Ketchel: Way of the Gun
Nobody knew why middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel carried his favorite guns with him wherever he went. It is quite possible that nobody dared to ask.
Ketchel the fighter was easy to assess: a burning ball of energy, all cunning skills and thrills, punching all the time, never giving an inch. He was the Michigan Assassin. He was the Slasher. There were all sorts of apt and glorious names for Ketchel the fighter.
But who could figure out Ketchel the man? He wasn’t right and most people knew it. Almost certainly psychotic, Stanley’s demeanor from one day to the next was almost impossible to predict. Would he be smiling or sneering? How long before the lid blew off again and what would he do when it did?
After shooting a friend in the foot during a rage, Ketchel wept tears of remorse as he picked the man up in his arms and rushed him to a doctor. Stanley’s mood swings would constantly rocket from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other.
This was the man known as “Steve” to his closest friends.
Hype Igoe, a great New York boxing writer and raconteur, enjoyed a close friendship with Ketchel, falling under the wild child’s spell like so many others. Sensible men who follow life’s rules have a guarded admiration for dangerous men who don’t. Ketchel was swashbuckling, freewheeling, a man forever on fire and ready to storm on to the next adventure.
Igoe was Ketchel’s unofficial manager when Stanley first came to New York, protecting his young tiger, indulging him, waiting always for the next exciting eruption and perhaps knowing that the end game would be premature and violent.
Ketchel’s way was the way of the fist and the way of the gun. He didn’t do diplomacy. He didn’t sit down and fill in ten different forms when he wanted something. It was fitting that he lived and died in his chosen time. Today’s society would control him, section him, neuter him and quite possibly drive him to suicide or a Jimmy Cagney-style “top of the world, ma” exit.
Hype Igoe was left with many a colorful memory of Stanley, such as the time he nearly shot a sarcastic waiter. Recalled Hype: “I nearly died of anxiety in Wheeling, West Virginia, one morning, when we went to breakfast in the Clark House.
“One of the waiters gave Ketchel a snippy answer about the kind of eggs and bacon they had on tap and I saw Steve reach for the gun under the table cloth.”
Ketchel was in a foul mood. He had broken his left hand in his recent fight with Frank Klaus and the pain from the swelling was driving him to despair. Igoe knew that he had to do some fast thinking to avoid a disaster. “I bit into my thin water glass and cut my mouth purposely, and with blood running from my lips I yelled for Ketchel to see me to the wash room.
“He stuck his gun in his waistband and hustled me off. I insisted that I was bleeding to death and he must hustle me to a doctor. Anything to get away from that waiter. The ruse worked.”
However, Igoe would learn that friendship never got in the way of business with Ketchel. Returning from a trip to Philadelphia, Hype was sitting in a Pullman drawing room when Stanley came in and threw two of his pistols on the table. “I want to talk a little business to you, Hype. I think I prefer having Wilson Mizner manage me from now on.”
That was it. No debate, no room for discussion
“That’s fine,” said Igoe.
On October 15 1910, at Pete Dickerson’s ranch in Missouri, Stanley Ketchel broke an old western rule he had always observed. Distracted by the charms of waitress Goldie Smith, Stan sat with his back to the kitchen door and paid with his life.
Goldie was the girlfriend of farmhand Walter Dipley, with whom Ketchel had already clashed. Stan had earlier riled Dipley after scolding him for beating a horse. Now Dipley was enraged by Ketchel’s flirting with Goldie
His gun across his lap, Stan was blind to Dipley coming through the door and taking aim with a rifle. Fatally, Ketchel thought he was having his leg pulled when Dipley commanded him to throw up his hands. Stan got up and was in the act of turning when Dipley fired a .22 caliber bullet into Ketchel’s back, directly beneath the right shoulder blade. The bullet surged upwards and punctured a lung.
Stan fell to the floor. Dipley left the room but then returned to snatch up Stan’s revolver and give the fallen idol a crack over the head with the weapon before fleeing.
Ketchel died at six minutes past seven that evening at the Springfield hospital. His friend Pete Dickerson had organized a special train and taken three physicians on board. They had performed an operation on Stanley earlier, but had failed to locate the bullet.
When the shock and the grief went away, people who had taken the rollercoaster ride with Stanley Ketchel knew that a rocking chair on a porch would have been a far crueler end for him.
(Mike Casey is the Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization [IBRO].)