“Fight of the Century”: Black Power, White Innocence, and the Case of Brooks C. Buffington

The first “Fight of the Century,”[1] pitting the first Great White Hope against the Black heavyweight champion, was fought in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910. Jack Johnson, the newly-crowned champion, audacious in his insistence on being a free Black man in a society that demanded his subordination, bested Jim Jeffries, the undefeated but out-of-shape former champion brought out of retirement to reclaim his rightful place as champion and “save the white race.”[2]

The fight was conducted in an atmosphere of simmering racial antagonism. Johnson was brave just to get in the ring. His victory, on the 134th anniversary of American independence, sparked “riots” across the country, including Pittsburgh. Most often, those riots involved exuberant celebrations of Johnson’s victory by his Black supporters being met with violence by white citizens and police officers unwilling to countenance such displays.

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Johnson defeats Jeffries

The July 5th Pittsburgh Daily Post, long the most hostile to racial progress of the city’s papers, ran the headline “Frenzy Seizes Negroes.” Using a series of racist caricatures of violence and sexuality, it described an “epidemic of ‘dippitis’” that led to the police being called to restore order. To do so, “the officers cracked a few heads, brought blood from a few noses and closed a few eyes.” The next day, the Daily Post reported at least eighteen deaths across the country and scores of injuries in racial tensions sparked by Johnson’s victory.

Eight months after besting Jeffries, Johnson traveled to Pittsburgh for a fight between two local boxers. On the evening of December 20, 1910, Walter Monahan, the Irish favorite and “hope of the white race,” fought “the local darkey,”[3] George “Kid” Cotton, at the Union Labor Temple in the Hill District,[4] in a local reprise of the Johnson-Jeffries bout. Though both men were his occasional sparring partners, the fearless and entrepreneurial Johnson was in Monahan’s corner that night; perhaps grooming a future Great White Hope to meet in the ring in another high-profile fight and payday.

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Jack Johnson sparring with George Cotton

Cotton won a six-round decision. It was his fourth fight and fourth win in a career that lasted eight years and eight wins in twenty-two fights. Monahan likewise never fulfilled his promise, retiring back to Pittsburgh after a July 4, 1912, loss with a 3-5 record.

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The lead story of the next day’s papers, though, was not the fight but the murder – of Robert J. Mitchell by Brooks Buffington – that followed it. In that killing and the trials and travails that followed can be seen the racial and immigrant tensions and labor unrest of Industrial Era Pittsburgh and the powerful mythology of white innocence undergirding those inequities.

A “Southern Gent” in a Pittsburgh Bar

Jack Johnson had strong ties to Pittsburgh. He had fought there twice in the run-up to the Jeffries fight, besting white opponents at Duquesne Gardens in April and June 1909. Beyond the city’s active fight scene, the vibrant Black social scene in the Hill District was also a strong draw. These sporting and social scenes came together in the person of Frank Sutton, an accomplished fighter, prominent Hill District community leader, and owner of the Sutton Hotel on Wylie Avenue.[5]

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Union Labor Temple

Though wire service reports and several recent books about Johnson claim that  Buffington, armed and intoxicated, had tried to kill Johnson, first at Sutton’s hotel during  a reception that preceded the fight and then at the Union Labor Temple during the fight, there is no contemporary local reporting or official documentation of that dramatic and daring story.[6]

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Indianapolis News, December 22, 1910

Instead, subsequent testimony indicates that Buffington was in the bar of the St. Charles Hotel, at the corner of Wood St. and Third Avenue, just down the street from his office in the Ferguson Building, for the several hours between the end of the work day and the Monahan-Cotton fight.

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Deeply racist, seething that Johnson was in Pittsburgh and was supporting a white fighter, Buffington was spoiling for a fight. Robert J. Mitchell, a white, Michigan-based sales representative for Charles C. Benton Publishing, was also in the bar that night. When Buffington ranted about Johnson, Mitchell, despite his apparent indifference to the fight or the fighter and a bartender’s admonition to walk away, made the mistake of rising to the provocation in the fighter’s defense. Exiting briefly, likely to retrieve his gun from his office, Buffington returned, enticed Mitchell outside, and shot and killed him. It was 8:30pm. Fleeing, he was arrested as he waited on the Smithfield St. Bridge to catch the trolley to his rented Mt. Washington home.

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By the next day, the efforts to explain away Buffington’s crime were in full swing. His wife, suddenly a loyal and loving partner, explained that “he has been working night and day lately. His heart has been overtaxed and, besides, when he is drinking he is not responsible for what he does. He is an excitable man and a Southerner and does not like Negroes. I can imagine how angry he would become in an argument about them. But, oh, he is a good man, and there is no better husband and father in the city.” (Pittsburgh Press, December 21, 1910).

The newspapers assisted in this effort, imagining Buffington as “a wealthy Southerner descended from a prominent Tennessee family” with ties to “many secret societies” (Pittsburgh Gazette Times, December 21, 1910), a loving family man, and a degenerate alcoholic whose delirium tremens robbed him of any memory of the shooting.

In this portrayal of Buffington, the real assailant had been found and white innocence had been restored. It was “the demon rum.” Buffington, for his part, had “not a particle” of ill will against Mitchell. He couldn’t have; he didn’t know him. The “rum demon” will “inflame its victim [interesting word choice] to murderous fury, nerving the arm to strike out with senseless and superhuman hate, and then, in the instant the deed has been done, fiendishly blowing away the clouds from the poor muddled brain and setting the murderer face to face with an immeasurable remorse.” To explain crime, “hunt the bottle” (Pittsburgh Press, December 22, 1910).

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Pittsburgh Press, December 22, 1910

 

Buffington on the Road to the St. Charles Hotel

Brooks C. Buffington aspired to the Southern aristocratic status that his name suggested but achieved that status only in his own and the public’s imagination. While the Buffington name was distinguished in the area in which he was born[7] and in Pittsburgh,[8] Brooks bore no close relationship to more prominent Buffingtons. Rather, Buffington was solidly working class, only marginally Southern, and distinctly ungentlemanly.

Born into the modest family of Baldwin and Nancy (Petty) Buffington in the Ohio River city of Parkersburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), on April 11, 1852, as a young man he found work as a steamfitter on steam ships. That work brought him to Pittsburgh in the early 1880s. Shortly after arriving, Buffington began working at the Ferguson Building. He stayed there for the remainder of his work life, rising to building superintendent.

Buffington’s personal life was much less stable. He married three times, with each union featuring conflicts that landed in court and, sometimes, the newspaper, and fathered five children. His first marriage was to Sarah Jane McDaniel in 1879. He and his second wife, Mary C. Fitzgerald, had four children before she stabbed him in the neck with a hatpin after fighting over his alleged infidelities. Once arrested, she reported that he threatened her with a gun.[9] 

Apparently confirming Mary’s concerns, Buffington married for the third time only months later, on June 9, 1899; he was 46 and his wife, German-born Margaretha (Margaret) Streub, was 20. Less than three years later, Margaretha sought, apparently unsuccessfully, to nullify the marriage on the grounds that Brooks was still married to his second wife.

Constructing and Deconstructing White Innocence

The Coroner’s inquest on January 11, 1911, presented a strong case against Buffington. Multiple witnesses testified, including patrons and bartenders from the St. Charles Hotel. Though their accounts differed in small ways, all agreed that Buffington had been in the bar for hours, had only been served two drinks, was belligerent and racist but not visibly intoxicated, and that Mitchell was unassuming and disinterested.

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From the Coroner’s inquest testimony of Charles Nelson

Testimony of the arresting police officers likewise describes a sober and sound-minded Buffington.

Buffington’s trial began on April 3, 1911, with Judge Marshall Brown presiding. Represented by R.H. Jackson, the soon-to-be District Attorney, Buffington pleaded not guilty. Despite the testimony of numerous eyewitnesses that he was sober and deliberate in killing Mitchell, Buffington’s defense presented him as an infirm 40-year alcoholic, unable to recall the murder, a position buttressed by “half a dozen reputable expert physicians [who] pronounced Buffington insane, giving as their opinion that his ailment was progressive and incurable” (Pittsburgh Post, June 10, 1911).

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Pittsburgh Press, April 3, 1911

Newspaper coverage adopted the defense position, stating that the 62-year old Buffington (he was actually 58), “bowed by the weight of his years, is almost a physical wreck” dependent on the assistance of his doting wife and children (Pittsburgh Gazette, April 4, 1911).

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Pittsburgh Press, April 4, 1911

On April 4, Buffington was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Remarkably, the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Harry Rowland, asked the judge to direct the jury to bring in that verdict after he had been unable to shake the testimony of experts that Buffington was insane. The jury did not even leave the box in rendering its decision. By the order of Judge Brown, “the aged prisoner” was taken to the “insane asylum” at Marshalsea to live out his days.

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Pittsburgh Post, April 5, 1911

Following the verdict, Buffington openly mocked the persona of the dissolute and dying family man he created at trial. Newspapers covering his departure for Marshalsea remarked that Buffington’s appearance had changed since trial – “Buffington presented a changed appearance from what he did in the courtroom during the two days his trial was on, when his life was at stake. His countenance beamed with smiles as he walked out of the jail today escorted by two deputy sheriffs. He walked erect and carried his bundle of clothes, and did not require any assistance” (Pittsburgh Press, April 5, 1911) – though they betrayed no sense of having been duped. No longer the loved and loving husband and father, he was said to be disappointed that his wife was not there to meet him as he boarded the train.

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Pittsburgh Press, April 5, 1911

Only fourteen months after his arrival at Marshalsea as a hopelessly insane chronic alcoholic, Buffington informed the court he was fully recovered and requested release. In July 1912, Judge Thomas D. Carnahan denied his request.

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Marshalsea (renamed Mayview in 1916)

A year later, on August 16, 1913, Judge Marshall Brown freed Buffington. In a thorough but uncommented on rebuke of the entire case, the “attaches of Marshalsea declared that he was not insane at the time of his incarceration and that he is not insane now” (Pittsburgh Gazette, August 16, 1913).

Brooks C. Buffington died of cancer on February 27, 1919. He was 66 years old. His death certificate identified his occupation as “Retired Gent.”

Less than four months after her husband’s death, Margaret Buffington married Edward P. Stack. Stack had been living in the Buffington home while Buffington was at Marshalsea and was appointed by the court to be one of Buffington’s overseers when he was paroled. A curious note; an April 14, 1914, Pittsburgh Press story described Margaret as a “secret service operative connected with the district attorney’s office” in the investigation of the sensational Bellevue House of Mystery (also see here).

Addendum: Elsewhere in Judge Brown’s Courtroom

On the night of January 15, 1910, eleven months before Buffington shot and killed Mitchell, Steve Rusic, a Bosnian immigrant steelworker, shot and killed his landlady, Mrs. Galvarro Domboy, as she slept next to her husband, Louis, and their young child in their McKees Rocks boarding home.

Louis Domboy and Steve Rusic were among the many thousands of recent Eastern European immigrant laborers who worked at the notorious Pressed Steel Car Company. Just four months earlier, a long and violent strike there had ended. The strike drew national attention to the industrial serfdom and deadly working conditions that prevailed there and the state violence buttressing those conditions.

At trial in May, 1910, presided over by Judge Marshall Brown, no clear motive for the actions of the “drink-crazed” Rusic (Pittsburgh Post, January 17, 1910) was established and no defense was offered. His conviction, on May 17, 1910, was the first capital murder conviction in the county in two years. Rusic appealed his conviction on technical grounds; Judge Brown had made an error in the record. Rather than find in Rusic’s favor, the appellate court allowed Brown to amend the record to correct the error. Too poor to mount a commutation effort, Rusic was hanged in the Allegheny County Jail on March 21, 1911.

The stark disparities between Rusic’s execution and Buffington’s acquittal, in quick succession, in the same courtroom, in an industrializing nation’s major industrial city in the midst of anti-labor and immigrant tensions, drew a sharp rebuke in Justice. Writing in the Pittsburgh-based weekly Socialist newspaper that he edited, Fred H. Merrick railed against the injustice of the sharply divergent outcomes of the two cases.[10]

Rather than defend himself against the claim or accept the criticism associated with public life, Brown took the highly unusual step of filing a criminal libel suit against Merrick, charging him with attacking his “honesty and integrity.”

At trial, Brown argued that the “attack upon me was not criticism, but defamation, without a semblance of truth to support it.” “Good character is a treasure beyond price,” he continued, “and no one in his official life should permit the stain of a libelous charge affecting his integrity to go unchallenged.” Merrick was found guilty and recommended to mercy.

 

[1] At least three other 20th century fights were deemed “The Fight of the Century,” including one which pitted a black champion, Joe Louis, and white challenger, Max Schmeling. Louis won. The title is most often given to the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight, which Frazier won.

[2] From a statement made to Jeffries by famed author Jack London on the eve of the fight. Jeffries certainly played his part in this racial drama, declaring that he would win to show that “a white man is better than a negro.”

[3] As described in the Pittsburgh Press, December 21, 1910.

[4] The Union Labor Temple had only recently been sold by the Shriners to a group of 30 labor unions, who renamed it from the Syria Temple. The Shriners then built the Syria Mosque in Oakland. The Labor Temple was razed in 1929.

[5] Johnson returned to Pittsburgh and the Sutton Hotel in 1911 to marry Ella Duryea, a white woman. When Frank Sutton died on September 18, 1950, his death notice identified him as a dietitian who managed the training camps of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis and the first black boxing judge in Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 20, 1950).

[6] That story is told in both Unforgivable Blackness and Papa Jack, probably based on a report published in the New York Times the next day. No surviving primary sources or Pittsburgh accounts support that story.

[7] In Huntington, West Virginia, in particular, though also in Parkersburg, the Buffington name has been associated with wealth and power since the early 1800s.

[8] During Buffington’s life, Judge Joseph Buffington was a prominent and wealthy Pittsburgh resident and part of a family prominent on the social registry of the time.

[9] Notably absent from this and other stories of Buffington family drama is any reference to alcohol or alcoholism.

[10] I have been unable to locate Merrick’s original editorial, published April 29, 1910. However, his September 1911 article in the International Socialist Review, in which he discussed the Rusic and Buffington cases and his libel case, is available.