Object Spotlight: Jack Dempsey Photograph Comes Home

January 22, 2016 4:57 pm Published by

Welcome to Object Spotlight, our blog series where we highlight some of the new or just plain cool items in our collection.  

Sometimes museums have objects – documents, photographs, or artifacts – in their collection that just don’t quite fit the mission or subject of their museum.  There are strict rules that govern how museums can get rid of these misfit artifacts to make sure that no employees profit from their removal and that historical objects are being treasured and cared for appropriately.  One method is to transfer an object to a museum with a better fit.

The Heritage Museum was lucky enough to be the recipient of such a transfer recently.  The Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science in Evansville, Indiana sent us this truly amazing photograph, capturing a key moment in the Dempsey vs. Miske fight of 1920.

Jack Dempsey

Dempsey vs. Miske, Labor Day – 1920 Date: September 6, 1920 Medium: Photograph Accession Number: 2015.062.001

World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey came to Benton Harbor in 1920 for his first fight since earning his title by defeating Jess Willard the year before.  On Labor Day, Dempsey and fellow boxer Billy Miske went head-to-head at Floyd Fitzsimmons Arena.  Miske was a six-foot-tall fighter from St. Paul, Minnesota who fought as both a light-heavyweight and heavyweight throughout his career.

The Benton Harbor heavyweight match attracted massive media attention.  Dempsey had taken a year off since becoming World Heavyweight Champion, traveling the country for publicity appearances and even acting in a low-budget Hollywood movie.  Over 100 reporters and 11,000 spectators filled Fitzsimmons Arena to catch a glimpse of the “Manassa Mauler” and the “Saint Paul Thunderbolt” in action.

The excitement was short-lived, however. Dempsey knocked out Miske with a right to the chin in the third round, only seven minutes into the fight.  This knock-out – the exact moment captured in our new photograph – would be the only knock-out of Miske’s boxing career.

Dempsey left Benton Harbor and went on to keep his title for six more years, before losing to Gene Tunney in 1926.  Unfortunately, Miske’s career would not last much longer; he died of kidney failure on New Year’s Day, 1924 at the age of 29.

The fight in Benton Harbor was a significant event in sports history for several reasons.  It was Dempsey’s first opportunity to defend the World Heavyweight Title after earning it in a controversial match.  As Miske’s one and only career knock-out, this fight also speaks to the power and stamina of Miske as an athlete, despite struggling with Bright’s Disease (an inflammation of the kidneys) throughout his life.  Finally, this match was the first bout ever broadcast on radio – a major milestone in media and sports history alike.

We are so grateful to the Evansville Museum for helping us bring this important photograph back to the Twin Cities!

If you’re interested in learning more about Sports in Southwest Michigan or getting up close and personal with our history, reserve your tickets today for our 2nd Annual Night at the Museum! For more information, call the Heritage Museum at (269) 983-1191.

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