In the Golden Age of boxing there were few fighters who matched William
Austin (“Billy”) Myer for power or character. Billy Myer was of
Prussian descent. His earliest identified ancestor, Christopher Myer,
came to America in about 1710 and his great grandfather Christopher Myer,
Jr. fought with George Washington at Valley Forge. The Myer
family was frequently on the move and in 1848 Billy’s grandfather and
father moved from West Virginia to the hardscrabble area around Ottawa,
Illinois. Over the years the family relocated several times.
After Ottawa they moved to a postage stamp located in the northwest corner
of Livingston County, Illinois know as Blackstone. a water stop on the
Illinois, Iowa and Indiana R. R. In the late 1870s, the Myer family
moved to Streator, Illinois and that town became Billy’s home.
Billy’s father was a carpenter by profession.
Billy was born February 23, 1860 as the fourth child (but first boy) in a
family of eleven children. Streator was a rapidly growing coal mining
town in the 1880s. There was a string of coal towns near Streator including
Spring Valley, Braceville, and Braidwood. A substantial seam of
coal had been found outcropping along the bank of the Vermillion River - a
glorified creek that dribbles through Streator on its way to the Illinois
River. The discovery of coal ballooned the population of Streator to
nearly eighteen thousand in the mid-1880s and many of them were immigrant
miners from central Europe and Italy. The people of these towns were
not very attentive to the Victorian ideals of older Illinois farm
communities and it actively promoted boxing and wrestling even electing
Billy’s father Police Magistrate in the late 1880s.
It isn’t very clear how Billy became interested in
boxing. A family story traces his interest to an incident in
Springfield, Illinois in July of 1881. It is said that Billy had
followed a troupe from Streator to Springfield to watch their show. A
local tough made the mistake of approaching Billy as he sat quietly on the
curb watching the performance. The tough allegedly asked Billy if he
thought he was a tough guy, uttered a slur about Streator, and then slugged
Billy in the face. Supposedly, Billy stood up, knocked his assailant
cold with one blow and then paid for a cab to take him home unconscious.
Billy’s longtime backer, Alf Kennedy, told a newspaper reporter that he
was the one who suggested that Billy should get involved in boxing.
Kennedy was a big man and he claimed that he had been wrestling with Billy
sometime in the early 1880s when he realized how strong he was and then
suggested that Billy consider prizefighting. A third story is that
Billy decided to participate in a local amateur tournament sponsored by
Parson Davies and rolled through the competition. A final story was
that Billy attended a prize fight where one of the participants failed to
show. When the call was made for volunteers Billy came forward.
Even though he weighed only about 112 pounds and was substantially
outweighed by his opponent he held his own and was credited with the
victory. What is known is that after moving to Streator in the late 1870s,
Billy’s father built a barn behind the family’s home on LaSalle Street
where Billy and his younger brothers Sam and Ed sparred with each other and
with other local talent foolish enough to come in for a set-to.
Myer vs. Welch
Billy began his rise to prominence in 1895 when he
knocked out Paddy Welch in Sreator in thirty two seconds of the first
round. Welch was either from Braidwood or south Chicago (depending on
which news account you accept) and had carried the title of Lightweight
Champion of Illinois. Billy had been receiving some training from
Arthur Magesty a journeyman lightweight fighter from Bloomington who had
fought Tommy Warren several times. Billy’s quick victory was said to
be a surprise and Welch claimed that he had been the victim of a “lucky
punch” and demanded a rematch. As with other fighters to follow, the
demand for a rematch with Billy was a mistake. Their second fight was
for a $1,000 was held in Braidwood, Illinois. Half-ounce gloves were
used. Three train car loads of Streator fight fans poured into
Braidwood to watch the fight to the finish. They backed Billy with
$5,000 of local money. Magesty and a local heavyweight fighter, George
Mulvey, acted as Billy’s seconds. Alf Kennedy who owned a saloon in
Streator was Billy’s financial backer. Owen Lee Cheney, a
Bloomington fight promoter who would later play a prominent role in
Billy’s career, acted as Master of Ceremonies. After chasing Welch
around the ring for two rounds, Billy caught up with him in the third and
again laid Welch out dislocating Welch’s shoulder in the process. So
much for the “lucky punch” excuse.
Myer vs. Charlie Daly
Billy’s two knock outs against Welch brought his name
to national attention. His success was particularly noticed in Saint
Louis where there was an active fight fraternity including Dick Roche, Bob
Farrell and the Daly brothers, Dan, Charlie and Johnny. The Dalys had
two saloons. Their home base was a saloon on Seventh street between
Market and Chestnut in downtown Saint Louis. The bar fronted for an
open area in the back of the building where a ring was set up on an elevated
stage. There were frequent fights in the back of the Dalys’ saloon
that were rough affairs and often included rank amateurs fighting to the
finish. In one such fight in September 1889, Thomas Jackson an
eighteen year old local tough was killed by Ed Herron who fought under the
name Ed Ahearn.
Aware of Billy’s victories against Welch, the Dalys
arranged for a match against Charlie Daly through Lee Cheney of Bloomington
with Cheney backing Daly with big money. Cheney was something of a Don
King/Vince McMahon of the 1880s. He owned a race track in Bloomington
and had acted as the manager of the local professional baseball team.
His career in baseball ended shortly after he went after his own pitcher
with a baseball bat during a game. Cheney had founded the so-called
Liberal League in Bloomington. Essentially, the Liberal League was
opposed to law enforcement and he had earned himself a least one trip to the
local jail for refusing to close his saloon and billiard parlor at the
Ashley Hotel within the prescribed hours.
The Myer vs. Daly fight was arranged in Bloomington where boxing had been
outlawed and was supposed to take place in Minonk, Illinois about half way
between Bloomington and Streator of the Illinois Central R R. The
Dalys came on the Chicago & Alton R. R., picked up Cheney in Bloomington
and proceeded north on the “IC” to Wenona where a spur line from
Streator intersected. Billy and his supporters boarded at Wenona but
when the train arrived in Minonk local law enforcement would not permit the
fight to proceed as planned.
The train then backed up to the tiny town of Woodford
Illinois and descended on a small pub which was commandeered for the fight.
The saloon’s stove and bar were carried outside and without a ring the
fight commenced. One hundred fans crammed into the tiny building at
$5.00 a head. Cheney was present and he was betting heavy money on
Charlie with odds freely given Myer stripped to 139 pounds and
Charlie who was taller weighed in at 146. Dan Daly was acting as
second for Charlie. Later Dan said that the fight was under the most
dangerous conditions he had seen because of the glass windows, doors, and
moulding around the windows and wainscoating in the bar. Dan claimed
that Billy tried to maneuver Charlie around so that he could knock him
through a window and cut him up with the broken glass. Charlie
supposedly fought low and landed more often but Billy was a “stayer”.
In the fifteenth round Charlie landed a terrific blow between Myer’s eyes
but Billy came to scratch for the sixteenth. In the meantime, Billy
was working over the right side of Daly’s head and neck with his left
while sending hard punches into his stomach with his right hand.
Apparently, the body blows began to tell and in the thirty second round
Billy landed a devastating right hand to Charlie’s face. Charlie
fell on his back and was said to be visibly twitching on the floor for five
minutes. One account says that Charlie was out cold for half an hour.
Another account said that he passed out later in the day on his way home.
Daly came away with a broken nose and could only comment that he had done
the best he could. His brother claimed that Charlie had not really
been knocked out but had fallen from exhaustion, but brothers say almost
Myer vs. Gilmore
After dispatching Charlie Daly and the Saint Louis crowd
and costing Cheney a small fortune, Billy fought and defeated Jack Gallagher
at Dana, Illinois in June of 1887. He was then matched with Harry
Gilmore who was carrying the title of Lightweight Champion of the Northwest
and fighting out of Saint Paul, Minnesota. The first Myer/Gilmore
fight was with two ounce gloves for $1,000 a side and held in Saint Croix,
Wisconsin on October 19, 1887. Gilmore was a true professional fighter
and was credited with twenty-nine victories. Again the pre-fight
betting was heavily in favor of Gilmore with many fans from Minneapolis/St.
Paul (referred to in local Streator papers as “Blizzardville”) on hand
to see their man “do” in the Streator boy. John L. Sullivan’s
backer was present at the fight and backing Gilmore with heavy money but, as
the newspapers reported after the fight: “Man proposes but Myer
Early in their first fight Gilmore rushed Myer thinking he had the advantage
of experience. He was soon brought up short by Billy’s thundering
right hand. By the fourth round, Gilmore abandoned the idea of rushing
and decided to rely on “science”. Then Billy started to force the
fighting and rained “sledge-hammer” blows on Gilmore frequently sending
him to the ropes. In the fifth round Billy caught Harry with a solid
right and sent him to “grass” not to rise again. After the fight
Myer dressed himself, asked for a cigar and smoked complacently while he
waited for the trip home. The Blizzardville fans were said to have
lost $8,000 on the fight and Gilmore, like Welch, claimed that he had been
the victim of a “lucky punch” and demanded a rematch.
Myer obliged Gilmore’s demand. There second fight
was to take place at North Judson, Indiana on January 19, 1888. North
Judson was a berg of 165 citizens. Its only claim to fame at the time
was that it was at the east end of the Illinois, Iowa & Indiana R. R.
The triple “I” passed through Streator and was willing to rent trains to
the Streator fight fans who could escape Illinois law enforcement officials
by taking the three hour train ride to North Judson. North Judson
would later be the site for Billy’s sixty-four round draw with Jack
One hundered Streator fight fans left their depot at 8:30
P.M. on the evening of January 18, 1888 headed for the “secret” location
of the match. Their train was in North Judson by about 11:30
P.M. when a train arrived from Chicago carrying such fight luminaries as
Billy Bradburn, Frank Glover, Parson Davies, Tom Gallagher and John Brannock.
Billy Lakeman of Chicago acted as Master of Ceremonies and Alf Kennedy was
Billy’s backer. Glover acted as referee and Davies held the stakes
of $1,000 a side. Bradburn presented Gilmore with his “colors”
that had been sent to by Richard Kyle Fox of the Police Gazette. Billy
mocked this ostentation by holding up his colors which consisted of an old
glove with a husking peg that his mother had made many years before for use
during the corn harvest. The fight itself lasted twenty eight
seconds before Gilmore earned the title of the “Man-Who Monkeyed-With-The-Cyclone”
and Billy secured the nickname the “Streator Cyclone.” Gilmore was
carried from the ring as another repeat victim of a “lucky punch”.
Myers vs. McAuliffe - Their First Fight
After defeating Danny Needham in Minneapolis, the
inevitable dream lightweight match of all time was arranged between Myer and
Jack McAuliffe. Jack was an Irish immigrant who had been trained by
and ran with some of the greatest fighters ever including Jack Dempsey.
He was an Irish- Catholic immigrant boy who had cleaned up just about anyone
silly enough to climb in the ring with him. He was flashy, had a great
left hand lead and jab and was known for having good “science”.
Dick Roche of Saint Louis was the primary backer for McAuliffe but he also
enjoyed the financial support of the east coast boxing establishment.
Alf Kennedy again acted as Billy’s backer. The fight was to be to
the finish, with skin-tight gloves, under Queensberry rules with the parties
to weight 133 pounds each.
Jack did not take Billy lightly. Both he and Billy
began serious training for their fight two about six weeks before the match.
Billy trained in Streator, Tom Lees the Australian heavyweight
was brought in to bring Billy around. Lees reported that his job was
easy because Billy was a hard worker who had to be restrained from
overtraining rather than pushed. As an interesting side light, Myer
used electrical batteries which he hooked up to stimulate his muscles as
part of his training regimen. This was at a time in Illinois when many
towns and cities didn’t even have electric lights.
Jack went into training at John Kline’s training
facility in Beloit, Wisconsin. Kline was an old-time wrestler who had
outfitted a training room in Beloit that attracted many prominent wrestlers
and fighters of that period. Billy Madden and Bob Drew went to
Kline’s with Jack and supervised his preparation. Both fighters had
been over 150 pounds in December 1888, but they both quickly rounded into
fighting form and both easily made the requred weight.
On the evening of February 12, 1889 it was ten degrees
below zero in Streator. About 6:00 P.M. that night a special train
chartered from the triple “I” pulled up to the depot with four passenger
cars and a freight car. The ring for the fight had been built by Billy
himself in his father’s carpenter shop. The ring was loaded into the
freight car and Billy and his closest friends boarded and went into a small
compartment made for that purpose. Hundreds of Streator fight fans
boarded the passenger cars and again the train departed for its secret
location - North Judson, Indiana. It was an uncomfortable trip for the
fans. The heaters in the cars did not work and the walls were not much
help against the bitting cold. In addition, the train engine developed
an oil leak and had to stop every so often to re-oil the engine. About
that same time special trains were being loaded at Chicago and Saint Louis
also heading for North Judson. The interest in Chicago was so great
that it was said the business of the City Council came to a halt because
alderman kept drifting out of chambers to catch the special train. One
hundred traders from the Chicago Board of Trade supposedly left for the
fight. Five hundred fans were said to have boarded a special Chicago &
Atlantic R.R. train that loaded up at Fifteenth street headed for an unknown
destination. Among those in attendance were the luminaries of prize
fighting of the 1880s including Davies, Bradburn, Madden, Mike Corcoran and
John Condon. Some reports said that over $100,000 was bet on the
Before the fight Billy gave several interviews. His
primary concern was that his friends in Streator were beating so much money
on him. Streator was not a wealthy town but it seemed to have decided
that because Billy was involved it had to match the money of Chicago, Saint
Louis, and New York dollar for dollar. Odds were again in favor of
Billy’s opponent and Billy was worried that he might not be a match for
The Streator train arrived at North Judson at about 11:30
P.M. only to be met my the local Sheriff who said that he had orders from
the Indiana Governor not to permit the fight to go forward. This man
would need some “convincing”. The fans were loaded back on their
trains and pulled several miles down the track where they stopped and sat in
the arctic night. About 4:00 A.M. the trains were pulled back into
North Judson (the Sheriff having “gone to bed”) and the ring was taken
off the train and set up in the Old Opera House. It was not until 7:00
A.M. on February 13, 1889 that the fight actually began. Sixty four
rounds and over four hours later the fight was declared a draw.
There are numerous newspaper accounts of the fight and they are not very
consistent in their round-by-round reports. All seem agree that Myer
was awarded “first blood” in the twenty-ninth round and “first knock
down”. All seem to agree that Myer fought a very defensive fight and
had some good success in the process. McAuliffe had the best left hand
in the business. Billy fought with an unconventional right hand lead
and he was said to have the best right hand in the business. When
McAuliffe would try to close Billy would counter and seemed to be working
hard on McAuliffe’s left arm trying to take-out Jack’s best weapon.
The fans became restless. It had been a long, cold night. Fans
drifted out to the local grocery store where they bought cheese and crackers
to eat because nothing else seemed to be available. When they returned
to ringside the fight would be still in progress with little to distinguish
round forty from round fifty. During the fight Billy and Jack talked
to one another apparently trying to psyche each other out. When the
referee declared the match a draw, Billy supposedly told Jack that the two
of them should go alone into a twelve by twelve room and fight until only
one could come out. Jack declined.
The terms of the fight were supposed to be “to the
finish”. Within a day, Alf Kennedy and Billy began to press Jack to
finish the fight. On February 15th, Kennedy sent a telegram to Dick
Roche at Saint Louis asking for an early date to resume the contest.
Myer and Kennedy then went to Chicago to press the referee to continue the
fight. They contended that the fight was supposed to resume
within seventy-two hours. They met with Parson Davies and
finally with the referee, Mike McDonald but with no success. Reports
circulated that McAuliffe was hurt badly with a large lump over his heart
and many black and blue spots on his body. Billy said: “I know that
I could have whipped him that night at North Judson. He might now
knock me silly in five minutes but I could have knocked him out cold then if
I had only been given a few more rounds.” In the meantime, McAuliffe
and Madden had moved on to fulfill an exhibition engagement in Milwaukee.
McAuliffe denied that any stipulation existed requiring the fight to
continue within seventy-two hours and Madden began backwatering claiming
that a fight might be arranged in California at some unspecified later date.
It would be more than three years later before Jack and Billy entered the
ring again and that was part of the greatest fight series of all time at the
Olympic Club in September 1892.
Billy’s Career Begins to Slide
In late 1889, Billy split with his old friend and backer,
Alf Kennedy. Supposedly, the split was amicable. After the first
McAuliffe fight, Billy had gone to New York and he and his brother Ed
appeared in the play “After Dark” at the Bijou theater. In mid-May
1889, frustrated in his attempts to get McAuliffe back in the ring, Billy
put out a general challenge to fight any lightweight in the world.
There was an early taker and on May 29, 1889, Billy knocked out Jack Hopper
at New York in two rounds. He stayed in New York until at least June
of 1889 and was accepted as an all around “good fellow”. At the
time of the Johnstown flood, he was reported to have contributed to the
Johnstown relief fund.
By October 1889, Billy was back in Illinois but was
relocating from Streator to Bloomington. A short time later he signed
on with Lee Cheney. This was probably not a good move for Billy.
Cheney put together a variety show consisting of piano players, club
swingers, a ventriloquist, and other acts that culminated with an interview
with and fight demonstration by Billy. Their act was not well received
and they were essentially booed off the stage when they appeared in Peoria
in November 1889. Their act didn’t “play in Peoria”.
During this same period, Myer suffered some physical problems including a
bout with malaria and an attack of neuralgia.
Myer vs. Bowden
In early 1890, Cheney began to finally book some
additional fights for Myer. One fight took place as a rematch with
Jack Hooper. On April 30, 1890 in Alexandria, Virginia. Hooper was
dispatched with a KO in the sixth round. It appeared that Billy was
rounding into form. However, during the Hooper fight Billy injured or
broke his right arm. In the meantime, Cheney had booked him for a
fight only three weeks later with Andy Bowen a New Orleans lightweight and a
Myer traveled from Virginia to New Orleans and soon
thereafter contracted some local malady that was probably akin those
suffered by modern day travelers to Mexico. He was weak before the
fight began and wrote to a friend that he should not be attempting to fight
again because he was sick and out of condition. It is hard to know
exactly what happened in this fight. I suspect that Cheney, knowing
that Billy was injured and sick, may have bet against his own fighter.
In the early rounds Bowen controlled the fight to the delight of the local
crowd. This is the account of the last few rounds from the “Saint
Louis Post Dispatch”:
Twenty-sixth round - Both men were covered with blood.
Honors were easy, neither man managing to get blows home.
Twenty-seventh round - Science was thrown to the winds
and the men both hit out viciously. Bowen seemed very tired and the
general impression was that Myer had won the fight.
Twenty-eighth round - Myer maintained his advantage and
staggered the local man two or three times. But he seemed unable to
give a knockout blow, although he had Bowen on the ropes.
Cheney, Billy Myer’s manager, threw up the sponge
before the twenty-ninth round was called and the fight was awarded to Bowen.
After the fight, Cheney claimed that he was worried that
Billy could not finish the fight because of his injured arm. Cheney
then gave Billy $65.00 and left for Bloomington claiming that he was
dropping out of the fight game for good. A benefit was planned for
Myer in New Orleans but the Mayor refused to let it go forward. Billy
and his brother Ed (who had been beat up during the fight by New Orleans
“fans”) then took a slow boat up the Mississippi River and then headed
back to Streator by train. Billy refused to say much about Cheney when
they reached home, but his brother said Cheney’s decision to throw in the
sponge came without any consultation with Billy or his seconds.
Myer vs. McAuliffe - Their Second
Myer’s career drifted around after his fight with Bowen. However, his name
was still a drawing card and he was matched to fight Jack McAuliffe a second
time with their fight to be on the evening of September 5, 1892. At
this point, Billy was thirty-two years of age and Jack was seven years
younger. Billy was past his prime and I really can’t bring myself to
write too much about this fight which has been reported on by Tracy Callis
in his excellent article about Jack. Jack supposedly won $25,000 in
this second fight. The next day he acted as John L. Sullivan’s
second in his fight with Jim Corbett and promptly lost it all when he bet on
John L. Suffice it to say that Billy was knocked out in the fifteenth
round and, as a practical matter, his status as a leading lightweight
contender was ended.
It isn’t fair to Billy Myer to leave a report about him
with a loss to Jack McAuliffe. William Austin Myer was a remarkable
man. He was respectful son. His was a close family member and
throughout his life his best friends were his brothers Ed and Sam.
Myer was well read and spent at least two hours every day reading several
newspapers and novels. When he lived in Bloomington he would walk to
Illinois State Normal University to meet with a professor there who taught
Greek and Latin. He enjoyed the conversation and would sometimes spar
with that teacher. He was an inventor. As reported above, he
experimented with using electrical impulses in his training as early as 1888
and later in life was credited with inventing several pieces of race track
After his fight career Billy knocked around for a few
years. He managed a hotel in Peoria for a year or so and then went to
Chicago where John Condon engaged Billy and his brother Sam to build the
Harlem race track. With this venture, Myer found is niche in life.
He and Sam they built a track at Hot Springs, Arkansas and another track at
New Orleans. Sam dropped out of the business for personal reasons but
Billy continued on by building a private race track for the Sinclair family
in New Jersey and remodeling tracks at Saratoga, Hawthorne, Illinois,
Rockingham Park, Fort Erie, Canada, Washington and Arlington Parks in
Illinois, the Milwaukee fair grounds, and Tropical Park at Coral Gables,
Florida. Along the way he and his son ran a training facility at Red
Bank, New Jersey where Gene Tunney trained for his fight with Dempsey.
There is a 1941 photograph of Billy (then known only as
“Dad”). He was then eighty-one and astride an iron-gray pony,
smoking a cigar and looking out with approval at his work in Florida . He
died August 27, 1942 in Coral Gables. The world was a poorer place
with his passing.
* I began reading about boxing in Illinois while
doing research about my great grandfather, Richard T. Dunn who once fought
and exhibition against Patsy Cardiff. Cheney promoted that match and
along the way I started reading about Billy Myer and couldn’t stop.
Along the way I encountered Tracy Callis who is, in my opinion, the expert
of boxing in the 1880s and 90s. By chance I came across Samuel
Myer’s great granddaughter, Marianne Parmele of Dublin, Texas who has
provided priceless information about her family. Thanks to both of
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