Sam Langford – No escaping the darkness

Springs Toledo tells the story of Sam Langford and reveals the circumstances of his final days for the first time

“IT WAS A DUNGEON,” Marvin Gilmore said about Boston State Hospital. “Like something out of medieval times.” Located on 232 acres of farmland, it began its therapeutic tenure in the late 19th century with promise, with the idea that a quiet pastoral setting outside the bustling city would do wonders for the lost and the troubled. Six decades later, it had degenerated into a brutal place. Gilmore never forgot the filth, the smell, the danger. “The worst place you could end up in,” he said. There were screams in the night.

He took a job there as an orderly after he was mustered out of the U.S. Army at the end of World War II to help pay his tuition at New England Conservatory of Music. He worked the witch watch—11pm to 7am. His were the clacking shoes in the halls during security checks, the jangling keys. He cared for the living and the dead and coped as best he could with those straddling the hell in between. He’d restrain those who kicked up a fuss and washed the corpses of those who’d kicked over a chair, wrapping them in white cloths, lifting them into the back of ambulances bound for the morgue.

There was one shining light during the two years he walked those dim, dank halls. One of the patients in a crowded dorm on his circuit would wait up for him; a little man, blind and black, whose unassuming disposition belied a craving for an audience. “He kept me up through the shift,” his audience of one recalled, “telling me about the days he was ‘upstairs’—in the money.” Gilmore kept him awake too, and given the variety of assaults that could erupt at any time in those dorms, that too was a favour.

The man was in his mid-60s. Gilmore, also black, was in his mid-20s. “He knew why he was there,” said the latter. “He wasn’t mentally ill. He was indigent and aged. There was no one to take care of him.”

Gilmore took care of him. He washed him, fed him, protected him.

“I developed a special love for this man,” Gilmore said. “All those talks helped me begin to do what I went on to do in the world of whiteness.”

Gilmore lost track of his friend somewhere around 1950. “Low-life white people worked at the Boston State Hospital,” he said. “Even the superintendents and the matrons were bad. Dictatorial. When they came in mornings, they’d take their hate out on me. Here I am, spent five years fighting for this country, and they’d treat me worse than they did the patients.” What irked them, he suspected, was his decision to continue his education and better himself. Then a matron began requiring him to scrub the corridors and every corner of the corridors on his knees; “—on my knees!” he hollered at a memory long past. He up and quit one day and looked back only once, for a face that didn’t appear in a window.

In 1951, when Gilmore graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music, the patient population at Boston State Hospital peaked at 3100, an alarming 30 per cent over capacity. This may explain why the blind man was no longer there in 1952. He turned up in seedy old Scollay Square in the West End, by then a place to get tattoos or a flop for the night, a place of long shadows and faded signs that hinted at the glitzy district it once was. The Old Howard was its centerpiece with “something doing” long after the haute culture of the previous century had given way to what the Harvard Crimson called “blue-lighted anatomical solos” of dubious artistic merit. Sailors on liberty and fresh-faced college boys hurried in to gawk at Georgia Sothern or Irma the Body.

They passed the blind man selling newspapers out front.

He lived alone at the Argonne Hotel and spent much of the afternoon sitting in his room with a droning radio and a headful of memories. Sometimes he talked himself to sleep. At four, akindly sort would come by and walk him to Bill’s Lunch on Cambridge Street. The manager let him take his meals at no charge and made sure he sat in a booth by the window where he could tell his stories to patrons. A sign was hung over the door – Meet Sam Langford.

“I REMEMBER a lot of things,” he told Ebony.

At times his memory for names and details proved uncanny. The year of his birth, however, faded with his vision. Listed variously as 1880, 1883, and 1886, researchers agree that he was born in Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia to an ex-seaman renowned for his physical strength. It is also known that he set off on his own before puberty. He took odd jobs to earn his bread, slept in haylofts, ships in port, and at least once in a chicken coop. He tried fishing for a living off of Grand Manan Island, worked in a logging camp, and soon drifted into the United States where he appears in the 1900 Census living and working on a farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts. It is here that the most likely year of his birth is revealed. He said it was 1885 (“don’t know month”) and it coincides with his age on the 1891 Canadian Census (“six”) and two ship’s manifests from 1903.

A peculiar precociousness for pugilism is also revealed. It cost him his situation. Run off by the boss after a parade of busted-up white boys pointed to his cannonball fists as the cause, Langford walked eleven miles to Cambridge where his sister lived. He worked in a brickyard until he got fired again for fighting, then drifted up to New Hampshire to lose yet another job for the same reason.

In 1901 he was in Boston, scouring the docks and the West End for work and missing a lot of meals. A bartender was standing outside a saloon one day when Langford approached, a half-starved vagrant with his feet wrapped in burlap. The door was opened to him. In return for sweeping the joint he was given spending money and a cot in the storeroom. Langford never forgot the bartender’s name: Mike Foley. It is no easy task to find a name like that in a city overrun with working-class Irish, though Langford proves reliable. A Michael J. Foley was living in Somerville in 1901 and working at 10 Cambridge Street in Scollay Square. A saloon was at that address, not two blocks from the site of Bill’s Lunch.

It’s the backdrop for one of Sam’s stock stories—his first “championship.”

One day, Foley stepped out on an errand and left Langford, then 16, to mind the store. A local bruiser sauntered in, tossed back a half-dozen beers, and refused to pay the tab. “I don’t pay scabs,” he said and walked out. Langford chased him down and three knockdowns later the bruiser paid from a prone position, with apologies. Foley caught the end of it and for once Langford wasn’t fired. “The fellow you just licked was the undisputed champion of Cambridge Street!” he said. Langford recalled his name too. “Michael J. O’Reilly” was a butcher in his early thirties lodging just a short walk from the saloon.

Langford was in the wrong trade and everyone knew it. So he was hooked up with a clerk at W.F. Nowell’s Apothecary on nearby Staniford Street who happened to be a boxing manager, and together they ventured out of the West End to chase down far more formidable champions—world champions.

If boxing was better organised and the world was just, Sam Langford would have ruled the lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, light-heavyweight, and very possibly the heavyweight divisions. No one in the history of the sport can make such a claim.

In 1903 he defeated the great lightweight king Joe Gans over fifteen rounds, but came in over the weight limit and therefore couldn’t take the crown. In 1905, he earned a win over Barbados Joe Walcott, welterweight king, but was given a draw that had everyone scratching their heads. In 1910, he carried middleweight king Stanley Ketchel in a no-decision bout with the understanding that he would get a shot at the crown in Nevada. Six months later Ketchel was shot dead in Missouri.

In 1911, he challenged Philadelphia Jack O’Brien in a match The New York Call, New York Sun, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and the AP publicized as the light-heavyweight championship of the world. O’Brien had become the division’s champion when he stopped Bob Fitzsimmons in 1905, though purists said he lost it when he was defeated by then-heavyweight king Tommy Burns due to the fact that both weighed at or under the light-heavyweight limit, even if O’Brien’s crown was not specifically contested. O’Brien himself saw things differently. “I hold the light-heavyweight title,” he wrote in a letter accepting Langford’s challenge. Gentleman Jim Corbett agreed, but after Langford left O’Brien in a glassy-eyed stupor in the fifth round, no accolades were forthcoming in the world of whiteness.

“Nobody wanted to fight me for it,” Langford shrugged and continued on his quest to win the heavyweight crown. And that was held by none other than Jack Johnson. The same Jack Johnson who once snuck out of a Philadelphia café to get away from Langford, who publicly drew the colour line against his own colour and so became the only human being on the planet the large-hearted Langford frankly disliked.

As Johnson’s reign devolved into a circus with white hopefuls practically plucked from the nearest farm, Langford declared himself “the world coloured heavyweight champion” and began a shadow reign that ran parallel to Johnson’s. Langford defended his title against boxing’s answer to the Legion of Doom—Joe Jeannette, Sam McVea, Jeff Clark—and demonstrated to Johnson how a real champion behaves.

Standing only five feet six-and-a-half and often outweighed by 30 pounds plus, Langford brought down giants whenever he felt like it. It was said that the impact of his punch sounded like a tree branch snapping in a storm, and the damage it caused to the human countenance was obscene. One shot reportedly broke both cheekbones on Jeannette’s face and pulverised his nose into a hunk of flesh flopping this way and that.

Most of the white fighters that appear on his record would never have gone more than a few rounds had Langford not been bound by “agreements.” It was either that or no fight. Some of his losses to black fighters were tank jobs to build up a return match. It was either that or start skipping meals again.

Even his wins could have been more than they were. He frequently wouldn’t bother to train and was known to down a quart of gin in the dressing room and gulp it between rounds. His eyesight was poor from the start and by the end of the 1910s he was damn-near blind.

Sam Langford sans handcuffs and handicaps? Think Game of Thrones with one laughing king and lots of bodies.

England welcomed him in 1907. “I had expected a gargantuan Negro as big as Johnson himself,” said James Butler of the Daily Herald. “And what did I see? A little man.” He made an impression nonetheless on crowds of curious and incredulous Londoners, “—a kind of Mister Five-by-Five” with tremendous shoulders and a barrel chest, decked out American style in a check suit and bowler.

But it was a costume, not a statement. Langford stepped off the sidewalk and onto the road whenever a white man approached.

Years of dehumanisation had taken their toll; made worse still by the constant ridicule in print of his appearance. His long arms, which enabled him to reach heavyweight heights, were called gorilla arms. The espresso colour and rounded structure of his face, far preferable to angular features when punches fly, was depicted as an ink blot by sports cartoonists. None could and none did deny his prowess—by 1908, newspapers were referring to him as “the perfect fighting machine” though they didn’t acclaim it; they ascribed it to “jungle roots.”

Racists back then called him “tar baby.” Many today who should know better still do. Despite the fact that the term finds origins in African folk tales where a figurine made from a lump of tar presents a sticky problem for dupes, it was routinely wielded against black fighters in the early 20th century. In late 1908 Langford was referred to in print as that “tar baby of Boston” and the term was occasionally capitalised as if a proper name (“ambitious Tar Baby”). On New Years’ Eve an article making the rounds claimed that he was known in Boston as “the Harry Haggerty All-Tar Baby” and over the first few months of 1909, an earlier nickname, “The Boston Terror,” was being supplanted by “The Boston Tar Baby” on sports pages.

Langford thought he knew what happened. He said a group of black women in Boston were overheard by reporters saying,“Our baby will win! Our baby will win!” and when asked who their “baby” was, they said, “Sam Langford! He’s our baby!”And just like that a community’s term of endearment was recast as a slur. There’s another story where a cartoonist took one look at Langford, scoffed at the “Boston Terror” moniker, and said “he looks like a Boston tar baby to me.”

However it was the name was attached, it stuck, and like many a fancy slander on social media, it has come to define a man who deserved better.

In Luna Park in Paris Sam Langford winning against Joe Jeannette. Photo by M. Rol/ullstein bild via Getty Images

LANGFORD finally retired from the ring in 1926, broke and too blind to fight anymore. He spent most of the 1930s and 40s living in a municipal lodging house in Harlem, subsisting on charity and then a trust fund initiated by the New York Herald-Tribune that afforded him a small monthly stipend. He grew old in the dark, his once-uproarious laughter only an echo in the retreating past. On August 27, 1947 he bound up his few belongings, tapped his way to the train station, and bought a ticket for Boston.

He came home, it seems, to die.

“He was so beautiful.” Marvin Gilmore said seventy years after walking off his job at Boston State Hospital. “I had tears, crying for this man, for what happened to him.”

Langford, boxing’s greatest shoulda-been, warned and inspired Gilmore, who went on to become a five-field champion in music, business, education, philanthropy, and civil rights. Gilmore says that his life has been a sort of “vengeance of love,” a salute to Langford and all those like him whose ambitions were thwarted. “Years ago, I went to get a loan from a bank and was turned down,” he said. “Now, I’d already promised myself I’d never be on my knees again, so I told that man, ‘I’ll get my own bank’.” In 1968, he co-founded The Unity Bank and Trust Company in Boston, the first black-owned commercial bank in New England. “That man?” he said. “He came to work for me.”

And he still has some of that stardust left.

In 2010, France awarded him the Medal of Honour for his heroism during the Normandy Invasion on D-Day. His biography, Crusader for Freedom: A Legacy of Battling Discrimination and Building Jobs was published in 2014. The accolades keep right on coming. “A renaissance man,” said the chancellor of UMass. “A servant-leader,” said the president of Wheelock College.

Gilmore, now 95, always wondered what happened to Langford.

He half expected that Boston State Hospital would be his tomb though it seems their all-night talks had inspired Langford as much as they had Gilmore. It’s no coincidence that the old fighter’s last hurrah was in the very place where he had his first hurrah, in Scollay Square, where he reassumed his place among the misfits and the characters. Emmy-award-winning photographer Lear Levin recalls him selling newspapers out front of the Old Howard. “What made you the brilliant boxer you were?” he once asked him. “I always hit ’em on the oat,” came the gravelly reply. “The oat” was Nova Scotian for “the out,” which Levin understood to be the point of the chin.

When Rocky Marciano was getting ready to face Jersey Joe Walcott for the heavyweight crown in September 1952, Langford wanted to know about him—“He walks right in? No backward steps? Not afraid of nobody?”—and won $5 betting on him. He took his windfall and treated himself to cigars, beer, and extra hot dogs at Joe and Nemo’s.

A month later, the Ring 4 Veteran Boxers Association held a benefit for him at Mechanics Hall. Gene Tunney, who took the heavyweight crown from Jack Dempsey, who took it from Jess Willard, who took it from Langford’s fleet-footed nemesis Jack Johnson, sent a $100 check with a note that said, “For one of the greatest fighters the ring has ever known” and the Governor, a senator, a son of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and regular folks tossed bills into the till. More accolades followed, culminating with his induction into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1955.

By then he could no longer get around and was living in a stately Victorian rest home in Cambridge, just around the corner from the stately Victorian Gilmore calls home.

He spent his last days in a wheelchair content with his radio and wearing a bathrobe not unlike that he wore during his fabled career.

On January 12, 1956 a nurse was in his room and heard him take his last breaths. He went quietly.

Gilmore was satisfied to hear that his friend didn’t die alone and forgotten. “You know, he was my role model for victory,” he said. “I carry him with me.” And with that the former orderly headed out to a meeting at Mount Auburn Hospital, where he is a trustee.

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