Over 65 years of publication, True West has developed a loyal following of readers who send us historical Old West photographs to preserve in our archives. Among these is a photograph labeled as showing the makeshift Peter Maher-Bob Fitzsimmons arena on a sandbar along Rio Grande, near Langtry, Texas.
During the past decade, some of the top museums nationwide have shared their public domain images, fostering scholarship that used to be relegated only to those willing to search through physical archives to find material that is sometimes labeled incorrectly or without sufficient information to locate it otherwise. The J. Paul Getty Museum is among those top repositories.
As the editor of this magazine, I also try to locate historical images for our articles. Because F. Daniel Somrack’s feature focused on boxing, I delved into a realm I don’t often explore, seeking matches that fit the frontier era. With Bat Masterson and Judge Roy Bean tied to the Maher-Fitzsimmons match, I tried my luck there. My search ultimately led me to “Fight Between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher, Coahuila de Zaragoza, Mexico,” the label for a February 21, 1896, negative in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum. A researcher searching the collection for “Bat Masterson” or “Judge Roy Bean” never would have found this photo!
The image shows Fitzsimmons ducking to avoid a punch from Maher. The referee may bear a resemblance to Wyatt Earp, however, the man is George Siler. No records suggest Earp had anything to do with that day’s match.
Sure would have been great if Earp had refereed this match, given such a fabulous view of the referee among the boxers, which the photographer had only 95 seconds to capture before the knockout. But alas, as far as I know, we have no comparative view of Earp refereeing the Tom Sharkey fight against Fitzsimmons later that year.
What we do have is an opposite view of the fight, showing the American side, that changes the perspective offered by the bird’s-eye-view photograph that showed just the ring, with a few attendees and no punches being thrown.
Those who read the account published by the Brownsville Herald in Texas on February 22, 1896, had an equally one-sided view of the scene: “In the centre of a canvass [sic] walk about two hundred feet in diameter, the ring was pitched. The board floor was covered with canvass [sic] over which rosen was sprinkled. At one side was the frame compartment for the taking by the Kinetscope [sic] of the pictures of the fight as it proceeded but the machine would not work today, because of the dark weather.”
The 16-foot-tall circus canvas enclosing the ring was meant to keep the view of the fight limited to only the ticket buyers. But the promoters were not successful in that regard, as New York’s The Journal pointed out, also on February 22.
“To the west, sloping down to the very foot of the enclosure, was a mountain 500 feet in height, rugged and almost perpendicular. Across the river, on the Texas side, was its counterpart, and commanding a full view of the ring were some three hundred men and women, who looked like pigeons to those below….all was ready, 182 people were at the ring side, the remainder of the visiting party, with the local contingent, having decided that a view from the Texas hills was preferable to the expenditure of $20 for a ticket.”
The photographer doesn’t seem to be anyone associated with the motion picture company. “After Fitzsimmons and his party had come up to the railway station Ernest Rector, the kinetoscope man, came to him with a proposition to fight Maher six rounds in front of his machine, which would not work today because of the dark weather,” The Herald of Los Angeles, California, reported on February 22.
Rector was not successful in his endeavor, as Fitzsimmons demanded a $5,000 advance and 50 percent of the receipts for the privilege of being filmed. Another type of film ended up capturing him for posterity, and not in the best light, given the ultimate result.
Somebody with a still camera certainly punched above his weight that day!