The Norman Block, ca 1910s
We recently worked on a question for a customer looking for information on an ancestor. We do that a lot and it is always interesting, but we don’t always blog about it. This time I’m going to because the person we are researching was a famous boxer who lived and worked in Calgary in the early part of the 20th Century. I had heard of him, in passing, but didn’t know too much about him, except that a fire started in his clothing store and spread to the rest of the Norman Block, burning it down for the third time.
I didn’t know what a fascinating life the “Little Giant” had led. He was born Noah Brosso into a family that would soon grow to 13 children, only 8 of whom would grow to adulthood. Noah was small, but feisty and athletic and tried his hand at speed skating, soccer, and lacrosse before realizing he was a boxer born and made. Well, born Noah, he soon became Tommy Burns, a more Irish sounding name, and less stressful for his poor mother who feared he would sully his family name.
He fought all through the United States, becoming World Heavyweight Champion, the only Canadian to do so. He was a pioneer in many ways, defending his championship against all comers in all countries, no matter what their race or colour. He travelled the world defending his World Championship, this was the only way to make it truly a World Championship, he felt. He also was the first World Champion to fight a title bout with a "man of colour." Jack Johnson, a Texan and child of slaves, had tried to box in a championship match before, but all previous champs refused, upholding boxing’s colour bar. Tommy was different and agreed to meet Johnson, but the bout had to be fought outside of the US in Australia. Tommy did not win this fight, which was stopped by police and the title went to Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Burns didn’t quite retire from fighting. He beat Billy Lang to become the champion of the British Empire, but the boxing had lost its magic and Tommy needed to find something else to do. He would become a manager of fighters.
So far, so good. But what does this have to do with Calgary? Well, Tommy settled in Calgary and opened a clothing store in the Norman Block, with his brother as manager. He also groomed fighters and promoted bouts. One of the fighters that Tommy thought would have a shot at a title was Arthur Pelkey. He would need some bouts and some headlines to be able to challenge Johnson, so a match was set up for him against Luther McCarty who was also thought to be a likely contender for the championship. Burns arranged a bout between the two at the arena he had built just outside of the city limits (as boxing was illegal in the city, if admission was charged). Tickets were sold at Burns’s clothing store and were sold out in no time. On the day of the bout, Burns hired eight streetcars from the city to take the spectators out to the venue.
Peleky McCarty bout
On the night of the bout, observers noticed that McCarty didn’t look too well. He’d fought a hard bout and was later thrown from a horse. A doctor examined him and declared him fit to fight. Early in the first round, Luther took a hard punch from Pelkey that dropped him to the ground. He didn’t get up. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful. Luther McCarty was dead.
Burns was charged with manslaughter in the death as was Pelkey. The Manchester Arena mysteriously burned to the ground. The death of a fighter fuelled calls for further prohibition on boxing matches. Both Pelkey and Burns were found to be not responsible for the death, but Pelkey lost the will to fight and Burns’s reputation suffered. He was broke, so in 1918 he climbed into the ring again and beat Tex Foster. He fought the British Champion Joe Beckett in 1919 but was knocked out. That was the first and last time Tommy Burns hit the canvas. He hung up his gloves and became a publican and vaudeville performer. Late in his life he found religion and became an evangelist. He died in 1955 on a visit to Vancouver and is buried there.