Bill Dover’s lucky day

By Pete Ehrmann on March 1, 2019
Bill Dover’s lucky day
As he walked down a corridor, Johnson saw a bunch of prisoners being herded together.

On February 25, his last day in town, Jack Johnson went, for reasons unknown, to the county jail building…

One hundred nine years ago this week, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson was appearing at the New Star Theater in downtown Milwaukee. His act consisted of sparring matches with Joe “The Barbados Demon” Walcott and talking about his upcoming July 4 “Battle of the Century” against ex-champion James J. Jeffries.

At his February 20 opening show, reported the Milwaukee Sentinel, Johnson “was received by the largest and noisiest crowd that was ever packed into the Third Street house. When the champion appeared with his sparring partners … the crowd nearly put the show house out of commission.”

About the fight with the Great White Hope, Johnson said: “I will not try to predict the result of the coming fight with Jeffries, but I will step into the ring on July 4 in the best condition that I have ever been in in my life, and may the best man win.”

While in Milwaukee the heavyweight champion stayed at an unnamed downtown hotel that customarily barred black customers but made an exception in his case—as long as Johnson ate meals in his room instead of the hotel restaurant.

On February 25, his last day in town, Johnson went, for reasons unknown, to the county jail building. As he walked down a corridor, he saw a bunch of prisoners being herded together.

Among them was Milwaukee railroad porter Bill Dover, booked earlier that day on a charge of assault and battery on a man named Lee Robinson. Dover’s version was that he had been “assisting Robinson to bed” when the other man attacked him and he had to defend himself.

Johnson didn’t know Dover, but noticed him right off because at the time Dover was the only black inmate of the jail.

“What’s that colored man doing there?” Johnson asked a jail official. When told why Dover was being held, Johnson asked to talk to him.

“After Johnson was assured by Dover that he was innocent,” reported The Milwaukee Journal of February 26, 1910, “the big fellow turned to the official and demanded, ‘How much is his bail?’ Told that it was $35, Johnson promptly counted out the money.

“‘Turn him loose,’ he said. ‘I don’t like to see a colored man in jail.’

“…As Dover walked out, after thanking his benefactor,” the story said, “Johnson grinned until every tooth in his jaws gleamed.”

About 18 weeks later, Johnson’s defeat of Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, ignited deadly race riots around the country. In 1912, the heavyweight champion went into European exile after being convicted of taking Belle Schreiber, a white prostitute from Milwaukee, across state lines for immoral purposes. He lost the heavyweight title to Jess Willard in Cuba in 1915, and later returned to America and served a year in federal prison. Johnson received a posthumous pardon from President Trump last May.

As for the Milwaukee black man Jack Johnson didn’t like to see in jail, Bill Dover reverted to anonymity after he pleaded guilty and paid a $5 fine.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Discuss this in our forums

Related Articles


This is a place to express and/or debate your boxing views. It is not a place to offend anyone. If we feel comments are offensive, the post will be deleted and continuing offenders will be blocked from the site. Please keep it clean and civil! We want to have fun. We want some salty language and good-natured exchanges. But let's keep our punches above the belt...
  1. Bruce 09:13pm, 03/03/2019

    If the quote about black inmates by Johnson is accurate, Johnson would have to be considered by most people as a racist.

  2. Bob 04:52am, 02/27/2019

    Another good one, Pete. Always happy to see them.

  3. peter 05:44pm, 02/25/2019

    Another Pete Ehrmann classic. We look forward to them. Keep them coming!

  4. Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers 08:29am, 02/25/2019

    Oops. My bad. Jack Johnson did talk to the Mr. Dover. IF Dover was truly innocent than props to Johnson. Back in 1910, 35 bucks was the equivalent of about 900 dollars today. Nice gesture.

  5. Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers 07:53am, 02/25/2019

    Granted I do have some empathy for someone being caged up like a parakeet and having to live with vermin and mentally challenged prison guards. Not everyone in the clinker is a total scumbag. Prisons and jails like everything else in this world are all about money. Nice gesture on Johnson’s part but a very revealing one as well. Johnson apparently didn’t care if the guy was guilty or not and only cared for him because of his skin color. Hmm? Interesting.

Leave a comment