APRIL 5, 1915 — down at last, in the 26th round of a bout fought under a blistering sun before thousands of hecklers, even there, in Havana, more than 300 miles away from American bedrock. Down, and at the feet of “The Pottawatomie Giant,” Jess Willard, a cowpuncher who lumbered out of The Great Plains, shucking spurs, lassos, chaps, all the way to the heavyweight championship of the world. From the moment he lost his title to a primitive “White Hope” in an equally primitive ring set up in Cuba, Jack Johnson, renegade, dandy, scourge of America, where, to his everlasting misfortune, interracial marriage was banned in several states, was a burnt-out case. Even before losing to Willard and relinquishing his status as “The Black Avenger”, Johnson had sent a telegram to his mother in Chicago that read in part: “I AM TIRED OF KNOCKING AROUND.”
Johnson had been wandering through fugitive days for years, ever since fleeing Chicago in 1913 after being convicted of violating the Mann Act, a federal law meant to curb prostitution but occasionally used to enforce Bible Belt virtue by prosecuting celebrities with libertine tastes. And Johnson was a staunch devotee of lowlife: Although he ran a lavish club in Chicago, his preferred milieu was brothels. And his preferred company? Prostitutes, usually more than one at a time and, to the dread of many Americans, white prostitutes. When Johnson took up with a pale-as-alabaster 19-year-old courtesan within weeks of his first wife, Etta, committing suicide, public fury prompted legal action. After his future mother-in-law charged Johnson with kidnapping her daughter, Lucille (who would eventually marry Johnson in a bid to avoid testifying against him in court), authorities closed in. But it was an earlier moveable tryst with another working girl, Belle Schreiber, which ultimately led to his conviction on May 13, 1913.
A larger-than-life embodiment of what sociologist Thorstein Veblen had recently called “conspicuous consumption”, Johnson swaggered through the early 20th century at odds with the established racial mores of the U.S. Like other hell-raisers of his era — Abe Attell, Stanley Ketchel and Ad Wolgast – whose days and nights were perpetual scandals, Johnson lived life without a speedometer. Unlike his fellow rowdies, however, Johnson was black. That fact, combined with his audacious attitude — his defiance, his drinking, his omnivorous sexual appetite — in an age when black men were still targets for lynch mobs, made Johnson the object of near-hysterical outrage.