indignity, real or imagined, he suffered in that camp the year prior. Thanks to jabs, right hands, and that patented McCoy corkscrew specialty, Ryan’s face now had the look of raw beef and twice more he fell.
Ever game, and as beaten as a man can be, Ryan tried with amazing grit to mount an attack in the next frame, but in the 15th round a portside wallop left him a torn and bloodied heap against the lower ring rope. He stumbled up and caught a right and another left hand that was the coup de grace. Tommy was hauled to his corner and he had to be helped to his dressing room. And his former sparring partner was the new champion.
At this point there was not a man alive at McCoy’s weight who could extend him. In November of 1897 he flattened veteran George LaBlanche – a one-time rival of the great Nonpareil Jack Dempsey – in one round. He laid partial claim to the middleweight title in the following month by stopping Dan Creedon in 15. In the coming spring he won a 20-round decision from Gus Ruhlin, a 6’2 Akron, Ohio, specimen who ranked among the best heavyweights in the world.
* * *
Again, the fighter’s life is a trove of tales – often noted is an episode in Paris, after he had won the title, when his world barnstorming landed him a match with savate expert Jean Charlemont in an exhibition. Born out of 1800-era streetfighting tactics in French ports and cities, influenced later by English boxing, savate (in native tongue, roughly, sah-VAHT, meaning old boot) made extensive use of the feet – it was a style alien to most men on the new side of the water.
For awhile there was little, too, that McCoy fathom of it. Around the fourth round, so the story goes, the visiting American took to casting appreciative glances into the balcony. The looks continued until Charlemont, at last, had to know what was up there. When McCoy intimated that he had his eye on an amazing mademoiselle, it was a matter of time before the curious Frenchman craned his own neck for a gander. And that was all the opening that the Kid needed.
By 1899, while still a middleweight, McCoy was after big game. That year he met a fighter who figured into many of the great contests of the era. Tom Sharkey, one of the toughest men alive, had fought coming champion Jim Jeffries to a 20-round decision earlier that year. While no stylist, Sailor Tom, dead game and sturdy as a twelve-pound artillery piece, would give Jeff a savage fight, this one ebb and flow for 25, when they met at Coney Island in the year following.
Tom and the Kid were instinctively different creatures who had little use for each other. It appears that some rivalry outside the ring, too, fueled this feeling, inasmuch as each man, and Jim Corbett, as well, owned watering holes in the Broadway area. The places catered to different types, Corbett’s being a solid “man’s” establishment where gamblers, bookmakers, and sporting types spent their off-hours in relative privacy. The other two were at spectral ends: McCoy’s Casino Theatre, high profile on every count, sported huge windows through which celebrities like Lillian Russell, Anna Held, and comedienne Marie Dressler were on bright display. Sailor Tom, who would have had alpha status in a he-pack of Neanderthals, catered to men cut from his own cloth in a den where men buttoned at the collar became ill at ease.
Sharkey and McCoy faced off in January at the Lenox Athletic Club in New York. Despite another bone-chilling Northeaster, the arena was packed some two hours before the main attraction and the cold air rang with shouts of “a thousand to nine” (i. e., offering a wager of a thousand dollars to win nine hundred) or “a thousand to eight” in one direction or the other. Sharkey entered the ring wearing green trunks that expressed his Irish lineage and an American flag around his waist. The Kid, fair and chatty, arrived in white robe and trunks, stars and stripes rolled and wrapped likewise at his slender middle, a sunny contrast to the unvarnished chunk of stone in the other corner.
Square and broad, with 20-odd pounds of sun-burnished mass to his advantage, the 5’8 Sharkey looked like a fresh cut stump next to an ill-fed sapling when the two men neared. It did not seem possible that anything meaningful could come of this, but what happened was memorable.
While fighters in McCoy’s day did not have the advantages of 21st century training, they often seem to exceed men of today in creativity. Naturally right-handed, McCoy had long worked overtime with his left arm, throwing a ball from that side and discharging to the limb even small chores like eating and writing so as to augment his natural gifts. Another of his favorite exercises was to run backwards (he was, he reckoned, the fastest man in the world in this activity, and those who saw him agreed) in order to sharpen his legwork. In similar fashion he would rehearse sideways movement in fierce slips and dodges for minutes at a time.
For two rounds this work paid off, as the Kid skirted neatly the sailor’s straightaway head-down advance. Still, it seemed like no contest from a physical standpoint, until the third round, when there came from the left side that odd snap of a jab-hook, and Sharkey – never floored by Jeffries or by Corbett – hit the deck hard. He got up raring to even the score only to find himself down again, and several more shots had him in trouble when the bell sounded.
Soon, however, that sheer mass difference told its tale. In the eighth round a right hand wobbled McCoy and a left underneath sent him down. The Kid, who would finagle a way out of Old Nick’s dungeon if it could be done, made a comic cry of foul. Referee Tim Hurst was onto him, but in the furor that followed, McCoy had a few extra seconds to recuperate.
Still, at this point, it was Sharkey’s fight. In the ninth round he had McCoy hurt and he dropped him for the count in the tenth. In fact, there nearly was a telling foul, seconds later, when Sharkey, unaware that Hurst had said “ten,” reached past him and caught McCoy with a left hand that felled him again, but Hurst ruled it for the sailor. While the Kid sobbed heartbroken in his dressing room (he swore also that Tom must have had “a steel plate stuck under his rotten hide,” a suspicion that may have been shared by every man that Sharkey ever fought), each fighter had gained something when it was over. Sharkey was in line for his second fight with Jeffries, and the Kid – chided by some in prior days as a glorified playboy – was hailed rightly as something out of the ordinary.
* * *
In 1899 the estimable scribe W. W. Naughton went into promotion and put together a March fight between McCoy and the great Joe Choynski, a mid-sized shark himself who fed often at the deep end of the heavyweight pool. Carrying dynamite in each hand, Joe had long excited fear among the big men and he could handle himself with any of them. Years earlier Joe had engaged in memorable contests with fellow rising star Corbett. He had also held a young Jim Jeffries (by now the heavyweight champion) to a draw over 20 rounds.
Scribes were divided on the outcome. As a March 19th writeup in the San Francisco Call made note, five days before the fight, Choynski had made a career of giving away anywhere from ten to fifty pounds to some of the best fighters in the world. This, it was said, might be the first time that he did not concede size to an opponent. (Shorter than McCoy, he would scale at the weigh-in a rock-hard 168 to the Kid’s 160.) How, it was asked, could the Kid withstand what Joe was going to lay on him?
On the morning of the fight, the Ohio Sandusky Star opined that Choynski furthermore was as game a man as ever to enter the roped square, “extraordinarily clever and a tremendously hard hitter.” But for a tendency, on occasion, to lose his head in the heat of the action, it was imagined, he might have whipped every man he ever fought.
At the same time, those who saw McCoy in training marveled at what they saw – his morning typically included a hard ten-mile run, followed later in the day by routines of bag punching and ring work that verged upon the magical. Days before the fight, the Chicago Tribune would declare that McCoy, as a defensive fighter, “probably has no peer. He glides in and out of mix-ups, parrying blows with right and left and landing all over an opponent at the same time.”
The fight itself excited some difference of opinion – most on the scene, however, were struck hardest by the skill of McCoy, who maintained a slight upper hand over his 30-year old foe, they said, most of the way. “It was a very pretty fight,” in the estimate of the Duluth News Tribune source, “but almost entirely in favor of the younger man.”
From the opening round it was lively, each man razor-keen in his reactions. By the end of four, McCoy’s left hand was getting through in brilliant fashion and he ended that round with a rally. A couple of times in this fight, it was said later, he seemed to have a knockout within reach but chose instead to play it safe. In the fifth, banging hard to head and body, he had his man in a daze at the bell.
Digging down, the fair-haired Jewish fighter (that odd flaxen spray got him dubbed, in some circles, Chrysanthemum Joe) began to press the action. Like any athletic matchup at high level, this was a contest of inches, and fine fractions of inches, each error demanding payment from the man who made it. Each man, by the same token, was too slick and too wary to make the mistake that would end it. Choynski, who was used to being twice as smart as his opponents, found this one to be an exception as slight feints and dodges, round after round, kept him from doing what he wanted.
In the tenth round hard blows were exchanged and Joe was running red from nose and mouth. In the 14th McCoy’s left hand, again, was finding the range and extracting a bloody price. The Kid managed a flash knockdown with that hand in the 17th round, at which point he had the fight won in the minds of most observers. The last three rounds were fought on roughly even terms – in the 19th, however, a Choynski left hand brought blood from the Kid’s own nose and dotted the floor with an Irish crimson stain.
And at the end, neither man could be ashamed. After 20 rounds, Joe was a hammered yet happy sight with the marks of war at his eyes, nose, and mouth. McCoy, despite that late round damage, was almost unscathed. The two men, who had shaken hands at the start, did the same at the end. Referee Jim Kennedy was joined at ring center by renowned ring announcer Billy Jordan.
“McCoy,” said Jim decisively to Billy, who reiterated for the audience, “McCoy wins.”
* * *
It has long been surmised that the Kid was the origin of the phrase “real McCoy” – a word that conveys (ironically, maybe) genuineness in its object wherever it appears. While the phrase may predate his heyday by a little (it appears, for example, in an 1881 a work by James S. Bonds entitled The Rise and Fall of the Union Club), it is fair to say that the Kid gave it impetus. Trumpeted Naughton himself in his headline the next morning, NOW YOU’VE SEEN THE REAL McCOY! (Given the Kid’s erratic nature, it has been said, too, that those attending his fights would wonder aloud if a sufficiently motivated “real” McCoy would show up.)
In August, the Kid took on four men over a stretch of eight days. He knocked out three of them before being stopped oddly in a single round by unheralded Jack McCormick. He remained undefeated (beating McCormick handily in a rematch) through the rest of the year, and on New Year’s Day of 1900 he took on veteran Peter Maher, an Irish heavyweight terror who had given Bob Fitzsimmons a war for 12 rounds a few years earlier. McCoy shut down Peter in five.
Eleven days later he stopped Choynski at the end of three rounds – a fight that was marred by controversy, with McCoy getting help, it was reported, from an early bell in the second round and dropping Joe just after the bell ending the third. Still, the Kid’s win, even if tainted, was no small feat – as one index, Joe would have enough left, in the following year, to flatten a young Jack Johnson in three rounds with what Jack would call the hardest shot (on impact, he said, he felt that the ring floor had swung up and hit him in the back) he ever got. In May the Kid knocked out Dan Creedon and eleven days after that, he boxed six modest rounds (some sources have it a draw, some a decision win for McCoy) with Tommy Ryan.
In late summer he met former heavyweight champion Jim Corbett in a fight that Corbett won in five rounds. While this match did not offer up the wild contrast of McCoy and Sharkey, it did have some intrigue: James and the Kid were oddly parallel in both style and sensibility. Each man was known for his vanity; each prided himself, too, upon uplifting the sport from its earthen days in the London Prize Ring. The two men had also some personal acquaintance, and their wives (at some point, anyway) had been the best of friends. And aside from all this, they were hailed all over as the two smartest ringmen in the world. The bout took place on the evening of August 30, 1900, just hours before a state anti-boxing law went into effect. It did not draw well, owing perhaps to rumors of a fix that had wafted in recent days.
Strangely different things get said about this fight – it was a blatant fake, a war to the finish, or a fine rendition of ring skill, depending on who tells it. As best it can be gleaned from firsthand accounts, it was waged on roughly even terms for the first few rounds. Corbett landed hard to McCoy’s head in the fifth round and scored moments later with several punches underneath. McCoy went to the canvas, where he rolled over a couple of times and got up unaided after taking the count. Leaving the ring, noted a few bystanders, each man was remarkably clean in appearance for having waged such a battle.
Afterward the Kid went to a health farm that he had recently opened near Saratoga to serve both as a business and as a personal retreat from the fight scene. One of his first clients, Edward Ellis, was an heir to the Ellis Locomotive Company. (When Ellis later came down with typhoid fever, it gave a wicked field day to the Broadway columnists.) In time Edward married actress Estelle Earle, who had been in residence at the farm as well. Julia, currently in her third go-round with the Kid, embarked on a voyage overseas with McCoy client Ralph Thompson, one-time coxswain of the Yale Crew and lately a man about town in his own right.
And so did another McCoy union dissolve. When his bar went out of business, the Kid filed for bankruptcy with $25,000 in debts and little more than two racks of clothes as his listed assets. Not long after he quietly married Indianola Arnold, an actress who was starring in an early production of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. The marriage soon ended in annulment.
At this time, too, noted dramatist Augustus Thomas produced a stage play called The Other Girl, which involved a fortune-hunting boxer who falls for an heiress. Lionel Barrymore, cast in the lead, had made a meticulous study of the Kid beforehand and patterned his entire role after him. Opening at the Criterion Theatre late in 1903, the show ran successfully for six months and cast McCoy himself, in effect, in a favorable light.
“Women,” the Kid was known to say, “are the real defenders of marriage. It provides them with meal tickets and old-age insurance.” Maybe this jaded outlook helps to explain his tendency to get off first, as it were, in his own relationships with members of the fair sex and to use them as a means to his end. In 1904, Ellis died, leaving to his wife more than $7,000,000. Soon afterward McCoy married her. By now feeling that he was done with the ring, the fighter – seeking to become again Norman Selby – opened two jewelry stores and organized a nationwide detective agency in collaboration with a former New York City policeman.
As president of each enterprise, Selby operated out of upscale offices in the heart of Manhattan. But there was no way, he soon found, to get rid of that other side of him. Fame, as McCoy’s friend Dean Jennings would later put it, “is a chronic disease, and not always amenable to treatment.” Newspapers referred to Selby using both last names in hyphenated fashion, and it did not help when his wife called her yacht The Kid McCoy. Nor did it help when total strangers tried to goad him into fights. On one occasion some inebriated college jocks, seeing him dressed to the nines in a bar, took to arguing about whether he was the real article. When one walked up and belted him, he got his answer. But it was a no-win situation for the fighter, who did not benefit from the resulting image of that young student out cold on the barroom floor. On a sidewalk outside the Café Madrid, noted mining engineer Asa Willard Hein also started up with him – while Asa, too, fared poorly in the trade, each man got pinched for disorderly conduct. More headlines were generated. There was no escaping, it seemed, the bad press or the Kid McCoy persona.
It may be that Hein had reasons for his ill will – at the time, as it turned out, he was suing his wife for divorce with McCoy named as a co-respondent. The fighter, in any case, now retreated on a hunting trip (though out of season) in Canada. Afterward he sailed for Europe. His name surfaced again when reporters came upon a record of his marriage to Edna, Hein’s former wife.
The Kid and Edna settled in New York, where he opened a bar and restaurant in the Hotel Normandie near the site of his former Casino establishment. Here McCoy renewed ties with old acquaintances, among them fledgling director David Wark Griffith, recently returned from California and fresh off his first major success. Griffith, who would soon achieve pioneering fame in the film industry, often met McCoy in his bar for conversation and went with him regularly to his gymnasium for tutoring in the manly art.
Those who count McCoy as being essentially mean and conniving will find ammunition for that claim in his life story, but they would do well to look closer at some details. In a somewhat revisionist piece that attends to facts seldom remembered, Robert Cantwell remarks that while the Kid might have lived in a fashionable world, he did not share its every outlook. The going furor over Jack Johnson’s heavyweight championship reign, for example, and the nation-wide quest, championed in daily news columns and touted from many a church pulpit, to find a “white hope” who would redeem the race, struck McCoy as being ridiculous. When Johnson’s wife (who was white) took her own life in 1912, he wrote a letter to The Morning Telegraph pleading for greater understanding between the races and insisting upon each man’s moral duty “to treat his fellow man as a brother and each woman as you would have your own mother and sister treated.” (The paper, lest its image be tarnished, ran the piece with an aside: “The Morning Telegraph can scarcely agree with Kid McCoy.”)
McCoy’s own business eventually folded when he had recurrent trouble keeping his liquor license. At 39, he returned to the ring for several fights that took him to Philadelphia, Toronto, and again France. He also started an auto agency. Too proud, too cagy, to end up as a stepping stone for younger men, he fared well enough, but at this point he was fighting merely to stay afloat. In France he established a friendship with the earlier noted Maurice Maeterlinck, a mystically oriented Belgian who had recently won a Nobel Prize in literature and was now enjoying a vogue in European circles. An unusual specimen, ethereal in verse, yet stout and robust in his earthly form, Maeterlinck loved all manner of athletic pursuits. (Versed to some extent in ring science, he would on occasion invite a dinner guest to don the gloves for a sparring session.)
After a pleasant stay at one of Maeterlinck’s estates, the Kid moved on to Ostend, residing at the Palace Hotel resort where lodging at the time was the Princess von Thurn und Taxis, a Pittsburgh heiress who had married into Austrian royalty the year prior. On the day that the Kid left Belgium for London, the princess declared that $80,000 worth of her jewels was missing.
The man charged with the theft was one Squealer Kemp, a New York gambler who had been posing as an industrialist from London. Since McCoy had been seen in his company, police now wondered if he had taken the goods with him when he departed. As a result, he was picked up in London and held for a number of days. When it was finally decided that the evidence against him was non-existent, he was freed, but the publicity was no less damning.
McCoy’s last significant fight would come in 1914, a hard go in London that he won over the course of 20 rounds. Meanwhile, four years prior and closer to home, Mexico had become embroiled in a revolution that would span six years. In 1913, William Howard Taft stationed military forces along the Rio Grande in order to protect United States citizens from violence that might cross the border. When incoming president Woodrow Wilson denounced the new government, those forces saw their share of action against a southwestern wave of murder and mayhem.
The Kid, now out of favor in political circles, enlisted in the National Guard. He would soon see service under General John O’Ryan as part of the effort against Mexican leader Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Later, when America entered the Great War, he was made a recruiting sergeant, and by all accounts, he was an effective one, roaming wide, selling bonds at a record clip, and eschewing the stock military platitudes for straight talk to potential enlistees. When the war ended he worked for a time as a detective for a petroleum company and served as a physical culture instructor for folk in the entertainment industry. He spent time, as well, in Hollywood, working on occasion as an extra in small proto-Westerns that were thriving in those years.
At this time his old friend David Griffith wanted to make a film that was smaller and less expensive than were his grand scale projects Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation. He signed McCoy for a substantial role in Broken Blossoms, a story based upon a chapter from Thomas Burke’s novel Limehouse Lights. The film was garish in its portrayal – a menacing prizefighter (Donald Crisp), his pristine and tragic daughter (Lillian Gish), and gentle longsuffering Chinese supporting characters, one of whom was actually played by young actor Richard Barthelmess, wearing a rubber band under his skull cap to effect a “slanting” of his eyes. The most credible of the cast was McCoy, himself cast as a fighter without the distended features of the others.
While today it might be received otherwise, the show won raves from reviewers who extolled it as the harbinger of a new artistic trend. The Kid went on other roles in film, cast more than once as that real McCoy, as it were, who strove for fulfillment amidst cheapness and deceit. But even as he rode this new wave of celebrity, he was not meeting his own expenses. In 1922 he was again insolvent. His life now took a powerful turn, for both better and worse, when he became involved with Theresa Weinstein Mors, a heavy-set Scotch whisky enthusiast currently estranged from her husband Albert, with whom she owned a thriving antique store in Los Angeles. In 1923 the Kid was employed as her bodyguard. It was a tense situation, and when the Morses had public rows on a couple of occasions over their joint assets, McCoy was ordered to steer clear of the store.
For a time, he and Theresa kept an apartment after the divorce became final. The two shared a low-key existence under an assumed name until the next year, when one summer night they went to the Mors’ former residence and a dispute flared between the former spouses. There was a brief altercation, after which the Kid and Theresa left. Soon afterward he told her that he was leaving to spend time in New York.
Theresa, distressed already over her tug of war with Albert, and fearing also, by some accounts, that her remaining assets would be confiscated as smuggled property by the government, now felt that she was being abandoned by her closest companion. One night at the apartment their own quarrel erupted.
At some point, an adjacent resident would later say, Mors cried out, “Oh, my God, don’t do that!” The cry was repeated, after which there came a gunshot. The neighbor tried the door, which was locked, and not until the next morning did a janitor find Mors dead, shot in the head, with a .32 automatic next to her and a sheet (some accounts say that there lay also a blood-stained photo of McCoy) over her body. In the room, too, was the scribbled statement of McCoy – apparently a suicide note – that read, “To whom it may concern – All my effects I leave to my darling mother. – Norman Selby” (Possibly there was a second statement – according to Jennings, the Kid designated as his sole heir Jennie Thomas, one of his three sisters, who lived in the Los Angeles area.)
At about the time that local police were surveying this scene, however, McCoy was alive and raising havoc down the street at Theresa’s store with a loaded .45 in his hand. Disheveled and appearing to be drunk, he was ordering several men, customers and employees, to remove their shoes and pants. Then, after telling a janitor to lay down a dance record to mask any noise, he sorted through their pockets. When one customer started toward him, McCoy shot and wounded him and did the same to two others. Swearing crazily, he barreled out the door and was apprehended as he fled through Westlake Park.
* * *
The crime scene raised some questions. Police speculated that Mors and the Kid might have entered, at some point prior, into a suicide pact. McCoy would say only that after Theresa shot herself, he had drunk heavily and did not have any recollection after. In the days that followed, he put on a fairly good jail cell act of his own insanity – an act that might have worked for someone who did not have his life-long reputation. (Indeed some wondered if the scene at the store, the morning after Theresa’s death, had been part and parcel of the same crafted plan.)
Were not the famous Loeb-Leopold murder trial then in progress, this case might have made national headlines. Be that as it may, it received its share of attention. It also became a living hell for McCoy, who sat and listened as three and a half decades’ worth of stories – his fights, his marriages, his divorces and remarriages, his alleged theft of jewels, and more – poured out in the testimony.
The argument made by the prosecution was compelling, and in a last ditch effort to clear himself, the Kid took the stand. After describing events that had (so he claimed) led up to Theresa’s suicide, he reenacted the death scene with the help of his own attorney, the talented Jerry Geisler, who would be hailed in time as a defense strategist on the order of Clarence Darrow.
With a carving knife in his hand, the defendant now explained how Theresa had attempted to kill herself with it. In a mock struggle, he and Geisler sought to show how McCoy had then tried to wrench the blade from her hand, suffering a cut himself in the effort. Theresa, said the Kid, had finally used the gun on herself.
It was no easy sell, since Mors, who was right-handed, had an entrance wound on the left side of her head and seemingly at more than arm’s length distance. The jurors returned after a record length 78 hours.
While there was no escaping a conviction, the Kid caught one break: The charge was reduced from murder to manslaughter. Weeping bitterly just the same, he declared his innocence and the injustice of the verdict. Days later, Judge Charles S. Crail laid down the sentence – consecutive stretches that ran, in maximum, nearly half a century.
* * *
On April 11, 1925, the Kid entered San Quentin. At 52, it appeared, he would reside there for life. But the old warrior now managed one more surprise: Year upon year, he toed the line. Every rule he followed, every obliging effort he made – in time, San Quentin officials might have wondered if they had received within their walls Kid McCoy, Will Rogers or St. Francis. Regaling fellow cons with tales from his past, endearing himself to guards, shop foremen and the warden himself, he was the most admired convict in the joint.
Somehow, and despite his longstanding image in the sporting world – not to mention that shooting spree – he resonated also with the outside public. Fan mail, often accompanied by gifts of food and cash, poured into the institution, and the Kid took pains, often late into the night, to acknowledge it with thanks. Celebrities like Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, and John and Lionel Barrymore now crossed the San Francisco Bay to make or renew their acquaintances with San Quentin’s most beloved inmate and its firehouse chief. Young fans wanting pictures and signatures got them, thanks in part to McCoy’s arrangement with a photographer who sent prime-era shots of the Kid all over the world without asking for compensation.
By the time the fighter had served seven years, a “Free McCoy” movement was afoot. Petitions circulating in major cities soon had on them the names of some of the most influential people in the country. Four state governors, a dozen members of Congress, numerous city mayors, and even Vice President Charles Curtis joined in the cause. Douglas MacArthur, Tex Rickard, William Powell, Georgie Jessel, Jimmy Walker, Lon Chaney – support came from high places and from every corner. The letter that the Kid treasured above all was one from James Corbett, himself now at death’s door, that described him as being “a good fellow at heart” and urged all to lend him a helping hand.
At last Crail, who had handed down the original sentence, granted McCoy a pardon. He was entrusted to the care of Ford Motor Company executive Harry Bennett, who had actually learned some boxing from the Kid many years prior.
Breathing free air at last, the old fighter wept. He promised over and over to “make good.” Thanks to Bennett and to Henry Ford, he scored a nominal assignment tending the company vegetable garden.
The Closing Act
On the face of it, the Kid was making good, even if that sleight of hand trait never quite left him. Years earlier, it was said, when he ran a gym in New York, he would sometimes greet a new pupil with a distracting question, then clip him on the chin as a warning to “never trust anybody” – and charge for the lesson. Now, late in life, the old Kid surfaced one day on the street when he was involved while driving in a minor scrape with a truck. Tempers flared, and the driver started toward him with menacing words. Feigning a hearing loss, the Kid asked him to repeat. When the trucker, advancing jaw-first, sought to amplify, he got the classic McCoy treatment.
But overall, it seemed, McCoy had settled into a sound and comfortable existence, albeit one less lively than what he once had. He stayed with the Ford Company, and when his parole time was up, he made a visit to his home area, taking yet another bride in the process. He enjoyed a visit, as well, with fellow ring great Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, whom he had met in a six-round bout years earlier. While there were still traces of the old vanity (he would brag to inquirers that his former wives all gathered around him each year at some party that was hosted in Detroit), McCoy appeared to be well settled.
One April night in 1940, still trim and seemingly in good spirits at 67, the Kid checked into the Tuller Hotel in Detroit. Some time that evening he swallowed a handful of pills and he was found the next morning cold and lifeless on the bed.
A note was there with him –
To Whom it May Concern – For the last eight years I have wanted to help humanity, especially the youngsters who do not know nature’s laws. That is, the proper carriage of the body, the right way to eat, etc. … To all my dear friends, I wish you the best of luck. Sorry I could not endure any more of this world’s madness. The best to you all. Norman E. Selby
What motive lay behind these words this has never been gleaned with certainty. It never will be. Some have said that this supposed anguish over the world’s madness made no sense, coming from a man who had lived in such madly egocentric fashion himself. In the view of Stan Weston, the Kid’s last moments were spent merely in twisted enjoyment of his one final act of deceit.
Others think that old Norman had some good in him and that this note was an expression of it. And maybe so – that remark, for example, about helping the younger generation, which some writers have ridiculed, had a precedent in the Kid’s health farm enterprise and in his column “How to Take Care of Yourself”, which appeared in the periodical Variety at that time and described to his readers the reward of good living in fresh clean air.
As for the act itself, some thought that it owed to his passing from the limelight, and to the demands of his Ford position, which had kept him too much on the straight and narrow. Again, explanations need not be all or nothing, and more than one cause might factor into an equation of this kind. Sheer life chemistry may enter into it somewhere – McCoy’s own mother, for what it is worth, had been institutionalized years earlier with suicidal tendencies. Geisler’s courtroom portrayal of the Kid included the claim that he had a natural impulse toward self-destruction when under “stress of shock.”
And some speculation goes along spiritual lines:
By violence, by trickery, and by women, as Lardner put it – “Perhaps,” he said, recalling the old fighter’s demise, “there had been one sin in his life that was too big for him to live with any longer.”
And might this, too, have something in it? Moral sages from Socrates to Kierkegaard tell of the ruin that a self-enclosed life brings sooner or later upon the one who lives it. Did the inner weight of McCoy’s lifelong exploitation of others finally make his own existence unbearable? Could it be that this dying reference to helping young people gave vent to a real impulse that had never, for some deep inhibiting reason, found adequate expression in all his prior years?
It is not given to us, in mortal life, to know such a thing: Each of us, in a way, is two things – one, what he is to the world; the other, a deep silent reservoir, a moral wellspring of hope and fear, of ideal and loathing and love and potential, that even he himself cannot judge with finality. If the sages are right, this world does not fully disclose to us what we are, nor all that we will be. Perhaps in the greater scheme, Norman Selby (and God willing, not just he) will exceed what strides he made here. Indeed it may be that some men accomplish more in this round than mortal eyes discern. In the meantime, we might be grateful, at least, for his story – and for his instructive flesh and blood example, both good and bad, of one mad conniving hell-to-pay fighter.
I wish to express my thanks to fellow IBRO member Chris LaForce and to Mike Dunn for their generous help on this project and for their contribution of eyewitness reports of several McCoy fights. Information on the Kid and his career can be found at multiple websites, including those of BoxRec and the Cyber Boxing Zone. The piece by Robert Cantwell first ran in a June 1970 issue of Sports Illustrated and is available likewise on-line. Those who wish to explore the literature of McCoy will find wonderfully entertaining accounts penned by authors like John Lardner, Stan Weston, Mike Sherry, and Dean Jennings in mid-century issues of Boxing and Wrestling and Boxing Illustrated Wrestling News magazines and True magazine’s boxing yearbooks. KN