In A Look Back at 1940, we mentioned a boxer named the “Mysterious Billy Smith”, a champion welterweight in the late 1800s and early 1900s who is described in boxing articles and fight reports of that era as the “Pride of Eastport”. We were surprised to learn Eastport had produced such a terrific fighter, a welterweight champion no less.
The newspaper accounts of the era say Billy was born in Eastport on May 15, 1871 but when we checked his biography in Wikipedia we found that while Wiki confirms Mysterious Billy was born on that date, Wikipedia says he was born in Little River Nova Scotia not Eastport. In fact, the Wikipedia article on Mysterious Billy Smith never mentions Eastport, so we became skeptical about “The Pride of Eastport” especially after further research confirmed he was indeed born in Nova Scotia. Nonetheless we kept digging and believe Eastport has every right to claim him as their own. Billy certainly claimed Eastport as his home town.
The confusion over Billy’s antecedents may have arisen because his father was in itinerant fisherman whose children with his wife Adelia were born in several fishing ports on the Bays of Fundy and Passamaquoddy. His older brother Thomas was born in Eastport and his mother died in 1902 in Maine, probably in Eastport. Other siblings were born in Tiverton, Nova Scotia.
We were convinced of Billy’s Eastport connection by Billy himself who granted a reporter a rare interview in 1923 when his stepson launched a boxing career fighting under the name “Mysterious Billy Smith, Jr. In the interview Billy Sr. described his early days as a boxer:
“I always hoped the kid wouldn’t be a boxer but he said what’s good enough for the old man is good enough for him. He wants to box and I know what that means. That’s the reason I’m going to let him. I wanted to fight back in Eastport, Me but my good old folks would have soon seen me a burglar as a boxer. In fact they thought both those were the same thing and they are in some cases but not Mysterious Billy’s. I didn’t take my right name but scrapped under the name of Rogers.”
Billy was also asked during the interview how “Mysterious” had become attached to his name. Smith explained:
I got the moniker “Mysterious Billy” from having fought under an assumed name. When I appeared in New York two or three years afterwards, I went under my right name of Smith. People had heard of Rogers, but nobody knew nothing of Smith, so a sportswriter dubbed me “Mysterious Billy.” Not a bad name at that- the kid thinks it’s good enough for him to start under.”
Billy left his Eastport home at 16 after, according to articles in the national press, he had learned the rudiments of boxing on the Eastport docks. He moved to St. John N.B. where he trained to become a professional boxer. His first recorded professional fight was in St. John on December 1, 1890 but he soon relocated to the west coast of the U.S. where he was unknown. He established himself as a hard nose, skillful and somewhat dirty brawler and on December 14, 1892 in San Francisco he claimed the welterweight championship by knockout over Danny Needham. He defended his title in several fight on the East Coast after moving back to Boston in 1893. Many of these epic battles were against Tommy Ryan whom first Billy fought to a draw on August 29, 1893 at Coney Island.
The Buffalo Enquirer of August 30, 1893 acknowledged Billy’s talent but disagreed with the decision which, because it was a draw, allowed Smith to retain his title:
Smith, who is universally conceded the best 140 lb. man living and who is the world’s welterweight champion and a most terrific and brutal fighter met his match and though the decision was declared a draw Ryan had the better of the Boston man.
On July 25, 1894 he lost the welterweight title to Ryan and in 1895, while attempting to regain the title against Ryan, he was saved from a Ryan onslaught by the police who, in the early days of prizefighting, often intervened in bouts if a fighter’s life was in danger. On this occasion the fighters had agreed before the fight that the police could intervene if one of the fighters was in danger of serious injury and refused to quit. Mysterious Billy Smith was hanging nearly senseless on the ropes when the police separated the boxers. Even without a prior agreement the referee or the crowd would sometimes demand the police intervene to stop a fight. Boxing was a brutal sport and no one was tougher and more brutal than Mysterious Billy Smith who never gave up even when beaten.
Billy soon regained his title and held it for almost two years before losing it again on April 17, 1900. He was never again a contender for the title although he continued boxing for many years, his last fight being in 1915. He was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2009. In 1935 Smith was ranked the third best welterweight to ever step into the ring behind only Joe Walcott and Mickey Walker.
On his 46th birthday in 1917 many newspapers carried this article:
NATAL DAY OF EX – CHAMPION MYSTERIOUS BILLY SMITH (46 Years Old Today)
Born May 15, 1871, at Eastport, Maine
Mysterious Billy Smith, welterweight title holder from 1898 to 1900, was one of the best ring generals in the boxing game in his days. Smith started boxing in 1890 and in 1892, the title being in abeyance, he claimed the same by virtue of his defeats of the leading welterweight contenders. Towards the close of that year he defeated Danny Needham in 14 rounds for the title and a $2,000 side bet. The following year he fought a six – round draw with Tommy Ryan and in 1894 lost the title, being defeated by Ryan in 20 rounds. In 1895 he fought draws, with Joe Wolcott and Ryan and then engaged in a three – round exhibition bout with Peter Maher. In 1896 he lost to Kid McCoy in six rounds, and in 1897, after knocking out Mike Dempsey in two rounds, he again lost to McCoy. That same year he suffered a knockout by George Green in the 12th round. McCoy and Ryan then entered the middleweight ranks and Smith claimed the title, defending it in in a bout with Matty Matthews, held at New York. Smith won the bout after 25 rounds of fighting. He then fought a 20 – round draw with Tommy West and won a 20 – round bout from Joe Wolcott. In 1900 he lost the championship to Rube Ferns, having fouled the latter in the 21st round of their bout. He was later knocked out by Matthews and then lost bouts on fouls to Jimmy Handler and Joe Wolcott. In 1903, after losing to Wolcott in four rounds, he retired from the ring game.
For such a tough and skilled fighter Billy did lose a lot of bouts but 12 of those losses were by disqualification, the most ever by a professional boxer. During one of his six bouts with the legendary Joe Walcott, he bit Joe’s bald head while the boxers were in a clinch. After the fight Walcott told his manager ” Boss, I ain’t going to fight this man no more, he’s a cannibal.”
In 1929 article titled Joe Walcott, The Best in Ring History the sportswriter says this about Mysterious Billy Smith
My recollection goes back to Mysterious Billy Smith, who was a wiry, rugged fellow born in Eastport. Maine, who could box like a streak and had a fondness for slipping in tricks peculiarly his own. Smith would fight anybody. He fought Tommy Ryan seven times, and took on Joe Walcott, the Giant Killer, no less than six. Joe Walcott was one of the best welterweights, and one of the toughest, in all ring history. Both won from other- sometimes Smith won and sometimes Walcott won.
It is said that Mysterious Billy Smith was the only fighter Walcott feared. He knew he could beat Billy but he dreaded the punishment he would take in doing so.
After losing the title Billy returned to the west coast and lived in San Francisco and Portland Oregon where he had operated a sailor’s home and bar for many years. He was widely respected by many in the Portland community, especially by those who frequented the rougher parts of town.
In December 1911 the San Francisco Chronicle reported “Mysterious Billy Smith Shot and Fatally Hurt” which turned out to be an exaggeration. Smith recovered from four gunshot wounds inflicted by his ex-wife’s new husband, a steamboat Captain named Loomis. Billy pulled through although it seemed unlikely he could survive. He told a Portland reporter he didn’t care if Loomis was punished for shooting him but he would like his wife back.
A newspaper article in 1919 describes the robbery of a Portland pool room where Billy was present. The robbers lined all the patrons except Billy against the wall and took all their possessions. According to the newspaper account, “All that was taken from “Mysterious Billy Smith”, ex-prize fighter, was a statement regarding his health.”
Mysterious Billy Smith died in Portland Oregon in 1937.
As late as 1944 boxing aficionados and writers were extolling the reputation of “Mysterious Billy Smith”. As Eastport loves its festivals perhaps a “Mysterious Billy Smith” festival can be slotted in between the 4th and the Salmon and Pirate Festivals.
Footnote: His son, “Mysterious Billy Smith, Jr.” had a short boxing career. He was actually Billy’s stepson but did have some talent. While attending Dartmouth College he was captain of the boxing team and was New England amateur champion in the 147 lb. division. After graduation he won a number of bouts on both the east and the west coasts but in 1929 retired from boxing and became a teacher. He was quoted as saying “Fighting is a lot easier than teaching.”