Tuesday, December 1, 2015

“Mysterious” Billy Smith and the Angel

The first girl “Mysterious” Billy Smith ever loved met her tragic death on their honeymoon. Billy had a monument erected over her grave that cost a fortune. Today the beautiful monument—a large sculpted angel—is part of the Historical Monuments on the Cemetery Tour page of the River View Cemetery website. The fact that her husband was a famous prizefighter has escaped everyone’s notice, until now.

A young "Mysterious" Billy Smith
When “Mysterious” Billy Smith came to Portland in 1892 it was to take challenges to fight at Jack “Nonpareil” Dempsey’s new Pastime Club, a fight club located in the old Cyclorama building, where the Multnomah Hotel now sits. (see Cafe Unknown post) Smith was young, good looking, and famous, having just been given the very first ever welterweight champion belt by the New York Police Gazette. Portland seemed to be the place for a pugilist to meet a lovely girl willing to lower herself to become the wife of a prizefighter. Dempsey was settled into a semblance of family life over on the east side with Maggie, the daughter of a railroad machinist, and not long after his arrival, the tough talking Northeastern prizefighter Billy Smith was enthralled by the charms of Minnie Valentine Merchant, the daughter of an East Portland carpenter. Minnie’s parents were practicing Presbyterian, and sure to be middle class and puritanical enough to disparage any connection between a professional man-puncher and their daughter. As Lennon and McCartney put it, “She was just seventeen, you know what I mean…”

In those days prizefighting was illegal in all states and territories of the United States. So-called, “glove contests” and “boxing exhibitions” were permitted in some places, but even then, the stigma connected with the sport brought reactions of either horror and shock, or admiration and an autograph book, depending on the beholder.

Minnie V. Merchant was born in the dusty town of Stockton, California, on February 14, 1875—the “V” being for “Valentine” for obvious reasons. Joseph, the carpenter, brought his family north while Minnie was small. She grew up in one of the many frame bungalows in the tidy, blue-collar burg of East Portland. Here she lived the clean and simple sort of life that the daughter of a Presbyterian carpenter in the prosperous Pacific Northwest might live. Her obituary stated that she was an “accomplished pianist and elocutionist.” I see her taking piano lessons from the lady down the street, or standing before her peers in a whitewashed schoolhouse, reciting a poem by Byron or Shelley—a typical white, Protestant, American girl at the end of the 19th century.

Sometime during Billy Smith’s first visit, chubby little Eros shot and arrow directly into the tough guy’s heart. He fell for the 17-year-old Minnie Valentine Merchant whom he had met at some event long lost to anyone’s memory. When he returned to Portland the following year he had been crowned a pugilistic victor with the newly devised title: welterweight champion of the world.

If “Mysterious” Billy was named Zeigfriedstien, instead of Smith, finding a time and place in which Billy and Minnie were joined in marriage might have been more doable by a novice archive searcher such as myself. I am of the opinion that young Minnie needed to wait until her 18th birthday before the nuptial knot could be tied. If this was the case, then soon, if not immediately following the wedding, Billy and Minnie set off by train for a honeymoon that would take them from San Francisco to the mist-enshrouded Atlantic shore, and the Coney Island Athletic Club where Billy would defend his new title against an Australian man-puncher named Tom Williams.

The Northeast was Billy’s stomping ground—sort of. He was known in San Francisco as “Billy Smith of Boston” to set him apart from an Australian man-puncher, “Billy Smith the Australian.” He was however, an illegal alien, a Canadian, a New Foundlander, in fact. He never admitted as much, but genealogy isn’t easy to avoid—even with the name “Smith.”

Following his victory it was to his brother Max’s adopted home of Lynn, Massachusetts, that Billy took Minnie. He was flush with money, so they took lodgings at the Anderson House Hotel, looking for a decent meal and a room decent enough for a couple on their honeymoon. On the evening of May 10, 1893, Minnie was stricken with what was described as either food poisoning, or blood poisoning, depending on the source. Before midnight Minnie gave up the ghost, leaving behind her still lovely shell of a carcass.

“Mysterious” Billy Smith was, no doubt, heartbroken beyond belief. He obtained a doctor’s certificate to transport Minnie’s remains back to Portland in a hermetically sealed casket. He was met at the station by the heartbroken family. May 21, eleven days following the tragedy, her funeral was held at the Presbyterian church in Sellwood. The Oregonian reported on the various floral arrangements and that her death was “deplored by all.” She was lain to rest among the blue bloods and “old Portlanders” in the prestigious Riverview Cemetery overlooking a bend in the Willamette and the forests climbing up to Mount Hood.

The broken-hearted pugilist deplored this death more than them all. He sought out the finest monument sculptor in Portland and commissioned a beautiful angel for his departed angel. The monument very well could have cost more than an average Portland bungalow of that period. The pictures below show the angel as it looks today—an abiding monument to the tender side of a man who would come to be known as the “dirtiest fighter of all time.” These are the words inscribed on the stone pedestal:

There is a beautiful region above the skies,
And I long to reach its shore.
For I know I shall find my treasure there,
The loved one gone before.

I know this not the best example of the poetic Muse’s inspiration, and it was probably chosen from a book of like icky verse, but this icky verse was chosen by “Mysterious” Billy Smith for his dead love—a love all but forgotten by history.

Four decades after burying his teenage love, Billy Smith was put unceremoniously to rest in a cemetery on the outskirts of the east side, at the crossroads of SE 82nd Avenue and Holgate Blvd. The funeral was attended by a handful of Portland characters, a few reporters, and a grieving 4th wife.

The grave has no permanent marker, just the metal bar that reads “Wm. A. Smith.”

More about these “man-punchers” in my book, Oregon Prizefighters: Forgotten Bare-knuckle Champions of Portland and Astoria available wherever you buy books.