Baseball was undoubtedly the king of sports in late nineteenth-century America– and Macksville. It had few rivals in attracting fervid fans. But in the 1880s another “sport” was also making headlines—at least partly because it was illegal.
Boxing, or prizefighting, had a long history, but was often considered so barbaric that many states, including Indiana, made it illegal. It was rightly felt that the boxing realm was populated by the less desirable elements in society, gamblers, thieves and the ne’er-do-wells. Opponents pointed out that boxing matches were often held in saloons, gambling dens or brothels.
These views changed only slightly after the advent of the Marquess of Queensbury rules for prizefighting in 1867. Still, boxing had grown in popularity by the 1880s. Newspapers were filled with the exploits of John L. Sullivan and other prizefighters. Their bouts were often front page news. This led many to call for the legalization—and regulation—of professional boxing matches. Doing so, noted an article in the Terre Haute Express, would help alleviate “what is objectionable in it.” By that it meant the unsavory characters most associated with the sport. The writer could have just as well have named one Frank Trombley of Terre Haute as one of those unsavory elements.
The Canadian-born Trombley appeared in Terre Haute in the 1870s.. He soon built his reputation as a bad man. He was known as an inveterate gambler who too often resorted to violence as his solution of choice for any disagreement. By 1880 he was married to Cora Lee, a Terre Haute madam, helping her run their brothel while organizing illegal gambling in the area. Lee later divorced Trombley, closed the brothel, and moved to Chicago to escape his wrath. That same year he was charged with the attempted murder of Stephen Osborne. The unlucky Mr. Osborne had travelled from Sullivan, Indiana with a friend to taste the nightlife of Terre Haute. While in a Tip Top saloon Osborne drew the attention of Frank Trombley.
Osborne said that Trombley approached him the back room and tried to kiss him. His advances rebuked, Trembley later confronted Osborne on the street and attempted to kill him. After several mistrials, Trombley, called a “wretch and Terror,’ was sentenced to prison.
He was not long out of prison when he was again in trouble. Trombley, who then lived on a houseboat on the Wabash, was apparently hosting the wife of a Mr. Cooper. Finding his wife absent from their home, Cooper made his way to the river bank with ideas of retrieving his errant spouse. He was met by a load of buckshot with his name on it. Trombley later claimed that the unfortunate Mr. Cooper had blundered into his gunsight as he was attempting to shoot a pigeon and it was a terrible mistake.
After a failed suicide attempt using morphine in 1885, Trombley, who fancied himself pugilist, became increasingly involved in boxing. In 1886 he announced he would take on all comers in a prizefight, using hard gloves. His hard glove challenge was taken up by Terre Haute Policeman Tom Connelly. They agreed to fight in a 24 foot ring on a boat in the Wabash (such illegal bouts were often held in the middle of rivers because many were uncertain which entity had jurisdiction.) Eventually, the boat was floated to a location further below Terre Haute. It was attended by a barge holding spectators and a bar. Who won the bout was a point of contention afterward.
Trombley continued to be the center of ilicit boxing in the area. In 1888 he spread word that he was staging a bout between two “colored pugilists” Black Star Johnson and “Thompson, the iron jawed man” in Macksville. Fights between African American fighters seem to have been prevalent during the era. To the many who viewed African Americans as less than human, it was akin to cockfighting or bear-baiting.
Spectators, who paid $2.50 (equivalent to $60.00 today, were not told the location of the fight until early evening to prevent law enforcement from shutting down the bout. Finally word spread that the bout would take place in a barn along the Vandalia Railroad west of Macksville. Terre Haute’s sporting fraternity headed west. The bout began at 10:30 April 5, 1888, after it was announced it would be fought under Marquess of Queensbury rules using 4 ounce gloves. It was forecast as a grudge match between Johnson, the “scientific fighter”, against Thompson’s raw power.
The bout was barely a minute old when Johnson’s powerful right hand collided with Thompson’s supposed iron jaw. Thompson hit the floor.Thompson rose and continued the fight, which seemed even until the fifth round. Johnson’s powerful blow sent Johnson staggering, sprawling to the floor. Johnson lay on the floor in a fetal position. He raised his hand saying he “had enough.” He finally struggled to his feet. Evidently Thompson did not agree enough was enough and proceed to pummel the slumping Johnson until he knocked him out of the ring. There the beaten Black man crumpled at the feet of the sweating, screaming, fervid fans. He made $25.00 for his beating.
For a very brief moment Macksxille was the center of illegal prizefighting in Vigo County
Trombley continued to promote illegal fights, being indicted for them and paying his fines with his profits. Prizefighting in Indiana was not legalized until the 1920s.